Friday, July 5, 2019

THE ROW OVER ROE


To write about abortion these days is a sign either of courage or madness, and perhaps a bit of both. Nonetheless, to ignore abortion given the distressing and volatile space it occupies in contemporary political discourse strikes me as negligent, and it’s not as if Torah doesn’t have a thing or two to say about the matter. As with so many tough issues that require thoughtful reflection, Torah urges us to use one of God’s greatest gifts to us: our reason. Let’s indulge both our courage and our madness in thinking however briefly about this troubling debate within the nation.

To begin with, a clarification: The abortion debate in our nation will be addressed through the courts, a dauting task even for so august an institution as the American judicial system since abortion is so much a tangle of ethics, faith, biology, and identity. My approach will focus heavily on the moral, not legal dimensions of abortion. The legal discussion is best left to lawyers and the courts. Secondly, let’s agree to reject those simple-minded labels: pro-choice and pro-life. Quick and dirty political tags are designed to create adversity, not clarity, as if pro-lifers reject choice and pro-choicers reject life. I wish people were that neatly categorized, but they aren’t.

Many Jews believe that the thrust of Torah, because it allows for abortion, somehow is protective of a woman’s right to choose. Only half of this perception is true. Torah does allow for abortion under certain circumstances, but the license it gives to abortion is not based on a woman’s autonomous self. The Torah permits abortion based on its perception that a fetus is not a human being. A fetus would be regarded as something more akin to a growth, or an organ like any other organ in female anatomy, and as such, its removal can in no way constitute murder. Moreover, if given the choice between saving the life of a viable human being and an organ that poses some sort of threat to that human being, the Torah is fairly certain that the mother’s life takes precedence.

In Roe v. Wade (1973), the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law, and thus all such laws, that prohibited abortion under any circumstances. The decision was largely based on the presumption of a constitutional right to privacy which would cover a woman’s decision to end her own pregnancy, again under certain circumstances. What made the decision controversial was a serious question about whether the US Constitution actually did provide for a right to privacy, and even if it did, whether such a right would cover abortion. Moreover, the decision provoked protest and outrage since not everyone sees the fetus as would the Torah, as a mere growth or organ of the mother. If the fetus is a human being, then ending its life is murder, and no right to privacy can possibly used to condone murder.

The story goes that Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black (1886-1971) was given to removing his $0.25 copy of the Constitution from his back pocket, waving it about and declaring something to the effect of—I searched through this document and can’t find any provision for a right to privacy. Most legal scholars would agree that there is no explicit clause to that effect, but might also argue that the Constitution does provide for certain protections that seem to emanate from a concern for privacy. Leaving that legal argument behind, it seems to me incongruous that a document serving as the basis for American civil liberties could not in some way be understood as protective of privacy, but even that is a far cry from a clear and unequivocal right to privacy. You can see why Roe rests on contested, and thus shaky legal grounds.

But today, in 2019, Roe is challenged in another way that the justices in 1973 could not have anticipated. Attitudes toward pregnancy have adjusted in line with medical advances that have made pregnancy and birth much safer. Mothers are exposed to the fetus’ heartbeat, sex, a photo of the fetus in situ, and the potential for any birth defects. Twenty-first century parents may hang that sonogram photo of the fetus on the refrigerator, attend a baby shower, arrange for a Gender Reveal party at which the baby’s gender is announced, and even create a Facebook page for the anticipated arrival. They may even name the fetus before its birth. Parents and health care providers have conferred, most likely inadvertently, a kind of personhood on the fetus that it heretofore did not have, and when popular perception of a fetus evolves from the mysteries surrounding gestation to an entity treated as a person with a specific identity, some future Supreme Court just might champion a State’s interest or obligation to protect life over and above any right to privacy that Roe attempted to guarantee.

The rate of abortions seem to be diminishing, according to those who monitor these surgeries. That’s a good thing. I wouldn’t wish any woman the trauma of having to terminate a pregnancy. On the other hand, a legal system that would force women to bear children they do not want would create a host of social problems that would not bode well for babies, mothers, parents, politicians, the nation, and a host of others we could probably enumerate without end. But as you can see, there are good reasons why the abortion question remains as divisive and volatile today as it was 50 year ago. In the end, I doubt that the Torah could unequivocally conclude that abortion should be either legal or illegal. As with so many ethical questions, the genius of Torah assures us that the justice of any one abortion will always be bathed in the shifting light and shadows of the reasons why it is sought. And to wade through that morass of factors, circumstances, emotions, apprehensions, etc., will take a Solomon, not a Supreme Court.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

THE TREE OF LIFE / THE SOURCE OF LIFE


The settings for our nation’s now not uncommon mass shootings are varied in size and function. In size, they may be as broad as an outdoor music festival as in Las Vegas or as confined as a night club in Orlando. In function, they may be as secular as a business’ central headquarters or as spiritual as a church. If there were a hell, there would certainly be a special spot in it for those who would open fire in God’s holy precincts, second only to the most unconscionable of all settings, a school, as was the case in Newtown, CT and Parkland, Florida.

The Jewish community, ever sensitive to the senseless loss of God’s children, has always been shaken by these mass shootings, the latest of  which took place at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on a Shabbat morning. Eleven members of the tribe lost their lives that day in a barrage of bullets triggered by a man full of hate. There is no setting “better” than any other when it comes to the loss of life, but the shooting in one of God’s holy sanctuaries does raise that age-old question with even greater poignancy: where was God? Where was ‘the Guardian of Israel who neither slumbers nor sleeps”? (Psalm 121:4). Where was the Source of Life of whom the psalmist wrote:

The Lord will guard you from all harm;
He will guard your life.
The Lord will guard your going and coming
Now and forever. (Psalm 121:7-8)

Our good member, Sharon Aaronson, has raised this question, as I am sure so many of us have, because of all the places one might rest assured of God’s safety and security, a sanctuary would be top on the list. Apparently, it isn’t necessarily so. How do we reconcile the paradox of violence in God’s spaces of peace?

God has given us two tremendous gifts--one is the gift of Torah and the other is the gift of freedom. Torah teaches us how to live and freedom gives us the liberty to live as we choose, including ways that run counter to Torah. If we were so constituted as to be unable to violate law and tradition, that would be the greatest proof that humans are trapped--allowed to make certain choices but prevented from others. That's neither reality nor freedom. We can all choose to live in any number of ways--healthy and unhealthy, safely and dangerously, lovingly and hatefully. God teaches us which are the best choices, but does not make the choice for us.

When our kids first began to drive a car solo, it was a bit nerve-wracking, yes? The best way to keep them from an accident is to never have them drive or enter a car to begin with. But that would be a terrible decision. Our children need freedom; all people do. But with freedom comes a certain degree of risk as not all people make the choices that are godly. We are all free to abuse our freedom. If we were not free to do so, we would not be free.

As tempting as it is to question God when it comes to the senseless massacres of this world, we may just try thinking of God as asking us a few questions as well:
1.   Why are you blaming Me for Pittsburgh? Did I give this man an assault rifle?
2.  Why are you blaming Me for Pittsburgh? Did you not learn anything after Sandy Hook?
3.  Why are you blaming Me for Pittsburgh? Did I teach you to hate your neighbor?

At a time like this, it is easy to question God, but it’s a dodge. The most damning aspect of all these shootings is that we have the power to, in the very least, minimize the casualties, and somehow society has managed to skirt the challenge.

Still, we may charge God with a degree of irresponsibility. If God is as omnipotent and as omniscient as the divine reputation goes, where is the divine intervention when needed. A couple of responses are warranted here, the first of which is this: how do we really know that there is no divine intervention? Only God knows how many other shootings have been foiled or averted, remaining unaccounted as they never materialized to begin with. But there is a stronger idea to contend with when it comes to God’s omnipotence and that is this: Is God really omnipotent? The idea of an omnipotent and omniscient God is actually a Greek idea, not a Jewish one. The Greeks were very much involved with ideas of perfection and in imagining the perfection of the gods. They, not the Jews, imagined gods that were omnipotent and all-knowing. A close reading of the Bible, written of course from a Jewish perspective, does not give us an idea of a perfect or omnipotent God. Our God is much more human—making decisions, regretting them, becoming angry, overcoming anger, listening to people and also commanding people who nonetheless defy divine orders.

The Jewish mystics (we call them the Kabbalists) had another way of thinking about this. In order to make room for humans, God had to give up some of His power and energy in order to grant us the freedom and power to act. God did not leave us without direction, however. God did give us the Guide book to life, otherwise known as the Torah. But it’s up to us, not God, to implement it. That makes human decisions, our decisions, exceedingly important.  

Where was the Source of Life at the Tree of Life that Shabbat morning? I believe the Source of Life was in that sanctuary, calming those congregants who were hiding, strengthening those officers who were pursuing the assailant, and leading the martyred up toward the heavens above. Our God-given freedom is among the most precious gifts given to us, and also the most dangerous. We will have too take God’s injunction to preserve life more seriously, by enhancing security in our synagogues, and anywhere that people gather en masse. We will also have to vigorously pursue those social conditions that will hamper the designs of the wicked who seek to inflict damage on us and others. And we will continue to ask hard questions as there is some modicum of comfort in being able to ask and wonder. But in the end, as with so many other aspects of life, the real questions revolve not around what God can do for us, God having given us so much guidance already. The real question is what are we prepared to do for God in creating the peace that God intended us to enjoy.

THE TREE OF LIFE / THE TREE OF TRUTH



One of the tasks of the sages of old is to determine why one narrative of the Torah follows another. This phenomenon, known as semikhut parshiyot, or the juxtaposition of stories, applies to this week’s parashah, Hayyei Sarah. The first story in Hayyei Sarah, meaning “the life of Sarah,” oddly enough is not about her life but about her death. She dies at 127 years of age and Abraham must go about the business of securing land for her burial. This story follows the much discussed and debated tale of Abraham’s sacrifice, or attempted sacrifice of his son Isaac, also known as the Akeidah (literally, the Binding, Isaac having been bound upon an altar and prepared for sacrifice). So the rabbinic question in this case would be—why does the tale of Sarah’s death immediately follow the tale of Isaac’s sacrifice. The Torah is silent on this matter so the rabbis resorted to their creative juices to craft an answer. And they found their answer in Satan—the evil angel.

Satan, never up to any good, decides to inform Sarah about the attempted sacrifice. He transforms himself into the likeness of Isaac and appears before Sarah. Sarah, seeing her son, but noticing that something looks a tad off, inquires of her son’s wellbeing, asking the exact question Satan would have her ask—What has your father done to you? And so Satan, in Isaac guise, does something we would all typically admire: he tells the truth. He goes through the whole narrative—how God instructed Abraham to take the boy, travel to some far-off destination, build an altar, bind the child on the altar, prepare to offer the child to God, and with knife raised above the child’s head, an angel from heaven intervened and prevented Abraham from completing the task. Not a word Satan spoke was false, but for Sarah’s fate, it made no difference. So shaken by the initial details, her soul departed before Satan completed the full account. And that, the rabbis tell us, is the reason the tale of Sarah’s death immediately follows the tale of the  Akeidah, Isaac’s Binding.

The rabbis’ explanation is often used as a morality lesson in how we go about expressing the truth. As the old adage goes, the truth hurts. But how hurtful should the truth be? Should the truth scathe? Should it kill? Is every truth worth verbalizing if it serves no other purpose than hurting the person who hears it? As one might expect, the rabbis advise discretion. But there is another way of understanding the rabbinic tale of Sarah and Satan, and one that very much addresses the challenges of our day.

Last Tuesday, when we gathered at the Mid-Island Y in memory of our 11 slain brothers and sisters, murdered by a person filled with hate¸ I found myself incapable of singing. It was a strange phenomenon. I had already spoken on several occasions to our Religious School students about the tragedy, and had no problem discussing the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, and how our own synagogue had long ago instituted security protocols and safety measures in the interest of keeping our members safe. And yet, while on stage, before a crowd of thousands, the weight of how hateful people can be, how self-righteous they can be of their convictions, how perfectly diabolic they will act given the  opportunity, weighed heavily upon me, and I that felt if I opened my mouth the slightest, I would dissolve into tears. I was facing a truth, and the truth is that there are people in this world who absolutely detest Jews. They hate our guts.

But as true as that may be, it is also not the full truth. The first memorial I attended was sponsored by the Islamic Center of Long Island located in Westbury, NY. Imagine the Moslems pulling together a memorial in memory of 11 slain Jews. There were many rabbis and Christian ministers present, including, of course, representatives of the Moslem community. They spoke lovingly of the Jewish people, lamented the lack of civility in the nation and the hatred that is fueling so many of our debates. Last night, at our Shabbat service, two Moslem families attended to show their solidarity with us. We welcomed them and their presence was a sure gesture of their respect for us. Just a couple days ago, I received a call from our old custodian, Roberto, who just had to speak to me, to express his condolences on the murder of 11 strangers, but whom he knew as Jews and therefore connected to our community, a community of Jews whom he does know and loves. So yes, there are people in this world who hate us, but there are also people in this world who love us, and when we hear only one part of the truth, without looking at the full truth, we die the death of Sarah.

              We are living in silos of partial or incomplete truths. We talk to people who reflect our own political views rather than engaging those with different points of view. We are speaking in echo chambers and instead of reaching out to our neighbors who differ with us in love, we demonize them as the enemy and dismiss their views as dangerous. It may be very difficult to love one’s neighbor, but when we feel justified in hating our neighbors, it will almost always go nowhere good.

              Thank God for America. It has been and I suspect will continue to be a wonderful place for the Jewish people.  And for every anti-Semite who resides in this country, there is a minyan of non-Jews who love and respect us. So beware focusing on incomplete truths. We must always embrace the fuller truth. For some of us, it will be the only way we will ever be able to sing again.


Thursday, September 20, 2018

#METOO: THE SILENCED ASSAULTED SPEAK



Yom Kippur, 5779—September 18-19, 2018


            Shanah Tovah, everybody and a G’mar Tov—May we all finish the holiday season fully sealed into the Book of Life and Health, Purpose and Meaning.  And a Tzom Kal, an easy fast for us all!   

            Many years ago, and now I’m talking maybe 30 years ago, I attended an interfaith clergy conference on various contemporary issues facing the clergy. The conference took place at Seton Hall University, a leading Catholic school of higher learning located in South Orange, New Jersey. And as one of the initial exercises, the clergy was asked to share what they perceived to be was the greatest challenge in their ministry. One of the priests who held a senior administrative position at the university asked those present for help in dealing with priests who had crossed the line, who had violated their sacred vows and, succumbing to their own weakness, had engaged in inappropriate, and what we would most certainly regard today as abusive sexual encounters. Back then, I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut, and being probably the youngest clergy at the table and representing the other faith, I certainly was not going to offer any perspectives that would be heard or welcomed. But I do distinctly remember thinking that the problem was a religious regimen, namely life-long celibacy, that was just too much for most men to abide by. And being unable to abide by it, they sought release in all sorts of ways that were illegal, immoral, unhealthy, and horribly damaging to who they represented within the church. Observant Jews had their own religious regimens that limited their freedoms and possibly their pleasures, but at least it wasn’t life-long celibacy. Jews had a much more reasonable approach to sexuality. And that was what I was thinking back then.

            Fast forward some 30 years, and not only are the Catholic clergy still in the news, but thanks to the #MeToo movement, there are a whole lot of Jews in the news whose alleged behaviors have given us a whole lot of unwelcomed publicity. Of course, sexual harassment, abuse or assault is not a specifically Jewish problem, but if nothing else, #MeToo has opened up a conversation in the nation that is long overdue.  This is an issue about sin, confession, judgment, teshuvah, and the possibility of forgiveness. #MeToo is Yom Kippur material.

            The #MeToo movement has a definitive beginning in recent history, but the problem it addresses has been with us for centuries. The Bible itself records its own #MeToo drama in the story of the beautiful maiden princess Tamar, daughter of King David. Her half-brother, so this would be a son of King David, became infatuated with her. His name was Amnon. He wasn’t the brightest torch in King David’s palace and agonized for a long time over how he could seduce Tamar. He consults with his cousin who recommends that he feign illness, ask King David whether Tamar could attend to him in his illness, and in that way get his way with her. The plan works. King David consents to have Tamar serve Amnon, she does just that, bakes bread for him, and then when he is alone with her, forces himself upon her. She protests and even shouts:

Such things are not done in Israel (II Samuel 13:12)

Amnon rapes her and then loathes her, throwing her out of his room. She is beside herself, screaming, and encounters another one of her brothers who seeks to find out what happened and she tells him everything. The rape was no secret in the palace, and the news eventually reaches King David, and though greatly distressed, he takes no action to either reprimand or punish his wayward son. Two years pass. Tamar’s brother, his name was Avshalom, was seething with anger over the assault of his sister. At when time came to have his sheep sheared, which apparently also entailed partying when the day’s work was done, he invites all his brothers and King David to attend the festivities. David declines, fearing he may be a burden (he’s on in years by then). So Avshalom counters and requests that Amnon would surely be a proper substitute in the absence of his father, the king. To this David consents. Amnon went out to the sheep-shearing festival, and when he was good and drunk, Avshalom’s men, following Avshalom’s directive, murder him—and that was the end of Amnon.

            The story should have an eerily alarming ring to it. There is something clearly immoral going on in the palace or let’s say the corporation; the details, more or less, are common knowledge among the royal family or let’s say the employees; the king, or let’s say upper management,  does nothing to reprimand or stop the culprits; and finally, the outrage over the injustice of the whole thing boils over and someone ends up dead. I would say that this last development in the biblical story does not necessarily have a parallel in our contemporary world, but for the fact that 1) clearly many of the alleged perpetrators these days have had their careers ended, which is a kind of mini-death; and 2) the public shaming that comes with the outing of the alleged culprit is pretty brutal. And as the rabbis taught:

Whoever embarrasses his fellow in public
Is as one who has committed murder (Baba Metzia 58b)

And there you have it, we can even say that the sordid details of our contemporary stories of sexual abuse, along with the public outing of the abusers, end many times with their own metaphorical murder, the alleged culprits publicly humiliated and shamed by secrets now exposed.

            Amnon did not have to die. But in order for him to have lived, the story had to include a couple other episodes. Amon would have had to confess his sin and express his regret. He never did. Or his father, King David, had to act to punish his son for his crime, but King David never did. And that, too, seems to be a common motif in our contemporary tales where women have gone to HR departments or to the police or to people in positions of authority and their demand for action or just even their stories went unheeded, or were poo-pooed, or they were not taken seriously. #MeToo, I believe, is a reaction to that injustice. Since the internal departments of corporate justice or even our own judicial system routinely and consistently ignored the hurt of and assault on women, what happens? Cases that could have been prosecuted in accordance with the rules of litigation and due process, instead are tried in the worst court humanity has ever produced, and that is the court of public opinion, which has no rules of procedure, engagement or due process. And we should all be very mindful of that, because the Kangaroo Courts of this world rarely end with just acquittals or just convictions. It is almost certain that there are people who have been accused and convicted unjustly in that court of public opinion. But right now, I’m depending on the words of Matt Lauer, who issued an apology following accusations levelled against him, which read in part: “Some of what is being said about me is untrue or mischaracterized, but there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed,” (Matt Lauer, Statement of Apology, NBC, Nov. 30, 2017). I think Matt Lauer sort of summed it up perfectly. Given all the tales of sexual misconduct that are now in circulation, there is enough truth in all of them, for all of us to question how we go about navigating a very natural, a very human need, and that is the need for physical intimacy.

            Many years ago, while a rabbi in New Jersey, our school depended to some extent on the teachers we could secure from the Orthodox community. And they were lovely, competent teachers who helped staff our faculty. One day I walked into a classroom, just to see how the class was operating, the Orthodox teacher looks at me and then at the children and says, “Yeladim (Children). The rabbi is here. We rise.” So all these pitzalach—they were third or fourth graders—they all stood up and looked at me. I was so taken by surprise that I literally turned around to see what rabbi had entered the classroom, until it dawned on me that she was referring to me. So then I said something like “Uhmm, you guys can sit down.” After class, the teacher approached me, having sensed that I was a little uncomfortable with what had transpired, and asked if she had made a mistake in asking the children to rise. So I told her—No mistake, but really, we just don’t do that around here. In Passaic, in the Orthodox synagogue, I suppose when the rabbi walks in, everybody rises, but in Springfield, NJ, in the Conservative synagogue, it just doesn’t happen, and it never did again after that particular incident.

            The fact of the matter is that our world often does not treat authority with the honor it deserves. But the flip side of that is much worse. It is people of authority who exploit their authority, and use it for personal gain or profit, motivated by their own selfish interests. The #MeToo stories are very often stories of this type of abuse, the abuse of personal authority. So a person in a position of power—the head of a movie studio, a network news anchor, a politician, a CEO, a clergy person, even a popular stand-up comedian, uses their own special authority, that power, over someone of lesser or subordinate power or authority for sexual favors. One could say that the person of lesser power or authority should have the presence of mind or self-will to resist, and there is some truth to that, but it’s not always possible physically, because that person in power may literally be overpowering, and it’s not always possible to think of an exit plan when taken by surprise.

            In the Greek and Roman world of antiquity, this sort of power or authority asymmetry in sexual relationships was a social norm. It was not uncommon for the actors in an intimate duo to be a master and a slave or a mentor and his student. The Judeo-Christian world largely rejected that type of intimacy and the wisdom of that position has been made manifest via the #MeToo movement as so many of the stories are stories between people of unequal power where the sexual overtures were unwelcomed and the subordinate actor in that duo felt trapped, and in the end, violated.

            The sexual harassment laws in New York are very broad. Almost anything said of a remotely sexual nature, if it makes a fellow employee uncomfortable, can be viewed as  a violation of those standards. I’m not necessarily talking about those incidents. People say stupid things all the time. They probably live their lives with little discretion or a deficit of tact. Government will never be able to legislate stupidity out of the human race, try as it may. But what I am talking about is a more fundamental aspect of our humanity, our sexuality, and how we go about the business of establishing an intimate relationship. And regardless of what the sexual revolution might say about who we are as sexual beings, creating proper physical intimacy has always been and always will be an exercise in morality. It is with considerable forethought and insight that within the confessional we recite repeatedly throughout this Yom Kippur, we will say—Al het shehatanu, We have sinned against You through sexual immorality.

            The sexual revolution of the 60’s was a sort of double-edged sword. It definitely brought a kind of freedom or openness to human intimacy, welcomed by many, but it also advocated the the release of sexuality from its traditional mooring in a loving monogamous relationship. The distance between that conception of sexual freedom and monogamous partnership is a few football fields and their parking lots. I’m not that naïve as to think that intimacy in this world will always and only take place within loving, monogamous relationships, but if I were to frame a rule here, I’d say that the casual relationship, that is not a consensual relationship, is also not a kosher relationship. I don’t like coercion in virtually any context, but coercion in a sexual relationship is a violation of a person’s humanity. It is really low. When we hear the slogan, as we sometimes do, that No means No, it is a piece of wisdom formulated by the rabbis some 2000 year ago who said:

Your “yes” should be genuine and your “no” should be genuine (Baba Metiza 49a)

That means that we have to speak truthfully but we also have to listen respectfully. No really does mean no.

The #MeToo movement may be a transition into a new awareness of sexuality or just a temporary eruption of anger that will subside and people will go back to the same sordid interactions, authorities subduing subordinates, men taking advantage of women, and nothing will change. But for argument’s sake, let’s assume the best. Let’s say that yes—this is a moment of extraordinary transition where everything is going to change. What exactly is it that has to change?

When the Torah describes the first sexual encounter, which as you may well imagine was that between Adam and Eve, the Torah reads:

And Adam knew his wife, Eve (Genesis 4:1)

            The verb “know” in this case is a euphemism for sexual intimacy. But the Hebrew root from which it emanates, yod-dalet-ayin, is a root that suggests a deep appreciation or love of someone. So, for example, when God is unable to keep from Abraham the imminent destruction of two wicked cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, God declares:

Because I know him… (Genesis 18:19)

I know this Abraham character—how he interacts with his children and teaches them about love and how he is really concerned with what is just and right. God knows Abraham but even more deeply appreciates him for who he is. The Hebrew verb used for God’s knowing of Abraham is the same Hebrew verb used for the sexual intimacy between Adam and Eve. In other words, the Torah perceives of physical intimacy, certainly of that between the first man and woman, as something greater than a biological act. It would be a sort of culmination of profound appreciation and love for one’s partner. Sexual encounters that are acts of domination—assault, rape, anything of a coercive, non-consensual nature—would be the very opposite of that knowing, that paradigm. It would be a willful act of ignoring another person and treating them as a means toward one’s own selfish ends.

            It doesn’t take a whole lot to be a Jew. If your mother is a Jew, then you are a Jew. But to be a repentant Jew, to be a Jew who is impacted by a 3500 year old tradition, that already takes a willingness and an openness to seeing humans in a special way. They are not merely the upper tier in the pyramid of animal evolution, they are not to be viewed as units of labor, they are not nameless, they are not singularities disconnected from family or cultures, and they are not play things to be used for anyone’s personal pleasure. We are, each of us, reflections of a greater energy, and fragments of that greater power, and within each of us burns a flame of godliness that makes each and everyone of us beyond precious, and sacred. And yes—in that sacred mixture are problems, shortcomings,  and failures. Actually, our problems and shortcomings and failures are part of our humanity and we had better understand that from the start and respect it, for there is no other way for any of us to appreciate each other without an acceptance of the totality of our humanity, which is a complicated composition.

            To manipulate a person emotionally is a sin. To defraud a person financially is a sin. And to exploit a person sexually is a sin. All those crimes take place when people view the other as a commodity to be used and not an organic, evolving, creation of God to be cherished. It all begins with the delusion that the world exists in order to satisfy our personal cravings. It doesn’t.

If there is to be teshuvah, if there is to be repentance, there has to be some realization that the person manipulated, defrauded, exploited, raped—that was someone’s daughter, that was someone’s sister, that was possibly someone’s mother. The hurt will end when we begin to see others in the fullness of who they are, and not in the narrowness of what we want them to be, in the moment. To achieve repentance, you have to really believe that you have been created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and that so has everyone else. And I don’t think we can force anyone to believe that because it’s a sacred myth of the Jewish people, it’s a conception of humanity that guides us in how we treat each other, it is a question of faith.

And you may say—Wait, rabbi, people of faith have also abused others sexually in profoundly offensive ways. And you’re sort of right. But I’m telling you now—they’re fakin’ it! No one of genuine faith can abuse a child of God, and we are all children of God.

            And then there’s something else we can’t force—forgiveness. I can tell you that forgiveness is a Jewish value and when one can reach that space that we call forgiveness, that is a special place of kedushah, of holiness. But like a whole lot of other things in life, I don’t think we can coerce or guilt anyone into that space. Reaching that space is a personal venture, it depends on the character of they who have been wounded, and the repentance of they who have inflicted the wounds. But wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where in fact the culprits could admit guilt and repent, and where the victims could prevail upon their past and forgive?

            Ours is a tradition that is very optimistic. In Psalm 92 we read that the wicked of the world are numerous, proliferating like grass, but like grass they eventually wither and remain destroyed forever. On the other hand, the righteous shall blossom like the date palm. If you’ve ever seen a cluster of dates on a date palm, you know how numerous they can be. A mature date palm can produce between 150-300 pounds of dates per harvest. That’s a lot of dates. The righteous shall blossom like a date palm. The word for date in Hebrew is Tamar, just like King David’s daughter.

Tzadik kaTamar yifrah!
The righteous shall flourish like Tamar (Psalm 92:13)

Tamar was so shocked when Amnon attacked her:

Such things are not done in Israel (II Samuel 13:12)

Tamar got that a little wrong. Such things are sadly and tragically done in Israel, that is among Jews. What Tamar should have said is that such things should never be done in Israel. Let’s hope and pray that the Tamars of this world secure the justice they deserve, and that people will recognize the righteousness of their cause. Justice delayed is justice denied and in this case, justice has been delayed and denied for far too long.

Ge’mar Hatimah Tovah—May all be sealed into the Book of a good and a just Life.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

BDS TAKES A BEATING, ISRAEL TAKES A BOW



ROSH HASHANAH, 5779 / SEPTEMBER 10-11, 2018
Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank
                It is great to see everybody and I want to wish you all a Shanah Tovah—a good year of health, of personal wealth, of emotional wellbeing and above all peace, both within our nation that seems so deeply divided and throughout the world, especially in Israel.

                Ervin Birnbaum is a man with a story. Ervin survived the Shoah in Hungary, and after the war, led a youth group to Palestine on that famed ship, the Exodus. Once he got there, he soon left to join his parents in America, enrolled in the Jewish Theological Seminary and became a Conservative rabbi in 1958. In the early 70’s, he and his wife Hadassah made aliyah with their three sons and Ervin did important work in a program for youth from the United States, and later with Russian immigrants. One of his sons, Daniel, went to Harvard for an MBA, got a job with Pillsbury, and then became the CEO of Pillsbury Israel. He moved on to Nike Israel and transformed its product into one of the most popular sporting goods brands in the holy land. Then in 2007, a unique opportunity presented itself to him. He became the CEO of a lackluster company known as SodaStream. SodaStream was a company that put the fiz into a bottle of two cents plain. Danny was intent on reinventing SodaStream into something big, and this he did. SodaStream became a publicly traded company on the NASDAQ in November of 2010. In less than a year’s time, its market capitalization went from $367 million to $1.46 billion. Last month, PepsiCo purchased SodaStream for $3.2 billion dollars.

                What makes this story even more compelling is that SodaStream has been the target of the BDS Movement. BDS, you know, stands for “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” and is the movement to undercut Israel financially because of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of which Israel is viewed as the principal, if not the sole culprit. One of BDS’s charges against SodaStream was that it was exploiting Palestinians as one of its plants was located on the West Bank. It was a curious argument since the West Bank sports an unemployment rate of close to 30%. So depending on one’s point of view, one could either argue that a factory on the West Bank is exploiting a territory for its cheap labor, or conversely, providing jobs for people who would otherwise be unemployed. However one chooses to read what SodaStream has done, the fact is that the PepsiCo purchase is a dramatic setback for the BDS movement. BDS does not want multi-billion dollar companies to see Israel as a land of promise, but a land of poison, and Pepsico didn’t buy it.

                Benji Lovitt is a nice Jewish boy from Texas who now makes his living in stand-up comedy. He talks about how unique Israelis are. Go on a tour of Israel and after a few days, an Israeli will say to  you, “Nu, how do you like our land?” You’ll say something like “It’s beautiful,” after which the Israeli will say—“So why don’t you move here!” This doesn’t happen in Italy or Argentina. You don’t visit Ireland, tell one of the locals that you think the country is beautiful only to have an Irish citizen say—"So why don’t you move here!” In Israel, that’s what you get. So Benji Lovitt moved to Israel, he decided to make aliyah, he meets the same Israelis with whom he met while a tourist, they hear he’s made aliyah and say—“You moved to Israel? Are you kidding?” Lovitt says, “You told me to move here—the beaches, the people, we are family,” to which they respond, “We were joking!” Lovitt says—I don’t want to speak to you anymore. Where’s your friend who also told me to move to Israel? The Israeli says—Shmulik? He moved to Teaneck.

                If you want to make aliyah, and you want to access the Hok HaShevut, the Law of Return, the law that permits you to become a citizen within short order as you are a Jew returning to your homeland, you need some Jewish authority to vouch for your Jewishness. I do these letters of confirmation from time to time but not very often, maybe one every two or three years. Yet in the past year, maybe during the past 13 or 14 months, I have composed three letters of confirmation vouching for someone’s Jewishness. These were all young people in their 20’s, and all became Bar or Bat Mitzvah at Midway. They were not going to Israel because they were die-hard Zionists who were realizing their greatest dream. One was going to medical school and the other two were going for employment in start-up companies in Tel Aviv. They were going to Israel essentially for professional reasons. It’s a place where you can get a world-class education and make a living.

I was sitting with a young couple recently, soon to be married, somehow we got on the topic of Israel and it turned out the groom had never been to Israel. I said, O—you have to go. He said—I am, next week. I said, O great—what tour? He said, Not a tour. It’s business.

                I want to tell you these stories because these are the stories that are not necessarily featured in the papers. The stories that we hear are stories of young Americans, many who are Jewish, who are disaffected with Israel. They are sick of Israel’s alleged guilt in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are angered by the belligerence and conservatism of the Netanyahu government, and they may also be disheartened with the government’s dismissiveness toward North American Jewry. These people, whether young or older, are not necessarily without legitimate complaints. Within the past few years, North American Jewry dealt with an Israeli government that at first promised and then reneged on that promise to build a plaza next to the Western Wall where liberal Jews could gather in prayer, men and women together. Then in July of this year, the Haifa police arrested a Conservative /Masorti rabbi, Rabbi Dov Haiyun—a good, decent man—claiming he officiated at the wedding of a mamzeret or a woman born of an illegitimate relationship. And then the Knesset passed a “Nation-State Bill” that on the face of it, seemed to trumpet Jewish values at the expense of democratic values. The bill prompted Ron Lauder, the cosmetics billionaire, president of the World Jewish Congress to write: “This is not who we are, and this is not who we wish to be. This is not the face we want to show our children, grandchildren and the family of nations,” (August 13, 2018, The New York Times, Ronald S Lauder).

                What’s going on? I think what’s going on is that as the euphoria over the founding of Israel diminishes—Israel after all is growing up, it’s 70 years old, ken ainehora—we are beginning to grapple with the reality of nationhood, and we are finding that Israel, the nation, is imperfect. And it is this fact that I find peculiarly comforting, because it is stating the obvious. Israel is imperfect because all nations are imperfect. There is no perfect nation, there is no perfect economy, there is no perfect governance. And when we, in the past, described Israel in utopian terms, we were just dreaming. And that’s what we were supposed to do. In fact,  Psalm 126 claims:

B’shuv Adonai et shivat Tziyon
When God brings back the exiles of Zion

Hayinu k’holmim
We will be like dreamers (Psalm 126:1)

We’ve been dreaming and it has been a very sweet dream. The early Zionists wanted to reclaim Jewish nationhood and become, as they put it, k’khol hagoyim, like all the other nations in the world. And today, Israel is like all the other nations of the world in one blatant feature: like all the other nations of the world, it’s got a lot of problems. If we never wanted to encounter these problems, we should never have worked as hard as we did for a Jewish state, and that was a position taken by a prophet with whom we make a special acquaintance over Rosh Hashanah.

                Today’s/Yesterday’s haftarah tells the tale of Hannah and circumstances surrounding the birth of her only child, Samuel. Samuel grew up to be one of the great prophets of Israel and he served as a transitional figure between an Israelite nation ruled by temporary chieftains who gained currency as the need arose, and a more stable governmental structure, namely a monarchy. Samuel was anti-monarchy. He figured God is ruler enough and there is no need for a king of flesh and blood. So he sets himself the task of convincing the people to forget this crazy idea. He lists all the reasons they shouldn’t have a king: the king will draft your kids into a military; he will demand that you plow, seed and harvest his fields; he will co-opt your vineyards and olive groves and give them to whom he pleases; he will take your daughters as perfumers, cooks and bakers, etc. The description of what a king does was pretty damning, but the people responded, “We must have a king over us that we may be [k’khol hagoyim], like all the other nations,” (I Samuel 8:19-20). And when Samuel consulted with God on the matter, God agrees with the people. Give them a king. And that is how the first king of Israel, Saul, ascends the throne of power, amid a maelstrom of negative expectations. As it turned out, Saul proved to be an unstable figure in Israelite history. And when we study the Bible and examine the history of all the other kings of Israel and Judah, what we find is that more disappointed than delighted their subjects. Government was a very challenging enterprise back then, and it remains so even today.

                The liberal Jewish world was deeply offended when the government of Israel reneged on its promise to build that wonderful plaza where egalitarian Jews like you and me could gather and pray as we wish. But if you talk to the average Izzy or Malkah on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, they’re going to say something like, “Who cares about the Kotel! What are you getting yourselves crazy about!” If you want to pray, go to a nice shul in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, forget about the Wall!  In other words, this is not their issue. It’s ours and we are not Israelis who pay taxes and vote for representation in the Knesset. If it seems as if Israel in general is dismissive of liberal Jews and liberal Judaism, the fact is that the news coming out of North America about our success here is none too flattering. And as for our successes in Israel, those too have been somewhat tepid. It’s easy to blame Israel as the impediment to our success, but we have not done a good job or promoting who we are and what we stand for. Until we reconsider both our product and our marketing, I don’t think things are going to improve much. And as far as I can see, there is little effort in reconsidering the product or the marketing.

                I tend not to blame Israel about these issues because they have bigger fish to fry than catering to our religious sensitivities. As we are screaming about davening, they are trying to maintain the security of their citizens in a hostile neighborhood. And to make matters worse, demonstrators and whole nations regard these security measures as immoral or unethical.  The Israelis are portrayed as the oppressors, the overlords, the bad guys in a story that has been reduced to the good guys versus the bad guys. Look—I too wish for a day when the Palestinians can enjoy full autonomy in their own land, living peacefully side by side with Israel. All these military actions, on both sides, are a waste of time, a waste of resources, and in its most egregious incarnation, a tragic waste of human life. Wouldn’t it be better to have a nation at your side with whom you can trade, address common challenges, and share in academic, technological and cultural collaborations? On the other hand, there is the other hand.

You may not have been paying attention over the past 30 or 40 years, but our nation has become a nation of thousands of laws and cultural expectations, all designed to protect and promote human life. Many of us grew up at a time when wearing a seat belt was an option—not any more. You could buy a bottle of wine without the surgeon general warning you about alcohol’s link to birth defects, so pregnant women beware.  Don’t smoke, don’t inhale secondary smoke, don’t build a building without a sprinkler system, don’t talk on the cell phone while driving, don’t eat too much red meat, be sure the baby’s clothing is fire-retardant, throw out the crib you slept in and played in because it no longer meets industry safety standards, and don’t carry any liquid in your carry-on greater than 3.4 ounces. Our pre-school, certified by the State of New York, follows hundreds of rules in order to maintain certification. We had a tortoise in the school. It was a cute little tortoise. I thought it was great for the kids to have a living animal in the classroom. The state said the tortoise had to go—the risk of salmonella violated state standards. As we learn what it takes to live long, in good health, and in safety, the rules stack up like a pile of leaves in autumn. Contrast all this with American demonstrators, Jewish and non-Jewish, demanding that Israel unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank. Then what? Allow for a Palestinian nation to evolve under the control of Hamas that  explicitly and without shame calls for the total destruction of the Jewish state and Jews as well? For Israeli politicians to turn a blind eye to what the Palestinian leadership stands for would be either naïve or crazy. All it would take is one terrorist action—one blown up bus, one murdered child—before the Israeli body politic would be at the government’s throat. Western  governments, Israel no less than America, are held accountable for their misdeeds, miscalculations, and misjudgments. Americans who have created for themselves a super safe society telling Israelis to loosen up with an enemy sworn to its destruction is an irony of extraordinary magnitude and profound hypocrisy.

                There was an old joke, more popular during Israel’s early days, about Moses’ bad sense of direction. It had something to do with Moses leading the people of Israel up from Egypt to the Promised land, and when he eventually got to the Jordan River, if he had only turned right instead of left, we would have gotten the oil and everyone else could have dealt with the barren Judean desert and the hot and dusty Negev, where little if anything grows. It turns out, Moses just may have known what he was doing. One of the ways to measure a country’s economic health is by taking the total domestic product of a nation—all of the goods and services that it produces in a single fiscal year—and then divide it by the number of people in the country. You may know this formula as per capita (meaning per person) GDP or Gross Domestic Product. It’s a useful tool for comparing the wealth of nations. (Using statistics by the International Monetary Fund for 2017), The United State has a per capita GDP of $60,000. We don’t have the highest per capita GDP in the world. We might be better off in Switzerland where the per capita GDP is $81,000. How about Israel’s per capita GDP. It’s not as high as the United States. Per capita GDP is $40,000. Now here’s the clincher. Israel has this per capita GDP without a drop of oil. But what about the oil rich nations like Kuwait--$27,000 per capita GDP. Saudi Arabia per capita GDP--$21,000. Iran and Iraq per capita GDP: $5000 each. Israel has outstripped its neighbors and continues to grow precisely because it could not depend on oil but had to come up with other ways of thriving, and they did so with one of their greatest national resources: their brains.

                Consider the following Israeli innovations:
In robotics, ReWalk, a device that allows paraplegics to stand upright, walk, and climb stairs;
In optics, Pillcam, a capsule swallowed by a patient which transmits photos of the digestive tract;
In computer hardware, the USB drive that allows us to put gigabytes of data on a two-inch device;
In agriculture, disease resistant seeds for the growing of cucumbers and melons;
In computer software, OrCam, a device that orally describes objects and texts for the visually-impaired;
In computer software, WAZE, an app on your smart phones guiding you to your final destination;
In agriculture, drip technology which uses a minimum of water by targeting the plants that need to be irrigated—very valuable in desert climates and saves millions of dollars in water costs;
In computer hardware, BabySense, offering auditory and visual alarms if a baby stops breathing thus preventing Crib Death;
In innovation technology, solar panels that float on water thus freeing up valuable land space;
You may remember that old joke about God deciding to end this world by bringing on another devastating world-wide flood. What happens? The Italians go out to have their last drinks of the best wines to be found in Rome. The French go out for their last dinners in the best restaurants in Paris. The Israelis try to figure out how to live under water. Like-A-Fish is an Israeli company that has created a unique system for extracting oxygen from water in order to free professional and leisure scuba divers from wearing air tanks.

                I have just enumerated a woefully incomplete list of the innovations that have taken place in Israel in recent years. In 2012, Israel had 60 companies listed on NASDAQ, more than any other country outside of the US or China. It’s incredible. But more importantly, it’s a blessing. These Israeli companies are coming up with solutions for people who cannot see, cannot walk, do not have electrical energy, or enough food. These are companies that are helping the impoverished enjoy the riches that they have been denied. And it’s a blessing that God predicted thousands of years ago, when God rewarded Abraham for his obedience, for his willingness to give up his child, his favored child Isaac. God stopped the offering from taking place because Abraham had already passed the test and then God said to Abraham:

Ya’an asher asi’ta et hadavar hazeh
Because you have done this

V’lo hasahta et binkha et yehidekha
and not withheld you son…


V’hitbarekhu v’zarakha, kol goyei ha’aretz
All the nations of the earth shall be blessed
Because of your descendants (Genesis 22:16/18)

And though I do not usually point to the Bible and say—Ya see, ya see…--It’s all true what is written here. The fact of the matter is that the descendants of Abraham are bringing blessings to the world. The only people who would dare to cripple an enterprise so innovative and so transformative in people’s lives, would have to be short-sighted, anti-humanitarian, and misanthropic.

                When Pepsico decided to purchase SodaStream for 3.2 billion dollars, there was a news conference. Danny Birnbaum, as Soda Stream’s CEO, was naturally there. So what should an Israeli CEO do at such a news conference? Naturally, you introduce your parents, and you tell their story, a Conservative Jewish story, which begins in the Shoah of Hungary and whose latest chapter finds them standing next to their son, one of the most successful businessmen in Israel. I found it very moving that this was the course Danny decided to take because it was a little morality lecture on how no one should be blinded by their history. Even at the point of death, once can rise from the ashes of the Shoah and eventually become CEO of an international, multi-billion dollar business.

                When the Palestinians stop blaming the Israelis for their failures, when The United Nations and the European Union and Iran stop funding the Palestinians, which is akin to keeping a dead political,  military and economic agenda on a ventilator, real change will take place. So Hagar is wandering with her baby in the wilderness, and the water gives out, and she places the baby below a bush to die, and she sits at a distance to watch this tragedy unfold,

Vayifkah Elohim et einehah
And God opened her eyes

Vateire b’er mayim
And there was a well of water (Genesis 21:19)

I don’t think God created the well. The well was there, but Hagar has to open her eyes to see that life was not over. And now someone from the Palestinian side has got to realize that a gold mine has dropped into their neighborhood. Its called Israel. You don’t try to destroy a gold mine. You make peace with the owners and do business with them—with Israel. The potential for a wealthy, secure, and peaceful Palestine are tremendous if only someone from the Palestinian side is courageous enough to open their eyes, to see this situation for what it could be and move others to see the same vision!

                With all the tzuris, with all the norishkeit (arresting a Conservative rabbi?), with all the violence, in spite of it all, this little country is doing great things. I am optimistic about the future of Israel. And what Israelis are going to increasingly find, contrary to what you may be reading in the papers, is that when they go up to a young tourist in Jerusalem and say, “Nu—what do you think of our country?” And the young tourist says, as they invariably do, “I think it’s wonderful.” And then the Israeli says, “So why don’t you move here!” They just might find these young people saying—I’m going to. In fact, my firm is establishing a branch in Tel Aviv. 

                Rabbi Levenson is taking the congregation on a trip to Israel this December. You should really look into it. If you go, I hope you come back, but if you don’t, I couldn’t blame you.
Shanah Tovah, everyone.