Divre Harav – January 2011

It is easy to fall into the trap of negativity.  Recently, after several colleagues shared some of the more discouraging moments of their rabbinate, another colleague responded with some advice from a member of his congregation, an oncologist.  He said that it would be impossible for him to function if he spent too much emotional energy thinking about the majority of his patients who don’t survive. He focuses on the ten percent or so who make a full recovery.

I’m thinking about this now, as our country is welcoming to Washington DC a new set of Representatives and Senators, most of whom gained office because of a general sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo — the pace of recovery from the economic downturn, and a perceived, if not actual, lack of action addressing the high rate of unemployment.

Our politicians talk about reaching across the aisle and working together towards a common goal, but when a compromise is made, many to the left and the right accuse the moderate centrists of selling out to the other side and betraying the values and principles of their party.

I’m thinking about Representative Justin Amash, who has some pretty big shoes to fill as he takes the seat once held by Vern Ehlers, Paul Wolpe and Gerald Ford (although in his day it was the fifth, rather than the third, congressional district).  Some in the Jewish community are concerned that Mr. Amash’s Palestinian roots might affect his support for Israel.  It is in in our interest, however, as Jews, supporters of Israel, and residents of the third congressional district, to cultivate a good relationship with Mr. Amash.

AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is a non-partisan organization devoted to strengthen the United State’s relationship with Israel.  They work with every member of congress, regardless of party affiliation.  They educate on issues relating to the security and development of Israel and encourage visits to Israel.

They understand that antagonizing our elected officials is not a good way to move them to our side.  Rather, like good parenting, it is more effective to focus on the positive, to praise the successes rather than condemn the failures.

As we welcome the 112th Congress to Washington DC, let us resolve to focus on the successes, not the failures.  Let us be slow to condemn, and quick to praise.  Let us not demonize the opposition.  Let us stick to our principles, but respect those who adhere to a conflicting set of principles.  As the Talmud teaches about the academies of Shammai and Hillel, Hillel was honored and praised for teaching the opinions of Shammai before he taught his own.  Let us be like Hillel, embracing the person on the other side of the aisle with love, rather than casting him out with suspicion.


Filed under: Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi, Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior Tagged: AIPAC, Amash, Israel, politics

Ayeka Reflections – Bringing God into Hanukah

From my friend Rabbi AriehBen David, who has created an organization called Ayeka.

Ayeka’s Mission
Ayeka is bringing God back to the conversation.
Ayeka provides an agenda-free, safe space to personally explore the question: How can I best fulfill the challenge of living in the Image of God – in my daily life, my relationships, my work and community, with the Jewish people and all of humanity.

I learned a very important lesson from my friend Stuart.

Stuart is part of a men’s Ayeka group in Atlanta. We go away on retreats once or twice a year. We hang out, barbeque, eat a lot, drink a lot of beer, and talk about how we can become our “best selves”. The last retreat was a bit unbelievable – a bunch of guys ruminating on how we can become more loving. Not exactly beating drums in the forest.

Last time when we were talking about acts that best reflect our living in the Image of God – Stuart shared that he tips parking lot attendants. He said “Look, they have a pretty boring job, locked up in a booth most of the day. When I’m paying for the parking I always tell the attendant – ‘Keep the change.’ The look of astonishment and his smile is worth a lot more than the 2 bucks it costs me.”

So a couple of weeks ago I was with my son Amichai when we exited a parking lot and I remembered Stuart’s custom. I told the parking lot guy, “Keep the change. Have a nice day.” For a moment – his eyes sparkled and his face lit up.

Connection to Hanukah?

Isn’t our custom on Hanuka a bit strange? We light a candle – and then we are prohibited from using or enjoying the light ! More than strange, it’s kind of ridiculous.

Do we cook food and then say that it is forbidden to eat the food?

Do we sew clothes and then say that it is forbidden to wear the clothes?

But this is precisely what happens on Hanukah. We light candles – and then after the blessings we add: “These candles are holy – kodesh hem – and it is forbidden for us to use their light.”

What’s the point? Why light a candle if we can’t use its light?

Because lighting Hanukah candles is not about the light – it’s about the lighting.

If the candles get blown out – we don’t have to relight them. Our mission has already been accomplished. We can’t control what ultimately will happen to the candle. And our lighting is not supposed to be self-serving. We light the candles, releasing the glow that was within them. The potential for light already existed in the candle. It just needed to be given a spark.

And that is precisely what we need to do for each other. Supply the spark. Not for our own benefit. Not to receive something.

On Hanukah, it’s about the lighting – and not about the benefit or what we may receive from the candle.

The Talmud compares a candle to a person’s soul. We’re not in control of what ultimately happens to another person’s soul.

We’re just here to “light it” and then it becomes holy – kodesh hu.

—————————————————————————————————-

Questions for Reflection

  • When have you last seen someone “light up” someone else’s soul?
  • Who has lit yours?
  • Who can you spark this Hanukah?

Filed under: Celebrations on the Jewish calendar, Embodied Torah Tagged: Ayeka, Hanukkah, light

Asara B’Tevet – The Fast of the 10th of Tevet

The minor fast day of Asara B’Tevet, the 10th of Tevet, is observed tomorrow.  Minor fasts are those observed from sunrise to dark, rather than from sunset to dark the next day.  For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, Asara B’Tevet is the shortest fast of the year.  If you wake up before sunrise, you can eat a little breakfast or at least drink some water or coffee (since halakha discourages eating meals before morning prayers), and the fast ends a mere 11 or so hours later.

This year the fast is even about 1/2 hour shorter than normal, because it is observed on a Friday.  It is in fact the only fast day on the Jewish calendar that is observed on a Friday.  All other fast days, when they fall on a Friday, are observed on Thursday instead.  Because we don’t fast on Shabbat (Yes, Yom Kippur is a glaring exception), Asara B’Tevet ends at sunset rather than at full darkness as other fast days.

Asara B’Tevet is one of the three yearly fast days commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  On the 10th of Tevet, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar began his siege against the city, as described in 2 Kings 25:

“And in the ninth year of his reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar moved against Jerusalem with his whole army. He besieged it; and they built towers against it all around. The city continued in a state of siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah.”  (2 Kings 25.1–3 JPS)

Judaism is sometimes summarized as a series of celebrations commemorating the following circumstance:  ”They tried to kill us.  We survived.  Let’s eat.”  Periodically, however, it is worth stepping back from satiating our bodies to contemplate how the dark moments of our history affect our souls.  The absence of the Temple in Judaism has become a symbol of living in an incomplete and unredeemed world, a world in which we are waiting for a messianic figure to usher the world into a new age of peace and security, in which God’s presence will make itself known and thereby transform every human heart with love.  May it be so.


Filed under: Fasting - The Embodied Torah of Not Eating Tagged: Asara B'Tevet, fasting

Bodies Revealed … But Should They Be?

Plastination, the process of removing the fluids from a body and replacing them with liquid polymer, was invented by a 64-year-old German medical pathologist named Gunther von Hagens.  Later this month, the Grand Rapids Public Museum is presenting an exhibit of Plastinated bodies called “Bodies Revealed.”
Von Hagens created the process to preserve cadavers for medical schools, but he soon found it more lucrative to exhibit the bodies and charge admission.  To bring in crowds, he skinned, sliced and posed the corpses, billing them as art. Among his displays was a man carrying his own skin over his shoulder; another featured a man kneeling in prayer, his heart literally in his hands.  His show, “Body Worlds,” created using donated cadavers, has attracted more than 26 million people over the past decade and has taken in over $200 million.
I, like many others, was fascinated by the reality of the the Artprize entry entitled Grandfather Monk Luan, a super realistic fiberglass resin sculture of the 87 year old model by artist Sunti Pichetchaiyakul.  It was so lifelike that had he stood up and walked away, those gazing at it might have been momentarily startled, but would not have been surprised.  We were impressed at the detailed artistry involved in creating such a lifelike sculpture.  However, had Grandfather Monk been a plastinated human body instead of a constructed piece of art, most people would have been horrified that a human being had been turned into an Artprize entry.
Along similar lines, if somebody plastinated a deceased spouse and kept him or her in the living room  or at the kitchen table or in the bedroom, I imagine that virtually no one would find this to be acceptable.
Ethical problems abound in the Bodies Revealed exhibition produced by Premier Exhibitions. Premier is paying $5 million per year to rent the bodies and organs it is exhibiting. Premier says that the bodies come from China’s Dalian Medical University.  Their web site explains:The full body specimens are persons who lived in China and died from natural causes. After the bodies were unclaimed at death, pursuant to Chinese law, they were ultimately delivered to a medical school for education and research. Where known, information about the identities, medical histories and causes of death is kept strictly confidential.
In August, 2006, David Barboza, a New York Times reporter, learned that officials at Dalian had no record of Premier’s supplier obtaining the bodies there.  In addition, Premier’s own web site indicates that they do not know the identities of the subjects.
In May, 2008, following a Congressional hearing and a settlement with the State of New York, Premier is now required to disclose “that it is not able to confirm that the bodies and parts being displayed were not, or did not belong to, Chinese prisoners who may have been victims of torture and execution” on its web site.  I could not find this statement on their web site.
However, even if the bodies have been properly obtained, there are other reasons that reducing a human being to an object on display is distasteful.
Biblical tradition teaches that  ”You are dust and unto dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Deuteronomy 21:23 indicates that even a criminal who has been executed must be given a burial the same day and not lie unburied overnight, “for that is an affront to God.”  Biblical tradition teaches that a human being is created in the image of God.  Jewish tradition teaches that desecrating a corpse is the equivalent of desecrating an image of God.  Jewish tradition also teaches that benefiting from a corpse is prohibited.  There is of course an exception when the benefit from the desecration directly leads to saving a life.  The Body Worlds and Bodies Revealed exhibitions argue that they will ultimately lead people to take better care of their own bodies.  This might be the case with a display of healthy lungs alongside lungs destroyed by tobacco; a healthy liver alongside a liver destroyed by alcohol abuse; or a healthy heart alongside one clogged with cholesterol plaque.  It is less clear that bodies opened up and posed in various ways serves an educational, rather than a voyeuristic, purpose. It is clear that the organizer and the museum will benefit financially from the use of these human corpses.  The show is a major commercial enterprise, directly benefiting from the human beings who did not give consent to be put on display.  To preserve their bodies for an indefinite period of time for our entertainment rather than lay them to rest in a dignified manner is to turn death into a carnival side show.
I, like most other people, feel a compulsion to look at an accident on the side of the road to catch a glimpse of somebody else’s tragedy.  I understand the nature of the impulse. A glimpse of the unfortunate person killed or injured is an opportunity to celebrate the fact that I am alive and breathing and healthy. I resist that impulse, at least when I am driving.  Although part of me is fascinated by the similarly voyeuristic opportunity to see the internal plastinated anatomy of a real human body, I will not be going, and I urge you to refrain as well.


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior, Theology - The Thought that Drives our Practice Tagged: Bodies Revealed, Grand Rapids Public Museum, Plastination

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – December, 2010

Deuteronomy 20:19 is the source for the Biblical mandate of bal tashhit, prohibiting wanton and unnecessary destruction of natural resources.  Today, the catchphrase is reduce, reuse, recycle; reduce your consumption of non-renewable resources (such as paper and plastics), reuse whenever possible, and recycle.

Recycling has been a challenge at Ahavas Israel, although not for a lack of desire on our part.  At first, because we don’t participate in city garbage pick up, we were not eligible for recycling pickup.  Later on, it turned out that we could get city recycling pickup, but since our designated day is Wednesday morning and our custodian does not work on Tuesday, we had a problem.  It’s a long walk to carry the recycling bins from the building to the street.  Periodically, someone would take the recycling home.  The home bins were fairly small, however, and it just wasn’t feasible to take large amounts home or convenient to take large amounts to a recycling drop off point.  Thanks to Deb Johnston, our office manager, we have been recycling office paper – she volunteered to drop it off in a large recycling bin.

Over the summer, Grand Rapids moved to large recycling carts.  I have a 96 gallon cart, which is completely full by the time it is picked up ever other Wednesday.  They have also switched to single stream recycling, which means that all recyclable go into the same cart and are separated at the recycling facility.  Those living outside Grand Rapids will have recyclables picked up by their own trash service, but since they are likely to use the Kent Country facility, it should be single stream as well.  This means that it is much easier for member of our congregation to take home a box or bag of recyclables to throw into your own bin.  Currently, Mark Neistat has volunteered to take care of our recyclables.  If, however, we are very conscious of reusing and recycling rather than throwing away, eventually I hope will need more than one person to help out.

Several years ago, the Sisterhood bought glass plates for the meeting room, so we would no longer have to use paper and throw it out every week.  A small investment up front not only saves money in the long run but also conserves resources.  Help us continue to be mindful of natural resources by looking for ways that we can reduce the resources we use, and reuse or recycle our paper, plastic, and metal.


Filed under: Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi, Embodied Torah, Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior Tagged: recycling

Sukkot and the Artprize Competition

Divre Harav – November, 2010 - Sukkot and the Artprize Competition

Part of the mission of Congregation Ahavas Israel is to be a resource for people who want to explore a Jewish path to God.   As a congregation, we have presented various educational outreach programs to teach members of the Christian community about Jewish holidays and rituals.   Our Passover Seder Experience has been a very successful outreach program, teaching church communities about the elements of an authentic Seder.  My sense is that most Christians have heard of Hanukkah and Yom Kippur, although they may not really know the significance of the holidays.  However, to most people outside of the Jewish community, Sukkot is completely unknown.  They don’t realize that holiday that their Bible calls the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths is still celebrated by the Jewish community in much the same way as it was thousands of years ago.

This past September, to raise Sukkot awareness, a competition called Sukkah City took place in New York.  Rules were published outlining how to build a Sukkah according to halakha.  Entries were submitted.  Twelve finalists were chosen by a panel of jurors.  The finalists were invited to build and display the sukkot in Union Square Park.  One winner was chosen by popular vote.  Does this remind you of a little competition we held here in Grand Rapids, called Artprize?  The organizers and funders of Sukkah city want to expand the competition to cities around the world next year.

During Sukkot, I, like many of you, enjoyed the Artprize competition.  I enjoyed walking around looking at the variety of pieces of art. At some point it occurred to me that Artprize would be a great opportunity to teach about Sukkot.

I am imagining a Sukkah decorated outside and inside with prose and poetry and pictures about the meaning of the Sukkah, the message of the Sukkah and by extension the message of Judaism.  It would be an exploration of homelessness and insecurity versus permanence and rootedness.  It would explore the roots of the American Thanksgiving, and the growing interest in food production and community supported agriculture.

I am not an artist, an engineer, or a carpenter.  This is not a project that I have the skills to coordinate.  I’m just tossing out the idea to see if anyone is up for designing a Sukkah and entering it into the Artprize competition next year.  I’m envisioning a small committee, sponsored by the synagogue, of a few people to design and build the structure, and a few people to create the messages on the walls.  If this is an idea that appeals to you, please contact me.  I will help you create an ad hoc committee to get started in preparation for next year’s Artprize.


Filed under: Celebrations on the Jewish calendar, Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi Tagged: Artprize, outreach, Sukkot

The Sacred Choreography of Ballet

By no means am I an expert in the art of watching and understanding ballet.  However, after watching the Grand Rapids Ballet this afternoon, something struck me that could also describe the nature of sacred community.

The dancing is exquisitely choreographed.  The partners or the group of dancers jump together, rotate together, legs move together, arms move together, and most importantly, they come down together.  An individual dancer moves precisely to the music.  From a purely physical point of view, the most exciting and crowd pleasing part of the ballet is the individual who jumps the highest or has the physical ability to perform the greatest number of tricky maneuvers while flying through the air.  However, doesn’t the beauty of the ballet depends on the most physically powerful dancers reining in their talent, a kind of tzimtzum, a contraction in their powers? An individual dancer who jumps so high that he gets behind the music is no longer beautiful.  One of a pair or group of dancers who shows off her speed, throws off the balance of the entire ballet.  One might say that when a group of people are on stage together, there is an aspect in which the group is only as strong as its weakest link.  The strongest leapers gauge their jumping to match the weakest leaper.  However, there is another way to look at a ballet company.  Each of the dancers on stage has a unique set of strengths.  Some have more physical size, some have more power, some have more balance, flexibility, speed, coordination.  I noticed that in the three weekend performances, some of the principal roles rotated from once dancer to another.  Some roles stayed with the dancer most suited for them, but other roles were played equally well, even if slightly differently, by a variety of dancers.  A ballet company becomes a sacred community when each member appreciates the choreography of the whole and serves the whole with humility.

Within a religious community, there are people with identifiable and unique talents.  However, for a group of people to pray together in a traditional Jewish community, those who can read prayers, read Hebrew, most quickly need to hold back; those who can sing the loudest need to restrain their voices so every voice can be heard; those whose knowledge of the liturgy is most fluent need to let other people claim a role in participating in the service.  A community is not qualitatively better when the “weaker,” less knowledgeable, people stand aside for the more qualified people to take over.  Less fluent people are not a weak link in a sacred community, because we presume that each person has unique gifts that only he or she can contribute.  It is not a harmonious community when a small elite group shuts down the participation of the rest of the people.  A community becomes sacred when each member appreciates the choreography of the whole and serves the whole with humility.


Filed under: Accessibility and Inclusion, Embodied Torah Tagged: Ballet, choreography, sacred community

A Critique of Artscroll Press

I am often critical of the theology of Artscroll publications, and suggest that those who use anything produced by Artscroll need to understand that the theology behind their books is deeply embedded in their translations of text and commentary.

A great example of what I am talking about is found here:

http://onthemainline.blogspot.com/2010/10/where-in-world-is-robinson-crusoe-on.html

I encourage you to read the article. The author, Fred MacDowell, describes how a mid 20th century Torah commentator, Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, made reference to Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe as an example of a person living in utter loneliness. The author even reproduces the page from the original Hebrew text, where one can very clearly read the paragraph mentioning Robinson Crusoe.

We also see a scan of the text of the Artscroll “translation,” which without comment or footnote omits that paragraph.

The author gives a number of guesses as to why Artscroll has emended the text of Rabbi Sorotzkin’s commentary:

  • It doesn’t seem natural or proper that an authentic Lithuanian rosh yeshiva of the previous generation, the pride of the great Telzer yeshiva, would have even read Robinson Crusoe much less included a reference to it in his Torah commentary.
  • Even if it was not written by himself, but based on oral talks, it doesn’t seem right that he should have referenced Robinson Crusoe in an oral talk on the Torah.
  • While not explicitly doing so, he almost seems to recommend reading it.
  • It appears strangely close to the much-maligned Torah U-Madda approach. [RK - The approach of the Modern Orthodox]
  • This is farfetched, but it is interesting that one of Orthodoxy’s favorite arch-heretics, the hebraist Eliezer Ben Yehuda, many times cited his having read ??? ????, Yitzhak Romesh’s Hebrew translation of Robinson Crusoe, which was secretly shown to Ben Yehuda by his half-maskil rebbe, R. Joseph Blucker (?). See, for example, his autobiographical ????? ?????. Reading the fine prose of this book helped kindle a love for the Hebrew language within him.

So once more I caution you – Artscroll publications might seem to make Torah, the Siddur, the Talmud,  and other Hebrew works accessible to the non-Hebrew reader; but be aware that the original text and the version of the text that you are learning might not be the same.  If Artscroll believes that Rashi, Ramban, Rambam, the Siddur, the Talmud, the Torah, or a commentary on any of the above departs from their very narrow theology, they will take the very ‘modern’ approach of emending the text!


Filed under: Accessibility and Inclusion, Embodied Torah, Text Study - The Embodied Torah of Study, Theology - The Thought that Drives our Practice Tagged: Artscroll, Robinson Crusoe, theology

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – October, 2010

Our Sanctuary Shabbat speaker program is entering its fifth year.  We have heard about 50 speakers, and while we have never had a formal description of the parameters of what constitutes a legitimate speaker, I thought I would share with you my own internal guidelines for choosing speakers.
The opportunity to speak at Ahavas Israel is open to any position which does not explicitly contradict a fundamental value of Judaism and the synagogue.  This excludes a speaker on the topic of why we should serve bacon wrapped shrimp at kiddush.  A speaker on an environmental topic, as long as he/she does not advocate wholesale, wanton, purposeless destruction, may agree or disagree with the proposition of human caused global warming and still remain within acceptable boundaries of Jewish values.
Jewish values rarely dictate specific policy.  They instruct us not to be cruel to animals, but leave choice of whether to kill an animal for food up to us.  Thus, I might have a speaker one month urging a vegetarian diet, and another month extolling the role of fur trading Jews in establishing the Jewish community of Michigan, and encouraging us to wear fur shtreimels in their honor.
I have invited Senators Stabenow and Levin, governor Granholm, Judge Steve Pestka, and Representative Ehlers to speak on a Shabbat morning (only Mr. Ehlers and Mr. Pestka accepted the invitation).  I look foreword to inviting our new representative from the 3rd district after the election.  I do not invite politicians actively campaigning for office.
Some speakers are Jewish and have explicitly Jewish messages.  Others are not Jewish, but have Jewish messages.  Still others have messages which are not specifically Jewish (such as domestic abuse) but which I believe are important messages for us to hear.
Part of being a member of a Jewish community is accepting the obligation of learning.  Shabbat is our primary gathering time to study together.  Whatever we have learned, whether it comes from a d’var Torah or a speaker on the topic of kayaking and faith, should both influence and be influenced by our understanding of the Torah reading and by our prayers.
We do not live in a vacuum.  Our world is not defined solely by Torah.  We read books, see movies, watch television, read and watch news from various sources, and interact with a variety of people in the course of an average day.  The sanctuary shabbat speaker series is meant to remind us that our essential Jewish values ought to inform our decision making process.
I realize that this is a pretty lofty set of goals for a simple speaker series.  So far, beginning the fifth year of the sanctuary shabbat speaker program, I have had virtually no trouble finding good speakers on interesting topics (although I acknowledge that some of you might disagree that all speakers have been good and all topics interesting!).  However, I find myself increasingly in need of assistance in finding speakers and topics.  Since we have no budget for the speakers, we only occasionally are able to pay a speaker.  If you know of individuals that would be good speakers or topics that we should address, please share them with me.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi
Our Sanctuary Shabbat speaker program is entering its fifth year.  We have heard about 50 speakers, and while we have never had a formal description of the parameters of what constitutes a legitimate speaker, I thought I would share with you my own internal guidelines for choosing speakers.
The opportunity to speak at Ahavas Israel is open to any position which does not explicitly contradict a fundamental value of Judaism and the synagogue.  This excludes a speaker on the topic of why we should serve bacon wrapped shrimp at kiddush.  A speaker on an environmental topic, as long as he/she does not advocate wholesale, wanton, purposeless destruction, may agree or disagree with the proposition of human caused global warming and still remain within acceptable boundaries of Jewish values.
Jewish values rarely dictate specific policy.  They instruct us not to be cruel to animals, but leave choice of whether to kill an animal for food up to us.  Thus, I might have a speaker one month urging a vegetarian diet, and another month extolling the role of fur trading Jews in establishing the Jewish community of Michigan, and encouraging us to wear fur shtreimels in their honor.
I have invited Senators Stabenow and Levin, governor Granholm, Judge Steve Pestka, and Representative Ehlers to speak on a Shabbat morning (only Mr. Ehlers and Mr. Pestka accepted the invitation).  I look foreword to inviting our new representative from the 3rd district after the election.  I do not invite politicians actively campaigning for office.
Some speakers are Jewish and have explicitly Jewish messages.  Others are not Jewish, but have Jewish messages.  Still others have messages which are not specifically Jewish (such as domestic abuse) but which I believe are important messages for us to hear.
Part of being a member of a Jewish community is accepting the obligation of learning.  Shabbat is our primary gathering time to study together.  Whatever we have learned, whether it comes from a d’var Torah or a speaker on the topic of kayaking and faith, should both influence and be influenced by our understanding of the Torah reading and by our prayers.
We do not live in a vacuum.  Our world is not defined solely by Torah.  We read books, see movies, watch television, read and watch news from various sources, and interact with a variety of people in the course of an average day.  The sanctuary shabbat speaker series is meant to remind us that our essential Jewish values ought to inform our decision making process.
I realize that this is a pretty lofty set of goals for a simple speaker series.  So far, beginning the fifth year of the sanctuary shabbat speaker program, I have had virtually no trouble finding good speakers on interesting topics (although I acknowledge that some of you might disagree that all speakers have been good and all topics interesting!).  However, I find myself increasingly in need of assistance in finding speakers and topics.  Since we have no budget for the speakers, we only occasionally are able to pay a speaker.  If you know of individuals that would be good speakers or topics that we should address, please share them with me.


Filed under: Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi Tagged: politics and Synagogue, Sanctuary Shabbat

Men’s and Women’s Spirituality

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – August/September, 2010

During my visit to Camp Ramah earlier this summer, I was dovening with the boys’ cabins of my son’s aidah.  For this minyan, the girls were dovening elsewhere.  Periodically, the staff wanted to give both the boys and girls a single-sex prayer experience.  One of the male counselors asked the boys, “How do you connect with God differently than the girls?  How is boys’ spirituality different than girls?”
The campers mentioned things like praying with tallit and tefillin, and wearing a kippah.  Afterwards, I mentioned to the counselor that the campers who grew up in egalitarian congregations probably couldn’t really relate to the question.  The answers that were given came from non-egalitarian campers who would have thought that girls would never wear kippot, tallit, or tefillin.
I was and continue to be stumped by the question.  Is there any way in which my religious expression is uniquely male?  There is an underlying spirituality in the ritual surrounding athletic experiences, but God blessed me with a body that lacks the size, height, strength, and coordination for team sports (other than chess!). I can’t help thinking about poet Robert Bly’s turn to male drumming circles, but somehow sitting around a fire shirtless beating a drum and being attacked by mosquitoes doesn’t do it for me.
The religious life committee has scheduled a number of women’s Rosh Hodesh gatherings.  Rosh Hodesh, the celebration of a new month, is a religious moment that even in egalitarian congregations continues to be associated with women’s spirituality.  With the demise of the Sisterhood, the Religious Life committee thought that there should continue to be some women-only outlet for religious expression at Ahavas Israel.
The camp experience made me wonder whether there ought to be a male-only religious program as well.  I have never seriously considered such a program, for the simple reason that my own spiritual sense has never indicated a need for a men’s group.  Are there others in our community who would like a periodic male minyan or men’s study group?  I’m sure that the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs has resources and materials that would support this kind of group.
If an Ahavas Israel Men’s Spirituality group would be meaningful to you, and if you have a suggestion as to what form it might take, I am open to suggestions.
As we approach the fall holidays, I wish each of you a good new year.  May your prayers flow from your lips with sweetness, and may all of your needs – physical, emotional, and spiritual – be fulfilled.

Filed under: Divre Harav - Words from the Rabbi Tagged: Spirituality

Matisyahu Dovens at the Intersection in Grand Rapids

Matisyahu comes out on stage complete with the large black velvet kippah (thank God, not advertising Mashiah – he’s broken ties with Chabad), tzitzit hanging out, and peyot swinging.  The crowd – 1,500 or so, whatever the Intersection in downtown Grand Rapids holds – goes wild.  I can’t figure out why this group of Grand Rapidians is so excited.  He begins singing.  The first song is about a princess yearning to return to the King.  I wonder how many of his fans have any idea that he is talking about the soul yearning to be near God, and how many are just attracted by the energy, the volume, his voice.  He’s not just singing, something that the crowd intuitive knows, even though they might not be able to name what he is doing – dovening.  He’s praying.  He’s leading the crowd in prayer.  His body is swaying back and forth.  He continues with a song about the death of the body – created of earth, destined to return to the earth.

Later on, both the music and his dancing become more conventional, less like something you’d see in a synagogue.  But near the end of the evening, after a wild dance, sweat visibly dripping off his peyot, his kippah falls off.  He grabs a towel, and puts it over his head and shoulders, like a tallit.  We’re now back to the dovening.  His mood changes.  He hums a melody – “My help comes from Adonai, maker of heavens and earth.”  I may be one of a small handful in the room who understands the Hebrew words that go with that melody.

He begins dovening again, singing about Jerusalem, praying for the messianic era.  It is clear to me, in this context, that his prayer reflects not just a Jewish messianism, but the hope that his music will unite Jews, Christians, non-Theists, all those represented by the bodies in the room that evening, in worship of God together, creating a beautiful messianic moment.  May we see the day.


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Eyes, Ears, Nose, Tongue and Body - The Embodied Torah of Using our Senses Tagged: dovening, Grand Rapids, Intersection, Matisyahu, Prayer

Irrational Hatred, Jew vs. Jew

Two nearly simultaneous events occurred in Israel on Monday, Rosh Hodesh Av, the beginning of the month during which we recall several national tragedy of destructions and exile, most notably the destruction of the Temple (twice) in Jerusalem. The first destruction was attributed by the Talmud to sinat hinam, irrational hatred within the Jewish community, Jew vs. Jew. First, a woman was arrested for carrying a Torah at the Kotel, the Western wall (for an article, click here; for a video, click here). Second, a bill that would formally give complete control over conversion to Judaism to the chief rabbinate in Israel was introduced and passed its first reading.

The executive director of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, my colleague Rabbi Steve Wernick, was in Israel when he along with his Masorti colleagues, learned that MK David Rotem was taking the bill to the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, hoping to have it approved before the end of the Knesset session, which is soon after Tisha B’Av. This was an upsetting surprise; Rabbi Wernick and his colleagues had been assured many times by many officials that no version of the bill would be brought forward at that time and in that way. Rabbi Wernick has done a great deal of lobbying, and has met with former Minister Sharansky (current chairman of the Jewish Agency) and other MKs. Members of the Kadimah party have been supportive, he tells us. There is something that we can do, and we have to do it NOW.

Please click on this link www.masorti.org/email/form-letter.html and fill out the form to send a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu. It is vitally important for all of us – Conservative/Masorti Jews, liberal Jews, and ultimately all Jews – that this bill, which will serve only to divide the Jewish world and subvert the Zionist ideal – not be allowed to pass.

For more information:

jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/are_you_jewish_enough_20100713/
washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/12/AR2010071203071.html
haaretz.com/jewish-world/american-jewish-leader-israel-is-trying-to-delegitimize-liberal-judaism-1.301537
jpost.com/Home/Article.aspx?id=181141
www.jpost.com/Israel/Article.aspx?id=181177
Here is a Jerusalem Post editorial strongly against the Rotem bill www.jpost.com/Opinion/Editorials/Article.aspx?id=181271

Update from Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, with President Peres’ Statement

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing to you all now towards the end of yet another day of very significant activity regarding the conversion bill. I’ll try to summarize the latest news here.

As you know, the bill passed its reading in the Law Committee yesterday. The next stage involves three readings in the Knesset plenum. A number of sources have indicated that the bill will not be presented before the Knesset breaks for the summer next Wednesday, but we are not relying on this. In fact, the media has reported that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself will stop the legislation from progressing before the recess, but there have been no public statements to that effect.

Unfortunately, over the last three days, neither Prime Minister Netanyahu nor the Likud Party have issued any statements regarding their position on this issue – but we hope they will do so. The Prime Minister has, in the past, expressed his view that the bill should not be passed in its present form, but he has refrained from commenting in the critical last three days.

I sent a personal and urgent letter to the Prime Minister two days ago. Similarly, our Chair, Kathy Manning, sent a letter to him today. The text of that letter can be found at the end of this update.

In addition, our Campaign Chairs and Directors (CC+D) Mission, currently in Israel, met today with Mark Regev, the Prime Minister’s media advisor. Responding to a question by National Campaign Chair Michael Lebovitz on the conversion issue, Regev stated: “The Prime Minister takes this very seriously. His closest confidante is Natan Sharansky. The Prime Minister will not allow anything to happen that will in any way inhibit the unity of the Jewish people. That’s all I can state publicly.”

I was supposed to return to the United States last night, but have now delayed that trip indefinitely, pending developments. Yesterday we met late in to the night discussing strategy, and we continue to be in constant touch with JAFI Chair Natan Sharansky and the representatives of the religious streams. The relationship and professionalism of working with the streams has truly been a privilege.

In addition, we have been speaking with influential Israeli personalities and politicians to continue to apply pressure. We appreciate the work of our Federation colleagues in North America and our rabbinic colleagues and major organization leaders in reaching influencers to hear their concerns. Similarly, we have given multiple media interviews in both Hebrew and English, including to the BBC, and continue to act wherever possible.

A short time ago, our Senior Vice President Rebecca Caspi and I had a personal, urgent meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres on this issue where we stressed the critical nature of the question to our communities. Following the meeting, Peres met with the entire CC+D Mission where he made the following statement:

“More than half of our people are living in the State of Israel. Almost half of it lives outside of Israel . We should remember that those living outside of Israel are not represented by the Knesset, they have their own communal life. A discussion that bares consequences on the entire Jewish people should include different voices – from within Israel and from without.

The legislative process should include an open public discussion that will lead to an understanding. It should be conducted with tolerance, with open hearts and open minds.

A split in the Jewish life will be catastrophic and totally unnecessary. We bear the responsibility for generations to come we should handle it with care while preserving unity.

In 1988 I could have formed a government under my leadership. The condition was my approval to revise the law of ‘Who is a Jew’. I immediately rejected this offer.

I noticed with appreciation the comments made by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who said that the legislative process will be postponed in order to conduct a serious and inclusive discussion. We have to find a proper solution to enable conversion in Israel but not at the cost of unity with the Jewish community abroad.”

JFNA is closely monitoring developments and we will keep you posted as the events occur.

Sincerely,

Jerry Silverman

Update from Natan Sharansky

Jerusalem, 2nd Av ???”?
July 13, 2010

Dear Friends,

I am writing to bring you up to date on developments over the past 48 hours related to the conversion bill of MK David Rotem. As you may recall from my letter in March, the implications of this bill could be profound for Israel-Diaspora relations.

In a surprise move apparently calculated to enable quick, unopposed passage of his bill, MK David Rotem brought it before the Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee on Monday morning.

After vociferous debate in which many MKs expressed deep-seated opposition to the bill, it nevertheless passed the committee by a vote of 5-4, rallying the support of MKs from Israel Beitenu and the haredi parties Shas and Agudat Yisrael. The bill is expected to go to the Knesset plenum for the three required readings in the coming weeks, though, we hope, not before the Knesset goes into recess in the middle of next week.

When I spoke at the Knesset Law Committee, I explained to the MKs that the passage of this bill would send a loud message to world Jewrythat they had been betrayed and that Israel was questioning the legitimacy of their Judaism. Jerry Silverman, President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America attended the Knesset Law Committee and explained cogently the implications of this legislation both to Knesset members and the media.

Once the bill passed through the committee, our efforts turned toward thwarting the intention to move the bill forward through the Knesset plenum in the few remaining days before the Knesset goes into its summer recess. That very day I had an urgent meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as well as with Speaker Reuven Rivlin and cabinet ministers, in order to make sure that no additional surprises are in store for us in the days ahead.

In parallel, the Jewish Agency took to the airwaves and spoke to journalists about the urgent need to prevent a needless rift in the world Jewish community. I can assure you that the issue is becoming as important to Israelis as it is to Diaspora communities. In the past 48 hours, this issue has received a prominent place in the pages of Israel ‘s newspapers and in Hebrew-language radio and television broadcasts, nearly all of which carried our message of the importance of unity in these difficult days.

We continue to meet with key players in the political system, as well as to keep up our efforts in the media. We are committed to ensuring that the Diaspora’s position is heard clearly by all members of Knesset and ministers in the government so that they can fully understand the gravity of the consequences of this legislation.

We will continue to update you as this important issue moves forward.

Natan Sharansky

Letter to the Prime Minister

July 13, 2010

His Excellency Mr. Binyamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister of Israel
Jerusalem, Israel

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

We are writing to you in what we believe are extraordinary circumstances. Indeed it is highly unusual for the entire Coordinating Council of The Jewish Federations of North America to jointly sign a letter, but we feel that this action reflects the depth of feeling and the gravity of the situation regarding the conversion bill currently before the Knesset.

We were certainly encouraged by your earlier statement on the matter and especially by your request to Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to lead efforts to find a formula that is acceptable to all parties.

But we were taken by surprise and deeply disappointed to hear that the bill was passed by the Law Committee before this process reached completion.

We are at a loss to understand how, with the entire Jewish world focused on that committee room, the three Likud members – who could have voted down the bill – were conspicuously absent.

We are of course pleased by what we understand is your position on this issue, but are concerned that neither you nor your party has made a public statement on the matter in the last few critical days.

We don’t need to tell you the depth of feeling and level of concern in our communities at this moment in time. We now await your leadership and action that will reflect your concern for the unity of the Jewish People to ensure that dialogue takes place and that appropriate language is found, acceptable to Jews across the world.

On behalf of The Jewish Federations of North America, we urge you to act decisively to stop this bill from proceeding any further and ensure that the proper discussions that you requested take place.

Sincerely,

Kathy E. Manning
Chair of the Board

Jerry Silverman President & CEO
Michael C. Gelman Chair, Executive Committee
Michael I. Lebovitz, National Campaign Chair
Heschel I. Raskas, Treasurer
Linda A. Hurwitz, Chair, National Women’s Philanthropy
Harvey J. Barnett, Secretary
Cheryl Fishbein, Chair, Domestic Affairs Committee
Marc Fisher, Chair, Consulting Committee
Lori Klinghoffer, President, National Women’s Philanthropy
Jerry Levin, Chair, Marketing Committee
Shepard Remis, Chair, Israel & Overseas Coordinating Council
Michele Sackheim Wein, Chair, Jewish Peoplehood & Identity/Chair, OTZMA
Steven Scheck, Co-Chair, National Young Leadership
Alice Viroslav, Co-Chair, National Young Leadership
Toni Young, Immediate Past Chair, Israel & Overseas Coordinating Council

cc: Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Executive, Jewish Agency for Israel
Rebecca Caspi, Senior Vice President, JFNA


Filed under: Accessibility and Inclusion, Embodied Torah, Israel - Embodying one's Judaism in the Jewish State Tagged: conversion to Judaism, Israel, pluralism, religious pluralism, sinat hinam

Admitting a Mistake

You probably know that I am not a Detroit Tigers fan.  I don’t care follow the Tigers and I pay no attention to whether the Tigers win or lose, unless it  affects the position of my Minnesota Twins in the standings.

It is impossible, however, not to feel for Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga, whose perfect game was taken away from him two days ago by 1st base umpire Jim Joyce’s bad call in what should have been the final out of the game.  What we saw as the incident unfolded, however, was not the typical aggressive behavior and defensive posturing that happens when an umpire blows a call.

As my friend Rabbi Jason noted on his blog (Perfection is Hard to Come By), in an era of overpaid, spoiled, grandstanding sports figures, Galarraga accepted the call with a smile, went back to the mound, and finished the game like a gentleman.  This is the kind of sportsmanship that is sadly lacking in much of professional sports.

Following the game, Jim Joyce knew he made the worst mistake of his career.  He didn’t try to defend it.  He didn’t make excuses.  He said that he had a good angle and just missed the call.  His apology to Galarraga was immediate and from the heart.

How refreshing, and what a terrific sports lesson.  Parents, talk about this with your children.  This is a lesson in the Embodied Torah of Ethics.  This is what it means to behave, at all times, as if you are a walking, talking, embodiment of God’s instruction book.


Filed under: Embodied Torah, Ethics - The Embodied Torah of Jewish Behavior
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