Sunday, March 5, 2017

Notes on Prayer in the Bible -and an aside on Jewish influences on islam

Session 3 -March 5

Preface: One take away from the Oscar’s. Best documentary film winner: The White Helmets, on the volunteers who try to rescue civilians from the rubbles of Syria’s horrendous civil war.
The producer read a statement by the leader of the organization, Raed Saleh, quoting the Quran: ‘to save one life is to save all of humanity.
It is a beautiful quotation—and it is an opportunity to show how Islam is directly influenced by Jewish sources:
Here is the source, in the Quran. It follows the account of Cain and Able, in the previous verses:
Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land - it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one - it is as if he had saved mankind entirely.. . ..Surat l- maidah 5:32)
Where is this command to the children of Israel   found? Not in the text of the Bible, but in the
Mishnah, compiled 400 years before the time of Mohammed, and it too starts with the account of Cain and Able:
For thus we find in regard to Cain, who killed his brother, "The bloods of your brother scream out!" (Genesis 4:10) - the verse does not say blood of your brother, but bloods of your brother, because it was his blood and also the blood of his future offspring!
 "It was for this reason that man was first created as one person  to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world."( Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, on the procedure of examining witnesses in a capital offense).
There is so much, in both Christian and Moslem scriptures, that is a direct reflection of Jewish interpretations of the Bible, not only the Bible itself.
Back to my theme of prayer:
I must add an aside- last week, I mentioned that our prophets don’t so much “ Pray” , if praying is meant as “asking” ( the Latin precari "to ask earnestly, beg, entreat). They argue. & then, I thought about it. Arguing is a kind of prayer. You argue when you care deeply. You argue when you believe the other side also cares!  So, Abraham, argues, Moses argues, dezekiel complains that no one argues with God 23:30
And I sought a man among them to repair the wall or to stand in the breach before Me in behalf of this land, that I might not destroy it; but I found none. (  haomed baperetz)
Chasidic lore picks up on this theme-Baal Shem Tov, Kaddish of Levi Yitshak of Berdichev
I do not know of other religions that demonstrate a Jewish thought  like” hutzpah klepi maalah”- Arrogance( Hutzpah)  against the heavens, which works! You don’t go against the gods- think of Prometheus.

So are there no prayers in the Bible?
The Prophets- the Middle section of the bible-full of prayer- but prayer is personal, individual, not communal. Hannah prays silently in the sanctuary-and the Kohen Gadol; doesn’t know what she is doing!
Again-prayer for children  ! Samuel 1:6 p 952
After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose.—The priest Eli was sitting on the seat near the doorpost of the temple of the  In her wretchedness, she prayed to the LORD, weeping all the whileֹ, ׃As she kept on praying before the LORD, Eli watched her mouth.וְNow Hannah was praying in her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard. So Eli thought she was drunk.Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up!” ׃And Hannah replied, “Oh no, my lord! I am a very unhappy woman. I have drunk no wine or other strong drink, but I have been pouring out my heart to the LORDי Do not take your maidservant for a worthless woman; I have only been speaking all this time out of my great anguish and distress.”Then go in peace,” said Eli, “and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him.”
Another example-prayer for healing
See our 2 top topics- children and
In those days Hezekiah fell dangerously ill. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz came and said to him, “Thus said the LORD: Set your affairs in order, for you are going to die; you will not get well.”
The doctor said so…
Hezekiah prays on his own.
Thereupon Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD. He said,
“Please, O LORD, remember how I have walked before You sincerely and wholeheartedly, and have done what is pleasing to You.” And Hezekiah wept profusely. Before Isaiah had gone out of the middle court, the word of the LORD came to him :  ( namely, the disease is in remission, )He has 15 more years ahead of him.
Note- turning to a wall- wat does that presage? ( Kotel). Also, Rabbinic practice of actually standing in front of a wall- to be undisturbed and unseen byotehrs.
So- we have prayers for children prayers for health-we also have prayer for survival-
Non-Jews pray:
Jonah-the sailors pray-first to their gods, then to God. Jonah 1:14. P 966
The people of Nineveh-the pagans pray Jonah 3:8
And he had the word cried through Nineveh: “By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water! They shall be covered with sackcloth—man and beast—and shall cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty.Who knows but that God may turn and relent? He may turn back from His wrath, so that we do not perish.”
P 970
What other kind of prayer do we have in the Bible- Personal thanksgiving- The entire book of Psalms attributed to King David.
Quite expected that the introduction to every morning service- a selection from the book of Psalms-Psukei dezimra.
Ashrei- haleluyah
So we have,in the Bible, 2 kinds of worship. The formal, communal offering- animal, plant. The Avodah of the Temple.
And we have the intense, immediate personal prayer-not formulated, impromptu.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Prayer and worship in the Torah- discussion notes

Session 2 Covered 2/25/17 Prayer and worship  in the Torah
Start from Torah- Hertz Chumash
First act of worship. Sacrifice; Minchah-Gift.Cain. Gen 4:3 p 14
 And it’s a flop! A bloody flop! UL’MINCHATO LO SHA’AH!
Next act of worship:10 generations later. Noah after the flood.8:20.p 31 This time, it works-we get the promise of the rainbow!
After that, still no sacrifice for next 10 generations. No prayer! Finally, Gen 12:8 p 46  Abraham builds mizbeach. He talks to God, he debates with God, but still no formal prayer.
Who is the first person to offer a “bracha’ a Blessing for someone? Not one of ours!
Gen 14:18 יח p 52
וּמַלְכִּי־צֶ֙דֶק֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ שָׁלֵ֔ם הוֹצִ֖יא לֶ֣חֶם וָיָ֑יִן וְה֥וּא כֹהֵ֖ן לְאֵ֥ל עֶלְיֽוֹן׃. 19 יט
וַֽיְבָרְכֵ֖הוּ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר בָּר֤וּךְ אַבְרָם֙ לְאֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן קֹנֵ֖ה שָׁמַ֥יִם וָאָֽרֶץ׃
וּבָרוּךְ֙ אֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן אֲשֶׁר־מִגֵּ֥ן צָרֶ֖יךָ בְּיָדֶ֑ךָ וַיִּתֶּן־ל֥וֹ מַעֲשֵׂ֖ר מִכֹּֽל׃

20 generations have gone by from Adam till Abraham. Finally, 20:17  p 71 Abraham prays for healing for Abimelech’s household for they have been struck barren.. Note: then, this first prayer listed is for children!.
Also, Abraham prays for the other, not for himself. Next chapter 21:2   p 71 -The birth of Isaac. Lesson-Rabbis teach from this- pray for others if you want your own prayer answered.
We have the Bracha- as a blessing of goodness for someone-Also- not by one of ours. Rebecca’s family. -.Gen 24:60. P 87 Achoteynu at  We have the idea of bracha by parent for child with Isaac to Jacob, Jacob to his sons.
Next act of prayer: Isaac-again for fertility. Gen 25:21 p 93 Vayeetar Yitzhak lenochach ishto

What we pray for tells us what we value- note that these early examples of prayer are for children! Far die kinder.

Well, Let’s go to the commands.- Is there a mitzvah to pray? First, what is a mitzvah?
Dispute: RAMBAM( Maimonides)- Prayer is a Mitzvah based in the Torah.(mideoraita)based it on Biblical text “ To serve God”-service implies ptrayer.
RAMBAN( Nachmanides)-Prayer as we know it is set by the Rabbis ( Miderabanan). It results out of a desire for God’s kindness.

Start with Exodus- we have instructions for sacrifices.
Right after 10 Commandments, 20:24 p 301 - Mizbeach adamah.
׃With Me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.׃Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being, your sheep and your oxen; in every place where I cause My name to be mentioned I will come to you and bless you.
Here is the essence of worship in the world of Temple Judaism. I give something of mine to God, God gives something to me in return-blessing. But it is even more- not all the sacrifice is burnt-the bulk it is eaten. Who eats together? Family! We ate the sacrifice in the ancient Temple in the presence of God- He got the “ reyach Nichoach”, the beautiful smell, and we ate. What better metaphor for a sense of union with God. ( PS- who still does that? The Catholics. Communion.  The wafer and wine- the body and blood of Jesus, who is the lamb, the korban.

A true prayer  There is one incident in which we have a true personal prayer. Moses, when Miriam is stricken with leprosy. אֵ֕ל נָ֛א רְפָ֥א נָ֖א לָֽהּ׃ (פ) Number 12:13 p 619
Notice-five words. “God, please, heal, God, please, her.”  Rabbis see this as an ideal prayer. Short- to the point. So why is our prayerbook so long? It all depends on what pray means.
Is there any in the Torah itself that we must say? Shma Yisrael.Deut 6;4  p 769 Every Jew is to say it morning and evening, walking by the way, lying down- but is it a prayer? Or is it a lesson to be memorized ?
Is this a reference to an obligation to pray?

ואכלת ושבעת וברכת את־יהוה אלהיך על־הארץ הטבה אשר נתן־לך Deut 8:10 p 783   After you eat, you give blessing. That is the basis for birkat hamazon, but we don’t have any text.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Prayer-Nothing a Jew does or thinks is simple

Prayer-Nothing a Jew does or thinks is simple.  

I have started a discussion on Prayer at our Shabbat Jewish Learning Community.
These are the notes for the first session:

( Page references from Hertz Pentateuch)

A. Jewish Prayer is a contradiction
1. First=who are we praying to? To the wall? Is it to an abstract? To a personhood? Depends on our idea of God. Is it to a negative attribute? Ein Sof ( Infinite, distant)? Or “ Rachman”( Merciful and personal)?
2nd -Why pray?  A. Music? East European Chazanut- at its peak- was better than the Opera. Yosele Rosenblatt, Moshe Kousevitsky,  Opera singers Richard Tucker Jan Peerce
b. Nice company?Letter to editor Bintel brief of Der Forwerts. Century ago. Why do you go to shule? Avraham-I go to talk to God. Yitzhak- I go to talk to Avraham! Synagogue- Greek- for Bet Knesset-House of Gathering.
c- Food?- Kiddush,  Oneg Shabbat. Ancient Temple- the people shared their meal with God and with each other. Earliest synagogues were also the local motel for travelers!
d-Intellectual stimulation? Torah reading, drashah. Bet Midrash- House of Study. Shule- from “school”.
e- and for worship-Bet tefilah-House of prayer.

3-What do we pray for? Pray for the stock market, the horse race? How do we know what we are supposed to pray for?
4-Are we commanded to pray? Voo shteyt es geschrieben? Find me the line in the entire Bible where it says you are commanded to pray! ( Implied but not explicit).
5. Why pray at a fixed time? Shacharit, Micha , Maariv.Heschel writes of his coming to Berlin as a young student, an ordained Chasidic Rabbi, who has gone to the realm of the goyim, Berlin, the Berlin of Cabaret and intellect. overwhelmed by the glory of such an intellectual society. Then the sun is setting, and he is broken out of his revelry by the realization that it is time to stop and daven mincha. Was he in the mood? No! Then why daven, why not wait till the mood strikes him. And he realizes that the mood may never strike him if he waits for it, but if he begins to daven, he might come to the mood, to the spirit.
But, Heschel is a Chasid at heart and Chasidic masters never davened on time- Does the Holy One wear a watch?
4. What is the nature of our prayer. All is opposites
Tefilah and Tachanunim. Two opposites.
Tefilah- from root ” pll”- judgement-one is in judgement. One is claiming what is justly his-her? One is putting oneself in judgement before the Holy One. One is critical of one self.
Tachanumin- Just the opposite- from “ Chen”, find favor. A Pleading- My case can’t stand   in court.  judgement has failed- plea for mercy.
Fixed and spontaneous
Tefilah- is “Keva”- Fixed. Before, after meals, Amidah-fixed text. Fixed time- Shacharit, Minha, Maariv. Tachanunim can not be fixed( although it is in the prayerbook)
But, Rabbis say: Do not make your prayer fixed but make it a supplication( tachanunim).( Pirke Avot)
Public and Private- Tzibur and Yachid
Prayer may be said in private. It’s a personal affair. The ancient rabbis would stand in a quiet spot, in front of a wall ( long before The Wall, the Kotel).
Prayer is best said in public- in a Minyan-10.Kaddish, Barchu, Torah reading.
More Polarities
Fear & Anxiety-That motivates tachanunim
But also  Joy & Awe- To some extent- Tefilah (awe),
Two other complimentary dimensions:
Hoda’ah( acknowledgement) Brachah-Hamotzi & Shechechyanu
 and Hodayah( Thanksgiving)- Hallel,

So, let’s look at these issues from the texts- how we started, how we evolved, how we answered these issues in all ages.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

A Statement of Concern

This past week, we have been collectively thrown into a dizzying whirlwind of activity by the new administration. Part of it is due to the real events, and part of it is due to the way news is reported and reinterpreted, both from left and right.
For that reason, I am posting below, the statement of the Rabbinical Assembly , the authorized Rabbinical organization of the Conservative Movement, this past Sunday in regards to what was reported as a ban on Muslims from entry into the US.In and of itself, it speaks to our concerns.It is similar to statements issued by the Reform and Orthodox rabbinic associations, a rare sign of agreement.

However, it is also true that there was no ban imposed on Muslims as a group.That may have been implied, based on statements by candidate Trump The executive order by President Trump, however,did not make that statement.

The order is a temporary travel ban on travelers from 7 Middle-East countries, and included a temporary halt to refugee admission, and an indefinite halt in accepting refugees from Syria. The ban, as worded, was very disruptive. However, In response to public outcry representatives of both parties, some key disturbing parts of the ban were removed. It is therefore not a blanket ban on Muslims. It targets, for a variety of reasons, countries that are openly hostile to the United States, namely Iran,  or involved in genocide ( Sudan), or in a state of political disarray and under the control, in whole or part, of Iran, ISIS,or Al-Qaeda ( the rest). It appears that this signals a realignment of Middle East policy away from the pro-Iran tilt of the previous administration, and back to the pro-Sunni tilt of all prior administrations.

The order was enacted heavy-handedly and it is of questionable value for the strategic interests of the United States. That said, it is important to note that the ban has been given support by the Chief of Security for Qatar and bythe United Arab Emirates. There are no massive demonstrations in the streets of Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, as far as I know, as there were in the wake of the infamous "Mohamed" video ( when "spontaneous" demonstrations may have been choreographed).

( It did lead to Prime Minister May of the UK calling on Muslim countries to lift their bans on holders of Israeli passports).

The executive order did achieve one thing for sure: it has aroused a sense of fear in many of us that this is but the first sign of an intolerant America. Against this, we need to be constantly vigilant.
It is essential that no ground be ceded on the ideal of an America open to freedom of religious expression by an adherent of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, or any other faith( or no faith).
This ideal was given expression by the first President of the United States, George Washington:
" For happily, the Government of these United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."

Notice that emphasis, which we all forget, that we are to all act, in Washington's word,as "good citizens."
I therefore hope and pray that the government take seriously the very values which it is seeking to protect . The text of the executive order blocks "those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including "honor" killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation."(quoted from the actual executive order).

( Since the Russian Duma just made wife-beating a non-criminal offense, maybe Russian visas should be questioned!) 
This must remain a nation that upholds those values.
I am also concerned that this country remain open as a refuge.I say this as one whose entire family was declared " illegal" retroactively by their governments(Polish and German) in the years leading to the Holocaust .I know full well the horrid consequences of the shutting of the doors to Jewish refugees at the Evian Conference by the nations of the world (Jews  were never identified as a terrorist threat.)
We expect that refugees be handled on a merit basis of their likelihood to be persecuted in their land of origin. That includes Yazidis and Assyrian Christians but it also includes Jews in Iran and in Yemen, as well as Sunnis under Shiites and Shiites under Sunnis, as well as people persecuted because of gender or gender-orientation.
( The situation of Jews in Iran is such that Iranian Jewish groups here must keep silent on this in order not to endanger those Jews still in Iran).
We must also be aware that the solution of Syrian refugees will happen only with the resolution of Syria itself ( where we should have established "red lines"and safe zones years ago.) and that the civil wars with ISIS and Al-Qaeda and the like will only be resolved from within those societies.
As Jews, we have additional concerns of anti-Antisemitism in this country, Jews are still the single religious group most targeted by hate acts, based on government data. These hate acts  are by adherents of both left and right extremism.
Just this week, many Jewish Community Centers received threatening calls.…/this-is-what-a-jcc-bomb-threat-sounds-…
Jewish students have been intimidated on UC campuses, to the extent that the Regents had to issue a formal declaration:

Brown-shirt style terrorizing of university campuses by extreme elements of the far left are the result of the same mentality that has spooked our Jewish students on campus.As a veteran of the Hippy-Yippy years, I can attest that our student riots merely helped propel President Nixon to two overwhelming election victories. 
To reiterate, we all need to be vigilant, both as Americans and as Jews, to defend our precious liberties from threat of the alt-right and the alt-left , liberties that we take for granted.
We seek a world in which, in the vision of the prophets,"
Everyone will sit under his or her own vine and own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken. ( Micah 4:4)
Text of resolution:
Deeply rooted in our tradition, faith, and values, we are a people of immigrants. Throughout our history we often were the stranger in a strange land and were persecuted and attacked simply for being the other. As Jews, it is not only our religious values that speak to welcoming those who seek shelter and safety, but it is also a pillar of free, democratic nations.
Our religious tradition repeatedly forbids us from oppressing the stranger. For instance, Leviticus 19:34 commands us, 'The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.' And Exodus 22:21, 'And you shall not wrong a stranger, neither shall you oppress them; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.' It is a betrayal of Jewish history and our own Jewish values to stand quiet as victims of war and terror are left helpless -- especially on the basis of religion.
The protracted war in Syria has created 7 million displaced persons within Syria alone and millions more throughout the Middle East, with refugees escaping through Turkey, the Balkans and Europe. Meanwhile, millions of undocumented immigrants in America live in fear of imprisonment, deportation or worse.
The Conservative movement has continuously and consistently advocated for the rights of immigrants including pathways to citizenship and family reunification as a top priority. We call on the US government to reject policy proposals that would halt, limit, or curtail refugee resettlement in the U.S. or prioritize certain refugees over others; and urge President Trump and the U.S. Congress to instead take bold leadership by providing robust funding to support refugees around the world as well as provide necessary resources to refugees who are already resettled in the U.S.
Most importantly, the Conservative Movement completely rejects the targeting of individuals based on their religion. As Jews, it is an affront to our fundamental values. We are all enriched by the diverse set of experiences that immigrants bring to our society. We see it not only throughout our economy and educational system, but also in our synagogues, camps, schools, and institutions where people of diverse backgrounds, countries of origin and experiences come together to pray to the same God, who sees us all as equals. To do otherwise betrays the Jewish values we find deeply engrained in our faith and history.
Rabbinical Assembly
United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
The Jewish Theological Seminary
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Cantors Assembly
Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs
Jewish Educators Assembly
Mercaz USA
Women's League for Conservative Judaism

Monday, January 16, 2017

From Out of the Pit - Martin Luther King Day 2017

From Out of the Pit -  Martin Luther King Day 2017 (Parshat Vayechi)

A few years ago, I was at a performance of “Al Jolson at the Winter Garden” by the noted Israeli and Yiddish theater star, Mike Burstyn. At the very end of the musical, there is a scene of Al Jolson climbing magical stairs on his way to heaven as a voice sounds, in the background, “ A Jewish boy made good.”
Certainly Joseph is the paramount Jewish boy made good, as we read in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, the grand finale of the book of Genesis. Joseph is in his position of power, the brothers are united; we have the death bed farewell of Jacob and ,finally, of Joseph.
Joseph serves as a paradigm for future generations—the Jew who has come as a stranger to a strange land, has gone through trials and tribulations, and, in the end, rises to high position.  
A common Rabbinic phrase is  Maaseh avot-siman lebanim. The adventures of the patriarchs serve as a prototype for the future generations.
It’s a very strong theme, certainly. Joseph is one example: From the pit into which his brothers threw him, then up, then down again to the pit, then up once again. 
A recurring themes of the Bible is that of the individual, in the pit, facing despair,  who finds himself or herself lifted up out of the dung-hill.
This is our reading of the Haftarah on Rosh Hashanah, first day. Hannah, who has been childless, now has a son, Samuel, and she sings:
She who was barren has borne seven children,
    but she who has had many sons pines away.
6 “The LORD brings death and makes alive;
    he brings down to the grave and raises up.
7 The LORD sends poverty and wealth;
    he humbles and he exalts.
8 He raises the poor from the dust
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
    and has them inherit a throne of honor.”( I Samuel 2)

It is repeated almost word for word in the Psalm which is part of our Hallel:
He raises the poor from the dust
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
8 he seats them with princes,
    with the princes of his people.
9 He settles the childless woman in her home
    as a happy mother of children.
Praise the LORD. ( Ps 113)

The motif appears  in another verse of the Hallel:
 From out of the straights, I called upon God ; he answered and set me in a broad and open space. (Ps 118)

It is rephrased again, in Ps 130:
From out of the depths I called unto you.” The Hebrew , Min hamaamakim karaticha, is translated in Latin as De Profundis. That became the title of a letter written by the English writer, Oscar Wilde, when he was imprisoned by his enemies because of his sexual orientation. It has meaning for me as my father used to point out many times that Wilde relied on this theme as his call for help. Years later, I came to realize that my father had been in the depths himself, in Nazi prison twice, once in Berlin and again in Brno, and then a third time as a refugee in Soviet exile.

Archaeologists looking at synagogues of 2000 years ago noted that at the center of some of the  synagogues, built like a small colosseum, was a low spot .  A phrase in Rabbinic sources makes sense, because the leader of the service would go down,  yored lifnei hateivah, go down in front of the ark, not oleh “go up” to a bimah, or raised platform ( as in aliyah latorah, going up to the Torah). The explanation of this practice is based on our verse of Psalms, "From out of the depths". The representative, the shaliach tzibur, would embody this sense of being at the bottom of things, and look for help from God in getting up and out.

But it is not just a Jewish theme; it is a universal theme, and certainly very much an America theme. Just the one who is at the very bottom may rise up to be at the top.It is our  Horatio Alger ethos. There is that image of a boy born in a log cabin who grows up to become a President Jackson or Lincoln. More recently, we have had an orphan raised by an abusive alcoholic father (Clinton) and a mixed race child abandoned by his father (Obama) who became Presidents. 

As we used to say," Only in America."

But if we are young college students, as we are taught today and as we were taught in my day, in the social sciences, there is no real move up. It is an illusion. It is an oddity as much as winning the California billion dollar lottery. Just check any text book on social science, social psychology, sociology.  Gone is our glimmer of hope.  We are doomed to our position in life; we are trapped in some mysterious twilight zone  of "intersectionality", victims of some oppressive other. 

There are two possible approaches to the modern intellectual ethos. 
One is to get used to it. After all, it was the way the world was run for many centuries . There was  the old aristocratic system-peasants- petit bourgeoisie, clergy, nobility. That was the way things were in America's pre-Civil Rights south- plantation gentry, local merchants, white “crackers” or “rednecks” and the feudal serfs , the African-Americans,(Indeed, that part of America remained mired in its past for a good century after the Civil War.) 

Where you are born is where you are stuck.

One of my mother’s favorite books was Brave New World, written by Aldous Huxley in the 1930’s. In this future world, we are all born by genetic design and  raised by behavioral conditioning. All years are dated AF- After Ford. We are pre-engineered as  alpha’s , beta’s, and so one and we are kept in our place by drugs, a literal opiate of the masses. Of course, my mother lived through that future world in the past, in 2nd World War Europe, under the Nazis, who shed countless buckets of blood of Jews and of other conquered peoples in order to guarantee the position of the alpha race.

The other approach, since the game is fixed at birth, and all property is theft (as early anarchists claimed) is to seize it all by force. All is equal, until some amass power again over others, and all are equal except that some are more equal than others and countless buckets of blood are spilled.  My mother lived under that, under the Soviets, as well.

Can we live, as human beings without that hope that we can move up out of the pit. Are we doomed to stay, either mired at the bottom or aloft on the top. Do we burst out in  infantile rage at our powerlessness?

This is not the answer of the Bible, which has been at the core of liberal thought of the past three centuries, especially in the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant lands, wherein the Jewish sense of the Bible took root. We Jews may poke fun at what we call WASP's, White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but we cannot deny their “Judaizing heresy” (as the Inquisition deemed it). We have the freedom to move up and government dares not seek to crush our freedom and dignity. The Bible is dynamically opposed to both Fascism and Marxism, wherein we are doomed by our race and blood lines or our class.

Monday is Dr Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
I recall our guest speaker last year, Rev Mansfield Collins, who had worked hand in hand with the Rev. King. There is no question but that the imagery of the slave coming up out of the pits, especially in the story of the Exodus, was a dynamic source for his energetic preaching .Joseph’s dreams, too, have been frequently referred to in King commemorations in connection with Dr King’s dream. Certainly at the core of his preaching was the possibility of the “White” to redeem himself from the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. 

With this thought, I hope that you have had the chance to see the movie” Hidden Figures”. You know I don’t often speak about movies, but I have to speak about this one.

Three woman work as mathematicians for NASA.

This is at a time when women, especially in the south, in the 50’s and 60’s, were supposed to be barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. 
Three African-American women, in a time of inferior segregated schools, wash rooms and work rooms for “coloreds”.  These three, and their fellow workers, break out of the mold. They take hold of the reigns of fate, they prove their worth, and they make possible America’s entry into manned--and womanned—space.

It is a magnificent story. It is a must viewing for every youngster and young adult, whether it is the underprivileged black and Hispanic, or the underprivileged white of Appalachia. It is must viewing for the youngster, of middle or upper incomes, who feels, as youngsters feel, that the deck is stacked against him or her.

It is Joseph out of the pit, in a modern, feminine version.

The film struck home to me even more so, as I served as Rabbi in that same community of Hampton and Newport News, Virginia, just 15 years later.( The Rabbi’s house in Hampton, the synagogue over the line in Newport News.) I never met these three women, but we car pooled our daughter with the daughter of a NASA scientist, an African American who worked on the heat shields for space craft re-entry.  Our daughter, you see, was going to the best nursery school in that same benighted town, operated by Hampton Institute ( alma mater of Booker T Washington). It was an all-black college, and it did not accept white children to its nursery, with the exception of mine and of the synagogue president. I discovered that there was an African-American middle and upper class that had made it despite the old south racist regime.

That thought brought me back to yet another film, and with it, another memory, that is the movie “Fences”. Here is a story of an African-American family managing its way in a poor neighborhood in the 50’s and 60’s, in Pittsburg, struggling to hold together, to hold on to dignity. I could only describe the characters and acting as Shakespearean in their drama and forcefulness.

I was struck by the realization that this slum differed greatly from our modern slum in one thing—there was neither fear of gangs shooting children on their front porches nor the sound of police sirens. This was a financially poorer world than ours, but one in which the inhabitants refused to give in to their misfortunes but instead raised themselves above it.

While media has us focused on the troubles of those stuck in the ghettoes, we fail to see those many who were able to rise up, above the ghetto or the plantation. 

During those years, I lived only an hour away, in a small town, where my father was the Rabbi.  I was the only Jewish child in the class, and there was only one black child in the class—and we were the two of us, the top students. We had, in those years, exceptionally understanding teachers, who made us both know that we belonged, Jew or black, in an overwhelmingly Christian and white town.

I get back to my theme from Joseph. 

What holds us up? What keeps us from falling apart at the cracks? We don’t have to fear the knock of police at night, taking us to the concentration camps, nor Siberia. But we all have burdens that weigh on us—financial, social, emotional-- real burdens and imagined burdens.

What keeps us afloat, what keeps us holding our heads high, if not our faith?. Just as Joseph comes up from the pit, just as the woeful  singer of the Psalms is pulled out of the depths, just so we have our faith, that with our efforts, and with our character, we too, shall come up out of whatever put we are in.  

It is not a reliance on miracles. We are told by our sages,  Ain Somchin al Hanes, don’t count on miracles. Joseph may have been pulled out of the pit, but he made his way up by his efforts at excellence. The Israelites may have been slaves, but we are told by our sages that the exodus could begin only at the moment we struck the blood of the lamb, the symbol of Egypt, on our doorposts and the Israelites could cross the Red Sea only when the first brave soul jumped into the waves.

Live righteously, take action, and hope for redemption. Any Christian preacher could echo these words with me.

It was that faith that sustained my father and my mother through horrendous persecution. Otherwise, I would not be here today.

We need one things, one thing only, and that is the courage, driven by our faith in God, to take the step that gets us out of the pit and on to the high places. 


Monday, October 31, 2016

A Torah Spin Consultant for the President- Advice to Candidates

A Torah Spin Consultant for the President- Advice to Candidates

We are only two weeks from these very critical elections. With all the dirt flung, some people might take this as a failure of democracy. Instead, it is the price one pays for a society in which all are free, all are of basic human worth, as distinct from a society in which all the people are tools or objects to be used. It has been defined for us by Churchill:” Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In a few weeks, we are heading for election, in what must surely be the most bizarre election in modern American history. We probably have to go back to a century ago, when Teddy Roosevelt was selected to be Vice President and the head of the Republican party bemoaned: "Don't any of you realize there's only one life between that madman and the presidency?"  Of course, there are always surprises, such as the same madman getting the Nobel Peace prize for ending the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.

The accusations and curses are flung wildly, right and left, but that is how things get done in a democracy. In Russia, they have a better method—Putin’s enemies die mysteriously of radioactive poisons. In North Korea, the ruler has his uncle killed by a missile. Clean, clear politics.

However, every politician needs a political advisor. Both candidates show that they need a better advisor, a better spin doctor. This is the in thing. the spin doctors, for spin control, to keep things from flying off the handle.

So, I will be a spin Rabbi. Every good politician needs a Rabbi for spin control. So, I am offering my services to both candidates. Keep in mind, I make this offer only once in 4 years.
Dear   Candidate-Hillary or Donald
I recognize a major issue for both of you in the future administration. You both have Jewish families. You now need an official rabbinic political consultant.
I offer my services as Secretary of Torah Consultation. I recognize that this may infringe on the first amendment but we can deal with that later, since you both have said other things that may infringe on the Bill of Rights.

 I bring with me the depth of political advice found in the Torah, the heritage and traditions of the Jewish people. I offer 3500 years of collective experience in government.
First, are you sure you want to do this?
There is, in classic history, the idea of the “ Great Man”. –Now, “Great Woman”. A successful democracy will naturally allow the best possible person to rise to the top. A Washington, a Lincoln.

But I offer you Mashal Yotam!,Jotham’s Parable from the Book of  Judges( 9:7-21)
About a century before King Saul, one man, Avimelech, connived to get himself appointed King after he massacred 70 of his brothers. One brother survived and told the gathered notables the following story:
8 “Once the trees went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king!’     9 “But the olive tree replied to them, ‘Should I stop producing my oil, which is how gods and humans are honored, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’        10 “So the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and be king over us!’     11 “The fig tree replied to them, ‘Should I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’ 12 “Then the trees said to the vine, ‘You come and be king over us!’       13 “But the vine replied to them, ‘Should I stop providing my wine that makes gods and humans happy, so that I can go to sway over the trees?’           14 “Finally, all the trees said to the thornbush, ‘You come and be king over us!’
15 “And the thornbush replied to the trees, ‘If you’re acting faithfully in anointing me king over you, come and take shelter in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the thornbush and burn up the cedars of Lebanon.’  This is exactly what happened, as the ruler destroyed his own people.
My dear candidate, are you going to be the “ Great Man “ or “ Great Woman” or be the thornbush?
If you are concerned with image, I suggest you turn to the first Book of Samuel, to the first image candidate, King Saul, who was also the first fallen leader. Saul is tall, and extremely attractive as King, yet Samuel must remove from him his royal authority. God informs Samuel "Do not look upon his appearance or his tall countenance-for I have rejected him, for not as a human sees do I see, for a human sees only what is visible to the eye, but I see into the heart."
Image is not all that counts. The leader must first and foremost love his people.
Moses must confront a people who sinned and betrayed their national trust, in worshipping the Golden Calf. God offers to wipe out this useless and stubborn people; Moses asks to be wiped out of the pages of life and history instead.  Moses' people have given up on him, yet he would rather be erased form history than give up on them. (Exodus 32) He didn’t want a legacy—he wanted what was good for his people.
Elijah , on the other hand, is a leader who feels betrayed and let down by his people. He complains to God. "They have abandoned you, your ideals, your teachings. I, only I am left to be loyal. " ( I Kings 19).
 Moses, who was ready to fight God and die for his people, is rewarded with 40 more years in office. Elijah, who would die for God, but is against his own people, is fired from office.
Mr. or Mrs. President, are you in your office because you love the office, or because you love your people?
There is the other side, of course. A leader must recognize the difference between loving his people (or her people) and pandering to the whims of a fickle public.
Disraeli, that most masterful of politicians over a century and a half ago described the Achilles' heel of democracy."We live in an age of prudence. The leaders of the people now generally follow." Disraeli knew it long before the advent of the Harris polls, the Gallup polls, or the focus groups.
Mr. Candidate, I refer you to some advice found in our  Midrash Rabbah, some 1500 years old. The text envisions Moses talking to the seventy leaders, representatives of the tribes, this council which is ancestor to our idea of a Congress  
Moshe Rabbenu,  the first political liberator, told his council the following fable:
"The snake one day was engaged in a debate with itself. The tail of the snake complained to the head, "Why do you go first all the time. I, too, want to lead for a change." The head gave in to the demand. "Go”, he said .The tail went straight into a ditch, and dragged the head through the mud; it next went through a fire, and scorched the head; it finally went through a thicket of thorns, and scarred itself completely.   " This is what happens when the  head follows the tail. So it is in politics, when the small listen to the great, all is done well; when the great follow the small, the great fall on their faces." ( Deut. Rabbah)
This may sound undemocratic, but even in our democracy, we have a Supreme Court which is required to be unresponsive to the people.
A great leader cannot allow the fear of losing votes to dictate his decisions. Look back again to King Saul, who began his career illustriously, until he, too, like so many, failed in office. Samuel is ordered by God to remove Saul.
Saul fails to follow Samuel's instructions and lamely replies, "I was afraid that the people were going to leave me" and " I was afraid of the people."  That was his great mistake--he followed the polls too closely.
In both cases, the right to rule was taken from Saul, because he was intimidated by public opinion.
Surely, you might suggest, that this is a democracy--doesn't the leader have an obligation to do that which the people choose?
So, once again, on the other hand, this too, is in the Torah, far we are  told, "Acharey Rabim lehatot--the decision goes by the majority.
This too, is the rule in Jewish tradition, but there is a caveat: Lo tihyeh aharei rabim  leraot-you shall not follow the majority to do evil.. The vox populi,  the voice of the people, is vox dei, the voIce of God, only when it is morally correct .
For nearly a century, American democracy accepted slavery. That did not make it correct, and President Lincoln led the nation through Civil War to make that clear.
But, Mr or Mrs. President, you must show even greater courage on your part to be a true leader. It is not enough to not be afraid of public opinion. A true leader must show existentialist courage, the courage to do that which is right, against all odds. Think of a Churchill and the dogged determination to fight Hitler at Britain's weakest moment despite the advice of his fellow ministers.
A true leader will stand up, even to God, if the cause is right.
Abraham stands up to God. Moses stands up to protect his people from God. The prophets too, and the Rabbis.
Don't look for the honor and prestige of the position. It's no great honor.
 An ancient midrash informs us that, when God sent Moses to his task of liberating his people, he warned him ."My children are stubborn, rebellious, and troublesome . You must accept that they will curse you and throw rocks at you." (Ex. Rabbah 7:3)
You can be sure that our great leaders, like Washington or Lincoln, could easily sympathize with Moses..
There are the same traits that a true leader must cultivate, traits that may seem to contradict each other. For all the bravado that a leader must display, it is wrong to believe  too much in yourself. A Hasidic  master, Moshe of Kabrin, once warned "Do not think that God chose you because you are a great man. Does a peg on the wall, on which the king hangs his hat, boast that its beauty attracted the King's attention?"
Mr.or Mrs. Candidate, remind yourself, then, that, at most, you are the peg on which history hangs its crown for the next four or eight years
Finally, even the wisest and most infallible of leaders must be ready to consult the experts for advice. How do we know this?
When God creates Adam, the first human, he says "Naaseh Adam , Let us make Adam. " The Rabbis ask the question  "Who is "Us"? To whom is God talking?
They suggest that God is talking to his angels? Why does he need their participation.?
To teach you that, if God, King of all Kings, needs to take advice from others, you ,too , President, Emperor, or Prime minister, had better get plenty of good advice.
Keep one thought in mind and you will never go wrong .The sages of the Talmud warn anyone who wishes to be a fudge, or leader that he must always envision two things: a sword drawn at his bowels, ready to impale him, and the maws of hell ready to swallow him, at the slightest mistake.( Sanhedrin 7a).
Mr or Mrs.. President, with that encouraging thought, as you take upon yourself the mantle of leader of the most powerful nation on this planet, I am at your service to give you all the " on the other hand" answers that you will need. Good luck, and may God bless America.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Where are You? Taking a Stand as a Jew- A Message to Young Jews

 Yizkor  Yom Kippur
Where are You? Taking a Stand as a Jew
I address my words today not for the benefit of most of us here, but as Moses said, “Those who are not here with us today,” for the future, our children, grandchildren, especially those in high school and college, where the ideas that will shape the future are being taught and debated.
To speak of the future, I need to go back in time, to1951. My father had served as the Chief Rabbi of Frankfurt and he decided it was high time to leave Germany.  He challenged the community to decide where they belonged—in the land of bloodshed and sorrow, or in another, greener land.  He recalled the contest of Elijah against the priest of Baal, the contest that ended with the words which we use to end Yom Kippur- “Hashem Hu Haelohim”—The Lord, He is the only God  It was a decision that people made after hearing Elijah’s challenge,” How long will you keep hopping from branch to branch.” Stop sitting on your suitcases, he told the community, and move on.
Fast forward over 65 years. Most of the Jews moved on to Israel, America, Canada, and elsewhere, but a small community remained. The small community prospered, and it was enhanced by the flow of newcomers from Russia and even Israel. There were new Rabbinical schools, a Jewish Museum in Berlin and a world class memorial to the Holocaust.
But over the last year, there has been a chill. It is not near the blizzard for Jews in France and Belgium, nor the freeze for Jews in Britain, but the surely start of a winter chill for the Jews in Germany. The country has absorbed a million refugees from the Middle East, primarily from Syria, without recognizing that they brought with them the entire baggage of ideology that was the hallmark of Baathist rule in Syria for decades- it was a population indoctrinated for decades on the hatred of Israel and Jews. The good intention was to undo the shame of the Hitler years. The consequences have been quite the opposite of the good intentions.
So  Jews have been attacked by anti-Semitic vandals from among the refugees. To make matters worse, the reaction among Germans against the refugees has given rise to movements that also harbor ancient hatreds of the Jew. The mood is suddenly darker. One of the spokesmen for the Jewish community, Daniel Killy  concluded that Jews are no longer safe in Germany.( Jerusalem Post, Manfred Gerstenfeld, Feb 2016).
Europe’s Jews have discovered, to their great dismay, that the left, the bastion of tolerance and acceptance, has adopted a fashionable anti-Zionism that serves to cloak   open anti-Semitism. The British Labour Party, just for one example, was shocked to find that many high ranking members openly espoused clear hatred of Jews.
It is very much possible then, that my father was right-- 60 years premature-- but right. How long can the Jews of Europe keep bouncing form branch to branch?
But that is Europe. America is different. We are strongly rooted, well-entrenched. It is even said that Jews are everyone’s favorite minority. We have no worries. I thought so myself for many years--until recently.
No, I do not worry about a resurgent Nazi or Klan. That is an aging and shrinking population by any demographic measure, a population plagued by drugs, family collapse, and dwindling numbers.
However, I do worry about our campuses, so I address my words to our youth, even if very few are sitting here:
To my dear grandchildren, to your dear grandchildren:
You are going to be educated among the best and the brightest.  The great American universities are there to open your minds to new challenges, competing ideas, ideas that will be annoying and uncomfortable but are essential to shaping future visionaries of this country. That is what you are promised.
However, for a long time now, we have witnessed a phenomenon termed the” Closing of the American mind.” Ideas are now marched through a narrow gate of permitted discussion.
For example, there is the concept that no one from the mainstream may appropriate ideas or elements on an oppressed minority. Borrowing of the cultural trappings of another is now considered an act of imperialism.  This is a very fascist concept, first developed by Richard Wagner, when he denied that the Jew could possibly ever understand what it meant to be a German.
The trend today is to set up “safe zones” and “trigger warnings”, so that no one be offended by any concept or statement. Except for you, my young Jewish collegiate!
Thus, Jennifer Rubin reports in the Washington Post, ” Oh, but Jewish students are a different matter. . .  the fact that none of the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity seems of concern to the offense police tells us much about their agenda. Some minorities are more deserving of protection and respect, apparently.”
The most harrowing and threatening to our youth is the attempt to shut down any discussion of Israel which does not label it as “apartheid, racist, colonialist.”  It comes from a new concept on the campuses of “ intersectionality” that claims that all oppressed peoples, a broad umbrella, that covers every ethnic group and every gender-oriented group, no matter what the differences may be, must work hand in hand to oppose “ white, male privilege” and imperial colonialism.  It is particularly the Palestinians on campuses here that have successfully planted themselves as the core most oppressed group, and have created the atmosphere in which, you, the Jew, male or female, are guilty of “white, male privilege”.
With this comes an attempt to shut down Jewish expression.
Look at what is reported by the Washington Post. In the first half of  2016, “on more than 100 public and private colleges and universities with the largest Jewish undergraduate populations, . . . 287 anti-Semitic incidents occurred at 64 schools during that time period, reflecting a 45% “over the first half of 2015.
 What atmosphere will you now confront?
Jennifer Rubin summed up, “As a result, Jewish students engaging in Jewish activity having nothing to do with Israel — wearing their Jewish sorority or fraternity letters, displaying Star of David necklaces, walking to Hillel for Sabbath dinner — report fearing for their safety and wellbeing. “
Here are the claims thrown at you. You need to know them and know the answers, but don’t expect anyone to understand you.
You are told that if you identify with Israel you stand accused of genocide. Arabs, including Palestinians, are being killed by the tens of thousands by fellow Arabs, aided by Russia, and Iran, but if you fail to demonstrate against Israel on the campus, it is you who stands accused of genocide.
You are told that you must support the boycott of Israel to protest the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. You will not be told that this boycott platform calls openly, not for the withdrawal from the West bank, but the withdrawal from Planet Earth.  Thus, one of the key leaders of the movement declared,” OK, fine. So BDS does mean the end of the Jewish state. . . Ending the occupation doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t mean upending the Jewish state itself. (Ahmed Moor)
You are told that you are colonialists, that you are European invaders and the  uprooters of indigenous peoples. International law recognizes the right of colonized people to rise up and even engage in acts of terrorism. You are told that as a colonizer, you, or the Jewish state you admire has no right to defend itself. Not in the West Bank or in Gaza, and certainly not in Tel Aviv.
You are not told, because it contradicts the party line, that Jews are indigenous to the Middle East. Yes, not just because European Jews stem directly out slaves brought from Judea to Rome, 1900 years ago, but because, until the past two centuries, most Jews lived, and had lived in the Middle East since Abraham and his family. You are not told that the nations of the Middle East would have been congratulated by Hitler for creating  Judenrein states.
You are not told that your “white male privilege” came at the expense of being spat upon as “impure “ in the Middle East, that you paid a special tax for the privilege of breathing in Moslem societies and that you survived at the mercy of the Christian rulers of Europe,  that you were equally despised, for centuries in both Europe and the Middle East. No, rather, because your families have succeeded in this country, you are guilty of “privilege.”
Why, you might ask, should we not just close the door on those who shout at us and block our meetings and deny speech to anyone not toting their party line, dictated now directly by Palestinians here in the United States.? Just ignore it?
Because, quite understandably, we, as Jews, are used to siding with the oppressed, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. To be on the side that calls for justice is in our skin, in our DNA. We have been through so much; we want to be on the side of righteousness. That is where our Jewish youth stand.
Historically, we have been there. But be aware, that the very revolutionary movements to which we belonged spat us out the minute it was expedient, be it in the former Iron Curtain, and yes, in the movements for Arab nationalism, as well.
If you are going to be involved in justice and the struggle for the oppressed, do so, because you believe it is right, but do not believe that you will be beloved for it as a Jew.
Now, you might ask, why should we really care? After all, it is very natural for students to be burning idealists and get carried away with the fervor. They grow out of it as they meet the real world. Wasn’t I once on the front lines of a campus protest in the heyday of protests? I grew up, I matured.  Bill Clinton grew up, and became a centrist President. Isn’t that what always happens? Maybe not!
I address my concerns to you, my next generation, because ideas have consequences. The campus protester today becomes the thought leader tomorrow. Those young protesters will become future elites, they will hold positions of influence, it is inevitable. But they will bring with them the attitudes towards Jews and towards the Jewish state that they learn today. Today’s American leadership, on both sides of the aisle, support Israel strongly. Tomorrow’s leaders, however, will have been influenced by the likes of Omar Barghouti and the radical Palestinians on campus. What your fellow classmates absorb on campus today can shape whether this country continues to underwrite Israel’s security. What your fellow classmates absorb on campus today can affect the well –being of the Jewish community here, too.
You must be ready to take a stand. You must say, like Abraham,“Hineni”, Here I am.
I want to leave you with these words of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver. He was passionate fighter for the cause of the Jewish people, without let-up, to the point of hounding President Truman till  Truman could no longer stand to see him. Nevertheless, his drive helped seal the United States’ recognition of the new Jewish state. He composed a poem of the history of the Jewish people. I will read only the opening and closing verses:
I stood with Abraham in his lonely vigil
And read the destiny of my people in the stars.

I was with Isaac when he built the altar
Where his faith and devotion were put to test.
He went on to list the key events of Jewish history, from the Exodus to the rebellion against Rome to the Holocaust and the rise of Israel, and then he concluded, with a challenge to you, and all of us:
Shall I leave them now?
Can I part company with this immortal band whom I love?
They have become too dear and precious to me.

They are bone of my bone,
Flesh of my flesh,
Soul of my people.

They are my people.
Their quest is mine.

They will live within me
and I will live with them.
So, my young collegiate, this is your people, this Yom Kippur Day, and always. Here is where you belong.