Monday, May 30, 2011

Why Interfaith Dialogue Doesn't Work-- And What We Can Do About It: via HuffPost

Absolutely true statements. How often does interfaith dialogue really mean a pep rally for treacly quasi liberal values? Real interfaith dialogue requires taking your own faith and the other's seriously enough to put up a fight rather than resort to pablum. And really, why is it okay to get down and dirty over our sports teams but not our faith?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

U.S. Senate Passes Resolution for Jewish Chaplains Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery — JCC Association

U.S. Senate Passes Resolution for Jewish Chaplains Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery — JCC Association

Just in time for Memorial Day, the U.S. Senate passed the necessary resolution to place a memorial to fallen Jewish chaplains in Arlington National Cemetery, next to existing memorials to Roman Catholic and Protestant chaplains. A similar resolution passed the House of Representatives earlier in the week. JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, a division of JCC Association, has led the effort to correct what was seen as a longstanding wrong. “We are immensely gratified that this sad oversight is about to be corrected,” said Rabbi Harold Robinson, director of JWB Jewish Chaplains Council. “We’re deeply grateful to Congressmen Anthony Wiener and Jeff Miller and Senators Charles Schumer, Richard Burr, and Patty Murray for their leadership on this issue. Finally, these fallen chaplains will be brought home to their comrades in ministry.” Robinson added, “As Memorial Day approaches, we are grateful to all military chaplains who serve our servicemen and women.”

N.Y. Representative Anthony Weiner and N.Y. Senator Charles Schumer introduced resolutions in the House of Representatives and the Senate to authorize the memorial. Florida Representative Miller and Washington Senator Murray are chairs of the veterans services committees in the House and Senate, respectively. Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina is the ranking Republican on the Senate committee.

The next step is approval of the monument’s design by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts when the Commission meets in June. After approximately six weeks for fabrication, the plaque will go on tour to different communities, giving people a chance to see it and learn more about the role of Jewish chaplains. JWB hopes to have the dedication in Arlington during the fall to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Jewish chaplaincy. The first Jewish chaplain was commissioned in 1862, in the midst of the Civil War.

The JFNA, Jewish War Veterans, and the Sons of the American Legion were among the many communal organizations that worked tirelessly to get the resolution passed. The project was initiated when Ken Kraetzer’s discovered that Jewish chaplains were not memorialized on Chaplains Hill in the same way as others. A member of Squadron 50 of the Sons of the American Legion, in Pelham, N.Y., Kraetzer was doing historical research on memorials in Rhode Island. He was familiar with the story of the USS Dorchester, which the American Legion focuses on annually in commemorations all over the country, and wondered why Rabbi Goode was not among those listed at Arlington. One of the transformational moments in American life was the heroic sacrifice of the four chaplains of the USS Dorchester, which was transporting 900 soldiers and civilian workers to the European front when it was sunk by German torpedoes off the coast of Greenland on February 3, 1943. Each of the four chaplains on board spontaneously gave his lifejacket to another soldier, and the chaplains perished together as they prayed and sang hymns to men in lifeboats and in the icy water. The chaplains represented three faith traditions—two Protestants, a Catholic, and a Jew—and their death marked the first time the term “Protestant, Catholic and Jew” was used to describe America. Three of the four are memorialized on Chaplain’s Hill, but neither Rabbi Alexander Goode nor any of the other rabbis who died in other active service situations are so remembered.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Eulogy for Gerald Arenson (z'l)

Our temple President sadly died this past week, and was laid to rest today. Here's my eulogy for him:

Tucked neatly away in a corner of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers found in Mishnah, is a teaching in the name of a scholar, Ben Hei Hei:

Effort is its own reward. We are here to do, and through doing to learn; and through learning to know; and through knowing to experience wonder, and through wonder to attain wisdom, and through wisdom to find simplicity, and through simplicity to give attention and through attention to see what needs to be done.

This was Jerry Arenson’s favorite verse from Pirkei Avot, and it’s easy to see why, for it describes the kind of person Jerry always strove to be: a man of simplicity and attention, a doer, who had wisdom to share with others, someone for whom the effort was always its own reward.

Jerry was born and raised in Los Angeles, growing up at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, along with his sister Arlene and his brother Alan. It was from his mother Shirley and father Irving and especially his uncle Art that he developed his sense of family and his values. He was raised with certain life expectations, not just physically but morally as well.

While at Los Angeles high he met the woman who would be his lifelong sweetheart, his Judy. They ran against each other for National Honors Society president. She won, of course, and that annoyed him at the time, or so he would joke later, but something about her caught his eye. He tried to get her attention but she wouldn’t look his way walking down the halls. This wasn’t because she was blowing him off—she would take her glasses off between classes and couldn’t see the person trying to get her attention. Well, with classic Arenson tenacity, he won her affections, and they have been together ever since. They were married at Wilshire Boulevard Temple when Jerry was in grad school—he was among the first in his family to go to college—and Judy wasn’t quite 21. The bridesmaids wore red. That was 52 years ago this past March. And in those 52 years their devotion for each other was constant and palpable. You saw it in the way he held her hand as they took their morning walk, or the way she rubbed his back. You saw it in the way they talked to each other, interacted with each other, danced with each other at the DuPont country club, and Jerry was an excellent dancer, and especially in the way Jerry took care of Judy these last years.

They didn’t have enough money to start out on their own, so Uncle Art came to their rescue, helping them get situated before he finished school and they moved out to Wilmington where Jerry took a job with DuPont, while Judy got active in the Jewish community, between Hadassah, teaching religious school and other endeavors. And of course, starting their family, welcoming David, Dan, Debbie and Andy into the world. Family was all-important to Jerry. A private person, with family Jerry could be more of himself. With his family he could giggle, especially if he was trying out a new (usually terrible) joke. “looks like Grandpa’s got the giggles again.” Someone would say. Nearly every vacation they ever took was to visit family back in California or elsewhere. Whatever the kids were into, he made sure to be fully present. He coached their teams, served as a scout master, running meetings with a toddler and a baby in each arm, and was always present in whatever activity the kids were into. For him it was essential to take care of people and make sure their needs were met, seeing what was needed and helping people as he was helped years before. And he was a devoted and immensely proud grandfather to Jeff, Jessica, Jason, Jacob, Rebecca, Eric, Sonya and Holton, sharing that love in a letter to you eight, as well as his ethical and moral legacy, and in some of his last words to Holton. One of the ways he showed that love was through the family vacations he’d throw every other year, especially the cruises, and he left instructions that those family vacations continue. He wanted to be the glue that held this family together and even in his passing, endeavors to do so. In remembering dad, Deborah commented that again and again, her friends would say, “I love my father and he’s a good man, but your father is the example.”

He also showed his affection for others by wanting to help them improve themselves. If there was a point of light in every person, Jerry was going to focus on that light, focus on that unique talent, and mentor that person. He did not suffer imperfection in people not living up to their ideals, he always wanted people to be their best selves and wanted to bring that out in people. There were his lectures on how to live life appropriately, so many that his kids numbered them. There were his lists—so many lists—on how to develop someone’s inner self. He was always proud of the way he mentored people at DuPont, trying to get them to come up with personal goals and develop plans on achieving those goals. And he shared that with his personal mentoring of young students here in Wilmington. As a community leader, whether it was in his homeowners association, or in the Reform Movement’s international efforts, especially helping establish liberal congregations in the former Soviet Union, or here at Beth Emeth, where he served with tremendous pride and love, there was always a sense that he was mentoring others, trying to develop others. And while that was, in some ways, most obvious in his work as president of this congregation, where he worked closely with staff and laypeople, welcoming new congregants with great joy, and helping new leaders cultivate their own visions. But it was equally true of his work as finance chair. As many of you know, finance is the least fun job on a synagogue board: you’re working the budget, figuring out dues, and asking people to pay their dues and if they haven’t, why they’re in arrears. Who wants to be accounts receivable for a synagogue? But Jerry did this job for nine years with tremendous rachmanut, tremendous sympathy and care and sensitivity to everyone with whom he interacted.

Jerry took pride in that mentoring ability, as well as his independence. He played tennis nearly till the end, often giving much younger players a run for their money, as our youth director can attest. He had very few unfinished projects in his life, though some required his son’s help. “I tried to fix the sink, so what are you doing this week?” But the main reason he didn’t leave unfinished business is because of his tenacity, his focus, some might say his stubbornness. If it was worth doing, it was worth doing the right way, and worth seeing through to completion. He would never give up on a project, merely put it aside for a while and come back to it later. And come back to it he would, but never with ulterior motive. Jerry was Jerry—congruent in his personal and public life, as clear and ethical in his business as he was in his dance instruction or in the sound of his voice singing with the choir.

Jerry was here to do, and by doing to learn, and teach, to attain and share wisdom, and pay attention to those around him. For this he was put on this earth, and we are blessed to have walked awhile with him and be the focus of his attentions, the beneficiaries of his love and learning. His legacy to his family and friends, to all of us, is undying and indestructible. Zecher tzaddik livracha, may he be remembered for blessing. Amen.

Shippin' up to Boston (well, Cape Cod, anyhow)

Off to Cape Cod with my son for some much needed R&R. Here's a Memorial Day Prayer for the weekend, that we may remember those who gave of themselves willingly and those who continue to serve.

by Rabbi Matt Friedman

Editor's note: This weekend we observe Memorial Day in the U.S., a time we remember the sacrifice of our Armed Forces in defense of our country. Below is a prayer that may be read during your Shabbat Services.

Rabbis and congregational leaders might consider incorporating this prayer for those families who have lost a loved one in the service of our country as well as for the soldiers now serving in our armed forces. Let us ask God to protect, heal and comfort them. And let us, by praying, raise our own awareness, sense of responsibility and appreciation for those who defend our country.

Eloheinu v'Elohei avoteinu v'imoteinu - Our God and God of our ancestors,
Watch over those who defend our nation.
Shield them from harm and guide them in all their pursuits.
Grant their commanders wisdom and discernment
in their time of preparation and on the battlefield.
Should battle erupt may their victory be swift and complete.
May the loss of life for any of your creations be avoided.
Grant healing to those who are wounded
and safe redemption to those who fall into enemy hands.
For those who have lost their lives, grant consolation
and Your presence to those who were close to them.
We also ask that you stand with our President and all our military leaders.
Guide them in their decision making
so that Your will is implanted within their minds.
May it be Your will that world hostilities come to a rapid end
And that those in service are returned safely to their families.
We pray that freedom will dawn for the oppressed and
Fervently we hope that the vision of Your prophet will come to be,
"Let nation not lift up sword against nation nor learn war anymore."
May this vision come to pass speedily and in our day, Amen.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

ZEEK: Articles: Religion and Hybridity: Can someone be Jewish and Christian?

A great and challenging article on Jewish identity by my friend and colleague, David Levinsky! Two excerpts and a link below:

Once, basic elements of identity were seen as unchangeable. If your mother is or was a Jew, then you are a Jew. If your father is or was liberal, then you too are liberal. Any shift from these home identities was considered radical and thought of as a conversion. But this is no longer true. An increasing number of people simply don’t accept their parents’ markers of identity. They see identity as something they create themselves. Our identities are no longer essential; they are constructed."

"Rabbi Michael Sternfeld, my colleague at Chicago Sinai Congregation, writes, “maybe we should simply stop trying to say who qualifies and who does not. Instead we should be asking: who can we count on and whether they identify with the aspirations and values of the Jewish people.” I would rather draw boundaries based upon whether someone is an Ohev Yisrael, a lover of the Jewish religion, than based upon the purity of their religious commitments or the purity of their DNA."

Monday, May 23, 2011

Palestinian PM Fayyad suffers heart attack, in stable condition - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

Oh My...

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad suffered a heart attack on Monday while in the United States for his son's college graduation.

The Palestinian premier's spokesman, Jamal Zakout, said Fayyad was recovering and would likely be released from the Seton Medical Center in Austin, Texas, within two days.

Zakout said Fayyad felt strong chest pain on Sunday and went to the hospital for tests, where he then suffered a heart attack. Tests showed a blockage in a coronary artery, Zakout said. Doctors performed a catheterization to open the artery.

Fayyad, a heavy smoker, has been prime minister since 2007. The political independent could lose his job as a result of a recent reconciliation agreement between political rivals Hamas and Fatah.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

On Arab Springs, Israel and the possibility of peace

My old friend Steve asked me (via text) what my thoughts were on the Arab Spring, and today, with President Obama's speech on engagement with the Middle East (and Prime Minister Netanyahu's semi-rebuttal) , as well as George Mitchell's resignation last week and the upcoming AIPAC conference, seems to indicate that it might be worth talking about.

As it happens, Rabbi Eric Yoffie addressed the issue of the Peace Process (and why pretty much everyone blew it) pretty coherently; that is, the doves are always waiting for rationality to dominate both the Palestinian community as well as the world in a post-Holocaust era, and be able to see the difference between terroristic actions and self-defense, and the right assumes that we can ignore world opinion and leave unanswered questions ambiguous forever and assume that would have no negative effect on the polity of Israel, the American Jewish community or the world. (I'm summarizing pretty heavily here--go read his article if you want the real thing).

It seems to me, however, that these attitudes are correct when it comes to the Arab spring as well. Who can't feel inspired by young people peaceably (at least initially) protesting intensely chauvinistic and suppressive autocratic regimes, who seek democracy for themselves and an economic improvement for their nation? Who among us doesn't hold their breath, marveling at the people of Libya or Syria (or Bahrain, or Yemen) who daily take their lives into their hands fighting against murderous dictators? Who among us wasn't relieved at hearing that our forces had slain Osama Bin Laden, ending years of manhunt and disrupting Al Qaeda in a significant way, possibly changing the landscape of the war with Afghanistan and our relationship with Pakistan? Now all we have to do is promote democracy in the region, pull out of the Hindu Kush and all will be well again, right?

Well, of course anyone who believes that is hopelessly naive. Already the peaceful protests of Egypt--where nary an American or Israeli (or PLO) flag was to be seen--have given way to more of what we had seen before: defamatory protests against Israel, and calling for long-held peace treaties to be reexamined. Worse, the Assad regime seemed happy on the so-called Nakbha Day to incite border incidents--either to distract his own people or world attention from his own destructive behaviors. And even worse, the Western World seems happy to enforce the idea that Israel's creation should be commemorated with a 'Catastrophe Day', and allow for the rewriting of history, such as in this op-ed by Mahmoud Abbas. How soon before some of these same individuals are rewriting the histories of Tunisia, Egypt and other places, transformed into mythologies that suit the needs of those emerging into power.

One might surmise from this that I'm a pessimist. Not at all. I think there's real potential right now, real energy, toward making a positive difference in Israel's neighborhood. I think America is trying to reassert its place as clear-eyed supporter of Israel, as a friend who's willing to rebuke when necessary. I think there's reason to hope. But hope is not enough to make something happen (nor, as Senator Mitchell discovered, is it enough to just wait for people to get tired). There has to be a willingness to hear each other, to learn each others' stories for real, to stop trying to reassert easy narratives for the sake of legacy building or to prove the other side wrong. And it's going to take a willingness on the part of leadership to see beyond immediate needs (including their need to maintain authority) and set some long term goals.

So where will the Arab Spring go? Who knows. But we should neither rush to romanticize nor denigrate and fear what's in progress. Whatever happens, it'll take a lot of work, energy and trust to make it right.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Wither Reform Redux: Op-Ed: Reform Judaism must move beyond ‘personal choice’ | JTA - Jewish & Israel News

"Rethinking dues structures, using technology more effectively and sharing best practices are all worthy things to focus on for American Jewry’s largest religious movement. But what Reform needs most is an ideological reorientation that seeks to close the enormous gap between its stated ideals and the conventional practice of its adherents. Toward that end, Reform needs to retire once and for all the phrase that has become synonymous with the movement itself: “personal choice.”"

Op-Ed: Reform Judaism must move beyond ‘personal choice’ | JTA - Jewish & Israel News

Monday, May 9, 2011

Obama offers best wishes to Israel on its 63rd Independence Day - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

Obama offers best wishes to Israel on its 63rd Independence Day - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News:

"'Sixty-three years ago, when Israel declared its independence, the dream of a state for the Jewish people in their historic homeland was finally realized,' Obama said. 'On that same day, the United States became the first country in the world to recognize the State of Israel.'

'As Israelis celebrate their hard-won independence, it gives me great pleasure to extend the best wishes of the American people to the people of Israel and to honor their remarkable achievements over the past six decades,' Obama continued."

Thursday, May 5, 2011

House Divided - by Adam Kirsch > Tablet Magazine - A New Read on Jewish Life

A fascinating book review from Tablet Magazine, and a healthy reminder that 'there is nothing new under the sun"'

House Divided

The history of the synagogue in America, a new book shows, is one of rifts, splits, factions, and the ever-evolving tension between tradition and modernity

BY ADAM KIRSCH | May 3, 2011

A Jew is shipwrecked on a desert island. Ten years later, a passing ship notices his campfire and stops to rescue him. When the captain comes ashore, the castaway thanks him profusely and offers to give him a tour of the little island. He shows off the weapons he made for hunting, the fire pit where he cooks his food, the synagogue he built for praying in, the hammock where he sleeps. On their way back to the ship, however, the captain notices a second synagogue. “I don’t understand,” the captain asks; “why did you need to build two synagogues?” “Oh,” says the Jew, “this is the synagogue I never go to.”

It’s an old joke; but as Marc Lee Raphael shows in The Synagogue in America: A Short History(NYU Press, $35), the phenomena of inter-shul rivalry and congregational splitting are quite a bit older. In 1825, for instance, some of the members of New York City’s Shearith Israel, the oldest synagogue in America, decided to break away and start a new congregation. Their stated reasons, Raphael notes, sound very contemporary—“complaints that would echo and reecho within various congregations in the following two centuries.”

When Shearith Israel was built in downtown Manhattan, in 1695, the city’s Sephardic merchants all lived nearby. But by the 19th century many Jews had moved away, to what were then the suburbs, and found Shearith Israel “very far from the convenience of a considerable number of our brethren.” Besides, the Sephardic population had given way to new Ashkenazi immigrants from Germany and Poland, who found “it difficult to accustom [themselves] to the Portuguese minhag.” The seceders built an imposing new synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun; but apparently it wasn’t good enough, because just three years later a group of Jews split from B’nai Jeshurun to found their own congregation, Anshe Chesed. Both of those shuls still exist, almost 200 years later, but after several incarnations they’re now on the Upper West Side.

This little episode demonstrates all the forces that would continue to drive the evolution of the American synagogue, down to the present day. Shuls follow Jews: geographically, when the Jewish population moves to new neighborhoods and cities; demographically, when new Jewish immigrants import different ways of praying; and theologically, as American Jews change their understanding of how and why they practice Judaism. In this short book, Raphael, a distinguished historian of American Judaism, uses congregational archives, rabbis’ sermons, prayer books, and other ground-level sources to fill out a basically familiar historical outline. It starts in the 17th century with the first American synagogues, founded by immigrants from Portugal by way of Holland or the Dutch colonies. By the time George Washington was inaugurated, in 1789, there were six Sephardic congregations in the United States—in New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Savannah, Charleston, and Richmond.

The second phase in American Jewish history began in the 19th century, when immigration from Germany and Central Europe brought tens of thousands of Ashkenazi Jews to the country. Almost immediately, they began reforming traditional Jewish practice—though, as Raphael shows, not all adopted the name or ideology of Reform Judaism. Raphael lists 20 popular changes that became widespread between 1850 and 1890. They range from the aesthetic (using an organ, replacing the shofar with a cornet) to the linguistic (reading the haftorah in English) to the calendrical (eliminating the second day of holidays, scheduling evening services later on Fridays).

But what “definitively moved a synagogue out of the ‘traditional’ realm and firmly, incontrovertibly, into that of Reform” was changing the siddur, by eliminating or shortening prayers, or translating them from Hebrew into German or English. As early as 1857, the Reform leader Isaac Mayer Wise produced a prayer book, Minhag America, which aimed to be “thoroughly American, republican, and cosmopolitan—every man of any creed can now pray with us.” Any creed included Christians; in fact, Raphael shows that some Reform rabbis were so well-known for their sermons that they attracted as many Gentile listeners as Jews.

Edward Nathan Calisch, the rabbi who led Richmond’s Beth Ahabah from 1891 until World War II, serves as Raphael’s example of the ideal Reform clergyman. In his pursuit of an Americanized Judaism—a religion for “Americans who happen to be Jews”—Calisch did away with the kippah, the bar mitzvah, the chuppah at weddings, Friday night kiddush, and almost all Hebrew prayers. His most popular sermon identified Jewish heroes with American heroes, casting “George Washington as a modern Joshua, Thomas Jefferson as a modern Moses, Benjamin Franklin as a modern Solomon, Andrew Jackson as a modern David,” and so on down to George Mason.

There is something ludicrous, even self-abasing, about all this, and Raphael writes about Calisch with notable irony. But classical Reform Judaism was trying to answer, as honorably as it could, the same problem faced by all Jewish congregations and denominations. This was the problem of how to pray in a way that felt honest in both Jewish and modern, American terms. As Raphael shows throughout The Synagogue in America, this was a matter of style even more than of substance. The key word in synagogue debates from the 19th century on was not orthodoxy or reform, tradition or modernity, but decorum. To 19th-century German-American Jews, a traditional Jewish prayer service did not seem decorous enough: It lacked the choir, organ, pulpit, and reverential hush that made high Protestant churches so imposing.

In the 20th century, Raphael shows, the concern for decorum was a major driver of the evolution of Conservative Judaism. When Eastern European Jews began to arrive in the United States in the hundreds of thousands, starting around 1880, they did not want, and were not wanted by, the socially elite Reform congregations. But within a generation, the descendants of these immigrants felt the need for synagogues that preserved more of Jewish tradition than Reform wanted to, yet testified in concrete ways to the Americanization of their own tastes and values. A shul became Conservative in the 1920s by adopting many of the same changes that made a shul Reform in the 1820s: mixed seating, English prayers, late Friday services. The justification for these changes was not doctrinal but, in the words of one New York rabbi in the 1920s, a matter of “dignity and decorum and beauty.”

The irony is that this growing concern with dignity—with what religion should look and feel like—went along with a decrease in actual Jewish knowledge. It may have been cacophonous when, in an Orthodox shul, each worshipper entered at a different time and started praying at his own pace; but it was also a sign that people actually knew the Hebrew prayers and what they meant. A Conservative congregation singing in unison, or a Reform one sitting reverentially while a choir sang, may have looked more dignified, but they understood far less. This was the vicious circle of assimilation: The less Hebrew American Jews knew, the more English was used in synagogue; but the more English was used in synagogue, the less reason Jews had to learn Hebrew. “The Jews to whom we minister are ignoramuses when it comes to the elemental facts of Hebrew,” said one rabbi on the commission charged with writing a new Conservative prayer book—and that was in the 1930s.

In the last 30 years, Raphael writes, all denominations have moved toward a greater fidelity to tradition: Reform services now use more Hebrew, and the standard of observance for Orthodox shuls has become markedly more rigorous. (In the 1950s, it was common for Orthodox congregants to drive to synagogue, and mikvehs were almost unknown—there was only one in all of Westchester County.) On the other hand, less than half of American Jews identify themselves with any of the four denominations (counting Reconstructionism), and only a fraction of those attend synagogue regularly. And if most non-Orthodox synagogues are full of people reciting Hebrew prayers they don’t understand and couldn’t honestly endorse if they did, it’s no wonder. The Synagogue in America suggests that, in modern America, it has always been thus. Fortunately, what happens in synagogues does not constitute all, or even most, of what it means to be Jewish in America.

House Divided - by Adam Kirsch > Tablet Magazine - A New Read on Jewish Life

Monday, May 2, 2011

Reacting to the Death of Osama Bin Laden

Another set of reactions from Rabbis for Human Rights North America:

I was checking my email late last night when I noticed a headline on the New York Times website: “President Obama to address the nation.” “They’ve caught Bin Laden,” I said to my husband. “There is nothing else urgent enough for an instant press conference on a Sunday night.” As I waited for the President’s speech, I realized I really didn’t know how I felt. Relief? Renewed sadness over 9/11? How are you supposed to feel when your enemy falls?

For me, as for many Americans, this is not a theoretical question. I was in New York on 9/11 and watched the Twin Towers get hit. Even though more than 10 years have passed, there is part of me that is still back on that day, under attack and scared. I’ve long viewed my work at RHR-NA fighting torture as my patriotic response to what I experienced. The best way to beat the terrorists was to uphold America values about freedom and the rule of law. I felt that the most fitting end for the search would Bin Laden would have involved a fair trial in an American court room, with the terrorist locked up for years and years. As the wrangling over Guantanamo intensified, it became clear that such an end for Bin Laden was unlikely. Rabbi Arthur Waskow described Sunday’s results, Bin Laden’s death in a firefight, as a “sad necessity.” But the scenes of unbridled celebration outside of the White House seemed at odds with the solemnity of the moment. I watched them and was deeply uncomfortable. For me, they transformed the moment into one of revenge. Maybe I am overreacting. Surely, those of us on the left tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to moments of patriotism. But I don’t think I am wrong. I cannot celebrate the death of another human being.

I’m not alone in my ambivalence. A quick survey of my friends shows that many of them are quoting the midrash about the death of the Egyptians at the Red Sea, when the angels are chastised for celebrating the death of God’s creatures. To actively celebrate over the death of another human being (sacred and created in God’s image) feels wrong, no matter how evil or how much they are our enemy. But others of my friends pressed that the celebration of the death of an individual enemy was different than rejoicing over the killing of innocents. The joy they felt was not one of revenge but of relief that evil had been overcome. As Rabbi Morris Allen posted on Facebook, he spills wine at seder for the suffering of the Egyptians during the plagues but not for the Pharaoh who caused their deaths. Osama Bin Laden was such a Pharaoh.

The President’s somber tone in his announcement should give us guidance for the national mood. It was not a time for rejoicing–the death of Bin Laden will not bring back the lives that were lost. It was our job as a nation not to pursue revenge but to seek justice. As activists, we translate tzedek as righteousness when we said “tzedek tzedek tirdof” and seek a more equitable world. But today we are reminded that justice is one of the pillars on which the world is built. God demands us to seek out justice.

Reflecting over the strange coincidence of the death of Bin Laden being announced on Yom HaShoah, Rabbi Menachem Creditor reflected:

I’m not sure what I mean right now. I’m relieved that an evil has been eliminated from the world. I’m mourning our lost Six Million. I’m watching the crowds on Pennsylvania Ave and Ground Zero, weeping at all that happened and is forever changed, aching for some healing and some small amount of hope. I’m still hearing the testimony from a Shoa survivor shared less than three hours ago echoing in my heart, proud to have joined as a large Berkeley Jewish community to bear witness to our collective pain. I’m lost right now. That’s all I think I can mean at the moment. We do not rejoice at the death of our enemy. The implementation of justice is not a joyful celebration. As Rabbi Cohen writes of watching the recording of Eichmann’s trial, “In this man’s eyes are reflected the ghosts of his uncountable victims…and also nothing at all.” I am riveted by the face of Bin Laden. I do not want to look into his eyes. Those eyes witnessed the snuffing out of so much life; those eyes remained willfully blind to the pain and loss he caused. I believe justice has indeed been served today. Joylessly, as is appropriate.

The reaction of the religious community has largely been along those lines as well. The Vatican called on Catholics to not rejoice but reflect on the death as an opportunity for furthering peace. The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good reminded us: “Our response is disciplined by belief that war itself is tragic and that all killing in war, even in self-defense, must be treated with sobriety and even mournfulness. War and all of its killing reflects the brokenness of our world. That is the proper spirit with which to greet this news.” Two of the major Muslim organizations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Islamic Society of North America, have framed Bin Laden’s death in terms of justice for victims of 9/11 and repeated President Obama’s call for national unity. Like the President, they also took the opportunity to remind American that the radical terrorist did not represent or speak for Islam.

My friend Rabbi Noah Farkas wrote: “It’s not the celebration on the day of the death of an enemy that exemplifies justice, but how we choose to live the day after.” Repairing the broken world is not about what someone else might do, it is about us and how we bear the responsibilities given to us. Treating every human being as created in God’s image is difficult. Feeling compassion for the stranger, because we were strangers, is not an easy choice. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) insists that the responsibility for healing is in our hands, if only we could overcome our own limitations: “Raba said: If the righteous desired it, they could be creators of worlds, as it is written, “But your iniquities have separated between you and your God [Isaiah 59:2].”

Reacting to the Death of Osama Bin Laden

Rabbi Joe Black: Reflections on the death of Bin Laden on Yom HaShoah

I'm still reflecting on last nights revelations of the death of Osama Bin Laden. On the one hand, I feel immense gratitude. On the other hand, the sight of people cheering and celebrating his death much as people in the Arab world cheered the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11th fills me with ambivalence. There's no joy for me in this; rather a sense of relief and a hope. I'm reminded of this past week's Torah portion, in Leviticus 19, where we're commanded neither to hold a grudge nor exact vengeance. This was, as the President said last night, the execution of justice, but it is a slippery slope downward. If this is, as Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday at Israel's Yom HaShoah commemoration (and that John Elzufon quoted in his remarks at our own commemoration), a war of civilization versus barbarism, then we must make sure that we do not succumb to their 9th century ideals and remain true to who we are in this fight.

Yesterday Moshe Landau, the judge who presided over the Eichmann trial, died at age 99. Every account of Eichmann's treatment, arrest and execution point to a justice system that wanted to make it clear that they were executing justice, not exacting vengeance (they even went so far as to make sure the prison guards were Sephardi--of Middle-Eastern descent--so they would feel no personal inclination to abuse or harm the prisoner). We would be well to remember that...

I've linked to and quoted Rabbi Joe Black's blog response as it's far more eloquent than anything I could write on the subject. You'll find both below.

MONDAY, MAY 2, 2011

Reflections on the death of Bin Laden on Yom HaShoah

Last night, like most of us, my family and I were transfixed by the scenes playing out on our TV screens. The celebrations that were taking place outside of the White House, at Times Square, at Ground Zero and throughout the world following confirmation by President Obama that Osama Bin Laden had been killed were spellbinding. It was as if a cloud had been lifted from our national consciousness. The jubilation and spontaneous demonstrations of national pride that these (mostly young) revelers were displaying was both wonderful and disconcerting. Chants of "U.S.A!!! U.S.A!!!" filled the air and reporters were interviewing survivors of the 9-11 rescue operations that are indelibly linked into our consciousness.

At last, we had some positive news in the war on terror. American commandos had broken through the seemingly impenetrable wall of invincibility that Al Qaeda had created. The mass murderer of thousands had finally been eliminated.

And yet, waking up this morning, however, I don't feel too much like celebrating. Bin Laden died a violent death. He deserved to die. But while I am relieved that Bin Laden no longer poses a threat, I have no illusions that his death will put an end to terror. On the contrary, most of us are bracing ourselves for the inevitable reaction of Al-Qaeda and the myriad of terrorist offshoots that it has spawned.

In addition, the image of celebrating the death of another human being – no matter how evil he may have been – doesn't fit my image of the highest ideals for which we, as a nation, stand. In the book of Proverbs 24:17 we find the following: "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles."

My son, Ethan, beautifully captured this duality of feeling in his Facebook status when he wrote:

"Regardless of how despicable or evil an individual might be, we as Americans never celebrate the death of another. We instead celebrate the end to an era of fear and terror. We celebrate the individuals who keep us safe from those who want to harm us. Most importantly, we celebrate the universal ideals of freedom and justice."

The fact that Bin-Laden was killed on Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) and on the anniversary of the death of Adolph Hitler was not lost to many of us. Yesterday afternoon, I participated in a somber commemoration at the JCC where three generations of survivors spoke about their lives and experiences. Each person spoke of how the Shoah colored their worldview –but not one spoke of revenge. Instead, the message was one of healing – of seeking beauty in a world that was all too often filled with ugliness.

This morning, the world is a different place than it was last night – not because a terrorist has been killed – but, rather, because we have been given an opportunity to heal. One man's death, however justified, will not bring back the thousands upon thousands who have died due to hatred. Perhaps we can utilize this moment to concentrate on bringing Shalom: peace and wholeness to a world that is incomplete.

Rabbi Joe Black: Reflections on the death of Bin Laden on Yom HaShoah