Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Keep Religious Tests Out Of Politics

Questioning Mitt Romney viz. his Mormonism or whether or not Obama is Christian is divisive and unhelpful, and I would add, unAmerican. Glad to see that so many feel the same way...

Major Religious Groups Issue Stern Warning To Candidates: via HuffPost

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Yitro and thinking about Mitzvot

I want to try something a little different this time. This week is Parashat Yitro, where the 10 Commandments (Aseret Hadibrot) are given at Sinai, thus beginning the extension of Mitzvot to Israel. For many of us as modern Jews, the idea of Mitzvot is a challenge, especially the narrative of a supernatural Person giving legislation after intervening in history. I know this because this past week, when working with my confirmation class kids, I gave them various Jewish values or ideas on index cards and asked them to put them in order of most essential to least essential. God was rarely in the top 3. But in one case, mitzvah was at the top, and God at the bottom!

So is there another way to look at mitzvot and our relationship with God? Let's find out. Below I'm going to post Roland Gittelsohn's (z'l) article "Mitzvah without Miracles" from Gates of Mitzvah. Read the article and respond below. Does this theology work for you? Why or why not? What assumptions does it require? What challenges you about it? And if you're coming to Torah Study on Saturday, bring your comments along!

Mitzvah Without Miracles
Roland B. Gittelsohn

What can mitzvah mean to a modern Jew who is a religious naturalist? Perhaps a prior question should be: what is a religious naturalist? Briefly, he or she is a person who believes in God, but asserts that God inheres within nature and operates through natural law. A religious naturalist perceives God to be the Spiritual Energy, Essence, Core, or Thrust of the universe, not a discrete Supernatural Being.
What, then, can mitzvah mean to such an individual? Certainly more than custom or folkway, more than social covenant or mores. Mitzvah, by very definition, must be cosmically grounded; it must possess empyreal significance. For the religious naturalist, as for all believing, practicing Jews, in order to have mitzvah –that which has been commanded—there must be a metzaveh, a commander. That commander, moreover, needs to be more than human ingenuity or convenience.
In the mainstream of Jewish tradition through the centuries, this posed no great problem. The metzaveh was God. A mitzvah was God’s will. It had to be performed because God wanted it. It may have made sense to the human mind or not; these things were not important. It had to be done, plainly and simply because God had commanded it.
But how can an Energy or Essence, a Core or a Thrust, command? For the religious naturalist, who is the metzaveh? Answer: reality itself. Or, more precisely, the physical and spiritual laws which govern reality. Mitzvot must be observed because only by recognizing and conforming to the nature of their environment can human beings increase the probability of their survival in any meaningful way. Mitzvot are not man-made; they inhere within the universe. Our Jewish mystics suspected this long ago. Mordecai Kaplan has summarized the view of the Zohar as holding that “mitzvot are part of the very process whereby the world came into being.”
I agree with David Polish…that mitzvot are binding upon us “because something happened between God and Israel, and that some something continues to happen in every land and age.” What makes me a religious naturalist is interpreting the “something” to be a historic encounter between the Jewish People and the highest Spiritual Reality human beings have ever known or felt. No other people has been so persistent as ours in seeking that Reality and its moral imperatives.
It is easy to illustrate the cosmic nature of mitzvot on the level of physical reality. The universe is so constructed that, if I wish to survive, I must have adequate oxygen, nourishment, and exercise. God “wants” me to breath fresh air, ingest healthful foods, and regularly move my muscles. These, therefore, are mitzvot.
No less is true in the realm of ethical mitzvot. Honesty is a compelling mitzvah. Human nature (which is, after all, nature at its highest level of development) is such that in the long run the individual or the social group that consistently flaunts the dictates of honesty risks disaster. The struggle for freedom is a compelling mitzvah. Only the person who is capable of giving and receiving love will ever be fulfilled. These things are true, not because we want them to be and not because they were decreed by a human legislature, but because they are ineluctable aspects of reality. Hence the recognition, acceptance, and observance of them constitute mitzvot.
Most of the mitzvot spelled out in this guide [Gates of Mitzvah], however, deal with ritual observance rather than physical law or ethics. Are they, too, related to cosmic reality? In a less obvious but equally bidning sense than the physical or moral imperatives suggested above, yes. Human nature is such that we need to express our emotions and ideals with our whole bodies, not just our tongues. We need also to be visually and kinetically reminded of our noblest values and stimulated to pursue them. As otherwise lonely and frightened individuals, we need common practices and observances which bind us into meaningful and supportive groups. All of which adds up to the fact that we need ritual as something more than social luxury or convenience. For us as Reform Jews, a particular ritual may not be  mitzvah. But the need for a pattern of such rituals, this—because it grows out of and satisfies our very basic nature as human beings—is mitzvah. And this we desperately need.
A concrete example at this point may be more instructive than further paragraphs of theoretical exposition.  The most elaborate—and perhaps the most valuable—mitzvah in our tradition is the seder ceremony. A supernaturalistically oriented Jew celebrates at his seder God’s miraculous intervention in nature and history.
The seder means no less, however, to the religiously naturalistic Jew, who rejects miracles. Plugging into centuries of his people’s tradition as well as its unique pursuit of freedom, he visually, audibly, and dramatically commemorates that pursuit and rededicates himself to it. His metzaveh is triune: his very special human need to be free, both as a person and a Jew; his equally human need to augment speech with memory and motion in reinforcement of his highest values; and his specifically Jewish need to identify with his people’s destiny.
Permeating our theological differences is the common understanding that God, however divergently we interpret Him, is the Core Spiritual Essence of Reality. In this sense, God is the metzaveh of the religiously naturalistic Jew, who eschews the supernatural not only in theological speculation but also in his approach to mitzvot. He responds naturalistically to his own essence and to that of his universal setting. Mitzvot for him represent the difference between talking or philosophizing about Judaism and living it. They bind him firmly, visibly, to his people and his tradition. They speak to him imperatively because he is Jewish and wants to remain so.
Plaut, Gunther, editor; Gates of Mitzvah (New York: CCAR Press, 1979) 108-110

Monday, February 6, 2012

West, Arab states must move to stop Assad's violence - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News

West, Arab states must move to stop Assad's violence - Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News:

"In light of the miserable outcome of the United Nations deliberations, and considering the terrible number of casualties, we can only hope that the West, together with the Arab League, will be able to quickly formulate a new, much more aggressive policy that will put a stop to Assad's murderousness.


'via Blog this'

Friday, February 3, 2012

The power of advocacy

Two weeks ago I took my teens to L'Taken at the RAC, a program of touring, schmoozing, education and most importantly, advocacy. In a time when we feel profoundly disempowered by our political process, when direct-service social action (i.e. food shelters, raising money, etc.) provides a moment of relief and immediate gratification but doesn't 'move the ball forward', advocacy becomes increasingly important. I saw this when I and many, many colleagues joined in asking for commutation of sentence for Robert Gattis. I saw this at L'taken when my teens spoke with their congressional delegation with pride and thoughtfulness. And I saw this with the recent uproar over Susan B. Komen acting against Planned Parenthood, and then 'rescinding the decree' in order to save face. That only happened because people spoke out. Yes, 26 senators sent letters, Michael Bloomberg pledged money, but they would not have done so except the public outcry.

In this week's portion, when Israel is trapped between the sea and the Egyptians, Moses tries to calm the people by insisting that God will provide for them. But God rebukes Moses and says, "why are you calling out to me?" Only through our own words and actions can social justice be realized. Only we , not God, can bring about the healing of the world for the sovereignty of Heaven. “To be is to stand for" wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel,  "and what human beings stand for is the great mystery of being God’s partner. God is in need of human beings.”

God needs us. Let our voices not remain silent!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Reform Movement Speaks Up as Komen De-funds Planned Parenthood

Yesterday, Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced it would cease all funding to Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In response, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Marla Feldman, Executive Director of Women of Reform Judaism, sent the following letter to Ambassador Nancy Brinker, Komen’s founder and CEO: 
Dear Ambassador Brinker, 
On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism whose 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, with membership of more than 1800 Reform rabbis, and the Women of Reform Judaism, which represents more than 65,000 women in nearly 500 women’s groups in North America and around the world, we write to express our disappointment in Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s decision to halt its longstanding partnership with Planned Parenthood Federation of America, thereby withholding funds to fight breast cancer where they are most needed.
Komen for the Cure has helped hundreds of thousands of women in the fight against breast cancer, and has educated millions, bringing the once taboo and closeted subject of breast cancer into the public domain. Indeed, the global impact that you and Komen for the Cure have had was precisely why we were so pleased to bestow upon you the Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award at our recent Biennial convention. And this is why we are so deeply disappointed by Komen’s decision to cease funding mammograms provided by PPFA in the face of a politically-motivated investigation unrelated to PPFA’s breast cancer screenings for vulnerable women. 
At the same December Biennial, the Women of Reform Judaism honored PPFA President Cecile Richards and applauded PPFA’s work to advance women’s health. It is painful for us now to see politics and partisanship interfere with and undermine efforts to support women who lack the resources they need for preventive medical services like mammograms. Each year Planned Parenthood’s network of more than 800 clinics nationwide provides nearly 830,000 breast exams. PPFA has stated that, over the past five years, 170,000 of the centers’ 4 million breast exams conducted were a direct result of Komen grants. Halting Komen grant money to PPFA is contrary to your organization’s mission and interests, directly and unfairly threatening the health and safety of women. 
Upon accepting the Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award, you told the story of two women, one Palestinian and one Israeli, marching together to combat breast cancer in the first Race for the Cure in Israel. You explained with admiration that, in the course of the walk, they were able to forget the political climate that divided them and they bonded instead over the common cause of women’s health. We now urge Komen to follow their example by rejecting efforts to sow division among women’s health advocates and providers and refusing to sacrifice the lives of women on the altar of political ideology. 
We understand that this funding decision comes from a new standard employed by Komen for the Cure that defunds organizations under government investigation. While we understand the desire to have an objective policy in place, this particular standard is misguided, threatening more than just grants to PPFA. We believe there are less partisan ways to accomplish your goals. For example, a standard that is linked to investigations carried out by law enforcement is more likely to be free of partisanship. The standard that Komen has established allows Komen’s funding decisions to be dictated by the political whims, partisanship and pet issues of individual members of Congress, who persuade their committees to launch an investigation.  This new standard may appear to extricate Komen from politicization, yet in reality it leaves the group open to even greater politicization. 
We urge you to use your leadership in Komen for the Cure to reinstate funding to PPFA for breast cancer screening, to reconsider the standard by which the organization makes funding decisions, and to continue to fight for the health and lives of women everywhere.
We look forward to your prompt reply. 
Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Rabbi Marla Feldman, Executive Director of the Women of Reform Judaism