Saturday, December 28, 2013
Thursday, December 26, 2013
Friday, December 20, 2013
At the time, there was a mix of reactions, from 'why bother?' to "well, it's nice they invited him" and everything in between. I was reminded of this article this week for two reasons. First, at the clergy meeting at biennial a number of my colleagues brought up this visit to the "Rebbes army" and there was more than a little anxiety in their voices. These Chabadniks were trying to take our people, undermine our initiatives, and negate our authenticity as Jews, performing scorched earth policies designed to maximize them and minimize anyone else. At least, that was the fear voiced in the questions.
The other was at least one Chabad response to Rick Jacobs' Biennial Keynote, which was, let us say, less than kind. Never mind the many, many Orthodox triumphalist responses to the Pew report denigrating Reform.
It seems to me that there are two fears at work on both sides. The fear that the other is more numerous, more powerful, and as a result may be out to get us. The other fear is that they may be right in their criticism.
This week we read (ex 1:19). We seem to spend an awful lot of time looking at each other in the Jewish world as threats, saying about one another 'rav lahem', they are too big. We can't compete. We are negated in their presence or at least we will be if we dont fight back.
And if you think this only happens between movements, come and see how even in synagogue life, different groups can see each other as competing for resources, money, space, time slots, the attention of the leadership and clergy, etc.
But here's the thing: It's not true. The portion doesn't begin with these words of threat: it begins by naming the sons of Israel, reminding us of the previous portion, where Joseph had found plenty for Egypt, and Jacob blesses each and every son. It's a reminder that there is enough blessing for EVERYONE. There is enough room for EVERYONE. No one movement or experience can define Judaism in Toto, and we may agree to disagree as only Jews can about how we engage in that Judaism meaningfully, but we are not enemies, any more than the tribe of Dan and the Tribe of Issschar are enemies. Sure, CHABAD things we dont care about mitzvot. As Rabbi Jacobs said, we just care differently, and since when is our pride of Reform predicated on their perception of us? And sure, we begrudge CHABAD on occasion. But let us recognize that they serve a need and we could learn a lot from how they create nonanxious, loving entree points to Jewish life. There is enough blessing for all of us. When the text says that Pharaoh does not know Joseph, what it means is he doesn't understand that Israel is not a threat, but a help and Egypt's prosperity is tied to Israel's.
Honestly, I'm tired of having this conversation. What does it matter what others think of us? And what does it matter how others practice their Judaism? To quote Rabbi Jacobs in his biennial Keynote: "Our Judaism is for everyone. Our Judaism is inclusive, egalitarian, intellectually rigorous, joyful, passionate, spiritual, pluralistic, constantly evolving and relevant. Soul elevating spiritual practice, life-altering Torah study, courageous practice of tikkun olam, loving care for our community, especially the most vulnerable--that's what we are... " Like Rabbi Jacobs, I believe our Judaism is for everyone, and don't need to measure it against some traditionalist measuring stick, but I also recognize that we are stronger and better as a people for our diversity.
In a couple of weeks Israel will go out of Egypt, and as Amichai Lau taught this week, it takes all Israel to go into freedom and accept Torah. All the Tribes, each of the tribes need eahc other. The same is true for our tribe. I am a proud Reform Jew, proud of our past and even more excited for our future. I am a child of this movement anf, without being Pollyanna, believe it's future is bright. But it won't be of we continue to see Jewish experience as us vs them. That doesn't mean compromising our values-on Israel, egalitarianism, social justice and a strong critical approach to text and tradition, in all meanings of that word. But just as the tide lifts all ships, we need each other, and need to see that there is enough blessing. For if we don't, then our redemption, our liberation, may be a lot farther off then just a few parshiot.
Thursday, December 19, 2013
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
I am writing you to ask that Oberlin leave the American Studies Association over its boycott of Israel, just voted on this past week.
I am a graduate of Oberlin College (class of 1998). I came to Oberlin because of its devotion to Social Justice, and have long been proud of its progressive history.
This boycott, ostensibly to protest the treatment of Palestinians, in fact rejects the legitimacy of the State of Israel. Diverse publications such as The New Republic (http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115961/american-studies-association-boycott-israel-travesty), Tablet Magazine (http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/155127/having-boycotted-israel-american-academics-must-now-boycott-themselves), Peter Beinart in the Daily Beast (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/12/17/the-american-studies-association-is-really-boycotting-israel-s-existence.html) and HaAretz (via Alan Dershowitz, http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.563920) have railed against the boycott as an act of anti-Semitism at worst, a rejection of the legitimacy of the State of Israel, and at best an assault on academic freedom. . As argued by Brandeis University in their withdrawal: “We remain committed to the discipline of American Studies but we can no longer support an organization that has rejected two of the core principles of American culture–freedom of association and expression.” In addition to Brandeis, Penn State University (Harrisburg) has also withdrawn from the ASA. I’m sure more universities will do the same.
Even the Palestinian Leadership, including Mahmoud Abbas, reject the idea of a boycott against Israel proper in their pursuit of a Palestinian State.
As an Alumnus, a Jew, a rabbi, an American devoted to academic freedom, and a progressive devoted to the Peace Process and a Two-State solution, I urge Oberlin College and its faculty withdraw (temporarily) from the ASA until such time when the boycott is lifted. It flies in the face of all Oberlin represents.
Thank you for your time.
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
He gives all the usual excuses:
He lacks credibility, the right words to say.
He doesn't know how to act.
He doesn't know God.
Moses' words are ours.
The moment comes when we turn
And see the bush burning, endlessly burning
with injustice, with poverty, with pain,
and we hide our face.
To whom are we blind, and deaf?
Whose cry for help do we ignore, embarrassed and afraid?
What word goes unsaid,
sticking dry in our throats,
unconvincing, uncomfortable, unloving?
Monday, December 16, 2013
"And God heard their groaning, and God remembered... God looked at the Israelites, and God knew." -Exodus 2:24-25
He was supposed to grow old.
He was supposed to bicker with his siblings, struggle through puberty, wrestle with his bar mitzvah portion, and struggle, as we all do, to make meaning of our lives.
He was supposed to go to the movies with his friends, and stay out too late and get in trouble, and crash his dad's car and worry about the trouble he'd be in when all his parents would care about was that he was safe.
He was supposed to be invincible, convinced of his own youth and vibrance, and embrace the world as his own.
He should have found a partner in life, a calling that gave him joy. There should have been children and grandchildren.
He should have closed his parents' eyes, supported and been supported by his brothers and sisters as they said kaddish, many years from now.
He was surrounded with love. He was laid to rest in the snow, his family encircled by friends, family, teachers and students, colleagues and dear ones, each crying out with a voice loud enough for God to hear. He was remembered with tears and laughter. He was remembered as a special, wise, loving little boy.
I don't know how to comfort his parents, whom I love. I don't know how to help them grieve any more than my brief, inadequate trip to Chicago, a glance, an embrace, standing together in the snow.
But this I know. It shouldn't have happened that way. We shouldn't have been there.
He was supposed to grow old.
Friday, December 6, 2013
I remember when Mandela was freed. More than that, I remember when Apartheid, like the issue of Soviet Jews and peace in Ireland, was a cause celebre, something the so-called apolitical/entertainment class as well as social justice activists alike rallied to oppose (and too many supported under the guise of fighting Communism). Seriously, I remember mediocre sitcoms like 227 and forgotten hip-hop artists like The Jungle Brothers, to say nothing of folks like Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon, addressing Apartheid alongside student activists at universities nationwide. Could you imagine Big Bang Theory or Pitbull raising issues of consequence like that?
I make the comparison because I imagine that, for many younger than me, Apartheid is as distant a memory as the issue of Refusniks, The Troubles, or even the fall of the Soviet Bloc. That was another epoch, a time of great darkness giving way to profound hope.
How could someone who has grown up in the last twenty years understand that time period, when the Berlin Wall fell, when peace seemed possible, when Communist China looked on the edge, and when Mandela emerged from his prison, and as the poet wrote, returned to his battle, handsome as a lion in the noonday sun?
Mandela is an icon, and taken out of context, we forget his real impact. We live in an era of profound cynicism, where Orange Revolutions and Arab Springs have seemingly turned to dust, when the words of Jeremiah seem to ring most true: "They offer healing offhand for the wounds of my people, saying 'peace! Peace!' But there is no peace." (6:14). We live in an era where everything seems impossible. So to it must have been for Mandela as a prisoner in Robbin Prison. It always seems impossible until it is done--may his words and memory give us the courage and the strength to continue until the work truly is done.
Thursday, December 5, 2013
We don't like to be challenged. Oh, sure, every self-help book and leadership guide talks about growth and development, but the reality is, we like to feel good. We're designed, environmentally and evolutionarily, to respond to positive, not negative, reinforcement. We want to protect ourselves and our loved ones from difficulty and hardship. Indeed, it can be one of our nobler impulses. But it is ONLY through challenge that growth can occur. One of my favorite Chasidic stories is one told of the Kotzker Rebbe that, when he was a student, he answered a question correctly, his teacher rewarded him with a kiss on the head, whereupon he left his study. When asked why, he said, "I need a teacher who will rend the flesh from my bones, not kiss me on the head." It's a dramatic image, and it's true. I learned more from the teachers who challenged me, pushed me, cornered me and stripped me of my armor and dragged me, kicking and screaming, out of my safe zone, than the teachers who coddled and protected me. We rise to the occasion, but only when given the opportunity.
In synagogue life, we've been told that belonging should be easy, that being Jewish should be easy--even converting to Judaism should be easy! I have been told that we shouldn't ask too much of laypeople, either in terms of time, expertise, or finances; because we don't want to scare them off, because we don't want them to do it 'wrong', because we are afraid they won't follow through or truly engage. I believe it should be challenging. I believe that through the challenge comes engagement, ownership, and transformation; that is, when we know the stakes are high, when we're being counted on, when the task requires real spiritual and intellectual effort on our part, the experience is much more meaningful, and much more beneficial to the community and ourselves. As I remind the b'nai mitzvah , becoming part of the minyan (the quorum of prayer) means that you may not only participate, but lead. Not only study Torah, but lead the study of Torah. That in performing mitzvot--commands--we are living up to the expectations of our Divine Commander. Or, if you prefer, by fulfilling our mitzvot--Sacred Obligations--we are reminding ourselves of our commitments and meeting them.
We've been told that joining a spiritual community is about meeting our needs; I believe more and more each day that this is true, partially. But it's also about connecting ourselves to something greater, and through that connection seeing ourselves differently, perhaps even as God intends us to be.
I close with one of my favorite prayers from Mishkan T'fillah, adapted from Rabbi Mitchell Salem Fisher (z'l). May our challenges lead us ever higher, and into deeper and richer connections to one another. And may this Shabbat be a call to action.