Friday, July 22, 2016

All about Invocations: Rabbi Lookstein, Balak and The RNC

It’s hard to believe, but the issue at the beginning of the week involving speakers at the Republican National Convention—at least for Jews—was the invocation. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein had been invited to deliver the invocation for the RNC and, at the last moment, demurred, saying that it had become political, and that wasn’t his interest (by the way, it’s worth tracking down the text of his invocation, which is available online). Rabbi Lookstein is best known these days as the rabbi who did the conversion for Ivanka Trump, but he’s also very well known in the Modern Orthodox world as the rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun and, even more importantly, the former head of the Ramaz day school. It was, in fact, alumni of Ramaz as well as others in the modern orthodox world who petitioned and rallied to ask Rabbi Lookstein to reconsider, resulting in outcries from some that this was censorship or that somehow his constituency was trying to mute him or make this political. Rabbi David Wolpe even suggestedin Time that it was a shame that he had had his arm twisted and was prevented from making a blessing, noting that a blessing should non-partisan.

What can we learn from this tempest in a teapot? What implications are there for us out of this refusal to speak at the RNC, even in blessing?

Yehuda Kurtzner from the Hartman Institute wrote this week online about this convention and this election as being a Hora’at Sha’ah. The Hebrew phrase refers to a moment of, as former Israeli supreme court justice Menachem Elon calls it, temporary emergency legislation. It is crisis management dealing with something new, something which no precedent could have anticipated. We know Hora’at Sha’ah best from the idea of pikuach nefesh, or saving a life. We know that saving lives trumps all other halacha—one is permitted to violate mitzvoth with abandon so long as it is with the intent of saving lives. Likewise, there are other circumstances where one must put aside precedent, put aside what might work in normal circumstances, and act with great urgency.  
This week in our Torah portion Balak, king of the Moabites, summons the prophet Baalam in order to curse Israel. He sees the threat that Israel brings as it marches through the wilderness toward the promised land, and summons the prophet to use a well-worn tactic; the cursing of the people so that they may fall in battle against Moab and be unsuccessful. But Baalam and, later, God, remind Balak that these circumstances are not normal. This isn’t just a people, this is God’s people, and so normal precedents are out the window. Despite being invited (and paid) to curse Israel, Baalam instead does the exact opposite, and blesses and praises Israel. The old rules don’t apply as they would against some other Canaanite tribe; this is Israel, and Baalam can only say over them, “Ma Tovu Ohalecha Ya’akov—How good are your tents, O Jacob.”

So what do we learn? That, it seems, we are in a moment that could be described as Hora’at Sha’ah, where the normal rules, the boundaries that keep us intact, seem to be out the window. Normally, yes, an invitation to give an invocation at the RNC should be seen as a moment of bipartisan blessing, or a moment to be mildly subversive and speak some modicum of truth in the moment. But this is not like other times. We are in a different moment in our history, one where the usual rules and ideas no longer apply. We are in a moment of hora’at sha’ah, a moment of crisis, and we need to conduct ourselves accordingly. We must act and speak with the urgency that this moment demands, and as God reminds Baalam, we must act in holiness. May this be so. Amen.  

Friday, July 8, 2016

A Rebellion of Hope

Earlier this week we celebrated an act of rebellion as audacious and shocking as it was 240 years ago, as a group of men declared a group of colonies in North America to be an independent nation devoted to liberty. It is easy to see hubris in their actions; a group of wealthy land (And sometimes people) owners using populist anger against taxes, issues and ideas we still struggle with. What comes across from that time period is how much hope this profoundly young, often diverse group of dreamers had in what they were creating. 

Ironic, then, that we celebrate the American Revolution the same week we as Jews read about another, that of Korach and his band. His rebellion is often thought of as an act of ego run amok or heresy or tribal feud, but I have another thought: his was a rebellion of despair. 

Israel is in the desert, now banished from the Holy Land due to their sin of the incident of the spies. This generation shall not enter the land, a whole generation dying in the wilderness. The very next thing we read is "Korach Took", and so begins the rebellion.  

It is that strange wording that tells me this was a revolt of hopelessness. Midrash Rabbah reads: it does not say now Korach contended, or assembled, or spoke or commanded, but Korach took. What did he take? He took nothing! It was his heart that carried him away.

His heart wasn't hardened, wasn't made indifferent; rather, Korach panics. He sees only doom, only an endless night of torment. In fact, the midrash goes on to say that the reason Moses has the contest of leadership in the morning is to give Korach and his band a chance to catch their breath and repent; to admit that they went overboard and step back from their grief. But he cannot. The sin of Korach is not the rebellion; it is that he lets his feelings of powerlessness lead him and others to misery. 

Does this sound familiar? There are many voices right now telling us that there is no hope, that there is only despair in darkness. Voices the demonize  and search for easy solutions. Voices of bigotry hard and soft; the slander against religion or race, and fear mongering, those who will tell you you're either with us or against us. 

There is much to despair in the past week--in the past two days-- including and especially the loss of a voice of Hope against despair, the voice of Elie Wiesel. He taught us that despair is not the answer but a call to action, that hope is a gift we give to each other, that Injustice requires action, and that the greatest of sins is indifference. Wiesel reminded us again and again--through his teaching and testimony -- that, in his words, We have to go into the despair and go beyond it, by working and doing for somebody else, by using it for something else.

Korach was paralyzed by fear and anguish. He could not see a way through despair to work for others. He stands as a warning , especially in this time when we might ourselves give into the voices of darkness around us. There are many who memorialized Wiesel this week; we do best honor to his memory when we choose action and hope. May we be deserving of hisel memory. Amen.