Friday, May 24, 2024

Radical Commitment


Rabbi David Hartman coined the term “covenantal anthropology” to indicate that the metaphors Jews use to describe their relationship with God will define their understanding of the covenant’s obligations. In the Tanakh and Talmud, varying terms are used. God is our father, and we are His children; God is our king, and we are His subjects; God is our husband, and we are His wife; God is our teacher, and we are His students; and God is our master, and we are His slaves. And each one of these relationships is very different than the other.

Some of these relationships require what Hartman calls submission, to accept the authority of God uncritically. Others expect humanity to be assertive and become God's partner in a shared covenantal mission.


In addition, different texts offer dramatically different perspectives on the question of submission versus assertion. The Akeidah, when Abraham accepts God's command to sacrifice his son Isaac, is a moment of absolute submission; Abraham does not hesitate and does not ask any questions. God is Abraham’s king and master.


A very different perspective is found in the Talmud in “The Oven of Akhnai” story. During a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues, God's voice calls out to declare that Rabbi Eliezer is correct. Instead of listening to God, Rabbi Joshua responds by rejecting God’s opinion and saying: “It is not in heaven.” Once the Torah is given, interpretation is left in the hands of mankind.


After Rabbi Joshua's response, God smiled and said: “My children have triumphed over me, my children have triumphed over me.” This text sees human creativity as critical; God wants us to implement his mission on earth in the manner we consider best.


How does one reconcile these very different visions? Hartman writes that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik hoped to create a dialectical synthesis; that is to say, one must integrate both assertion and submission into one’s religious life. However, he writes that Soloveitchik held that submission must remain the supreme value.


Hartman offers a different interpretation. The relationship between God and man is constantly evolving; like a child who continues to mature as they get older, after thousands of years in God’s covenant, the Jewish people need to take on greater spiritual initiative. The submission of earlier stages of Jewish history now needs to give way to assertion.


Leaving this debate aside, it is critical to recognize that submission and assertion are not always opposites. On two occasions in Parshat Behar, God declares about the Jews: “they are my slaves.” One might think these verses are intended as a demand for submission; but they are not. Instead, “they are my slaves” is the explanation given for why a Jewish slave must be sent free on the Jubilee year, and must be redeemed if bought by a foreign owner. If all Jews are already God's slaves, they can no longer be sold into slavery. As Rashi puts it, “God's contract comes first,” and any other contract to buy a slave violates God’s ownership rights. To be God's slave is to belong to no man.


Seforno takes this idea a step further. He writes that the verse teaches us that even if someone wants to be a slave, they are not permitted to be one. Slavery’s mindless lack of responsibility may be attractive to some. Individuals and communities often look to escape from freedom and its endless choices and responsibilities. If freedom is just about living unimpeded by others, then it would be reasonable to let people sell themselves into slavery, if they so choose. But a Jewish view of true liberty is to enable a person to become the best possible version of themselves. Paradoxically, being God’s slaves actually demands absolute human freedom.


But why use the metaphor of slavery at all? Because even the free must at times emulate slaves, and undertake radical commitments. Acts of total devotion, such as the Akeidah, are not merely the submission of the meek; it can be a way of finding one's true self. The Mishnah uses the metaphor of a “servant who served his master with no interest in receiving a reward” to describe serving God with love. This is puzzling: wouldn’t the parent-child relationship be a better example of a loving relationship?


The explanation for this lies in the idea of radical commitment. Every servant acts without hesitations or questions. But unlike a child, if the servant loves their master, it is not out of gratitude; it is because they have an absolute commitment to the master’s mission. And those who love as a servant who loves their master take on their mission immediately; Abraham runs to saddle his own donkey early on the morning of the Akeidah without any equivocation.


At times, one must learn devotion from a servant and a slave. 


Without radical commitment there would be no Jewish people today. Had Jews wanted their children to simply be happy, they long ago could have converted and had a comfortable life. But they chose to stay Jews, no matter how difficult it was.


They didn’t see their love for Judaism as an act of submission; on the contrary, it was their way of asserting who they are in a world that despised them. They declared they will never give up on the mission Abraham had taken on. Jewish pride is for the strong.


After October 7th we saw inspiring stories of radical commitment. Young Israelis found their way back to Israel to serve again in the IDF. They flew in from all parts of the world, often with help from others; an anonymous man stood in JFK Airport that day and bought, out of his own pocket, 250 tickets for soldiers returning to Israel. That week El Al flew on Shabbat for the first time in 41 years. On one flight from Bangkok an El Al stewardess brought 25 soldiers onto an overbooked plane and seated them everywhere, including the cockpit and bathrooms.


Here in New York City, Shai Bernstein rushed back to his unit in Israel, leaving behind his wife Naama and three young children. The children couldn’t understand what was happening and they asked Naama: “Why does Abba have to go?” Naama responded directly: “when Israel needs us, we come.”


That is radical commitment. In one sentence, Naama taught her children what has stood at the center of Jewish identity from the very beginning.

Friday, May 17, 2024

It's Not A Fairy Tale


Barley swaying in the wind (Israel)

Israelis agonized over the appropriate way to mark this year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day). Thousands of people have lost their loved ones; 132 hostages remain in captivity. Every day is filled with anxiety about the safety of the soldiers and the future of the country. The thought of holding celebrations seems absurd.

But at issue is not just the propriety and etiquette of rejoicing during times of grief. The more significant question is: After October 7th, can we still see Israel as the harbinger of redemption?


Redemption is often seen as a fix-all, the remedy for every problem. But that was never God’s plan. Redemption was meant to be combined with reality.


We often forget what the conclusion of the Pesach is meant to be. Pesach is often depicted as an account of liberation from slavery, of the Jews achieving freedom from Pharaoh’s oppression. But that is not where the story ends.


Pesach is also the start of Jewish sovereignty. When God declares to Moses (Exodus 6:6-8) that he will redeem the Jews, it ends with the words “I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession.” Similarly, the declaration of the bikkurim, (Deuteronomy 26:5-10) made at the farmer’s annual offering of first fruits, tells of the slavery in Egypt and then concludes by saying, “He (God) brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Pharaoh being vanquished is only the beginning; the Exodus concludes with the Jews being a free people in their own homeland, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.


In Parshat Emor (Leviticus 23:5-15), Pesach has two distinct roles. The first day is a celebration of the Exodus, with the rituals of Pesach sacrifice, Matzah, and the bitter herbs. Then the Bible introduces a ritual for the second day of Pesach: the Omer offering, a simple offering of barley. (This begins a 50-day period of counting days called Sefirat Ha’Omer, and on the 50th day is another holiday, Shavuot, on which two loaves of wheat bread are offered.)


With the Omer offering, Pesach shifts its focus to agriculture. Much like Sukkot, Pesach marks both a historical event and an agricultural season. For that reason Pesach is always celebrated during the spring, when the first shoots of barley appear; and the Omer offering is brought in prayer for the crops in the fields.


But why isn’t the Omer offering brought on the first day of Pesach? Why is it brought one day after the Pesach Seder?


Another biblical text sheds light on this question. In the Book of Joshua, we are told about the Jews' entrance into the land of Israel, just four days before Pesach. Then the text says:


On the day after Pesach, on that very day, they ate of the produce of the land, unleavened bread and parched grain. On that same day, when they ate of the produce of the land, the manna ceased. The Israelites got no more manna; that year they ate of the yield of the land of Canaan. (5:11-12)


There is a debate on how to interpret this text. But many, like the Rambam, read this as saying that in the days of Joshua, the second day of Pesach is when the Jews first ate from the produce of the land. At that point, they no longer depended on the daily miracle of Manna; they could now take their destiny into their own hands.


Itamar Kislev explains that this is why the Omer is brought specifically on the second day of Pesach. The Omer is both an agricultural and historical ritual; it also was initially intended to commemorate the first Pesach in Israel, when the Jews first ate the produce of the land of Israel. This was the goal of redemption, and only then was the Exodus complete.


In short, the first day of Pesach commemorates the freedom from slavery, and the second day commemorates the beginnings of sovereignty. The two are inextricably intertwined. Freedom was meant to lead to independence, with the former slaves taking control of their own destiny in their own homeland.


However, sovereignty is not at all simple. Manna, miracle bread from heaven, is effort-free; farming is difficult and uncertain. 


This may be why the days of the Omer are seen as tragic. The mourning rituals we practice during the Omer mark the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students during the Bar Kochva revolt. However, the Kabbalistic view is that the days of the Omer are inherently melancholy, with each day filled with anxiety.


Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik elaborates on this Kabbalistic sense of dread in his essay Pesach and the Omer. He points out that Pesach “represents the transcendental order in Jewish history, or, shall I say, the order of Revelation.”


But transcendental experiences must eventually end. As he puts it, “Life is full of absurdities and contradictions. There is no longer any revelation… any direct contact with God.” In a new land, surrounded by enemies, Israel will have to confront multiple challenges. Nature is not always cooperative, and every harvest is fraught with uncertainty.


The contrast between the miraculous Exodus and the humble barley offering could not be greater. After celebrating a transcendent divine redemption at the Seder, who has any appetite for a grueling, messy, state?


But that is precisely the point. Life is not a fairy tale. Mistakes happen, accidents happen, and eventually, death happens. We don’t see God’s outstretched arm every day.


The same is true of a country. There will be enemies and wars. Nothing will ever be perfect, and at times, everything will seem to go wrong.


So it is understandable if some wonder whether it is possible to still say Hallel for a flawed country where the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust occurred. Bitterness and cynicism certainly make sense right now.


This is why the second day of Pesach, the day of the Omer, is so significant. The dramatic redemption of the Exodus sets an unattainable standard, one that makes ordinary life seem absurd. But that is the wrong way to look at redemption. Instead, one needs to find transcendence in the humble barley offering.


Farmers labor each year by the sweat of their brow to produce a crop. Some years are successful, and some years are failures. It may seem absurd to continue. Yet the farmer perseveres; that is heroic. Each year, the first shoots of barley brought in the Omer tells the story of those farmers.


Yom Ha’atzmaut this year resembles the Omer offering; humble, unassuming, and seemingly unworthy of center stage. But like the bowl of barley, what needs to be celebrated right now is not the beauty of what we hold in our hands, but the enormous effort it represents.


Since October 7th we have seen so many do so much to keep Israel together. Young and not-so-young soldiers picked up at a moment's notice and ran to the battlefield to fight for their country. Everyone else in Israel took care of everything else, from cooking meals, taking in evacuees, and packing gear for soldiers. And Jews from around the world stepped up with advocacy, philanthropy, and volunteering.


This is Israel’s Omer offering, humble yet remarkable at the same time.


And that is worth celebrating.

Proud Jews, Despite Everything


A sign displayed at the reinstated Gaza Solidarity Encampment at Columbia University.

Last Shabbat, several synagogues in New York received fake bomb threats by email. These phony messages are called “swatting,” and are intended to both provoke a police response and disrupt the synagogues; the emails’ IP was located in Finland.

At a meeting with the Governor about the incident, one of the rabbis shared with us that her non-Jewish staff members have requested to work remotely; they no longer feel safe coming into the synagogue.

I remarked to the Rabbi afterward: “You don't have to be Jewish to be paranoid about antisemitism.”


And there is a lot to be paranoid about. On Monday night, a mass of pro-Palestinian protesters marched up Madison Avenue right outside our building. A group of people from our building came out with Israeli flags in response; immediately, one of the women had the flag pulled out of her hands and was punched in the side of her head, bruising her eyeball and face.


My neighbor was assaulted because she is a Jew; this is just one anecdote that reflects the dramatic rise in antisemitism since October 7th. It is not a paranoid anxiety to worry about the safety of American Jews. As Golda Meir famously quipped, “Even paranoids have enemies.” 


History reminds us that we ignore antisemitism at our own risk. Before the Holocaust, too many European Jews missed the warning signs. In 1936, Mordechai Gebirtig wrote a Yiddish poem Es Brent (It's Burning) in response to the Przytyk pogrom in 1936, where a mob attacked Jewish homes and killed two Jews.


The words of the first stanza admonish a lackadaisical Jewish community for ignoring the threats they were facing:


It burns! Brothers, it burns!

Our poor shtetl pitifully burns!

Angry wind with rage and curses

Tears, shatters and disperses.

Wild flames leap. they twist and turn,

Everything now burns!


And you stand there looking on

Hands folded, palms upturned,

And you stand there looking on

Our shtetl burns!


By 1939 this poem was seen as prophetic, foreseeing a catastrophe that was about to arrive; Elie Wiesel would later refer to Es Brent “as sounding the death knell of the shtetl and a thousand years of Jewish history in Poland.”


Some wonder whether America has reached the point of Es Brent. While we worry about Israel, visiting Israelis always ask me about antisemitism, uncertain how I can feel safe with all of the mayhem that is occurring here.


Although I understand this fear, I do not subscribe to it. The United States of 2024 is nothing like Poland of 1936. America has a long-standing pluralistic, democratic culture, and American Jews are far from powerless. Most importantly, the vast majority of Americans support us. This is not the time to take flight.


But we can’t take it easy either; we must never lose our will to fight. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud recounts a conversation he had with his father Jakob, when he was 10 or 12 years old. Jakob said: "While I was a young man, I was walking one Saturday on a street in the village where you were born; I was handsomely dressed and wore a new fur cap. Along comes a Christian, who knocks my cap into the mud with one blow and shouts: "Jew, get off the sidewalk." "And what did you do?" "I went into the street and picked up the cap." Freud was embarrassed that his father did so little to stand up to an antisemite.


Perhaps Freud’s judgment of his father was too harsh; Jakob Freud might not have had much choice in his response that day. But Freud’s sentiment is absolutely correct. To hide in the shadows as a meek and weak Jew may be an understandable adaptation to a difficult situation; but left on its own, cowardice will warp the very foundations of Jewish identity. As a perpetual minority, Jews have always been vulnerable to feelings of inferiority that can slowly eat away at the Jewish soul. One must be a proud Jew if one is to be a Jew at all.


Rabbi Zadok of Lublin writes that the essence of Judaism is to declare oneself a Jew; everything else is secondary. He brings as proofs two texts. One is in the Talmud, which implies that one can convert to Judaism without knowing anything about Judaism. The second is a ruling in the Shulchan Aruch that says even in times of persecution, it is forbidden for a Jew to claim that they are a non-Jew.


Judaism then is quite simple; to be a Jew means embracing being a Jew, even without fully understanding what that means. And this further implies that all the good deeds and Torah scholarship in the world are not as important as being a proud Jew. (This passage was so controversial, it was censored out of the initial publication of Rabbi Zadok’s writings.)


An earlier precedent goes back to the Tanakh. When Jonah declares “I am a Jew,” he is stating all of Judaism on one foot. All the rest is commentary.


Sadly, it's not so easy to be a proud Jew nowadays. The noisy intimidation of poster defacers and encampment makers has driven Jews underground. On the street, Kippahs come off and Chai necklaces are covered up. No one wants to be like my neighbor, the victim of an antisemitic assault.


More insidious is the social ostracization, which is far more influential. Students on campus have been frozen out by their friends for refusing to join in protests. Online, Jews on dating apps are peppered with questions about Israel. Appointments are canceled and letters of recommendation denied for having the wrong point of view. Young Jews are now offered the choice to condemn Israel or be considered an enemy of the people; there's no room for conversation.


It is challenging to be a Jew on campuses filled with pro-Hamas professors, activists, and propaganda.


One would have expected students to take the easy route; keep their heads down, go with the flow, and hide their identities. Instead, the opposite has occurred. Remarkably, Jewish students have defiantly declared that they are proud Jews.


In an exceptional letter circulated at Columbia this week, 540 Jewish students (at last count) wrote about their love for Israel. Entitled In Our Name: A Message from Jewish Students at Columbia University, they explained that:

Over the past six months, many have spoken in our name…some are our Jewish peers who tokenize themselves by claiming to represent “real Jewish values,” and attempt to delegitimize our lived experiences of antisemitism. We are here, writing to you as Jewish students at Columbia University, who are connected to our community and deeply engaged with our culture and history. We would like to speak in our name.


We proudly believe in the Jewish People’s right to self-determination in our historic homeland as a fundamental tenet of our Jewish identity. Contrary to what many have tried to sell you – no, Judaism cannot be separated from Israel. Zionism is, simply put, the manifestation of that belief…..


We are proud of Israel. The only democracy in the Middle East, Israel is home to millions of Mizrachi Jews (Jews of Middle Eastern descent), Ashkenazi Jews (Jews of Central and Eastern European descent), and Ethiopian Jews, as well as millions of Arab Israelis, over one million Muslims, and hundreds of thousands of Christians and Druze. Israel is nothing short of a miracle for the Jewish People and for the Middle East more broadly…


Yet despite the fact that we have been calling out the antisemitism we’ve been experiencing for months, our concerns have been brushed off and invalidated. So here we are to remind you:


We sounded the alarm on October 12 when many protested against Israel while our friends’ and families’ dead bodies were still warm.


We recoiled when people screamed “resist by any means necessary,” telling us we are “all inbred” and that we “have no culture.”


….We felt helpless when we watched students and faculty physically block Jewish students from entering parts of the campus we share, or even when they turned their faces away in silence. This silence is familiar. We will never forget.


One thing is for sure. We will not stop standing up for ourselves. We are proud to be Jews, and we are proud to be Zionists. 


This letter is an exceptional statement of Jewish identity, and I urge you to read it in its entirety. Written during a crisis, on a campus filled with contempt for them, they refuse to surrender to ideological bullies who want them to relent and convert to their cause.


These students aren’t going to hide who they are. They will not stop standing up for themselves. And they have it exactly right.


They are proud Jews, despite everything. And the rest of our community should follow their example.

Friday, May 03, 2024

Frankfurt memorbuch   1,400 Yizkors


The Frankfurt Memorbuch was inaugurated in 1711 after the previous one was burned in a fire. Currently housed at the National Library of Israel, it is an enormous book that weighs nearly 30 pounds, with 5,726 entries plus multiple prayers written on 1,073 pages of parchment. 

Memorbuchs like the one from Frankfurt were once a fixture in many Askenazic synagogues; the earliest extant copy of one, the Nuremberg Memorbuch, was composed in the late 1200’s. They listed people who had donated specifically to have prayers recited for their souls after their death. (Sometimes the families of the deceased would offer a posthumous donation to have their relatives listed.) New names would be added on an ongoing basis; and on specific Shabbats and Holidays, the book would be read from during the service and prayers recited for those inscribed.

Yet the Memorbuch is no historical relic. Yehuda Galinsky has shown that the current Ashkenazic Yizkor service is simply a variation on the Memorbuch prayers; this change, which took place in the 1400s, shifted Yizkor from the prayer leader to the individual congregant, allowing them to pray for whomever they chose to. 

Unfortunately, the shift to a personal Yizkor left significant prayers behind. The Memorbuch also contained regular prayers for historical figures. This included rabbis such as Rabbeinu Gershom and Rashi, as well as an exhaustive registry of martyrs who had died “al Kiddush Hashem,” murdered because they were Jewish. 

The Nuremberg Memorbuch, (as well as all subsequent Memorbuchs,) contains a lengthy town-by-town list of martyrs from the First Crusade in 1096, the Rintfleisch massacres in the summer of 1298, and the Black Death massacres of 1349. The list includes obscure villages that otherwise have been forgotten to history; but Jews once lived in these places, only to be murdered by their neighbors. In Eggolsheim, five families were killed in 1298; in Niesten and Stubenberg, the Jews of the community were burned to death. The Nuremberg Memorbuch is the only remaining memorial to their lives.

The Memorbuch transformed the consciousness of Ashkenazic Jewry. Debra Kaplan explains that it created a common heritage for diverse communities, and linked generations together in a shared history. German communities in the early 1900’s were still reading the names of those who were martyred in Worms and Mainz 800 years earlier; for them, the names of the past were not part of the past at all. 

Collective memory is central to Judaism; the root for memory, zachor, appears over 200 times in the Tanakh. It offers a way of bridging the past and present, for every generation to envision themselves standing alongside their ancestors, reliving their history. But the names and mini-biographies of the Memorbuch take this a step further; written in tears, they speak of these massacres with a combination of defiance and love. 

Even in the short, terse inscriptions about the early martyrs, one can see the rage bubbling underneath. One such line about the city of Worms tells of “Master Shemaryah who was buried alive, and whose wife, sons, and daughters were slaughtered.” 

These words cry out for justice. Medieval Jews may have been relatively powerless, but they remained steadfastly proud. The authors of the Memorbuch refused to make peace with the injustice of antisemitism. 

And later generations promised that they would remember. The names of the martyrs were repeated in synagogues far and wide, even centuries later. Memory became the vehicle for a communal embrace, an act of tenderness that declared “love is as strong as death.”

After the Holocaust, the Memorbuch returned. Small groups of survivors worked tirelessly to create Yizkorbuchs dedicated to telling the story of the communities destroyed by the Nazis. They felt an intense sense of urgency; they were the only ones who could still tell the story. Collections of these books are found in multiple libraries, calling to the reader to remember the Jews of long-lost communities. 

October 7th and its aftermath has brought 1,400 heartbreaking Yizkors to the world. The victims of this massacre and war are disproportionately young, revelers at a music festival, soldiers on the front lines, and Kibbutz families. Over 100 children have been orphaned. In Nir Oz, Tamar and Yonatan Kedem-Siman Tov and their three young children, 6-year-old twin girls Shahar and Arbel, and 4-year-old son Omer, were burned alive in their home, along with Yonatan’s mother, Carol Siman Tov. For 1,400 tragedies like this, an ordinary Yizkor no longer suffices.

This Pesach, Rabbi Shlomo Brody published a list naming each person who has fallen since October 7th, along with a new prayer in their memory. This was, as he called it, a time for a “communal memorial prayer.” Our congregation found this to be profoundly meaningful. Hopefully, one day someone will be inspired to compose a new Yizkorbuch, one dedicated to the memory of those who have fallen in this depraved pogrom. 

But even that is not enough. 

On the surface, Yizkor is a prayer that makes little sense. Yet its very oddness is the source of its spiritual brilliance, and it is a prayer that makes unique demands of us. 

How does one imagine that their acts of charity and prayer here on earth can accrue to the souls of the dead? Some critics dismissed this practice as improper. Abraham Bar Hiyya, a Jewish Philosopher in early 12th-century Spain criticized the idea as follows: 

The decrees of the world to come are not conditional and therefore there can be no repentance after death….the dead know nothing and have no choice between right and wrong. This is why the actions of one's descendants after death can make no difference to the dead man….

Rabbi Reuven Margolies quotes a similar complaint from an anonymous medieval responsa: “There is no question that good deed performed for the dead neither helps nor saves them, for each person is judged according to who they were at death, according to the level of their soul as it leaves their body…”

However, a defense of Yizkor is offered by the Sefer Chasidim. It explains that the past continues to influence the present. If a person educates their children to do good deeds, then even years later those deeds can be attributed to the parent as well. An act of charity years after someone passes on can still be considered their doing.

This answer still leaves me uneasy. But despite that, it contains a powerful spiritual insight: we must serve as the legacy of those who are gone. Our actions can fulfill their lost dreams. Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, (which is perhaps the best Yizkor homily ever written,) offers precisely this thought:

It is for us the living, … to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is … for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.

When saying 1,400 Yizkors, we must resolve to do the same. They have left behind much unfinished work in a terribly imperfect world. And we must vow to carry on their unfinished legacy: to care for their families, rebuild their communities, and ensure that the future of Israel and the Jewish people is brighter than ever before. 

In their memory, we must declare: Am Yisrael Chai. That is the legacy of 1,400 Yizkors.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Politics Without Problems


The Golden Calf, Old Testament series, gouache on board,, circa 1896–1902 by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French 1836-1902)

Interpretations of the golden calf have always been fraught with controversy. Christian polemics, beginning in the 2nd century Epistle of Barnabas, argued that the Jews annulled their covenant with God when they created the Golden Calf; worshiping an idol right at the foot of Mount Sinai was an irreversible declaration of disloyalty. Jewish commentaries struggled to fend off this attack, but at the same time, struggled with the narrative itself. How was it possible that the Jews turned their backs on God so quickly?

As a result of these questions, two interpretive strategies arise. One point of view says yes, the Golden Calf was an idol; and even if betraying God under the Midrash’s metaphorical “marriage canopy” seems surprising, well, surprises happen. People can be very fickle in their commitments. Others mitigate the issue of betrayal by casting the “mixed multitude,” who accompanied the Jews from Egypt, as the villains of the story. They argue it was these outsiders who made the Golden Calf, not the former Jewish slaves. The mixed multitude were simply reverting to their previous idolatrous ways.


Another school of interpretation argues that the Golden Calf wasn't an idol at all. Yehuda Halevi says the Golden Calf was just a physical representation of the one, invisible God, a tangible object to help bring a greater sense of connection to the divine. Or, perhaps the Jews were simply looking for a new leader; as the Ramban puts it, They wanted another Moses.” The Golden Calf would be an oracle to guide them, and it would step into the newly opened leadership position.


The textual evidence on this is ambiguous. On the one hand, the Jews asked for the Golden Calf in order to replace Moses. Later, after creating the Golden Calf, they call to have a holiday for God, which seems to indicate that they remained loyal to God. But there is compelling evidence for the other view; the Jews refer to the Golden Calf as “your gods, that brought you up out of Egypt.” And they stood at the ready to worship it.


It seems like the Golden Calf was supposed to be both a god and a leader.


But perhaps that's precisely it; the Golden Calf is a hybrid. If we take a step back and reconsider the purpose of the Golden Calf, we can reach an unusual conclusion. The Golden Calf wasn't meant to replace Moses; they could have picked another person for that. And it wasn’t meant as a replacement for God; they didn’t have to wait for a forty-day delay in Moses’ return to switch to idol worship. Instead, the Golden Calf was meant to be a Jewish Pharaoh. The Pharaohs were demigods, political leaders who at the same time were divine figures, monarchs who were at the same time the close family of the gods.


Having a demigod as your leader changes the political order. As Joshua Berman explains in his book Created Equal, in the pagan culture of the ancient world, the common man was ignored by God; he was created to serve the gods, nothing more. A demigod as king meant that the entire population was subservient, and there at the beck and call of the king. Once we recognize this, it becomes clear that slavery was not just a feature of ancient Egypt, it was its organizing principle. Everyone could potentially be a slave.


The covenantal order in Judaism is dramatically different. God raises man up to be His partner, accepting human beings as worthy associates who are created in the image of God. This view offers human beings greater dignity, but at the same, is far more demanding.


One must recognize the transaction between the Pharaoh and his constituents is not one-sided. Some people prefer autocracy. Yes, in Pharaoh’s Egypt, being a mere human meant you must endure a lack of rights; but at the same time, one has far fewer worries. After all, you have a god in charge, what could go wrong? A demigod is by definition a perfect leader.


And that is what the Jews are choosing with the Golden Calf.


One of the fascinating details in the text is that the Jews rejected Moses because he was late. It should be mentioned that Ibn Ezra takes a more plausible approach to this lateness; he writes that the Jews had no idea when Moses was supposed to return, and on day forty, finally lost their patience. Rashi, however, takes an approach based on the Talmud, and says that Moses was just an hour late when the Jews decided to turn to the Golden Calf.


This behavior seems strange: Had the Jews never seen anyone be late before? More importantly, why didn't the Jews send out a search party to look for Moses?


Clearly, the Jews weren’t just rejecting Moses, they were rejecting human leadership. Human beings are flawed, fragile, and eventually die. Demigods are flawless; and the Pharaohs conveyed the image of being invulnerable. (This had to have been a lot of work. The Midrash mockingly says that Pharaoh would go for a regular swim, and only then would he take care of his bodily needs, hidden away from the prying eyes of others. Such is the task of a fake demigod.) For a people used to the image of an invulnerable demigod, a leader who shows up even a few minutes late is frightening. Moses simply is all too human, all too vulnerable. And all too disposable.


A Pharaoh offers the allure of a political order without problems. A demigod runs everything, and no one else must worry, content that they are in good hands. All they need to do is live a servile life.


The covenantal order is quite different. Humans are full partners with God, and bring to the relationship all the messiness of being a human. Tablets can be broken. Leaders might be late, or even disappear. Problems are everywhere, and you always have to worry about them.


But the power of a covenantal order is that with patience all can be restored. It is about a great partnership, one that goes from person to person and generation to generation. Occasionally partners will fall short of their obligations; but every covenant carries with it the possibility of forgiveness and the optimism of renewal.


This is why the worthless broken tablets will eventually have more power than a grandiose Pharaoh. Covenants can always be reborn and rebuilt.


Israel is at a moment when covenantal patience is needed more than ever. Some commentators have even asked whether this war proves that the Zionist dream is futile; wasn't the entire point of the State of Israel the ensure a safe haven for the Jews? They argue if Israel is no longer safe, it no longer has a purpose.


This a significant challenge, and needs to be taken seriously. After October 7th, everyone is unsure about what will happen to the Israeli dream; and we recognize that this horrible conflict may last a long time. A heartbroken nation is searching again for a missing Moses.


The unwillingness to accept problems patiently is no different today than in the times of the Golden Calf. Some still hope for quick and easy solutions. We think if we get a few experts to write position papers, all problems will be solved; this is what one former Israeli chief of staff called “solutionism.” This attitude makes sense to us, because we live at a time of powerful demigods as well; most of our problems are solved with technology and wealth. But not all of them. And we are confounded when some problems don’t seem to go away.


It takes courage to hold on to the covenant when you have to wait, uncertain of what will follow. That is why we should be particularly proud of those who move forward despite this uncertainty.


In the past few weeks, Israeli media has reported on communities that are slowly returning to the Gaza envelope; one such report was headlined “between joy and fear.” These returning residents are coming back to an uncertain reality, with the sounds of a war that is still going on in the not-too-distant background. They explained to reporters that yes, the nightmares of October 7th play over and over again in their heads. They can point to neighboring houses, and say who is returning, and who is not. They completely understand why some of their friends will never come back. But they are choosing to come home anyway.


They know there are no easy solutions; but they are not going to give up. They are patient with the present, and have hope for a better future.


It is about them that Yehuda Halevi wrote in his Kinnah, Tzion Haloh Tishali. He describes those Jews who were steadfast in their love for Zion and declares:


Blessed is he who waits, and arrives to see the rising sun of your dawn, and is there for daybreak…and rejoices in happiness of your return to the days of your youth.


May God bless these returning residents, and protect them. May they, too, see their communities return to the days of their youth, and the glory of their past.

Too Soon for Humor?


Purim parade ("Adloyada") in Tel Aviv

in the 50's.

Since October 7th, the Jewish community has been in mourning. Grief is a narrow-minded emotion, with little room for much else; and certainly no room for humor. And yet, even in the worst of times, people have to laugh; it's more or less instinctive.

Daniel Gordis wrote about a conversation he had:

We were coming out of Minchah yesterday afternoon, and the sky had darkened considerably in the very short time we’d been inside... I said to a friend who was standing next to me, "What’s with the clouds? Is it going to rain? I thought it was supposed to be clear this week.”


“No,” he said, “Cloudy with a chance of war.”


I burst out laughing, as did he. It was hilarious. But also not.


This sort of laughter feels transgressive. We are torn, wondering if it is insensitive to make jokes, both in general, and about this horrible war. In November, an article in Yediot Achronot asked: Are we allowed to laugh yet?


A quick glance at Jewish sources yields an unequivocal no. Halakhah employs a rigid etiquette that separates joy and grief. It is unseemly if mourners are jovial during shiva; the Talmud writes: Rav Pappa said…A mourner should not place a young child in their lap because the child will bring them to laughter, and they will be disgraced in the eyes of other people, because they laughed while in mourning. (Moed Katan 26a) In another passage, the Talmud goes further, requiring everyone to practice self-denial to connect to the communal pain, and says: Reish Lakish said: It is prohibited for a person to have conjugal relations in years of famine (Taanit 11a)


Yet these proscriptions don’t always fit ordinary life. (For this reason, later halakhic commentaries often treat these passages as general guidance rather than an absolute religious obligation.) Laughter is found in the darkest moments, and tears at the peak of joy; most people can’t separate their emotions into neat little compartments, to be pulled out at will when needed. As Gordis realized that afternoon, laughter can arrive without an invitation.


"Hogan's Heroes” was a popular television show when I was young. It was a sitcom about the escapades of captured Allied soldiers in a Nazi P.O.W. camp, where the prisoners constantly fooled the hapless Germans. Even as a child, I was bewildered by the show; in reality the Nazis were brutal and efficient, nothing like the characters on Hogan's Heroes. Later I learned that four of the characters on the show, including those of the three senior Nazis, were played by Jewish refugees from Europe; the parents of Leon Askin, who played the German General Albert Hans Burkhalter on the show, were murdered in Treblinka. This was even more confounding; how could Jewish refugees play Nazis on TV, just 20 years after the war?


While the line between bad taste and good comedy is elusive, Hogan's Heroes may have landed on the wrong side of what is appropriate. But perhaps a partial defense of this bizarre show can be offered by Robert Clary, who played Corporal LeBeau, a French P.O.W. Clary was a survivor of Buchenwald, who lost his parents and 10 of his siblings during the Holocaust. When he reflected on his experiences later in life, he said his ability to sing, to laugh, and to entertain enabled him to survive. Yes, a good joke can sometimes be the difference between life and death; and during the Holocaust, many used jokes as a tool of survival.


Several books and articles have been written about Holocaust humor, and a number of the jokes have been preserved. (One example: “Every day in the ghetto is like a holiday. We sleep in a Sukkah, dress up like it’s Purim, and eat like it’s Yom Kippur.”) The most thorough academic study of this phenomenon is Itamar Levin’s Hebrew work “Through the Tears.” In his introduction, Levin writes about the different purposes of humor. Sometimes it is the “weapon of the weak,” who get a measure of retribution by mocking their Nazi tormentors. But the larger purpose was to preserve people’s sanity when insanity was the natural reaction, and to give people hope when everything looked hopeless.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once offered a comment critical of Roberto Benigni’s “Life is Beautiful,” a film about how a father saved his son’s life during the Holocaust by making jokes. Rabbi Sacks wrote that he disagreed with the film's thesis that humor can keep you alive. After a speech, a Holocaust survivor approached Sacks to correct him on this point. Rabbi Sacks writes:


“You are wrong,” …(he) said to me, and then, he told me his story. He and another prisoner in Auschwitz had become friends. They reached the conclusion that unless they were able to laugh, they would eventually lose the will to live. So they made an agreement. Each of them would look out, every day, for something about which they could laugh. Each night they would share their findings and laugh together. “A sense of humor,” said the survivor, looking me in the eyes, “kept me alive.”


Sacks then realized that these Holocaust jokes could be heroic and life-sustaining. Reflecting on this later, he wrote: “I cannot say I understand such courage, but I found it awe-inspiring.”


The Halakhic proscriptions against joy in times of grief are quite meaningful; they emphasize the moral obligation to mourn the death of a beloved relative. These rules are necessary because sometimes a Shiva house can feel like a party, with copious food and chatter about golf games and vacations.


However, even at the worst of times, joy must never disappear; Hasidic thinkers have stressed how central joy is to one’s religious identity. This emphasis is not just because of joy’s spiritual importance; recognizing the enormous pain Jews carried from years of exile, the Hasidic masters saw happiness and laughter as the way to heal long-standing psychic wounds.


Even Tisha B’Av, the most tragic day on the Jewish calendar, is recast as a time of joy. First, there is the extraordinary explanation of the Chozeh (Seer) of Lublin to the Talmudic phrase “when the month of Av enters, one reduces joy.” This is ordinarily understood as meaning that one must already diminish joy nine days before Tisha B’av. The Chozeh had a dramatic rereading of this text; he read it as meaning that when the dark month of Av arrives, one diminishes the pain of the month by adding joy! This idea was reflected in practice as well. Some Chasidic Jews had the custom to play pranks on each other on Tisha B'Av; oftentimes it was the children throwing berelach, little brambles during Kinot to lighten up the mood. Chasidic leaders felt that the Jews in Eastern Europe had lived with too much distress, and that a painful Tisha B'Av would do more harm than good.


A similar insight is offered regarding the corresponding phrase “when the month of Adar arrives, we increase joy.” The Sefat Emet notes that Adar is the month that is repeated in a leap year (such as this year), when there is a doubling of the month of joy. This, he explains, underlines the centrality of joy; and Jews need as much joy as they get.


Purim this year will be different. A tragic war is still ongoing; much like Av, it will be difficult to laugh. Yet at the same time we need to find a way to lift our spirits, to find that double portion of joy that two Adars bring.


I am a big fan of the Israel sketch comedy show “Eretz Nehederet.” One of the recurring sketches is of Asher Ben Chorin (Yuval Semo), who is a parody of the average Israeli taxi driver who says outlandish things to his passengers. (The passengers are all in on the joke before they enter the car.) One of the segments in November was exceptional. Semo was driving evacuees from the communities near Gaza in his taxi. He started with his ordinary jokes, talking about how being an evacuee is now a “status,” and remarking to one couple, who were being housed in the Royal Beach Hotel, “that when I was on my honeymoon I didn’t go to such a good hotel.” To Tomer and Guy, two young men from Kfar Aza, he says, “You should consider moving to somewhere calmer - maybe Dagestan” before declaring that what was really needed “is to rebrand Kfar Aza, and give it a different name - like Neveh Steinman.”


But then the conversations changed in tone. He takes Noa, a young mother of three from Sufa, who explains that her husband went out that morning to defend their Kibbutz and never returned. Yes, there are jokes in their conversation; when he asks Noa how her kids are, she says “annoying - as always.” She explains that her will return to Sufa because it was her husband’s birthplace and home, and that is where they belong. The conversation ends in tears and a hug.


In his conversation with Tomer and Guy, Tomer tells Semo that both his parents, Ram and Lily, were murdered. Semo says that for the first time in 30 years, he is at a loss for words. Tomer continues, and says that his sister said it is almost a month since their parents’ deaths, and Tomer needed to smile; that is why he signed up to be on the show. And then he adds that it had been his father’s dream to be in Semo’s taxi sketch. The conversation continues on about Tomer’s parents, before ending with Semo wisecracking “Don’t think I’m not going to charge you for this ride.”

From beyond the tears, these gentle jokes honor Ram and Lily; and Tomer’s and Guy’s smiles carry their legacy. Sometimes, laughter is the right way to grieve; and their tears and smiles combine to leave them stronger.


This Purim we too will laugh and cry; and both the smiles and the tears will honor the legacy of the fallen. Laughter has helped the Jewish people survive. Joy sits at the center of the Jewish soul.


And that is why it is never too soon for Purim, never too soon for a joke.