Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The True Meaning of Christmas, for Jews

Something I wrote, on the meaning of Christmas for Jews, that was published in Haaretz.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Hanukkah With Sarah Palin and Larry King

Yes, this is a two year old rerun. Yes, the characters and material are by now dated. but it's still Hanukkah!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Mother’s Unveiling: The Undoing of Closure

I just published a very personal piece on the Washington Post website. If you like it please pass it on.

  שִׂימֵנִי כַחוֹתָם עַל-לִבֶּךָ, כַּחוֹתָם עַל-זְרוֹעֶךָ--כִּי-עַזָּה כַמָּוֶת אַהֲבָה,

 “Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death.” (Song of Songs 8:6)

(it has since migrated from the site, so I have posted it below).

A mother’s unveiling: the undoing of closure

I’m not a fan of unveilings; or to be precise, I dislike the mock drama of removing a cloth to unveil the tombstone. Jewish families have customarily recited Psalms and eulogies when dedicating a new tombstone, but it took the genius of a North American clergyman to turn the tradition of dedicating a monument into an “unveiling,” with its kitschy “voila” moment when the cover is removed. The dedication of a monument calls for thoughtful introspection, and to my mind, the drop cloth covering the tombstone trivializes a transcendent moment.
In my own career as a rabbi, I’ve made peace with the ritual of removing the cloth from the tombstone; if it inspires others, then so be it. Of course, when we dedicated my mother’s monument in Jerusalem, there was no cloth covering the tombstone. But that didn’t make it any easier for me. I had been warned by others that unveilings can reopen old wounds; and that’s what happened to me.
On a hot August afternoon, friends and family arrive at the cemetery for the unveiling; it is here that I see my mother’s monument for the first time. Done in classic Jerusalem style, the monument is a long smooth slab that extends over the entire grave. Inscribed on the top is my mother’s name, Rochel Steinmetz, information about her life, as well as a beautiful poem my brother wrote. On its’ side is an inscription for my grandfather who perished in the Holocaust, and who has no known burial place. As monuments go, this one is proper and fitting and even beautiful. And then I place my hands on the monument. Even in the hot Jerusalem air, the tombstone feels cold, and that shocks me. It is hard for me to believe that my mother, a warm maternal woman, is now gone, and all I’m left with is this cold slab of stone. My heart breaks all over again.
I didn’t go to Jerusalem looking for closure. Yes, I know that in the self-help section of the bookstore, closure is considered to be the ultimate goal of all mourners, whether they like it or not. Because of closure’s popularity, mourning rituals are only deemed worthwhile if they’re stepping stones to closure; i.e., you are only permitted to mourn if it will enable you to let go and move on. That’s why I’ve always disliked closure; it’s self centered and superficial, focusing only on the mourner and not on the one mourned. But mourning is not just an inconvenient emotion; it’s our way of continuing to love, even if the only way we can love is with a broken heart. But that’s not how closure’s champions view grief. They see mourning the same way a child looks at rainy day; an obstacle to fun that is best removed as soon as possible. I’ve seen well intentioned people advise the grieving family right after the funeral that “they have to move on.” They imagine they are helping the mourners achieve closure; in actuality, they are disrespecting the dead.
It’s now just over a year since my mother passed away. And while it took me just a few weeks to get back into my routine, the sadness of loss can still bubble up to the surface at unexpected times. Seven months after my mother’s death, my niece gave birth to a baby girl; the baby was to be named on Shabbat morning. That Saturday night, we got a call informing us of the baby’s name. As expected, the name given was named Rochel; this baby was the first child to be named after my mother. I sat down in a corner and cried, overwhelmed by the twin realizations that my mother was both gone, but not forgotten. True loss endures in a way that closure cannot change.
Even so, things are different now. Routines are the bubble wrap of the soul; keeping busy diverts your attention towards the here and now, and insulates you from pointed emotional truths. Time creeps forward, and we slowly begin to reconcile with past tragedies. There’s much to do that cannot be deferred, and I too have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.
And that’s precisely why I had gone to Jerusalem: to avoid closure. The grief-stricken cannot help but remember; for them memory is a compulsion, the central thread in a recurring loop of bereavement. But as the tragedy ages, memory becomes a choice and forgetfulness a possibility. The Talmud remarks you begin to forget the deceased after 12 months; the mind begins to erase the past to make room for the future. One 18th century rabbinic authority suggested that the very purpose of the tombstone is to arrest this instinctive process of forgetfulness, and to create a monument that will inspire us to continue to remember.
I stand at the graveside hoping to recapture memories of my late mother; I don’t want them to be swallowed up, forgotten while I move on with my life. Watching my mother pray was to see faith come to life; watching her live was to see optimism and courage in action. I learned more about love from a tray of her chocolate cake than I did in all of my Jewish philosophy classes. I will not, I cannot, let go of these memories.
The inscription on my mother’s tombstone tells posterity who she was and what she lived for. And now her deeds will be engraved on my heart as well, and even if I no longer mourn, I will still continue to remember.
The Bible talks of love as an inscription on the heart; it says “Put me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is as strong as death.” (Song of Songs 8:6). In the shadow of death, at my mother’s grave, I have dedicated a monument; but more importantly, I have dedicated my heart as well, with a love that’s stronger than death.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tragedies Then and Now

I am heartbroken. Teenagers arriving on vacation, whose lives are cut short by terrorism. Young men and women, guilty only of the crime of being Israelis and Jews.
This is a story that repeats itself, and has done so too many times. Jewish blood is cheap. Today it flows in the streets of Bulgaria; 18 years ago, it flowed in the streets of Buenos Aires; 40 years ago, it flowed in the streets of Munich. Does anyone even care? The IOC can’t give a minute of its’ precious time to remember the victims of the Munich Massacre; Hezbollah has gone on to control Lebanon, and now the international community will be working overtime to urge “restraint” on Israel, while paying lip service to the victims of this tragedy.
We must do better. In the 29th Kinnah that we recite on Tisha B’Av, (“Amarti”), the author calls for justice for those who perished in the first Crusade in 1096. In it, the author writes that God counts the blood of the victims, drop by drop.
We can do no less. The IOC, Iran and Hezbollah say Jewish blood is cheap; but we will oppose them, every step of the way. And we too will count each drop of blood; we will never forget the victims, and forever call out for justice.

(Written for TBDJ's Weekly Bulletin.)

Why Isn't NBC Doing Anything to Remember the Victims of the Munich Massacre?

Today, there was an exceptional article by Deborah Lipstadt entitled "Jewish Blood is Cheap."

A powerful is the suggestion from Claude Salem to pressure NBC to do something. Shouldn't NBC at least run a public service announcement with the names of the Israeli athletes? Contact your congressman and senator as well; they should call NBC as well.

Please contact NBC here.

Please tune out the opening ceremonies, and remember the Israeli athletes, as mentioned here.

P.S. NBC's Bob Costas will be doing a moment of silence. Read about it here. He deserves our thanks.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The 11 Who Perished at the Olympics in 1972

See an exceptional article on the CNN website about this -  here.

See my post on creating a minute of silence here.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Pop Jewish: Moment of Silence at 2012 Olympics: Honoring the Munich Victims

Pop Jewish: Moment of Silence at 2012 Olympics: Honoring the Munich Victims

".....If the IOC will not spare even one minute for their memories, we will do it ourselves. The opening ceremonies take place on Friday evening in London; instead of watching, we should shut off the Olympics, read the names of the 11 victims, and observe our own minute of silence....."

Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Higgs Boson and the Soul of Mankind

My newest post for the Faithblender blog

All of mankind should be cheered by the remarkable discovery of the Higgs Boson particle. It stands as a remarkable advance in the field of quantum physics; scientists can now dream of even more remarkable achievements regarding dark matter and even traveling at the speed of light.

There is no doubt that man was meant to be a great discoverer and creator.  The Bible describes man as one who is created in the image of God, as one who is “just a little lower than angels”. Scientific advancement is part of humanity’s destiny, and discovery is part of our very nature. Yes, at times religious figures have treated science with hostility (think of the infamous Galileo controversy, and today’s battles over evolution); but those battles were clearly a mistake. Scientific discovery underlines humanity’s unique genius, abilities granted to the pinnacle of God’s creation. When the man of science unlocks another one of the cosmos’ mysteries, the man of faith is inspired as well.

But with this discovery comes concerns. How will we react to this discovery: Will our newfound scientific knowledge breed an arrogant attitude to all other forms of human exploration?

One religious philosopher who has paid careful attention to this issue is Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. In his classic essay “The Lonely Man of Faith”, Soloveitchik notes that man is both a scientist and a philosopher, able to dissect and define the material world, as well as puzzle over the existential. Soloveitchik explains man must ask more than one type of question to truly apprehend reality in its fullest. He writes that man must not only ask "How does the cosmos function?" but also "Why does the cosmos function at all?" and "What is its essence?"

Here, the concern with the discovery of the Higgs Boson, or any discovery, is the same. Will our success in the realm of the scientific distort our vision of reality? Will we lose sight of larger questions that science cannot answer?

At one point in the essay, Soloveitchik outlines what could go wrong when the man of science becomes consumed with his discoveries, and forgets the other dimensions of existence:

“His pride is almost boundless, his imagination arrogant, and he aspires to complete and absolute control of everything. Indeed, like the men of old, he is engaged in constructing a tower whose apex should pierce Heaven. He is intoxicated with his own adventures and victories and is bidding for unrestricted dominion.”

This scenario need not come to pass. We can take pride at in the discovery of the Higgs Boson, another landmark in the march of scientific progress. Let’s hope that mankind will show similar passion about charting the landscape of the human soul as well.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Pop Jewish: Edon Pinchot, The Fourth of July, and the Jewish American Dream

My newest post on the Pop Jewish blog. let me know what you think.

Pop Jewish: Edon Pinchot, The Fourth of July, and the Jewish A...: Edon Pinchot, a 14 year old singing sensation from Chicago has triumphed on ABC’s hit show “America’s Got Talent”. I’m proud of Edon’s vic...

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Salute Too Far

My most recent post for the Faithblender blog
I open the newspaper, and there it is; a picture of student protesters in downtown Montreal saluting the Hitlergruss, the Nazi salute.
No, these are not aspiring Nazis; these are students locked in a political battle with the Quebec government, who are sarcastically saluting like Nazis. Their sneering Hitlergruss is meant to mock the police and government they oppose.
To the students, this is mere act of street theatre, a way of demonstrating against the “fascist” Charest government.  But as they “Seig Heil” their way through downtown Montreal, the students will be poisoning the foundations of civil society.
It should not be forgotten that the mere sight of Hitlergruss sends shivers up the spines of Holocaust survivors; and there are still thousands of survivors living in Montreal. At the very least, the use of this salute as a dramatic prop is insensitive.
But even more critical is political rhetoric gone wild. Essentially, these students are calling the Charest government and the Montreal police Nazis. It goes without saying that the comparison is absurd; haven't these students studied enough history to know something about the actual horrors the Nazis perpetrated?
The problem with inflammatory rhetoric is that it undermines civil society. The Bible constantly reminds us of the power of words and the power of gestures; in narrative after narrative, the Bible illustrates how defamatory rhetoric and even simple gossip can damage friendships and destroy lives.   And using a Hitlergruss to express your dismay with your government is an awful example of overheated rhetoric.
For politicians and communal leaders, rhetoric is often seen as our servants; we use emotionally charged words to inspire and lead. We forget that rhetoric can become our master as well, and that the passions our words release can have unforeseen consequences, and incite hatred and violence. Without a doubt, demonstrators that call their political opponents Nazis will never sit down to negotiate, and may instead turn to vandalism. In the end, civil society, our ability to live together amicably despite differing views, will end up getting buried under a truckload of angry exaggerations.
Western democracies depend on a healthy dose of mutual respect to survive. In politics, there will always be arguments and losers and winners. But in the end, we all need to work together, and to disagree without being disagreeable. Sadly, in this current conflict, the line of respectful debate has been crossed far too many times.
Global News has reported that Amir Khadir, an opposition Quebec MNA, has a poster in his apartment depicting (among other things) a dead, half naked Jean Charest, lying at the feet of a “bananarchiste” and other student demonstrators. It is shocking that an elected member of our National Assembly, sworn to uphold and protect our democracy, could have such a despicable display in his home.  Sadly, what this poster actually represents is the death of mutual respect, the foundation of democracy.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Who Teaches Ethical Principles?

(my latest post on the Faithblender blog)

I’m a Rabbi, and I’ve spent a lifetime studying books about ethics and values. And don’t get me wrong, book learning is important; but that’s not the way we teach children about ethics.  In the end, the most influential teaching about ethics comes from what children observe others doing, because without question, our children learn their values from their role models.

Good role models are hard to come by, and that’s a problem. Today’s heroes are a lot different than those of yesteryear.  And that’s a tragedy.

Today’s role models are celebrities. Celebrities are trendsetters. Young girls dress in the style of their favorite pop divas, while their parents dream of a flashy and fancy Hollywood lifestyle.

Role models are important because they represent our highest aspirations. The Mishna tells us that everyone should have a teacher, a person they look up to as a role model of knowledge and character. You can tell a person’s character by who their heroes are.

But heroes aren’t what they used to be. Old fashioned heroes like the fireman, the soldier and the cop, people who risk their lives for the general good, now live anonymous and humble lives, forgotten by everyone else. Today’s hero wears sunglasses, drives a Ferrari, and is talking on a cellphone with his agent.

Celebrities, our new heroes, are poor role models. Many are often “in and out”; in and out of rehab, in and out of marriage, in and out of court. However, their sins are quickly dismissed by pliant doctors, judges, and therapists, all in time for them to return to their adoring fans. Honest redemption and sacrifice are for the movies; in real life, celebrity fame and fortune is all that matters.

A society follows its role models. If our heroes are shallow and superficial, then it won’t be long before the rest of are wearing designer shades, searching for a new car, a new look and a new spouse.

That’s why it’s our job, as parents and teachers, to be true role models. When we cut in line at the supermarket, young eyes are watching; when we curse on the phone, little ears are taking note. In a world without role models, it’s time that we become role models, and show our children the right way.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Yom Yerushalayim – You Should be Celebrating Twice!

What are we celebrating on Yom Yerushalayim?

Perhaps let’s answer the question with a question. How do you determine the meaning  of any person, place or thing in the Tanach? One way is to look at the first time that noun is mentioned in the Tanach. As a new place is introduced, telltale signs indicate its future significance.

So what type of introduction is given to Jerusalem in the Tanach? One is hidden, and one is open. The hidden introduction takes place at the end of Parshat Vayera. We are told the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, takes place on Mount Moriah. Here, we see the depth of Abraham’s faith, a faith that could withstand any sacrifice. Only later, in Sefer Divrei Hayamim, are we told that Mount Moriah is in Jerusalem.

The open introduction is told slowly, through Yehoshua and Shoftim, and finally culminates in the arrival of King David. The Jews are unable to conquer Jerusalem from the Jebusites. For over 400 years, the Jebusites remain entrenched in Jerusalem. Then David becomes King. According to some commentaries, he is willing to accept the status quo, and comes to visit to Jerusalem in order to negotiate a treaty; but the Jebusites mock David severely, saying “You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off.”  David is mocked and threatened by the sneering Jebusites, who treat him like a weak leader of a weaker nation; David can only wonder what will come next.  After this provocation, David captures Jerusalem, and makes it his capital.

Jerusalem needs two introductions because it has two stories to tell. To use Rav Soloveitchik’s terminology, it is a story of gevurah and koach. Gevurah is the ability to control yourself; the ability to withstand tests and continue with faith. Koach is pure power, the ability to dominate and determine one’s own destiny. There have been those blessed with koach (power), who have been laid low by their own lack of gevurah, of self control and self discipline; at the same time, there are those who have been blessed with gevurah, and been courageous and tenacious, yet were always lacking in koach, in personal and political power.

The story of the akeidah is a story of pure gevurah. It is a story of sacrifice and self control in the extreme; Avraham retains his faith, even when tested by the ultimate test. Avraham’s courage becomes the inspiration for generations of Jews who show enormous gevurah, and retain their faith in face of challenges.

Indeed, the akeidah represents an aspect of Jerusalem that is oft forgotten; it was the centerpiece of Jewish hopes in exile. Jews struggled and strained, yet all the while were sustained by their memories of Jerusalem; they lived in ghettos, yet never stopped talking about Jerusalem, praying towards Jerusalem, and dreaming of Jerusalem.  (Indeed, it is Daniel in the Babylonian exile who begins the practice of praying towards Jerusalem). Jews in exile, lacking in koach but full of gevurah, hung on to their faith and their people while turning their faces towards Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem of Gevurah, the Jerusalem of exile, is Abraham’s Jerusalem, a place where Jews turn to demonstrate their unwavering faith.

But there’s another Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of Koach. David makes Jerusalem his capital because it symbolizes his worthiness to be a king; he is someone who can protect and keep Israel strong.  Instead of being a loose group of shepherds, the Jews were now on their way to being a nation with a king and a capital, a country that can hold its own in the face of its enemies.

Those of us who are more familiar with the Jerusalem of exile sometimes forget the need for power, for koach. We have survived and even thrived just with our inner strength, and we’ve become cynical about real power. But 45 years ago, we were reminded once again that Jews ideally possess both gevurah and koach.  In the days before to the Six Day War in 1967, people around the world worried that the Arab States were going to attack and destroy Israel; that only 30 years after the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of Jews would be slaughtered again. Instead, the opposite occurred. And as the soldiers entered the Lion’s Gate, Jewish sovereignty returned back to David’s city. Once again, the dispossessed of exile could return home, to David’s home, to his capital and to his Temple.  It took much gevurah and courage, and there were many sacrifices along the way; through 1,900 years of exile, and through decades of war, where thousands of young men gave their lives to build a State.  But thankfully we had the gift of koach and the power to prevail.

Thankfully, after 1,900 years, no one would laugh at Jewish self determination anymore. Both David, and Avraham, would be proud.

Chag Sameach!

Please look at the following links



Monday, May 14, 2012

My Article Was Published on Tablet Magazine

It's a deeply personal piece about my mother. the link is here.

Can You See God Through Those Google Glasses?

(my newest post on the Faithblender blog)

Google has recently revealed a prototype of high-tech glasses. Project Glass, as it’s called, looks like a pair of glasses, except the lenses (actually, an empty space) are miniature screens. As one walks, electronic data, like weather forecasts and news, pop up on the side of the screen; even data about the person you are speaking to can be pulled up via voice command.

Project Glass is yet another example of how technology changes our lives for better and for worse. It will make life simpler and so much more fun; yet at the same time, we become increasingly isolated from each other. Technology has had an isolating effect on our communities; from radio and television, which kept people at home instead of heading out to theatres and shows, to the internet, which has people texting instead of talking to each other, advances in technology has made social interactions less common and less personal. And now Project Glass comes along, and even when we see people face to face, we won’t really see them; we’ll be looking at the weather instead!

Yes, there’s an unprecedented amount of social connection going on today; one can be in touch with thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter follower with the push of a button. However, the connections are superficial, and are all about information rather than companionship. The Bible makes it clear that connecting hearts is fundamentally a face to face experience (Proverbs 27:19). And there’s no question, sitting together as companions, with or without words, is critical to the friendship experience (Psalms 133:1). 

This loss of personal connection also changes our connection to God. Jewish thinkers as different as R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi to Martin Buber have all made it clear that our relationship with God is founded on our relationship with our fellow man. The road to God is built on human friendship; and if Google Glasses obscure our ability to see our fellow man, they will certainly disconnect us from God as well. 

Monday, April 09, 2012

How Should We Treat Our Seniors?

(my newest piece in the Faithblender blog)

It’s a lot harder for the elderly to get respect in the 21st century. We live in the era of the cutting edge; technology rules, and technology changes daily. To be up to date, you need the latest gizmo, something that is often uninteresting or even confusing for older Canadians. In addition, our video driven culture is all about what you can see: videos, pictures, images. Our society is driven by the visual; and superficial qualities like youthful attractiveness have become far more important than in previous generations. In a culture of technology and youth, the elderly are the odd man out.

Sadly, as we forget our elderly, we forget our souls. A Jewish attitude to the elderly would recognize both society's need for wisdom as well as the imperative of gratitude.

The Talmud remarks that the Hebrew word for elder (zaken) is an acronym for “one who has wisdom” (zeh shekanah chachmah). The elder may not know the minutiae of technology, but life experience has given him wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to see the critical aspects of any decision; wisdom is the maturity to avoid getting caught up in hype. Wisdom reminds us that good values never go out of style. Sadly, in a society enamored with the new, wisdom is forgotten; this loss of wisdom is noticeable everywhere, from bank lending practices to marriage breakups.

But some of our elderly have declined, and are no longer wise. Age has taken its toll, and those who were once caregivers now need caretakers. How do we relate to the elderly who are infirm, who are no longer what they once were?

The Talmud has a beautiful note on this topic. The Bible tells us about the tablets with the Ten Commandments that were brought by Moses from Mt. Sinai; not once, but actually twice, because the first set were smashed by Moses during the episode of the Golden Calf. The two intact tablets were kept in the Ark of the Covenant, and housed in the center of the Temple.

But what about the first set of tablets, which were broken by Moses? Where were they housed? The Talmud tells us they were housed in the Ark as well. The lesson of this, says the Talmud, is even when a wise man loses his wisdom, he is still worthy of the same respect.

The Talmud is teaching us a profound lesson. There are times when we must show respect because of awe, out of an awareness that this person is far greater than I am. But there are times that we show respect out of gratitude. We need to consider the person’s past contributions to our family and community. I need to respect the old World War II vet, even if he longer remembers my name, or his. I need to show gratitude for accomplishments past, because without them, I would not be here today.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Did Religion Inspire Mohamed Merah to Kill?

(my newest piece in the Faithblender blog)

Religion can inspire man in many ways; sadly, it can also inspire murder. The Bible says that the first murder was inspired by a religious dispute; Cain murders Abel because he is jealous of Abel’s sacrifice. Indeed, the Midrash (an ancient Jewish commentary) says Cain learned to kill from observing his father offering sacrifices; the Midrash seems to emphasize that in this murder, religion is the inspiration. Right at the outset of human history, religious fanaticism erupts on the scene.

Religion is filled with enormous passion; we desperately want closeness to God, and are willing to do anything to achieve that closeness. But like anything valuable in life, religious passion is a double-edged sword. Religious violence is inspired by that very passion, a passion that is often manipulated by groups like Al Qaeda in pursuit of a political agenda.

Mohamed Merah, a follower of Al-Qaeda, went into the Otzar Hatorah school in Toulouse and brutally murder three young children along with a young father. This murder truly frightens me, as my own children attend a school similar to the Otzar Hatorah school. It truly frightens me that there are Muslims being taught to hate Jews, all in the name of religion. It frightens me that the spirit of Cain still walks the earth, in all faiths and all walks of life.

The only way to prevent religious violence is by ensuring that both our minds and our hearts are engaged in religion. We need to make sure that the ethical demands of the mind never get overwhelmed by the ferocious passion of the heart.

We need to reaffirm our love for Abel, even before we pray to God.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Rabbi’s Advice to Pope Benedict in Cuba

Religious leadership requires a great deal of courage.

Pope Benedict XVI is visiting Cuba. For most of us, Cuba is a charming tourist destination; but for Cubans, Cuba is a repressive Communist dictatorship, with a government that routinely jails its opponents and on occasion murders its critics.

It’s easy for a pundit like me to advise Pope Benedict to use his visit to oppose the Castro regime. But protest is a very difficult choice. Pope Benedict knows that the Castro regime will respond to his words and exact retribution from Cuban Catholics after he leaves. While the principles of human rights push him to defy the regime, on a practical level, he has to deal with the Communists. Pragmatically, he needs to make sure not to enrage the dictatorship of a country with millions of Catholics.

Pragmatism is a double edged sword; it can help you survive in turbulent times, but at the same time it can cut your principles into shreds. In the Talmud, a story is told about negotiations that took place before the destruction of the Temple. Jerusalem was besieged, but a leading Rabbi, Yochanan ben Zakkai, defied the political leadership to left to meet with the Romans. He was taken to meet with the Roman general, where he negotiated a deal. But the deal was very modest; instead of asking for an end to the siege, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai requested that the main Rabbinic academy be saved. He felt he would not be able to get the Romans to end their siege, and it was best for him to take something smaller, but valuable, that he would be certain to get in the negotiations.

For years since, a debate has raged about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s actions; was his pragmatism a practical yet wise move, or was it a failure, an act of abandoning principle?

This question is not easily answered. But Communism is different. It is not just a government; it is an ideology, one that is hostile to both religion and freedom. With Communism, there can be no compromises. The Pope’s predecessor, John Paul II knew this, and he courageously fought Communism throughout his tenure.

Sadly, Pope Benedict’s visit to Cuba has gotten off to a poor start. Human rights activists have been removed from a church by the Cuban Cardinal, Jaime Ortega. The Pope needs now to find the courage to stand up to Cuba, and to insist that it give freedom to all its citizens.

During the years of Communism in the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of Jews defied the regime, and insisted on retaining their Jewish identity. One of the great inspirations for these freedom fighters was the Passover Seder, which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. The remarkable thing about the Exodus is that Moses, even before he became the great lawgiver of the Bible, was a freedom fighter. To be a true religious authority like Moses, you need to first stand up for freedom.

Pope Benedict XVI is having his Moses moment today. I hope he remembers that the first task of a religious authority is to defy the Pharaohs of the world, and stand up for human rights.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Between Syria and the Super Bowl

After two weeks of waiting, it was finally here. Like millions of football fans, I couldn’t wait for the 6:29 P.M. on Sunday night, when the Patriots and the Giants finally took the field. And the game did not disappoint. It was a true classic, and my heart raced until the last play of the game. Ecstatic that the underdog Giants had won, I rushed to Twitter to tweet about the game. It was then that I discovered the following message from The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg: “My twitter feed is half Super Bowl, half Syrian slaughter. Seems obscene.”

This tweet punctured my good mood; I immediately felt guilty. After all, while civilians were being massacred in Syria, I was celebrating the triumph of a group of hulking millionaires in a child’s game. China and Russia had vetoed a resolution that might have stopped the carnage in Syria, but I sat comfortably in my den, watching 22 grown men chase after a pigskin. As the child of a Holocaust survivor, I am well aware of how American Jewish leaders had looked away while their brethren in Europe were massacred. When members of the Polish underground tried to pass on information about the Holocaust in an attempt to rouse Jewish leaders to action, they were often met with indifference. One of them described the experience of speaking to Jewish leaders this way: "Jewish leaders abroad won't be interested. At eleven in the morning, you will begin telling them about the anguish of the Jews in Poland, but at one o'clock they will ask you to halt the narrative so they can have lunch. This is a difference which cannot be bridged. They will go on lunching at the regular hour at their favorite restaurant, so they cannot understand what is happening in Poland." Yet amidst all the suffering in Syria, I sat down in front of a flat screen TV to watch football. Was I any different than those feckless, lunch-eating Jewish leaders?

My guilt feelings aside, it’s overwhelming to live a life of constant sensitivity. There have always been hot spots of oppression and brutality. If we’re obligated to be perpetually conscious of suffering around the world, we’d never drink a beer or laugh at a joke. Life would become an unremitting loop of earnest seriousness. Must we be forced to choose between laughter and compassion, between caring about Syria and caring about the Super Bowl?

Clearly, a happy medium must be found. The Talmud (Taanit 11a) makes it clear that there are times when joy must be put aside, because we need to participate in the pain of the community. It is simply distasteful to go on with life as usual when the rest of the community is grieving. And of course, if you can actually make a difference in the battle against genocide, don’t break for lunch.

But there also times when we must put sad news aside as well. As much as we might like to, we simply cannot feel the pain of every victim; otherwise we’d fall victim to “empathy fatigue”, and we’d burn out before we could be of help to anyone else. The Talmud (Ketubot 50a) wisely places limits on one’s generosity, saying that charitable donations cannot exceed a fifth of one’s income. Otherwise, people could potentially become victims of their own generosity. Compassion too must have its limits, otherwise we’ll end up traumatized and heartbroken.

Yes, it’s o.k. to watch the Super Bowl, even when there is so much tragedy in the world. Yet I’m glad that Goldberg’s harsh tweet made me feel guilty.

The custom at Jewish weddings is to break a glass during the ceremony. This purpose of this custom is to remind the young couple that the even as they celebrate, the world is still broken and in need of fixing. We want the couple to pause their personal joy for a moment and reflect on their obligation to make the world a better place. This lesson is necessary all the time, at every celebration. Even if we want to party, we need to pause for a moment and remember how broken this world is, from Syria to North Korea to the homeless on the streets of Montreal.

Even the Super Bowl needs a moment of “broken glass”, a reminder that what’s happening in Syria is obscene, and we have to do something about it.

What Freedom Sounds Like

Passover is all about talking. No, not just the argument about politics you will have with uncle Louie; actually, the Passover Seder, which is structured around the Haggadah, is meant to be a symposium of conversation, an evening of dialogue and discussion. Even telling the story of the Exodus isn’t quite enough; you’re supposed to speak about the slavery and freedom as much as possible, until you fall asleep at the table. Indeed, the great Kabbalist, the Arizal, says that the word Pesach should be broken into two words, “peh sach”, which means a speaking mouth, because Passover is a time for talking.

Freedom is always noisy, always filled with a cacophony of voices. That’s why the Seder features conversation; we celebrate the evening by asserting our freedom of speech.

Slavery, on the other hand, is about silence. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik puts it: “Before Moses came there was not even a single sound…..The slaves were gloomy, voiceless and mute”. A slave keeps his mouth shut; he forever in perpetual fear of his master. And silence suits the slave, who sees no point in complaining and cannot imagine any possibility of change.

We can see a reflection of the slave mentality in today’s totalitarian governments. Citizens may speak, but only what’s approved by the regime; their own thoughts must be silenced. Nicholas Kristoff describes a visit to North Korea he took in 1989: “I stopped in a rural area to interview two high school girls at random. They were friendly, if startled. So was I when they started speaking simultaneously and repeating political lines in perfect unison. They could have been robots.”

These girl’s robotic responses are the words of slavery. In them you hear a soul too frightened to express itself or even dream of hope. The heart of the slave is silent, unable to express its’ own thoughts; only the Pharaoh, the master, the dictator, can express themselves.

The Zohar says that when Moshe arrived in Egypt, the voice of the Jewish people emerged. Moses, at first too frightened to talk himself, eventually finds his voice; and when he does, he begins the fight for freedom. And since Moses, Jews have never lost their voice. And as we sit around the Passover Seder, we should remember that a direct line connects Moses’ call of “let my people go” to the words of Isaiah, and on to the words of Theodore Herzl, David Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin.

Perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of Jewish history is how the Jews never lost a sense of self-determination in years of crushing exile. Unquestionably, the Passover Seder kept the minds of the Jews free, even when their bodies remained in chains. Even during the Holocaust, Jews could speak to each other of freedom, and remain free in their hearts. Yaffa Eliach recounts an improvised Seder in Bergen Belsen. Rabbi Israel Spira, the Bluzhover Rebbe, spoke to the children and said “We, who are witnessing the darkest night in history….. will also witness the great light of redemption”, and he quoted Isaiah's messianic vision: "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned". Rabbi Spira told the children they too could hope for redemption, and dream of the day they would walk out of darkness into light.

Even in Bergen Belsen, Jews continued to speak of freedom. Even in the hell of the Holocaust, a few whispered words at the Seder could keep the dream of freedom alive.

At many Seders, the Haggadah is an impediment, something that gets between us and the brisket. But when you feel the urge to ask “how long will it take to finish the Haggadah?”, remember that it’s words, and in particular the words of the Haggadah, that have brought freedom to the world.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Monday, January 23, 2012

What the Bible has to Say About Blaming the Victim:
Some Thoughts on the Origins of Slavery in Egypt

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for her constant support, and Chris Zacchia for his exceptional camera work