A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Put A Lid On It

Put a Lid on It
Can an article of clothing say something profound about the universe? 

Jews think so. The yarmulke (yes, it’s spelled that way, and pronounced yahm-ikah) is the Yiddish word for the Hebrew kippah (kee-pah). It’s just a little piece of fabric (cloth, woven, satin, leather, among other things) that we put on our heads. Why?

A folk etymology demonstrates a primary purpose of the kippah. The Aramaic words yarei (awe or fear) and malka (king), when put together – and said very quickly! – sound like yarmulke, and so a tradition has emerged that this distinctive Jewish garb is a symbol of our awe in the presence of God.

It emerges from a period in which it was impolite to walk around bare-headed (in American culture it is the opposite now) in the presence of another. So to dawn a kippah was to acknowledge that you were in the presence – always – of Another

There is a big debate that we don’t have to get caught up in here about whether the wearing of a kippah is a halachic (Jewish legal) requirement, or just a venerable custom that should be maintained. The short version is that even though wearing a kippah is now universal in religious settings, historically speaking some very significant and influential rabbis ruled that wearing a kippah is not required by Jewish law.

But the real point is that it symbolizes a core Jewish spiritual posture: that we should constantly have a sense of awareness that there is more to life than what we can see, that there is a greater purpose to our lives. All our acts and even our thoughts should follow from this core fact of existence.

And we put the kippah on top of our dome, the container of our mind. It is a reminder that our thoughts, our sense of self, our ego, our drives and wishes, our very consciousness that orients us in the universe – that none of these things is the final take on reality. There is something else that we cannot name, or describe; something that invests our lives with meaning. We acknowledge this without demeaning ourselves, with the subtle act of politely topping off our consciousness with the kippah.

Hat Trick
Got that? A piece of clothing that represents a spiritual consciousness? How…Jewish. Our tradition is a tapestry of symbols, metaphors, gestures and deeds that are all intended to elevate our souls by reminding us what matters. So, it’s a little hat…but really so much more.

From the perspective of secular culture, and from the perspective of non-Jews, these peculiarities of the Jewish people are simply strange. Not eating certain kinds of foods at the same meal? Not driving or using electronics one day of the week? Eating unleavened bread for eight days in the spring?

It might seem odd that we rely on these things, and on a peculiar little piece of cloth to remind us of a fundamental truth of our lives. One could say, “Can’t you just remember to tend to your spiritual life without all that stuff?” The Jewish answer is, “Actually, no!” To be human is to be constantly caught in the cycle of remembering and forgetting. Beautiful moments of awareness punctuate our lives – as though we can see to the very core of the world, and there is the intimation of something transcendent. And the next moment we are sitting in front of the TV munching on a bag of chips.

So, the kippah – and the mitzvoth – perform a beautiful kind of trick. They are simple (sometimes not so simple) things we do in the material world to raise our awareness that life is not just about the material world.

Heads Up
My kippah also serves as an inspiration to good behavior. When I’m in public and wearing it, there’s part of me that is aware that I’m representing our tradition, our God, and our people. It’s a powerful reminder to myself that there’s a person I want to be, a way I want to act, in each moment. Acting in the right way is a good in and of itself, and we should all merit to be motivated by goodness for its own sake. But, truth be told, all of us forget our higher selves, and we can be impatient, rude, disrespectful, and unkind – all in a day’s work! Listen, we’re human. The kippah, this public declaration of who I am and what I stand for, can help me remember to be the person I want to be and need to be.

All Together Now
There is another reason that we wear the kippah, though. It is a way of saying, “I am a part of this People, I am part of this Story.” I wear my kippah with pride because it allows me to share my love for the Jewish people and to acknowledge that so much of who I am, and how I think, and what I care about is informed by the Jewish past and present. There was a time when to be a Jew was to be the subject of ridicule, and certainly to be a religious Jew was to endure cruel barbs, so wearing a kippah is also a way to honor the Jewish past and Jewish pride.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Got a Light?

Little Myth Thing
Chanukah begins Tuesday night. The magnificent Festival of Lights (Chag Ha-Urim) is a beautiful, inspiring puzzle.

Little Jewish kids grow up thinking that Chanukah is a celebration of the Jews, who wanted to preserve their culture, triumphing over the Romans, who wanted to get rid of it. This is myth. Bear with me for a brief - I promise, brief - bit of history.

It wasn't the Roman's, it was the Seleucids (SELL-you-sid). This empire spread Greek cultural influence throughout the ancient world. And these guys had the backing of certain Jews who wanted to see Hellenistic (Greek) culture spread. The plot thickens.

The Seleucids and their Jewish supporters fought other Jews who resisted Greek culture. They outlawed certain observances and to the horror and dismay of the Jews, they desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. The Maccabees, also known as the Hasmoneans, led the Jewish fight against this, and purified and rededicated the Temple.

’Cause We Are Living In A Material World
How do modern Jews make sense of this? We are profoundly touched and shaped by the broader culture. How can we make sense of this festival that is both a commemoration both of a battle for preservation of Jewish values, and also….Jewish civil war?

Chanukah is a mix of deep truth and confused myth. The core of the truth: it is about the effort to preserve a holy space from desecration and the belief in the power to rededicate a space to holiness in the wake of that desecration.

Do you believe in something kadosh, holy? Forget for a moment whether you can describe exactly what that is, or where it resides, or precisely how you can access it. Do you believe that there are values, ideas, perhaps places that could be, but must never be desecrated? That must never be trampled upon?

Wait before you answer - because to believe so is, in our culture, radical. Here where everything from music, to toothpaste to religion can be priced, marketed, sold, repackaged and disposed, claiming that some things are separate and distinct - (the literal meaning of kadosh/holy) - is indeed radical.

And beautiful. Ah, the possibilities and promise of a soul that holds some things holy! Chanukah reminds us that in a world in which our wants and desires, and so often our lowest impulses are either sold back to us or celebrated, we are called upon to stand for what is holy, to kindle lights against the encroaching dark.

Unwrapping the Presence
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “Judaism does not always simplify itself in order to accommodate fashion or society….It demands nonconformity with what prevails in the marketplace, the courage to be different, depth of insight in a world where inane … values are acclaimed through the loudspeakers.” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p 28.                                                                            
Uncovering this courage within ourselves is a taxing spiritual pursuit. Do you believe in that part of ourselves that always sees the dignity in others, no matter their social standing, that draws from hidden wells of generosity, no matter our culture's approval of selfishness, that discovers awe in life, no matter the rush of daily business? Chanukah is about finding that Presence, that something that insists on life's holiness in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

Lighten Up
The lights of Chanukah remind us to look for this.

Remember the desecration of the Temple? The oil required to keep the (seven branched) menorah always lit had to be "ok'd" as ritually pure by the Priests. When the Maccabees came to rededicate (in Hebrew, chanukah) the Temple, they found only enough of this kosher oil for one day. According to the Talmud, it miraculously lasted for eight days, enough time to press more olive oil. Voila.

So, now we light our chanukiah with a branch for each night. The Chanukah light is not supposed to be used for anything - not to light a room, not to read by. It is only to remind us of the holiness and the miracle. The candles can't even be used to light one another, which is why we have the shamash, the "servant" candle in the ninth branch, to light the others.

The central mitzvah of Chanukah? Making known the miracle by placing the chanukiah near a window. While for most passersby the Chanukah lights can't remind them of a miracle they don't know about, I think of this as a powerful statement of Jewish pride, and a public commitment to our own personal rededication.

In the Talmud Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai disagreed: do we begin with eight candles and work our way down, or start with one and work our way up. Hillel's answer prevailed: that each night should increase in holiness.

What does it mean to increase the holiness of Chanukah? One way is to make sure that each of the eight days we rededicate ourselves to our deepest values. What if, instead of asking for things that we don’t need, or giving things that our loved ones don’t need, we gave something significant to those who really do need? Make this Chanukah light on family gifts and heavy on tzedakah (support of the needy).

Burn and Learn
Chanukah means 'dedication' but also can be connected to chinuch, education.

The legacy of Chanukah is complex. We are inheritors of the dream of our ancestors, charged with preserving holiness in a world that so often seeks to drown it out. Yet, we are modern Jews in a largely non-Jewish culture, with all of the complexities and dilemmas that this presents. More to the point, this culture is amenable to us and some of its values we hold dear. How do we sort out what this story means for us? In other words, which Jews are we? The assimilators? Or the Maccabees?

I see each of us as containing the spiritual energy of both parties of Jews. Those Jews who drew on their surrounding culture to understand themselves and to broaden themselves, but also those Jews who tended to the lights, preserved the place of holiness within and were dedicated to unfolding the spiritual message of our tradition. Our task is to learn enough about our past, our people, our tradition and ourselves to bring these two dimensions together in a whole way.

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Festival of Lights!s

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Death of a Shtarker: Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

The great Christopher Hitchens has just died. I had such affection for this person I did not know. And why? As a rabbi I suppose I should have been put off or offended by the contemptuousness with which he regarded the religious. Instead I found myself always moved by his breadth of knowledge, appreciative of his deep moral convictions and commitments, and somewhat in awe of his brilliance. In reading Hitchens, there was always a beautiful sense, whether you agreed with him or not, of "so, this is what a human mind can do."

For the meaning of the yiddish shtarker, click here and see the last paragraph of what I think was Hitchens' last piece, a meditation on suffering and it's meaning/lessness.

Wikipedia entry on Hitchens here, a good sense of Hitchen's brutal honesty along with his moral vision (and humor) here, his takedown of Mother Theresa, which gives a good sense of his iconoclasm, here.

It says in the Talmud (Berachot 6a), "The merit of attending a house of mourning lies in the silence observed." It is perhaps the only fitting response to the amazing life of this nearly archetypal man of words.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Bowing and Tebowing

Tonight I become the 3,065,449th blogger to address the Tim Tebow/prayer phenomenon. A Jewish perspective here, a Christian evangelical perspective here, a non-evangelical Conservative-cum-Democrat Christian perspective here, a mocking (or maybe just-good-fun?) website here.

What is it about the prayer pose of this Denver Broncos QB that is driving everyone so crazy? Why do we care?

I'm a praying person, so I shouldn't be bothered by these public prayers, should I? I should get it, I should sympathize in the spirit of ecumenism, etcetera, etcetera. But it just...bugs me. There's something so performative about his prayer. "Oh, don't mind me, while I quietly and humbly offer a prayer to the creator of the universe in a private moment in front of millions of television viewers and many thousands of cheering fans."

I think that, whether it reflects what is in Tebow's heart or not, a healthy suspicion of his authenticity is at work here. Yeah, yeah, maybe we shouldn't judge that, but, you know what? When you get down on one knee in front of millions of people who are watching you get down on one knee....you're inviting that.

Tim Tebow is no Jew, that's for sure. But a Talmudic discussion about prayer raises some of the issues at issue here. In discussion bowing in Jewish prayer, the Talmud offers a pretty tightly controlled prescription for when to do it. What's the big deal? Why not just bow when you want? Medieval commentators thought that it had to do with humility. A 13th century Spanish Rabbi wrote "Submissiveness...in an inappropriate place is arrogance because he imagines he is a righteous person." (Uri Ehrlich, The Non Verbal Language of Prayer, p 62).

In the Jewish tradition the gesture of bowing, a limited but important part of prayer's choreography, is , in part, a non-verbal expression of humility. As Rav Kook taught, true humility is not an act of groveling submission, but a step towards profound spiritual growth. A kind of ego-emptying that brings one toward a deeper reality beyond self.

An act of humility performed in front of millions of people - is that humility? I guess only Tim Tebow can know that. A bow, properly performed with the appropriate kavanah, or inward focus and understanding, expresses and even creates, an inner sense of the pray-ers reality in the face of the Divine. When the act is so publicly demonstrated by a person who has had millions cheering for him and watching him for hours, the result is a kind of humbled ostentatiousness.

Maybe if the act wasn't so resonant with the arrogant and empty piety of the political world in this moment of our nation's history, it wouldn't be so bothersome. But Tebow's lowering himself reminds us a bit too much of candidates genuflecting before the Christian electorate to win their sympathies. So, the spectacle of candidates with decidedly irreligious pasts tripping over one another in heart-wrenching expressions of pained piety in order to win votes - well, let's just say it doesn't inspire one to remember the highest virtues of human beings. For sure, these candidates may be real-live Christians on the inside and out.

But the performative nature of it not only raises questions about its religious meaning, it also makes life uncomfortable for religious minorities, who might wonder whether a candidate leading an evangelical prayer rally for 30,000 Christians might always protect their interests.

But wouldn't it be funny to see the Jewish Tebow, davvening on the 50 yard line, tzitzit flying? I'd forgive him.

Tebow praying: Louis Lopez/Cal Sport Media/ZUMAPRESS.com; Rick Perry praying from deathandtaxes.com

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Dark Side, Part II

A reader shares an insight:

Characters are rather one dimensional in Star Wars, particularly the prequel trilogy. The Emperor is more a source of pure evil than a person, but to the extent that a name can be put to the evil it is the pursuit of power. The beguilement of power is treated more comprehensively in the Lord of the Rings where again the greatest power is associated with complete corruption. The ultimate victory over evil in both is ultimately achieved by the hero within himself. Another way to see Jacob and Esau is an internal battle within each of us. But the story here is more complex and includes much more than just a quest for power.
Regarding the inner struggle: there's a beautiful commentary by the [previous] Slonimer rebbe that discusses the idea that the twins represent the yetzer ha tov and the yetzer ha ra, our good and evil inclinations, respectively. When Rebecca cries out during her pregnancy, distraught that the twins are struggling within her womb, "Lamah Zeh Anochi," either "why is this happening to me?" or "Why do I exist?" she is articulating the agony of this ancient struggle.

The Slonimer says that the Torah tells us that the prophecy that The older [brother] will serve the younger actually refers to this struggle.

Esau, representing our evil inclination, is 'older' because people have this inclination dominant within them first, as children. We have a moral instinct but not great moral strength as children. Around adolescence, he says, this 'older brother' serves the younger - that is, more recently powerful - good inclination by being subservient to it.

True, the one dimensional characters (Han Solo is maybe the only multi-dimensional character) don't allow for exploration of this development and wrestling.

Use the yetzer....

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Dark Side

Channah and I introduced our almost four year old to Star Wars. He was blown away, literally from the first frame (the enormous ship that flies across the screen).

It's a strange mix: a great film with really bad writing, some questionable acting ("Uncle Owen, this R2 unit has a bad motivator!") But the mythological foundations of the movie, constructed with the help of Joseph Campbell, are worth exploring.

How do you explain The Force to a little boy (maybe you don't). There is a force in the universe that is unbelievably powerful but can be used for good or evil.

You can't see it, but you can "use" it!

As Jacob and Esau come together again the Torah, two brothers separated by years of pain an animosity, I'm reminded of the key relationship in the Star Wars saga. Like Luke and Darth, Jacob and Esau are of the same flesh yet have taken completely different paths. Our Sages associated Esau with great wickedness (dark side) and Jacob with saintly goodness. What I'm interested in is how the different aspects of the Force are mediated by human relationships. The Dark Side is limited by the power of human goodness - Darth's "I am your father" moment has a deep tenderness as he "unmasks" himself of his wickedness. When Jacob and Esau embrace and weep, it is hard not be to moved by this same undoing. Rashi tells us that Esau is only embracing Jacob so he can get close enough to do him harm. But I'd rather see that essential human element, that part of us that is constantly bubbling up with possibility and goodness, at work here, overcoming the years of resentment.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Thank Jew Very Much

OK, ok, the obligatory Thanksgiving post.

Some curiosities: The word for Jew in Hebrew, Yehudi, can mean "grateful one." (Because Judah is one of the sons of Jacob and one of the tribes, it 'really' means 'A Descendent of the Tribe of Judah.') The other curiosity is that the word Hodu in Hebrew means both "Give thanks" (plural, imperative) and "turkey." Hmmmm.....

Thanksgiving is an American holiday - I guess the American holiday - but giving thanks is the Jewish activity. The Talmud tells us to say one hundred blessings per day. One hundred! There is a blessing that we say giving thanks for being able to wake up, to stand, to relieve ourselves, a blessing for having ground to stand upon. There is nothing too insignificant or banal to warrant giving thanks.

Try this out for a week. Pause for a moment to give thanks in this coming week, not just for the grand miracles - having healthy family, the blessings of loved ones, freedom - but the very smallest things in life, those things we take for granted.

Giving thanks can change our very thinking, taking self out of the center of everything, so we stop measuring the world by what we want it to do for us, and start noticing how much it already has. The next challenge is to start to be a blessing - to become something that others are thankful for.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Paragraph Break Broke

I have done everything I could think of and everything recommended to me to get paragraph breaks to show up on the blog, and no luck.

My apologies. If I can't find a solution soon I will move the blog to another site.

Thank you and Shabbat Shalom

Hmmm....now it seems to be working. Onward...

Occupy Judaism

The Occupy Wall Street movement is forcing us to face some difficult questions about ourselves as a society. The underlying theme that unites the movements in different cities is the vast economic inequality in our country. What does Judaism have to say about this movement? To understand that, we have to understand two major modes of viewing spiritual life in the Jewish world.

One mode is what we might call the inner or mystical mode, in which we seek to understand an interior spiritual challenge that we face. My previous post on Parshat Lech Lecha is an example of this kind of spiritual meditation and truth-seeking. Chasidism has had a massive influence on modern Jewish culture because it speaks to a need we have for a depth understanding of our individual experience in the world and how to imbue our experience on the planet with meaning.

There is also the Prophetic mode (to be clear, these are not absolute, or imporous, categories - nor are they the only two ways of understanding Jewish life). The Prophets were concerned with the Jewish people as a whole and its collective failure to live out the responsibilities imposed upon it in its relationship with God. The Prophet examined his society and held up a mirror to it. Abr We can't view these two modes - the inner and Prophetic - as unrelated or totally separate. They are resonant with one another.

Isaiah's inspiration comes from the fact that he senses the world teeming with the Divine Presence, so much so that he is in pain when the People stray from the Divine Path. There is a deep and beautiful interiority to his words because he is so deeply connected to and touched by God. And, going in the other direction, an authentic mystical experience inevitably takes us beyond the interior realm to see the deepest unity of Creation, a unity that shows us that we are never alone, and never from from responsibility for others. The movements across the country are expressions of outrage. Certainly these are political.

But I think we should try to see them as having their roots in a prophetic intuition that we all have. Both the Tea Party Movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement, while using very distinct vocabularies and seeking very different solutions, have at their core a sense that the moral order of the universe has been violated. That there is a concept of "right" and "good" that human societies can attain that has been ignored or violated by the powerful and wealthy.

At moments like this that prophetic point within each of us, that part of us that has an intuition about the need for goodness and compassion and fairness to be more than just concepts, and to be made real in the world, begins to burn brightly. Our society views religion as a private, interior experience. In the world of Torah it certainly is that. But Jewish teaching has of course always seen it as imperative that values be brought in to the world. We do not "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" because there is no area of existence that is beyond Divine concern.

A test of our own connection to our tradition, to our success in living a Jewish life, is how we respond to this moment. Of course Torah does not call on us to find solutions in the Republican or Democratic party. But we must hear in the stirrings of our country the cry of the Prophet calling for justice. Infographic of Wealth Distribution found on andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish Photo of Oakland protest taken from motherjones.com

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Get Outta Here - Parshat Lech Lecha

I cannot make the blog accept "return" commands...so there are no paragraph breaks. This renders the text graphically unreadable (it may be textually so, but that's for you to decide). Good luck.... This week's parshah [torah portion] is one of the most over-analyzed yet oversimplified parshiyot in the entire Torah. Seriously, can it really just be about God saying to Avram [soon to be Avraham], "Hey, get outta here. Make your own place in the world."? What is this, some cheap airport novel? I don't know where that grumpiness came from, but I want to share some deep Torah from the slonimer rebbe (thanks, Rabbi Marc, for turning me on to the rebbe's work Netivot Shalom, the work that inspired the thoughts here]. The Slonimer Rebbe begins with the question, 'Why is the command to Avram written in this particular order: Lech l'cha [Go out] mei'artzecha [from your land], umimoladatecha [and your place of birth] umibeit avicha [and from your fathers household] el ha-aretz asher arecha [to the land that I will show you] (Genesis 12:1). If God were just giving geographical instructions, the order would be reversed - the father's house being the first thing Abvram would leave behind in departing, then the 'place of birth' (presumably the Slonimer thinks this means 'town' or the equivelant, and then 'the land.' But the instructions, the Slonimer Rebbe finds, unsurprisingly, are spiritual. God begins with the easiest challenge and ends with the immensely difficult. As we fashion ourselves, and purify ourselves of the masks and falsehoods that we've inherited - as we come to a level of self-awareness that enables us to see that we are not, at some point in life, being who we are perhaps supposed to be, we begin a journey away from those forces that impinge upon us, those things that we feel falsely define us. When we do this, we find that it is easiest to loosen the grip of the broadest, or most distant influence: that of our land, our country, or culture. It is in fact an enormous achievement to break free of the conditions of one's culture [and, in fact, some would say it cannot be done - that it runs the deepest]. We may then find that we cannot find ourselves for the pervasive influence of the values and assumptions that are slightly closer to home. The extended family and social circles of our local community, with all of its powerful relationships, its egos, social pressures and expectations. At this level, the influence is personal - we can feel the social pressures bearing down When we are young we may be too weak to know whether those feelings of dislocation and resentment at such pressure emerge because of the falsity, arbitrariness, and superficiality of such pressure, or our own incapacity to push back against it for lack of spiritual imagination and courage. Many of us never escape the powerful hold that these social expectations have on us and we live our lives attempting to live in a house that is not our own. But the deepest and most profound hold is that exerted by our parents. This relationship does not have to be adversarial or troubled to create spiritual challenges. The challenge is existential - it cannot be avoided. To be sure, a painful relationship may aggravate the challenge of finding oneself within that relationship. But even when a child has been raised without a great deal of pain, the attempt to locate one's own vision of the world, to determine one's own gifts, and one's own purpose within the context of that cloud of parent-child relation can seem impossible. Can we know whether the self we find there is really our own? Everywhere we turn is a thought, a desire, a dream that belongs to those who brought us into the world. But there is a singular purpose, a unique soul, to be found within all of that. Our life's task is to find that, and to be honest about it - because the influences of our land, our birthplace and our parents might lead us to deny or run from that purpose! Abraham is not a young man when he hears God's call to leave behind everything he has known. It is deep, hard, work with no guarantee of success. The spiritual challenge lay not in escaping the particulars of our own experience to find some untouched core within. Any search for the soul within you that remains pure of all the complicated social and familial relations will come to nothing, because that soul doesn't exist. It is precisely those particular conditions of our own lives that give shape to our particular spiritual journey. Abraham will declare the unity of God and forego the idolatry of the middle east. And yet this was the person whose father, the mid rash tells us, was the chief idol maker for the King. The mid rash is not mentioning this fact of his father's occupation as an incidental fact. It is precisely because of this particular reality of Abraham's life that he discover's his unique role. The challenges of our own lives that so often seem to be the roadblock are, in fact, the path. Those conditions of your past and your present experience that seem to be holding you back are in fact the very challenges that you have to face to fulfill your particular purpose, the reason for which you were created. So, lech l'cha - often translated as "go" or "go forth" but literally "go to yourself" or "go into yourself" is precisely the point. We can't just walk away from the particular influences of our lives. We have to go through those conditions of our experience that shape - and even seem to limit - us if we are to walk the path of the deepest self discover and the fulfillment of the purpose with which the creator invested our lives.

A Jewish Apartheid State?

Richard Goldstone, the author of the famous Goldstone Report who eventually conceded that it was written with insufficient information, has written a nice op-ed on Israel and the accusation by its severest critics that is an "apartheid state."
In Israel, there is no apartheid. Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid under the 1998 Rome Statute: “Inhumane acts ... committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” Israeli Arabs — 20 percent of Israel’s population — vote, have political parties and representatives in the Knesset and occupy positions of acclaim, including on its Supreme Court. Arab patients lie alongside Jewish patients in Israeli hospitals, receiving identical treatment.
The whole NYTimes article (behind the paywall) is here. There is something of "damning with faint praise" in saying that Israel is no South Africa. But that's what false and hyperbolic accusations do: they force you to weaken your moral standing by having to defend yourself from charges of moral failure. I've ranted about this before, but, oh, well: Israel is a vibrant (and teeming) democracy. Troubled, to be sure. The coalition style government has created all kinds of deep and real problems. But it is a democracy where the rule of law prevails and holds those in power accountable. On the other hand, it's neighbors in the region are dictators openly contemptuous of democracy. We can certainly celebrate the fact that Western liberals (and I am one, by the way) have reacted to the "Arab Spring" by finally recognizing this fact. Confronted with Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, and video evidence of state brutality, it was hard not to. But what took them so long? Long before the recent social movements for democracy burst open, it was quite clear that these goons represented the antithesis of everything Western liberals are supposed to hold dear. But for years, silence - and the only democracy in the region was criticized with hyperbole and vitriol. What's up with that?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Return, Again

Another long delay since my last post. Apologies - I'm not even sure if anyone is reading at this point. In the world of blogging, silence indeed equals death. If you are not writing, you don't exist. Sometimes silence speaks volumes. In this case, the absence of blog posts tells of the madness of life with three beautiful children. I love writing. I love reading. I discover myself through the study of Torah and self reflection. There has been no time for this. What is the balance between being a good father and husband and being a non-person? If we become merely a good person in relation to others, if we exist solely for others, we can't really become and grow. So, how to take control of our spiritual lives when the moral and familial demands are overwhelming? In other words, im ein ani li mi li u'kshani b'atzmi mah ani v'im lo achshav ematai? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? When I am only for myself what am I? And if not now when?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Pinko Past and Future? Israel, Socialism, and Zionism

I use the term pinko with affection.

Interesting article here by Shlomo Avineri in Ha'Aretz, who sees the true spirit of Zionism in the social protests happening there now.

A really fascinating question - can one be a Zionist without adhering to the original values of Zionism?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Netanyahu Hates Israel?

What to make of this piece of news? After Obama spoke about Israel in late May, powerful parts of the American Jewish Community were outraged at the President's supposed recklessness in affirming the Green Line as one of the bases for future for peace negotiations (See my posts on "What's the Deal in Israel?) Netanyahu was outraged as well.

Well, what to make of Netanyahu's endorsement of the same position? A position that, as I mentioned in May/June posts, was essentially the recognized position of Israel and America for years. Those pundits who criticized Obama for being anti-Israel - I'm guessing that they are not going to accuse Netanyahu of being anti-Israel.


No, not the Orson Welles thing.

This morning, Channah and I welcomed a beautiful little boy into the world. Healthy and heavy (9 lbs), he's doing beautifully and Channah is as well.

Baruch Ha-Ba (welcome) little one.

We are both exhausted - Channah much more so - but are feeling very blessed.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

My Father: Father's Day 2011/5771

Throughout the Torah the people who we sometimes anachronistically refer to as "Jews" and with abbreviation refer to as "Israelites" are more precisely, b'nei yisra'eil - the children of Israel. So common is this phrase that we don't even notice it's significance. It is a name that brings past together with future, a name that defines the present as a way of honoring the past. The Israelites are those people who are the children of a particular person: Israel, that is, Jacob.

This collective, national recognition of the power of our antecedents to define us, is made more particular in our Jewish names. Every traditional Hebrew name - the name by which we are called to read Torah - follows the formula of "So and so, son of so and so." We take our stand at the Torah under the protection of our father's (and now also our mother's) name.

My name is Yehoshua ben Ha-Rav Imanuel. I am very much my father's son. My father is Rabbi Emanuel Rose. It is certainly no coincidence that he is a rabbi and I have followed that path - sometimes in pursuit of him, I think. He made his own significant mark upon the Jewish life of his community, drawing on the spiritual fire of the Prophets to guide and goad his congregation, involving himself as a voice of conscience in national and local issues of moral importance, teaching Jewish wisdom and inspiration to generations of Jews in Portland.

He built his congregation to a place of strength spiritually, ethically, and materially. Any rabbi will tell you that it is no small feat to accomplish all of these. He is now Rabbi Emeritus but was Rabbi for 46 years at Beth Israel in Portland. Before that he was at Temple Emanu-el in New York City.

My father passed on to me his deep love for Jewish teaching, for Jewish thinking, for the Jewish moral vision that emerges from the poetry of Jewish wisdom. His commitment to Torah as a way of seeing the world is inspiring and beautiful.

As a father he has supported me in finding my own path to Torah. My path has been quite different from his - it has wandered more, it has drawn on a style of observance that is not his own, it has challenged some dimensions of his own thinking. He provides counsel and support, empathy and patient, very gentle rebuke. In doing so he has allowed me to discover my own place at Sinai, a place where I stand in debt to him for his teaching, his infinite patience, his encouragement and his endless support.

My father's way of teaching has sometimes been from a distance. Proverbs 22:6 says "Train a child according to his way." My father knows my stubbornness, and more than once the space he has allowed me to grow has enabled me to find an answer that I suspect he wanted me to find.

Kiddushin 29a describes a father's obligations to his son. They are to circumcise his son, to perform [the mitzvah of] ‘Redemption of the firstborn,’ to teach him Torah, and to teach him a trade, and (some say) he must also teach him to swim.

Yasher Koach, Aba. Thank you.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Intolerable Chutzpah, Ctd.

The effort to ban circumcision in Santa Monica has been derailed. The woman backing the bill has decided to withdraw it. This comes following outrage in response to a comic book that apparently used horribly anti-semitic imagery to criticize circumcision (I say apparently because I have seen a few images from the book but haven't seen the book itself). Some more information on the withdrawal of the bill and the comic book here and here.

The author of the comic book is named Matthew Hess - definitely a famous Jewish last name, for whatever that's worth.

While I'm happy that the bill has been withdrawn, it is unfortunate that it wasn't rejected on the merits. The woman who was pushing for the bill, as far as I know, had no connection to the author of the comic book. So, in a sense it was a fortunate accident that the bill was derailed - this comic book author accidentally destroyed a bill he supports.

The New York Times article contains a confusing and misleading sentence: "...many leaders expect that similar efforts will crop up in other cities." Expect Shmexpect: there is a proposed ban in San Francisco that will be voted on in November.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Black Fire on White Fire

Last night began Shavuot, the day on which we received and receive Torah. Midrash Tanchumah describes the Torah as being black fire on white fire. And the Shulchan Aruch, the principal code of Jewish law, begins its summary of how Jewish tradition instructs us to wake up in the morning with the beautiful and mysterious sentence, "One should rouse oneself like a lion to get up in the morning and serve the Creator so that he awakens the dawn."

This happened this morning, the morning of Shavuot. I wasn't able to figure out what time this happened - if someone has that info, I'd love to know. I would like to think it was right after shacharit prayers.

More detail:

Monday, June 6, 2011

Gilad Shalit Update

Gilad Shalit is the IDF soldier who was captured by Hamas nearly five years ago (June 25th, 2006). His father, Noam Shalit, is now filing suit in Paris that he hopes will put pressure the French government to in turn put pressure on Hamas to release him.

What a horrible ordeal for this young man, for the family, and for the nation. May he be kept safe and healthy and be returned soon.

More information on Shalit here and also in the column to the right, under "Kosher Sites."

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Intolerable Chutzpah of the Anti-Circumcision Movement

The New York Times has an article here about anti-circumcision activists gaining ground in California.

As you might imagine, I have very strong feelings about this. My feelings are grounded not only in my belief in the centrality of brit milah (the covenant of circumcision) in Judaism but also in my political makeup. So, even if legislators contemplating a ban include an exception for religion, I'm am still strongly opposed to this foolish and offensive movement.

This is a very long post, so I'll present brief summaries of my major points up front.

1) The state must not interfere with rights of parents unless there is a significant danger to a child.
2) There are harmful things than circumcision that parents do to children that are widely accepted in our culture.
3) Circumcision does not harm the baby.
4) There is no analogy to female circumcision, which is something that is widely abhorred in the west.
5) The idea that there is no moral justification for making a choice like circumcision for a child before the age of consent is refuted by our common experience in the world.
6) The philosophical basis for the anti-circumcision movement is flawed.

Those involved with this movement are referred to as anti-circumcision activists, but they should be called value-imposers, and that's how they'll be referred to here until I think of a better phrase. The reason I'm changing the language is because what is really material in the debate is not circumcision and it's harm - they are welcome to try to persuade whomever wants to listen. What is significant about the movement is that these people seek to impose their own values on others.

Here's why the value-imposers are terribly wrong:

1) The state needs to be kept very, very far away from the relationship between parents and children. Are there limits? Obviously, there are. The state must intervene if a child is being abused, if parents are so neglectful that the child is in danger, etcetera. But there is no basis for making this argument about circumcision. The burden of proof must remain on those who want to dictate to other people what decisions they can make for their families - not on parents who are choosing a medically accepted practice that causes no harm.

2) There are far greater harms that a parent can do to a child - should the state prevent parents from piercing the ears of little boys and girls? Of course not, but ear piercing is a purely decorative practice, it does not have any health arguments on its side (as circumcision does), nor does it have thousands of years of cultural tradition behind it. Should the state make it illegal for parents to feed junk food to babies? I've seen babies that are clearly not eating healthfully and are way too fat at a very young age. Those parents are doing far more harm to their child than circumcision does. What would be the argument against state interference in the diet of the baby? What about the choice to expose children to the wildly materialistic values inculcated by television? While I don't judge it, nor would I ever have the chutzpah to seek to make the state prevent it, I believe that it is obviously and demonstrably true that parents who expose young children to television are doing far, far more damage to their children than I've done to my sons by circumcision. The logic of the value-imposers would dictate that children should be age 18 before they can watch.

3) Circumcision does not harm the baby. Those who are attempting to impose their personal beliefs on others like to call it male genital mutilation. It is not. It does not change the essential function of the sexual organ of the child. Yes, it does change the appearance, and what I find interesting about this is that if this is the basis of calling it mutilation - which it must be, since no harm to the function of the penis comes from circumcision - then it is quite tellingly a particularistic and biased movement. It is using the aesthetic standards of a particular culture, of North America, protestant/secular culture, in the 21st century, to make judgments about what is right.

Billions of healthy males have lived healthy lives - sexual and otherwise - for thousands of years with this practice. And yet the value-imposers would have us believe that suddenly this should be considered an intolerable harm imposed upon a child?

4) The value-imposers want to you associate circumcision with female genital mutilation, as though these two things are the same (When someone's argument depends on discrediting by association, you know they are on the losing side of the argument). Female genital mutilation falls in a different category - it is, in fact, mutilation. Here's why the two are essentially different. First, the female genital mutilation I have heard of (I believe there are other kinds) involves removal of the clitoris, permanently and drastically altering the future sexual function of the baby to whom it is done. The difference between the sexual life of a woman with a clitoris and without is fundamental and vast. There is no way to make the argument that anything similar happens with a male. Circumcised males lead full and complete sexual lives. Second, the practice of removing the clitoris takes place in patriarchal societies in which women have very little power and the most significant choices in life are determined for them by men. Male circumcision is practiced on males in cultures that are overwhelmingly patriarchal and come from patriarchal traditions in which men are the ones who have made the rules and norms. Patriarchy isn't something to be proud of, but the point is that we're talking about a (harmless) practice that affects the most powerful people within the society. Males in North America, whether secular, protestant, Muslim, or Christian, are at a power advantage in the society, and circumcision cannot be seen as an expression of oppression.

5) Finally, we hear all the time that we mustn't do something to a child until they are old enough to decide for themselves. If they want to circumcise themselves at age 18, they may. This argument is impossible for me to take seriously. It is revealingly blind and naive. Is there such a thing as an infant who makes choices for him or herself? Did they choose to grow up in families in North America? Might they not be better off somewhere else - a place with more balance between work and leisure? The United States is nowhere near the top of the happiness indices that have developed over the last few years, indices which compare the relative happiness of the populations. My sons did not choose to grow up in this culture in which happiness is a bit further out of reach than elsewhere. But their life here is just a fact.

Parents many all of the most significant choices in a child's life for the child, choices that will define the boundaries of the child's life, their intellectual environment, their values, etcetera. Raising a child in an environment in which it is normal to play video games, or only listen to Britney Spears without exposure to much more complex and beautiful art does more damage to a child than an essentially harmless snip.

There are of course, thousands of other examples of very significant aspects of life that are chosen for us, not by us. Circumcision is a slight ritual that simply affirms and recognizes this reality - a reality that, for me, has religious significance. That we are NOT essentially free to choose essential aspects of ourselves and our identity - whether our culture, our DNA, our religion, our secularism - is to me an essential feature of existence. Westerners are deeply uncomfortable with this existential fact. Our entire political philosophy, the entire idea of the social contract, is founded upon the notion that a person attains total freedom when they are left alone by all others, when no decision is made for them. This is a fantasy that exists only in theory.

I am not suggesting that there is an analogy here between choosing to circumcise your child and passing on your DNA, or raising your child in a given country. My point is to identify what I think is the philosophical foundation of the value-imposers. I believe that these people are beholden to a false notion about what constitutes freedom, and choice. They consider this falsity (that a person should choose everything that happens to them) to be a universal truth, and therefore they believe they have the right to impose it on others. My point is that the philosophical foundation for their outlooks is wrong. The world isn't like that.

Should we hand over to the state these acts that have a much greater impact (and greater harm) on the child? Why not? Is the answer 1) that there is some essential difference between circumcision and other forms of harm that we impose on children? Or is it 2) that banning these other commonly accepted practices just wouldn't be practical? That is, we'd like to create laws to ban all harm that a parent might do, but it isn't politically feasible. If the answer of the value-imposers is answer #1, they have an obligation to explain their reasoning - because it is hard to imagine what it would be. If it's #2, then we should all - regardless of our religious tradition, political affiliation, or cultural traditions - be very afraid of the value-imposers, because they would be speaking the language of dangerous fundamentalists.

More to come on this topic, for sure.

Friday, June 3, 2011

All Night Long - Shavuot

Please join us for what will be an amazing night, on June 7th at 8:30 pm at Rembrandt Yard, 1301 Spruce in Boulder. Traditional learning, yoga, music (Mark Megibow from FACE), rabbis leading discussions on finding Jewish meaning, Coffee by Ozo, ice cream, cheesecake, cereal and more. Hope to see you there. (Click on the image to see a bigger version)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

What's the Deal in Israel? Ctd.

One of the things I'm becoming interested in is how we talk about Israel within the Jewish community. What parts of the discussion are "out of the question," or "beyond the pale" in the debate? I'm interested in this for two reasons. Philosophically I see deep and powerful and open debate as essential virtue in Jewish life; I see it as a religious principal, really.

Practically, I think that Israel's future depends on our being able to talk in an open way about what is best for Israel. It depends on our not branding anyone as an "Israel hater" if they make an argument about what is best for Israel's future.

Along these lines, as I indicated in a previous post ("What's the Deal in Israel?"), I was pretty confused by the response of many American Jews to President Obama's proposal of using the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations ("with land swaps," as he put it). This was something that has been part of the discussion for years, it has been the basis of previous negotiations that Israel has participated in, it was the de facto position of the previous two American Administrations....and now everyone is outraged at Obama.

To add to my confusion, I just read an article in which Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad (Israeli intelligence), urges a return to the 1967 borders and pursuit of the Saudi Peace Plan from 2002.

The point here is not that Dagan is necessarily correct (I happen to think that he is) but that you have the former head of Mossad using the same language as Obama used - language that caused Presidential candidate Mitt Romney to say that Obama was throwing Israel "under the bus."

Does that mean that the former head of Mossad is throwing Israel under the bus? Does he hate Israel? I would hate to be the person to tell Dagan that he's an Israel-hater. This is a guy who headed an elite military unit in combating PLO violence, and who the right-wing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had enough faith in to appoint to head Mossad.

I think the message from the history of actual negotiations, and from the criticism of the present leadership offered by Dagan and many others, is that there is not just one set of solutions that can be considered "pro-Israel."

I think we have to be careful about slinging arrows about people on the Israel issue. Because in Israel, many extremely committed, extremely thoughtful people, from intellectuals to soldiers, people who have put their lives on the line for Israel and whose lives are wrapped up with its future, often propose ideas that over here get you branded as naive at best, or even worse, an enemy of Israel.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Don't Miss Shavuot on June 7


A community wide Shavuot Celebration, called Up All Night, will be held this year at Rembrandt Yard, 1301 Spruce Street in Boulder, beginning at 8:30 pm on June 7th. I will be teaching as will other rabbis from the Boulder community. There will be Torah yoga, music, Jewish art, traditional learning, conversation, not to mention Ozo coffee, ice cream and other treats. Please come and stay as late as you like. “Up All Night: Shavuot in Boulder” is being sponsored by Rabbi Rose’s and Rabbi Goldfeder’s project, Soulfood, with a generous grant from 18 Pomegranates.

For those who want some basic information on Shavuot:

A Little Bit About Shavuot
Shavuot falls on the 6th and 7th of the Hebrew Month of Sivan. This year that corresponds to the 7th and 8th of June. In the Torah Shavuot (“Weeks”) is an agricultural festival. Along with Sukkot and Passover it is one of the three pilgrimage festivals during which the ancient Israelites would come to Jerusalem to make special offerings at the Temple. Eventually the rabbis of the Talmudic era proclaimed that Shavuot marks the day on which the Torah was given to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. Even for those of us who do not understand the Sinaitic revelation literally, Shavuot has become a day recognized as holy because it represents our receiving of Torah as a way of life.

Important customs associated with Shavuot are: Tikkun Leil Shavuot (“Set Order of Learning on the Night of Shavuot”), during which the community gathers to stay up all night (see below for details of the community-wide celebration this year); eating of dairy foods such as blintzes and cheesecake; using floral decorations in the synagogue and home; and reading the Book of Ruth.

A Bit More
Agricultural Origins
Shavuot, or Chag Ha-Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, is one of three names for this holy day. It is called “Weeks” in Leviticus 23 because the Israelites are told to start counting off weeks from the Second Night of Passover until they have counted seven full weeks, at which point they make offerings of bread and animal offerings.

In Exodus 23 it is referred to as Chag Ha-Katzir, the Festival of the [wheat] Harvest. It would have fallen at the time that the wheat crop was beginning to ripen.

The third name is comes from Numbers 28, where the holy day is referred to as Yom Ha-Bikkurim, the Day of the First Fruits. On this day the Israelites were to bring the first fruits of the season and offer them at the Temple. They would continue to do this until Sukkot (in the fall).

Shavuot and Revelation

Clearly Shavuot observance was rooted in agriculture, as at least the second two names – the Festival of the Harvest and the Day of the First Fruits – suggest. We should continue be blessed to view the creation of food as evidence of a divine presence active in the universe, creating and overseeing a mystifyingly complex web of life. And as the Torah tries to get us to see our food as a gift for which we must be thankful, and which we must offer back in some way to God, we should view the overwhelming material bounty of our own lives as a spiritual challenge to us to remain grateful, giving people – rather than people who act as if the whole world was created just for them.

But it is also true that each generation must breathe new life into Torah, to find new meaning that is concealed within ancient teaching. For our Sages – the spiritual leaders of the Talmud and early Judaism – Shavuot’s importance was not in its placement in the rhythms of the earth’s sustenance. It was that Shavuot was the day on which the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai.

How so? Step one is that the Torah tells us that the Exodus from Egypt happened in the month of Nisan. Step two is that Exodus 19:1 tells us that they entered the wilderness of Sinai on “the third new moon” after leaving Egypt. This would be the month of Sivan. Step three is that the rabbis agree that the Torah was given on Shabbat. The first Shabbat in Sivan would bring us to the current date of Shavuot (a rabbinic argument about a detail in the Torah results in the actual day of Shavuot being moved from the 7th to the 6th).

Finding Meaning in Shavuot Today

For us this rabbinic notion that Shavuot was the day on which the Israelites received the Torah continues to have meaning. But the power of the Festival is not in looking back and seeing the 6th of Sivan as a commemoration. Rather, we should view it as the day on which we will again receive Torah.

Torah in the broadest sense is what we celebrate and seek out on Shavuot. Not just the Five books of Moses but the centuries of interpretation, insights, extensions, and inspiration that have flow from this regenerating source in every generation, in every moment.

What role does Torah have in our lives? Jewish teaching begins with the assumption that each of us must learn to become a certain kind of person, that we must learn to create a certain kind of society, and that we must learn to develop fill relationships with other people and with God if we are to understand what it means to be fully human and to live a righteous life.

This is a tall order, but on Shavuot we open ourselves and commit ourselves to this reality. We affirm that the daily striving of our lives, the material concerns, the stress, the anxiety, the financial worry, the ambition – that it all has a broader spiritual purpose. We affirm as well that through a life of commitment to Torah values – to learning wisdom, to inspiring ourselves to become better people – we can imbue our lives and the lives of others with real meaning and inspiration.

The Talmud teaches that even the words of a great teacher in the present day were actually revealed at Mount Sinai. That is, the teachings of Torah are not just a collection of laws that happened long ago. They can be present and very real in our own lives.

It is significant that Torah was revealed on a mountain. It is a high place, removed from ordinary experience, a place to look up to, a place of transcendent beauty. But most important, it is an earthly place. High up, yes, but not beyond reach. Moses, an actual person, went up to Mt. Sinai and came back down, his face radiating the light of revelation. He came back down to the people Israel to share this light with them.

As Shavuot approaches, we prepare ourselves for this encounter with Jewish teaching and instruction, so that we might reinvigorate our spiritual lives with the energy of Torah.

Please join me and many, many others on Tuesday, June 7th at 8:30 pm at Rembrandt Yard, 1301 Spruce in Boulder.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

What's the Deal in Israel?

Completely confused by the dustup about Israel over the last week and a half? I think this review will clarify what some of the handwringing was all about.

I've been thinking a lot about the reaction of much of the Jewish community to President Obama's speech about Israel (full transcript here).

Obama said, principally, that any future peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians must be based in the 1967 line (the "Green Line"), with the assumption that there will be land swaps (which I believe can be understood to mean that Israel will not have to abandon or dissemble important settlements in the West Bank).

The President also said that Hamas must recognize Israel, and he made clear his opposition to the UN Vote currently expected in September in which the UN will vote to recognize Palestine as a state. It will pass the General Assembly, we can assume, and then be vetoed in the Security Council.

The reaction from important quarters of the Jewish community to Obama's comments regarding the 1967 line was one of outrage. Many people felt that he had, to quote Mitt Romney, "thrown Israel under the bus."

My reaction to this anger and frustration was one of puzzlement. Here's what I said in the Intermountain Jewish News, in an article quoting several area Jewish leaders.

I’m a bit baffled by much of the critical reaction to the president’s speech.

First, Obama made clear his opposition to the UN vote and affirmed the necessity of Hamas’ recognition of Israel.

Second, in asserting that the 1967 line should form the basis of negotiation (and not, as some have characterized it, ‘insisting’ that Israel withdraw to it), Obama formalized what has been universally recognized inside and outside Israel as the de facto starting place of any peace initiative. It was the basis of Oslo and the informal position of the previous two administrations.

The status quo is unjust, contrary to our highest values, and unrealistic. If our love for Israel leads us to fear any step toward negotiation, we will end up endangering Israel.

Most puzzling to me is the fact that Obama's comments appear to be identical to those made in a Novemeber 2010 joint statement from Netanyahu and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. They said,

The Prime Minister and the Secretary agreed on the importance of continuing direct negotiations to achieve our goals. The Secretary reiterated that "the United States believes that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements." Those requirements will be fully taken into account in any future peace agreement.

So, what gives? Well, a very astute article by Peter Grier of the Christian Science Monitor points out a very subtle difference between the Obama speech and the Netanyahu/Hillary statement. Obama didn't characterize the 1967 line as a "Palestinian goal," which the joint statement does. Those who would like to read a great deal into this (supposed) omission argue that Obama made the shift from merely acknowledging the neutral fact that 1967 line as a Palestinian desire to stating it as a desire (a policy) of the United States.

I'm still not quite convinced that we should read that heavily into the omission of the phrase "Palestinian goal." Here's Aryeh Eldad of Israel's nationalist National Union (Ichud Le'umi) party said

I wonder why all the pundits were so excited about Obama saying '1967 borders' as if he invented something knew. We tend to forget these were the Clinton guidelines, that Barak negotiated with Arafat based on them. Ehud Olmert also negotiated on these terms with Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] - and they all failed.

At its core, Obama's statement that a future peace should be based upon the 1967 line, with land swaps, is very old news indeed. It has been known inside and outside of Israel for many, many years that this is the only possible future for a Palestinian state, and therefore, for peace. In 2000, 2001, and 2008 the Israeli government used those lines as the basis for (failed) negotiations with the Palestinians.

The notion that because of those failures, Israel or should now back away from negotiations on that basis is a sad and dangerous one. So, Israel takes the position that is always mischaracterized as being the more knowing, more realistic, more "tough" stance and gives very little. What then? (Look at The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg writing in Bloomberg online for an argument as to why the Palestinians should be thrilled with Netanyahu's current position).

What does the future hold for Israel under circumstances in which the Palestinians are not offered a viable state? An Israel that is not Jewish? An Israel that is not democratic? An Israel that is in constant conflict? An Israel surrounded by Arab neighbors whose governments are currently unknown quantities? Dependent on the United States for billions of dollars in aid at a time when support for Israel is less and less strong and widespread among Americans?

Those are the questions that must be answered. They must be answered before we reject as unrealistic the only path to peace that Israeli and American leaders and negotiators have taken seriously for years.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Fullness of Years: Dylan Turns 70

Indulge me in a little bit of Dylan rambling (or ramblin' as he would have once said).

For starters, I wanted to post a video of Dylan playing this song, but the only live versions are not so great. This is the original posted by someone, I know not who. Apologies for the cheesy video.

Also I tried to find the obvious birthday wish Forever Young from the Last Waltz, a truly amazing performance. But it no longer available on Youtube, even though other Dylan performances from that movie are. So, a beautiful song with inevitable overblown rock all star cast singing along appears at the end of this post.

Here's a link to a wonderful written tribute to Dylan, and another, and another. Thank you to Allen Taggart who is always so generous in sharing his passion for music for these links.

I'm a huge Dylan fan. No person has a right to craft so many songs that are brilliant and that just don't age - but he did. I don't imagine that his status as an artistic genius can be debated at this point, but I just want to express marvel at and gratitude for the amazing creative energy that God invests human beings with. Very few people in any generation can open themselves to it as fully as Dylan and other artists of his stature do. The danger of the genius label is that it separates the artist into a different category, as though they are super human. But of course what is so astonishing about the work of a genius is its deep resonance, its ancient familiarity. In fact a genius does not transcend the ordinary human experience but delves deep into it, drawing on a source that is in each of us but which is left unexamined by most.

In any event, I listened to "My Back Pages" (for obvious reasons) today. Not his greatest song, but it is sung with incredible power (so many people ridicule Dylan's nasal tone but I think he is one of the great singers in music. Really. His sense of rhythm as a singer, his ability to bend phrases around the beat, is just phenomenal. Try singing along with a Dylan song you know and you'll see what I mean). What struck me about it was that it feels like it was just written today, like he is singing about an experience, or an awakening, as it is unfolding. At the end of the same album (Another Side of Bob Dylan) is "Ballad in Plain D." A beautiful, cruel, self-flagellating and self-justifying, brutal and terrifyingly honest song. You can hear his fury and his devastation. Actually a frightening song. And it, too, sounds like he is revealing himself today, in the present.

The newness of Dylan's music is its most beautiful quality to me. I mean this in three ways. First, as I said above, so many of his songs just don't age - they are alive whenever you play them. Second, Dylan refused to allow these songs to become self parodies, refused to allow himself to become bored by them and so when he played them live he would reinvent them. This could be maddening if you fell in love with the recorded version and then heard him play a song live that had only the lyrics in common. Often he made you hear a new life in the song that was concealed in the original.

The third aspect of the newness of Dylan's music is the most important to me. That is his constant reinvention as an artist and public figure. No one ever owned Dylan, no one ever had his number. Look at this video - at the 4:40 mark you get a sense of this (Dylan was probably the least friendly and most entertaining interview subject in music). He was interested in becoming ("he not busy being born is busy dying") and not resting on some image that he had conjured or that others perceived. His themes, his style, his concerns, his influences, his forums for expression, all of these were changing constantly and still are.

This is powerful to me because I see it as a kind of spiritual striving (I'm not making claims about Dylan's spiritual life). We are challenged by Torah to reject faith in the idol of self, not to mistake the person we put out there for others to see with the truest being that no one else gets to see. And it is a Jewish struggle to constantly emerge and grow, and not be satisfied with what we have become already. There is always teshuvah to be made, always something new to become. In the yotzer prayer (recited every morning) we acknowledge God as the one who m'chadesh b'chol yom tamid ma'aseh bereishit, who renews the work of creation every day. That includes us. And in the second prayer of the Amidah we pray to God as m'chayei ha-metim, revives the dead, which I see as a prayer for ongoing spiritual life, an expression of fear of dying internally.

The Aish Kodesh taught that such ongoing renewal was an essential part of the Jewish spiritual struggle. If we don't do this, he writes (in Tzav v'Zeruz, #2), it is as if we are living in the body of a person who lived years ago, rather than living today. He interprets the phrase from Genesis 24:1 that Abraham was old, ba b'yamim, which is usually translated as "advanced in years" but very literally means "he came into his days" to mean that even in old age, Avraham was still becoming. This is the great life-affirming feature of Torah, that we are invested with a divine spark that has an eternally renewing power. So, for me, striving towards constant renewal and becoming, and avoiding the slow death of spiritual stagnation is essential to a life of mitzvah.

Pirkei Avot 5:25 says that at age seventy a person should achieve "fullness of years." That sounds a little too staid for Dylan, so my wish is that he keeps becoming Dylan in whatever way he needs to be.

Anyway, Happy Birthday Bob Dylan, and thank you.

Netanyahu's Speech

Prime Minister Netanyahu speaking before a join session of Congress. Fascinating and impressive. More later.... I can't figure out how to embed it, so here's the link


Monday, May 23, 2011

Obama on Israel, Ctd.

I'm not sure how to square this with the outrage of those who criticized President Obama for referring to using 1967 lines as the basis for future negotiation. It is from November of last year following a meeting of Secretary of State Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu:

The Prime Minister and the Secretary agreed on the importance of continuing direct negotiations to achieve our goals. The Secretary reiterated that "the United States believes that through good-faith negotiations, the parties can mutually agree on an outcome which ends the conflict and reconciles the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state, based on the 1967 lines, with agreed swaps, and the Israeli goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders that reflect subsequent developments and meet Israeli security requirements." Those requirements will be fully taken into account in any future peace agreement.

It comes from the official website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Day After the End of the World

I'm sure we all heard that the world was supposed to end yesterday. The man who predicted it was "flabbergasted" that it didn't happen.

While I was not surprised to wake up this morning, there was an interesting resonance that I haven't seen written about.

Saturday night began Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer ('Lag' comes from the Hebrew alphabetic equivalent of 33, the letter lamed plus the letter gimel) . We are commanded in the Torah to count the days between Pesach and Shavuot. Over time this became a period of mourning, associated with the death of thousands of Rabbi Akiva's students. The 33rd day of the Omer is seen as a break in the period of mourning.

The tradition took on new forms over time and the 33rd day of the Omer became recognized as the day of the death of Shimon bar Yochai, who is, according to tradition, the author of the Zohar.

There is a talmudic story about Shimon bar Yochai that connects (at least in my mind) to the 'end of the world' anxieties. Pursued by the Romans, he fled to a cave where he was miraculously sustained by a carob tree and lived for many years. He studied Torah continuously there and when he emerged, he was so immersed in Torah learning, and so cut off from the real world, that he was contemptuous of the lives of those he encountered - they were engrossed in banal physical tasks such as planting, rather than studying Torah. Such was his indignation that everything he gazed upon was destroyed.

This kind of angry, world-destroying piety was not looked upon kindly by God, who sent him back to the cave so God's world would not be destroyed by Shimon bar Yochai's pious gaze. When the sage re-emerged, he did so at greater peace with the world, and could live in it, having accepted its imperfections.

We remembered this Sage's death just hours after the world was supposed to have been destroyed.

Apocalyptic warnings - and fantasies - are a way to resolve the gap between the perfection of Divine reality and the ugliness of the messy world. They imagine a kind of awful perfection in which the world is completely destroyed so that true perfection can begin.

There is a resonance here with Shimon bar Yochai's initial attitude toward the world. Steeped in the perfection of Torah and Sagely meditation, he cannot face the real world in its spiritual imperfection.

But God's lesson to him is that Shimon must not permit his longing for deeper spiritual connection lead to contempt for the physical world, nor to a desire for its destruction. Thus, the Sage is sent back to the cave.

Retreat to the world of Torah, of prayer, and our desire for the magnificent quiet of deeper spiritual development, must not lead us to bitterness. True Torah is in the world, engaged with the world, with all of its brokenness. That is, in fact, the essence of Torah.

This powerful story has real contemporary relevance and import. While it is true that not so many people are apocalyptics, there is a parallel spiritual development in our culture to which many of us fall victim.

So many people - whether they consider themselves spiritual seekers or not - seek solace from the messy and painful world outside. The search for meaning in our culture is so often expressed in an utterly internal way. We seek "inner peace," we try to "get away from it all," we try to "find out who I really am," or to "get at peace with" ourselves. None of these things is bad, and in fact, each has a place in the spiritual search. But when the interiorization of the spiritual search ends where it begins - within the individual - we become like Shimon bar Yochai, stuck in the cave, looking for perfection, growing ever distant from God's world.

So, look: the world is still here, thank God. Go to it.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Obama on Israel

A significant and not-so-significant speech from the President yesterday.

Significant in that he formalized a policy toward Israel: the US endorses using the lines drawn after the 1967 War as the basis for future negotiations. Significant also in that he said Hamas must recognize Israel for there to be peace, and that he expressed opposition to the proposed UN vote.

Not-so-significant because the 1967 line (not a border because it is not yet a state nor a negotiated boundary) has been the de facto basis of every serious discussion about peace. It was for Oslo, it was for the Clinton and Bush administrations, it is for peace proponents inside and outside of Israel. So Obama merely made formal what has been guiding the discussion for a long time.

Many Jews and Jewish organizations have reacted with outrage and anxiety. Sometimes our People's love for eretz yisrael is expressed through fear, and so this is inevitable. But Israel has always been founded on hope, and its future will only be secure if the Jewish people can find the strength to balance fear (expressed as reasonable caution) with hope.

Oseh shalom bimromav hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu v'al kol yisraeil. May the One who makes peace in the high heavens bring peace to us and to all Israel.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Joshua Rose
3950 Baseline Road
Boulder CO 80303

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hell No

The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat gives Hell a good name. He argues that belief in hell is necessary to a meaningful religious outlook:

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

I'm sure that Hell will have currency for those who are made uncomfortable by the supposed obfuscation of boundaries between good and bad in contemporary society. If you need the idea of eternal post-mortem punishment to shore up your vision of the Good Life here on earth, enjoy yourself.

But how distant this is from the Jewish vision of an inspired life of meaning. While ancient and early rabbinic Judaism did have an idea of a place of torment after death, it does not have a central role in Jewish thought.

Look at this beautiful teaching of Rabbi Natan of Breslov. An antidote to the grim notion that a life of meaning takes shape only against a backdrop of eternal pain.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Pesach Passes

A beautiful teaching I came across in preparing for Passover:

B’chol dor vador chayav adam lirot atzmo k’ilu yatza mimitzrayim.

In every single generation, one must see oneself (atzmo) as if one had come out from Egypt. - The Haggadah

Rabbi Aaron Friedman of Sadagura (Ukraine), in Kedushat Aharon, focuses on the dual meaning of atzmo to come up with a surprising interpretation of this well known phrase.

Atzmo usually means "himself." But Rabbi Friedman uses a related but distinct meaning of the word, which is "essence." He writes:

I think that atzmo refers to the atzmiyut, the essence of a person – the soul which is a part of God....One must look to see the inner essence, the divine life point that is within... When one attains this level of religious devotion, it is considered as if he or she has left Egypt...

When a person ceases looking merely at outward forms and instead looks at the spiritual essence then one’s devotion becomes an Exodus from Mitzrayim: from every confine, from materiality, from all boundaries....

This teaching is so beautiful. It amplifies the radical nature of the Exodus and personalizes it. We have within us a confine-destroying light, if you will. That light cannot be extinguished by any external condition of our lives. Not by social decay, not by corruption, not by poverty, not by slavery. It is always there. If we can reconnect with this essence we are reminded that we carry part of God within us. It is that pure point that cannot be overcome, and that can give such fierce hope that it can give us a vision of what our lives, as individuals and as members of a community, should look like.

The challenge is that we spend most of our days focusing not on our essence, but instead on externals. But we carry this around with us always...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

J Street Conference

Rabbi David Saperstein, a national Jewish leader and a mentor to me, delivered the opening remarks at the J-Street Conference. His remarks to the group are below.

I agree with his main point: if those who consider themselves to be pro-Israel chase away those who have legitimate moral questions about Israel, this works to Israel's political and moral disadvantage. And, if those who criticize Israel don't ground their criticisms in a way that takes account of the complexity of the situation they do real damage to Israel.

Here you go....

Rabbi David Saperstein Addresses J Street's Conference from Isaac Luria on Vimeo.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Another Week, Another War

It is clear that the US is prepared to fight another war - this one in Libya. True, there won't be any US troops on the ground - at least at the outset; I wouldn't expect that to hold if things get messy, as they tend to do in war - and the cause seems just. But isn't our culture growing too comfortable with war? Yes, the situation in Libya is already out of control and is already militarized, but does our nation's response need to be sending in men and women to put their lives at risk

Also - is President Obama unaware, as President Bush seemed to be, that we have a Constitution? It didn't used to be the case that the President could just declare war in all cases without the Congress being involved. Why isn't every editorialist and Congressperson in the country outraged at the President for this?

Here is a paper I wrote on Judaism and war. It is not quite on topic - my subject was Jewish teaching concerning the taking of civilian life in war - but there are some useful sources there.

Wikipedia entry on Judaism and war is here.