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)

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Airport Security, Ben Gurion Style

If you've flown from the US to Israel in the last 8 years, then you're aware of the stark contrast between American and Israeli airport security.

In America, the process of going through security takes way too long (too much time in lines), is ludicrous (pulling aside 90 year old women for explosives search) and cumbersome (mam, even though you're a seven months pregnant and traveling with a two year old, we need you to dig up containers of toothpaste and shampoo from your luggage and then to step aside so we can scan your socks). And as a reward for our lemming-like patience, we continue to find holes in the system either via TSA agents who are able to sneak explosives on planes or via actual threats that are fortunately derailed by courageous passengers.

In Israel, the process is quick, efficient, rational and there are no security breaches. This article explains why. I love the very Israeli-ness of the guy they interview.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Time Out for...Vic

Very sad news tonight in the NYTimes - the wonderful singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt has died. I've posted an amateur video (just still pics and lyrics) of his song "I'm Through" because there are very few high quality videos. Very spare guitar playing and a voice of immense power. Zichrono livracha.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Is a Political Rabbi a Bad Rabbi?

The Tikkun Olam Committee at Har HaShem recently sent out a letter advocating support for the health care bill and encouraging congregants to call their Congressional Representatives and Senators to encourage the bill's passage. It was signed "Rabbi Rose and the Tikkun Olam Committee."

I have received four responses from Congregants saying, essentially, "It was inappropriate for the Rabbi to advocate a particular political position and to encourage congregants to adopt that position." I'm not capturing the nuance of the letters, some of which were particularly thoughtful, but that is the gist.

First, I want to be clear that, as we said in the letter, you can certainly be a good Jew and oppose this legislation. The Jewish tradition does not require anyone to support this bill. Going further, there are some people who will find that Jewish values require them to oppose this legislation – that is a legitimate perspective. I want everyone to feel that the Jewish tradition and Har HaShem are foundational to their spiritual lives even if they disagree with others in the synagogue about any particular issue.

Second, though, I wanted to open this for discussion. Is it ever appropriate for a Rabbi in a synagogue to encourage passage of a particular piece of legislation? If so, under what circumstances?

Guidelines: keep responses brief and respectful. This is not a place for anger-filled polemics.

My argument is
All Jews, rabbis included, have obligation to make their voices heard when their tradition calls upon them to speak out.

Because we live in a diverse democracy, all people must use neutral language that is not particularistic in their political discussions. Though you may feel that “God wants me to support/oppose this or that legislation,” in a diverse society you must use rational, secular language to be persuasive.

There is no such thing as a moral issue that is not sullied by the particulars of legislation. The civil rights debate in the 50s and 60s were not just about “Inequality is immoral and must be stopped!” It was about legal language, constitutional powers, the balance between state and federal power. So, a Jew can’t seriously advocate/oppose a moral position on issue X without rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty with particulars.

Finally, Judaism is a religious tradition oriented toward not only the cultivation of individual spiritual life but also toward the creation of a just society. It requires us to look after the well-being of other people. One may say that conservative or liberal policies are the best way to achieve this, but my argument is that Judaism does not want us to disengage from political issues – which, I’m arguing, are actually moral issues.

What do you think?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Too good. Thanks to Yehudis for passing it on:

Unsettling II

A while ago I posted here about Netanyahu and the settlement freeze. This New York Times article on Netanyahu suggests that he does, in fact, have an endgame. I don't see it.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

War in Afghanistan Just?

I haven't had time to look at the President's speech. But The Times' coverage indicates that he referred to "just war" theory - or at least he argued that is a "just war."

There's information about just war theory here, which I think is not only a compelling way to approach the ethics of engaging in any particular war, but also an intellectually elegant argument in general.

You can find a paper I wrote about Jewish ethics and war here; part of the paper explains the just war theory. Judaism has no comparable theory.

Let me know your thoughts.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Time Out for Fun - The Story

OK, I was trying to find a way to tie this song into Torah in some way, because most of my "Time Out for Fun" vids have some Jewish tie in. I could try to connect the "I was made for you" line to some kind of existentialist theology, or the "blessing" line into some simpler religious notion.

The truth is that I just love Brandi Carlile's music. Her voice is a formidable weapon. I have just been knocked out by the force of it on a few occasions. But she is also a sly and skilled singer, dancing around the beat, dragging out sssylables. She's a bit of a Muhammad Ali of singers: brutally powerful but also capable of incredibly subtle movement. Enough blather; give it a listen and let me know your thoughts.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Strange Frequencies

Incredible story in the jpost about correlations between the frequencies of colors and the numerical value of the words representing them:

Rabbi Joshua Rose

Thursday, December 3, 2009


This can't work. I just don't see how Israel can continue to conduct itself in this way and create any long term security for itself.

Netanyahu met with settlers in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and showed his true colors. To placate the United States, Israel has agreed to halt settlement. Netanyahu sends a signal of his contempt and his unseriousness about it though to the world during this meeting: "There are nine months and three weeks left," he tells them. In other words, we'll keep building as soon as possible; this whole thing is an illusion.

What is the play here? What is the long term goal of Netanyahu? He seems to be acting as though it is still 1989.

I can't read this without this week's Torah portion in mind. After years of bitterness and fear, Jacob and Esau see each other again. Jacob sends gifts in advance - yes, out of fear, as he seems to acknowledge - and they embrace, years of animosity dissolving in a moment.

No, I'm not arguing, as some simplistically do, that if Israel is just generous enough and warm-fuzzy enough, all will be good. That's foolish and disproven by history (Israel's history and diplomatic history in general). But what creates peace between Esau and Jacob is a genuine transformation and acts of self-sacrifice (not to mention inner transformation, at least on Jacob's part).

Diplomatic shell games are not going to do it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Gratitude - Overstuffed Turkey edition

I’m opening this blog to those in my Musar class, The 613 Habits of Highly Effective People (well, it was open before, but I’m steering the class here now). The next class will focus on the middah (attribute) of gratitude. I’m encouraging people in the class (and feel free to jump in if you’re not in the class) to comment on the post, and comment on the comments. In other words, let’s use the blog as a place for discussion.

But first, something strange for Thanksgiving. In Hebrew, the word hodu means both “turkey” and “give thanks.” Think about that coincidence over the holiday…

Back to gratitude. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeitzei, Jacob famously lays down to sleep and dreams of a ladder reaching up to heaven. God addresses him, assuring him that the Divine presence will be with Jacob as he journeys.

Then Jacob wakes up. Startled, he says “Ah, yes, God is in this place – and I did not know.” This is commonly understood in two ways. Some people (Ibn Ezra, Rashi) say that the actual spot where Jacob went to sleep was loaded with prophetic energy. But others (Genesis Rabbah) point out that “this place” could refer to the whole world.

If we go with this second interpretation, then we should constantly be saying, like Jacob, “God is in this place and I did not know.”

This fits nicely with the phrase that best conveys gratitude in Hebrew: hakarat ha-tov, literally “recognition of the good.” Simply put, that’s what gratitude is: recognizing what is good in our lives, without either denying or getting caught up in the myriad problems we know are there, too.

Gratitude is essential to a Jewish life. It’s in our prayers, blessings, rituals. We are supposed to wake up to it, sleep to it, eat to it. Having said that, it’s easier to talk about gratitude than to feel it. How is it going for you?

Happy Thansgiving, and please share your thoughts about gratitude. For those in the class, you may also decide this is a good place to comment on the theme’s of last class: humility and patience.

So, let me express my genuine gratitude for those of you who read this blog and share your thoughts with me on and off line. And a heartfelt thank you also to those who have already made the 613 Habits class so rich already.

- Rabbi Josh

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Human Rights? Watch!

A very surprising article (Thanks, for sending it along, Bill) in the New York Times: The founder of Human Rights Watch criticizes that organization for their biased treatment of Israel.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

They Don't Call it Um Shmum for Nothing

The abbreviation U.N. (United Nations), when translated into Hebrew, becomes "um" (pronounced 'oom'). Among Israelis, the U.N. is derisively referred to as "um shmum." Why? Things like the following, from Ha'aretz:

Goldstone slams UN council for ignoring Hamas war crimes

South African jurist Richard Goldstone, who headed the United Nations investigation over the Gaza offensive, criticized on Friday the Human Rights Council's decision to endorse the report his commission had compiled.

Goldstone told the Swiss newspaper Le Temps before the vote that the wording of the resolution was unfortunate because it included only censure of Israel. He voiced hope that the Human Rights Council would alter the wording of the draft.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Words Create (Editors Destroy)

In this week of Bereishit, in which we read again and celebrate again, the story of creation, my thoughts drift to the power of language (a concise, if not completely accurate summary, of Bereishit would be "Words, Matter" If you think of a more concise summary, let me know).

Genesis postulates that there is a relationship between words and language. God says y'hi or (let there be light) va'yhi or (and there was light). I do believe that a words opens up a universe of meaning and this is how I understand the relationship between the importance of language in the creation story and the importance of language in the brit between the Jewish people and God. Whole realms of ethics, subjects for theological speculation, are opened up by Divine articulation. More than that, though, words of the tradition inspire actions and personal transformation. Language leads to creation.

This is why Judaism is constantly renewing and developing: the texts are always opening to people to take on new meanings and to discover in our own lives how language leads to creation.

Why all this? Because I'm working creating a new Kabbalat Shabbat service (starts this Friday at 6pm, come check it out) that is going to be truly great. It will draw on the psalms of a full Kabbalat Shabbat service. But I can't use the Reform prayerbook for the service. Why? Because the editors (some of them former teachers of mine for whom I have a great deal of respect) decided to remove large chunks of the readings in this (and many other) parts of the prayerbook.

To be fair, this most recent prayerbook has restored much language that had been removed from earlier Reform prayerbooks, so this has to be seen in context. But Reform Jews are robbed of the possibility of new creation, new meaning, by editors who have decided that it is not a priority that Reform Jews have access to certain traditional readings in their prayers.

The great contradiction of Reform Judaism: it is on the one hand a very democratic movement. It values individual Jewish experience and the search for meaning in the establishment of communal practice and in the articulation of individual obligation. But there is another anti-democratic strain, in which the intellectual elites of the Movement make editorial decisions to remove large swaths of prayers that have existed for centuries, essentially making spiritual choices for millions of Jews, choices that preclude the creation of universes of meaning.

This is why I encourage people to own our Reform siddur but to also own many other "traditional" prayerooks that have all the other good bits...

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Sukkah Born Every Minute

I actually don't have a post to go with that title, though we could think of one.

So, if you don't know, Sukkot it coming up Friday night. (At Har HaShem, by the way, there is a Sukkah-decorating program for families at 5:00 on Friday, followed by a family service and picnic. The "grown-up" services are at 7:00).

Anyway - a couple of thoughts. Each year the chagim (Jewish festivals) have a different meaning for me (and for all of us). This year, there's a sort of anti-materialism tradition that I'm digging.

There's a whole social critique connected to Sukkot that we can read as an anti-consumerist impluse, cutting against the insane bounty of our society. Even in a time of economic difficulty - and I'm sure some reading this have been personally affected by job-losses - Americans live with expectations that we should have cell phones, stereos, enough food to make us flabby, cars, computers, iPods, BlackBerry's huge TVs, etc.

Maimonides writes that Sukkkot reminds us of our time in the desert in order "to teach people to remember, during time of prosperity, harder times. We will then want to thank God repeatedly and to lead a modest and humble life."

Can hanging out in a booth with gourds hanging from the roof really bring us to that level of awareness and modesty? What do you think?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Polanski and Forgiveness

I've been so out of the loop with the chagim and all the work (I should say avodah) around them that I've been in a kind of news exile.

In any event, Roman Polanski was arrested on charges of child rape. He was charged over thirty years ago in California with raping a 13 year old. He fled the US and has been living in Europe since. US authorities arrested him as he was traveling to Switzerland (?) to receive an award. He is awaiting the judgment of a Swiss (?) court as to whether his extradition to the US for prosecution of this long ago event.

I came across the story in an article, in the NYT I believe, in which the French culture minister, Mitterand, said, essentially, that Polanski had erred many years ago, but his contributions as a great artist far outweighed this error. There is a United States that the French loved, he said, but that there was a United States that scared people, and that was the one showing its face with this arrest.

Many others have come to the defense of this beloved and brilliant filmmaker and have argued against his arrest.

This article from Salon is a powerful and plainly stated reminder of why such sentiments are so terribly wrong.

The defenders of Polanski who I have read online are not necessarily arguing that he didn't commit the crime. There seems to be a theme that he did commit the crime but that we should forget about it.

Our capacity to create, even to create great beauty, does not negate our horrible acts. Those acts have to be confronted, contemplated, understood and punished. Polanski has made no attempt at reconciliation - he fled the country. We have a tendency to be dazzled by beauty - but we can't become so dazzled that we no longer can see right and wrong.

There is also an impulse to be sympathetic because of Polanski's age and that fact that the alleged crime took place 32 years ago. But forgiveness doesn't just seep into one's skin over time. Polanksi is charged with raping a young girl - having sex with her against her will. How could this just melt away?

The religious dimension of repentance is that when we hurt someone - and clearly 'hurt' doesn't begin to describe the experience of this young girl (now a woman in her mid 40s) - we have to attempt to make amends. We seek forgiveness and reconciliation with the other person and we also engage in an internal process known as teshuvah - contemplation, reflection, commitment to change.

Both this external and internal process are hard to imagine in the case of a child rape - how could one seek forgiveness? The notion that he has the power to assuage her is offensive - what could be done? Halachah states that one who refuses to be assuaged takes on a burden of guilt but I do not know if the halachah is equipped to deal with such traumatic cases (I'm not saying this rhetorically; I really don't know). And second, it would seem likely that she would only be traumatized by any encounter with him and would want to, and should be entitled to, avoid it.

The legal (that is, US law) dimension is clearer. How can we not charge such a crime, even three decades late? If the law can not bring justice in the case of a 13 year old girl raped by a predator...then what good is the law?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Soulfood Presents: Metal from the Shtetl

August 23rd, Rock and Soul Cafe, time TBA but probably 7ish.

We'll be trying to figure out why so many Jews are Metal artists: most recently, the guys from Anvil, but of course the illustrious Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Dee Snider, C.C. DeVille, Slash, etc.

What is this about? Anger? Loudness?

We'll be enjoying frosty beverages and probably some food; join us.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Meditations on Jewish Psychedelia, Vol III

Does God revive the dead? Many Jews think that resurrection is a Christian belief, some strange holdover from the Jesus cult. Makes sense; I mean, they think that God died and was resurrected...so that must be their territory. Well, as in many other cases, the Christians stole our best chops.

Resurrection of the dead is a traditional Jewish belief. Three times a day we bless God for being m'chayeh ha-meitim, the one who gives life to the dead.

I don't spend a lot of time thinking about hearing Sammy Davis Junior crooning again in the afterlife, so for me the prayer doesn't bring much on that level. I have been struggling recently with another kind of deadness - a lack of umph/enthusiasm. Part of it has to do with returning from the emotional high of Israel and part of it is just who I am.

When I meditate daily to M'chayeh ha-meitim, I'm thinking of the possibility of coming out of these periodic slumps, a struggle that in itself is life-affirming. So, I pray for a kind of life-giving, if not for bodily resurrection...

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Loving Exile (On Main Street)

Listening a lot these days to the Stones' Exile on Main Street. What a glorious set of songs. The band at their apex, I think.

Also, what a great title - a Chasidic title, almost, in its use of galut (exile) not as a location in space but as a state of mind. It is possible to be in the "right place" and in a state of mind (or soul) that feels like exile.

I've been trying to listen to other albums, but this keeps demanding another play. Yesterday I put in a CD that I love so I could finally kick the Exile habit. It was Yonatan Razel's Sach Ha-Kol, an album of beautiful religious music in Hebrew. I couldn't listen to more than a song or two because it was so....one dimensional. Exile on Main St. is so textured and has a hundred years (at least) of musical tradition pouring out of it, each strain bouncing off the other.

Anyway, if you are a fan of the Stones and don't know the album, get a copy. The Yonatan Razel album is beautiful as well.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Uncle Sam and Iran

What do the United States and Iran have in common? They both use torture to get information from people they consider to be grave threats to their national security. And neither side calls it torture. Enhanced interrogation, intensive interrogation: let's call the whole thing off.

From an article in UTV news:

Fellow prisoners are reported to have heard screams of pain from Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister, and Ramezanzadeh, who was Khatami's government spokesman, during interrogations at [the prison] Evin's section 209, which is reserved for political prisoners and run by the hardline intelligence ministry.

Do those Americans who supported enhanced interrogation in this country support Iranian hardliners using those same techniques? I'd rather not be in their company.

Friday, June 19, 2009

shabbat shalom from Jerusalem

I'm soaking in the beautiful tranquility of Jerusalem before Shabbat. Quiet, the sound of just a few cars below, the streets empty.

Israel is a center of conflict to those in the diaspora. It has become even more clear to me that the simple political categories in America and Europe are insufficient to understand the conflict. On this trip we heard both from a peace activist who spoke convincingly about the real security risks facing Israel if the territories are given to the Palestinian people. This is also a woman with five children in the IDF. A few days later we heard from an analyst positioned firmly on the right who said that Israel must constantly seek peace and return to the negotiating table. He spoke personally about not wanting to send his seven year old son into an IDF facing war. Here political positions often reflect the complexity of real life instead of party or ideological allegiance.

But Israel is not just a place of conflict. It is a nation with a purpose, still, after all these years: to provide a home for the Jewish people. A diverse society to be sure, and an idealistic one - in spite of some of the unhinged charges of its more extreme critics. But a place for the Jewish people to be secure, to learn from its past and to discover its future. It is a place of great beauty and inspiration. We should all have a chance to be here at some point.

There are those among the Jews for whom Israel's future is guaranteed by its very existence - as if our status as Jews is a gaurantee of God's protection. In this week's parshah Korach challenges the priest's special status, affirming that all Israel is holy. We are taught though that Korach's mistake was in thinking that holiness is given rather than achieved. He and his followers felt it was there right to lead simply because of who they were - they did not need to become anything more to have power. Perhaps this is why there is the mysterious object-less verb, "Korach took," at the beginning of the Parshah. Maybe there is no missing word: it is just a statement of Korach's essence, an explanation of why he was punished. He simply wished to take, rather than give. He saw power as something to be given to him, an acquisition. Israel must continue to derive its security from is sense of purpose, its mission, its righteousness. This is not guranteed by the fact of its existence - but it is a promise of our past and a future that we must build.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Into the Wild

Half of the group left tonight. The rest are staying for the extension. We head into the Negev tomorrow, into the largest crater on Earth.

Today we walked the Old City. We were in the tomb of king David, housed inside a synagogue inside a building that was a monastery that is inside a building that was a mosque.

Being here has such a profound effect. It just feels like the right place to be - a country with a purpose, struggling constantly to survive and building all the time.

Monday, June 15, 2009


We began the day at 4am to prepare for our sunrise ascent to Masada. Just after we got to the top the sun broke through brilliantly. How great to have to face north to pray the Amidah instead of east.

A tour de force...tour of Masada and its history from Yishai our guide.

This symbol of resistance was once occupied by the zealots, frowned upon by the rabbis for their commitment to violence and death over life. And this week we read Parshat Korach, about another band of rebels disliked by the authorities. But we learn that the fire pans on which these rebels offered the incense rejected by God were used after the rebellion as part of the mishkan. To dissent becomes part of the altar. So too with the Great Revolt that culminated in mass death at Masada, rejected by rabbinic authorities and crushed by Rome - it becomes a symbol of resistance and freedom as the temple is destroyed and Judaism is reborn without Temple service. A new altar is created.

Now we're in Jerusalem. We started with a kiddush and shechechiyanu at Mt. Scopus. Tomorrow is Yad Vashem. Everyone is infused with the city's spirit. More later

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Israel Journey

An unbelievable jouney so far. Several people in the group have never before been to Israel - for them it is even more powerful. We've just spent Shabbat in Dor-Nachsholim, a beautiful beachside kibbutz. The Meditteranean is crystal blue. It was here that the blue dye techlet was made - and we are commanded to put a blue fringe on our tzitzit at the end of the parshah that we read on the Shabbat that we spent here (shalach l'cha). B'sheret.

Our guide for our Shabbat morning stroll on the archaeological mound on the coast was just the guy from reception at the hotel. He turns out to be a world famous marine archaeologist named Kurt Ravel, the guy who recovered the 2000 year old Galilee boat.

Too many beautiful moments to tell. Some highlights: meeting Avraham Dar, member of Palmach (the original military force that fought for independence) and later mossad agent. Rafting on the Jordan, meeting a peace activist with five sons who are IDF officers, celebrating Shabbat with our sister congregation in Zichron Yaakov, all of us united in literal and symbolic harmony as we sing in our ancient language.

Our pace has been crazy but we have seen so much. Masada and Jerusalem await.

What a magnificent country. So much investment in making this dream real. Ein zo aggadah, it is no legend, because of the work that people do every day.


Sunday, June 7, 2009

To Israel, With Love

So the Har Hashem Israel trip is about to leave. We are sitting on the runway at JFK antitpating ten hours of fly time. There are 14 of us and we are meeting 7 more in Tel Aviv. So far not much to report except the miracle of the ordinary: flight announcements and instructions in lashon hakodesh, the holy language. Not the elevated language of prayer of course but even more miraculous: who could have dreamed that we could have the privelege of hearing the banal in Hebrew? Well actually they willed it and it was no dream. More from Israel - we're buckling down for a nasia tovah.

Monday, May 11, 2009


An article here about an uptick in interest in the Golem. No, not the band Golem. No, not that Gollum) either. Information on the Maharal of Prague here.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Torture and Jewish Values, Continued

I'm increasingly disappointed by the Obama administration's stance on prosecution of the previous administration officials for the policies they developed and pursued permitting torture. Either they violated the law or they didn't if they didn't, then explain how that is the case. If they did violate the law then we have an obligation to the Constitution to take action. But we can't acknowledge that there was wrongdoing while claiming that we shouldn't pursue justice. Can we?

This idea that following the law amounts to vengeance and "looking back" is very troubling for those who like the idea that we are a nation of laws. See my earlier post, below, for a critique of the solidifying (congealing?) conventional wisdom in Washington on this.

For those who want a clearer picture of the practices we are talking about, the so called "torture memos" released earlier this month are here.

Torture: Justice or Vengeance?

David Broder has a piece in the Washington Post arguing that Obama is right to try to move the country away from prosecution of those who led the United States to torture terror suspects. I think Broder and Obama are both wrong.

Broder argues that
1) prosecution would amount to scapegoating.
2) the torture memos (that is, the torture policy) were the result of careful deliberate debate within the Bush white house.
3) prosecution would "set the precedent for turning all future policy disagreements into...vendettas."
4) The outcome of prosecution of Bush administration "underlings" would lead to the prosecution of President Bush, which is not desirable.

This is a silly argument, but it is one being made by a respected opinion-maker at one of the nation's leading papers. It's silliness must be exposed.

The "scapegoating" analogy is fascinating for its wrongness. The "scapegoat" comes from the Yom Kippur ritual described in Leviticus 16. The priest transfers the sins of Israel onto the goat, which is then set free to run into the wilderness carrying the sins of the community with it, thus purging Israel of its transgression.

The scapegoat, then, is burdened with the impurity of a sin that it did not (and, being a goat, could not) commit. There is no comparison between this and seeking to punish officials for the acts that they themselves committed.

Broder could have made a more interesting if imperfect analogy if he really wanted to hold onto the scapegoat idea: the desire to prosecute is misguided because it would punish a few individuals for the sins of the entire nation. This is not Broder's idea, but it might cause us to reflect on our own collective responsibility for allowing torture to result from our national anxiety and fear following 9/11.

The second argument, that we should not prosecute because even though the torture policies were wrong, they were the result of thoughtful deliberation, is also foolish. To begin with, it is increasingly clear the policies were not the result of thoughtful deliberation at all. Instead, John Yoo et al sought legal justifications for policies to which the administration was already committed. In addition, dissenting voices within the administration were shut out of the conversation so that their reservations about the legality of the torture policies would not stand in the way of the justifications being sought (See Jane Mayer's book The Dark Side for a fascinating and disturbing look at the internal debate in the administration.

But even if the administration policies were not post-facto justification for permitting torture, could we really say that their architects should be free from prosecution simply because there was a process of deliberation in place? No, we couldn't. Whether there was deliberation and debate is not the only issue. The other essential issue is whether that deliberation took place within a context of commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law.

Broder's third argument would prohibit prosecution of any wrongdoing at the government, or perhaps just the executive, level. A nation that subscribes to the rule of law can't possibly accept this notion, can it?

The response to the fourth argument is really a reiteration of the response to the third. If President Bush was responsible for acts that might be proven illegal, he should be prosecuted for them. We would be in serious trouble if the most powerful people in our nation were not subject to the law.

We learn in Pirkei Avot that we should be thankful for the government because without fear of it, human beings would eat one another alive. (By the way, now is a great time to read Pirkei Avot - its six chapters are traditionally studied between Passover and Shavuot). In our nation, the law is the government and if we fear to use the law to protect the values cherished by our people, we run the risk of social chaos - people eating one another alive.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Time Out for Fun - Kutiman's Aural-Video Tzimmes

Israeli musician Kutiman creates a song from ordinary musical clips on Youtube. The results are confusingly funky. A harmonious balagan, if there can be such a thing.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Purim - Lots....of Chaos

A brief word on Purim, which begins Monday night.

Purim means 'lots' and refers to the fact that the evil Haman cast lots to determine the date upon which the Jews would be destroyed (see Esther 3:7). Purim takes its name from chance, then - the pure chaos that seems to governs our lives. Haman's crass indifference to the fate of God's people is demonstrated by this contemptuous act of allowing chance to determine when the Jews will be destroyed.

But even beyond this literal casting of the lots, the story symbolizes the chaos of existence on a deeper level. People throughout the vast kingdom are to be destroyed because a single person (Mordechai) refused to bow to a king's Minister whose temper happened to get the best of him? How can any kind of Divine plan unfold in a world in which a single man, controlled by the vagaries of his own anger, has so much power?

God seems to be absent - there is no mention of God in the story at all. What is the relationship between the absence of God from the tale and the sense of chaos and chance that hang over the story?

Levi Yitzchak has a beautiful reflection on this. He takes this notion that God is absent and uses it to emphasize the importance of human agency. God's absence from the story reflects the fact that tzadikim, righteous ones, have the capacity to undo Divine decrees. God looks to the righteous and fulfills their will instead of God's own.

Rather than describing a righteous person as someone who does God's will, he redefines it as someone whose will God does. The righteous are sovereign. This explains why, in spite of God's absence and the corresponding presence of grim fate, the story comes out well: the righteous Mordechai and Esther bring salvation.

Our own sense sometimes that the world is without order, governed by chaos shouldn't lead us to despair. Instead it should lead us to a profound sense of hope, possibility and responsibility - that the chaos is only superficial and can be overcome by acts of courage and beauty.

Pretty heavy. So, don't forget to have mad fun on Purim, Monday night.

The Mitzvot of Purim (not a full list):
*Observe the fast of Esther - Monday morning until Monday evening (March 9th)
*Hear the Megillah read on Monday evening.
*Celebrate with a great meal.
*Send food to friends.
*Give gifts/money to those in need.
*Some say that one is obligated to get drunk enough on Purim that one no longer knows the difference between "blessed is Mordechai and Cursed is Haman." Others, however, say that the obligation is merely to drink more than one is accustomed to. Of course, one struggling with alcoholism is required to stay away from alcohol altogether on Purim.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Torture and Jewish Values

Alberto Gonzales does not think there will be prosecutions of Bush Administration officials for instituting torture in our pursuit of terrorists. I certainly hope he is wrong. I would love to see those involved - at whatever levels - strongly, er, embraced by the long arm of the law.

This does not come from my desire for the satisfaction of moral vengeance. It comes from my belief in the centrality of law to creating the possibility of moral order. There is a well-known statement in Pirkei Avot (in the Mishnah) that powerfully describes the importance of legal order:

Rabbi Chanina S'gan Ha-Kohanim said 'Pray for the well-being of the government - because without fear of it, a person would eat his neighbor alive.'

When the constitution is subverted, the kind of behavior we saw in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, and which occurred in foreign interrogations at the bequest of the United States, prevails. Investigations and prosecutions where those are appropriate would shore up the rule of law, and thereby strengthen the government.

Yesterday I met with a Bar Mitzvah student. His Torah portion will be Mishpatim. Initially he was having trouble finding the text interesting - it was just a series of laws: what to do if your ox gores someone; what to do if your donkey falls in a pit created by someone else; the punishment for assault. We talked about what kind of society the Torah was trying to create, and what the society must have looked like without those laws. The moral and political order created by the Torah creates the kind of foundation upon which societies upholding human dignity are built.

So, hooray for prosecuctions. To quote our last president: "Bring 'em on!"

Rabbi Melissa Weintraub began as a rabbinical student to explore this issue and created some incredible resources on torture and the Jewish tradition. There are four documents which can be found here.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Roman Ruin

Pope Benedict is reinstating four men into the Church. One of them is a Holocaust denier (or, as he calls it, the "quote unquote Holocaust"). See the article here. Relevant dialogue from an interview on Swedish television is below.

The Church is gravely damaging relations with the Jewish world - taking giant steps back from the courageous path carved out during Vatican II.

Q: Bishop Williamson, are these your words: “There was not one Jew killed by the gas chambers. It was all lies, lies, lies.”? Are these your words?

A: There you are quoting from Canada I believe, yes, of many years ago. I believe that the historical evidence — the historical evidence — is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolph Hitler.

Q: But you say that not one Jew was killed?

A: In gas chambers. I think…

Q: So there was no gas chambers?

A: I believe there were no gas chambers. Yes. As far as I have studied the evidence. I’m not going by emotion. I’m going by as far as I’ve understood the evidence. I think, for instance, people who are against what is widely believed today about the quote-unquote the Holocaust, I think that people, those people conclude — the revisionists as they’re called — I think the most serious conclude that between two and three hundred thousand Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, but not one of them by gassing in a gas chamber.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Time Out for Fun - Dylan, License to Kill (Live)

Electrifying performance of Dylan's magnificent "License to Kill," from the 1983 album Infidels. "He worships at an altar of a stagnant pool - and when he sees his reflection, he's fulfilled." Wow. Lyrics are below the video.

Man thinks 'cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please
And if things don't change soon, he will.
Oh, man has invented his doom,
First step was touching the moon.

Now, there's a woman on my block,
She just sit there as the night grows still.
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Now, they take him and they teach him and they groom him for life
And they set him on a path where he's bound to get ill,
Then they bury him with stars,
Sell his body like they do used cars.

Now, there's a woman on my block,
She just sit there facin' the hill.
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Now, he's hell-bent for destruction, he's afraid and confused,
And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill.
All he believes are his eyes
And his eyes, they just tell him lies.

But there's a woman on my block,
Sitting there in a cold chill.
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Ya may be a noisemaker, spirit maker,
Heartbreaker, backbreaker,
Leave no stone unturned.
May be an actor in a plot,
That might be all that you got
'Til your error you clearly learn.

Now he worships at an altar of a stagnant pool
And when he sees his reflection, he's fulfilled.
Oh, man is opposed to fair play,
He wants it all and he wants it his way.

Now, there's a woman on my block,
She just sit there as the night grows still.
She say who gonna take away his license to kill?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Thoughts on Judaism and War

I have posted a paper that I wrote on the Jewish tradition and warfare here. It is an exploration of whether there is a basis for a "just war theory" in Judaism and of what Judaism has to say about the killing of civilians in war. Obviously, I'm posting it now because of what is happening in Gaza - as my first post on this showed I think it is a horrible and very complicated situation. For those just interested in the civilian issue, sections V and VI are most relevant.

Michael Walzer, a Princeton philosopher who has written a lot about the ethics of warfare, has over the last couple of years begun to explore Jewish values and war. Some of his work on the topic is here.

Creator of Lights

Beautiful images from the Hubble Telescope. "The Heaven's Declare the Glory of God." No doubt. See the Glory here. Thanks to Yehudis for passing this along.