Monthly Archives: March 2016

Looking at Evil


I watched the Brussels footage again today. First, the familiar landscape of an airport terminal, transformed into a nightmare world of smoke, ceiling tiles, insulation, plastic, glass, and blood. Then the scene from the Metro as people file out, some stumbling, all terrified about what might await them as they rush out the tunnel and back up to the streets. In the airport footage, captured with an iPhone, you can here someone pleading for help. In the Metro footage, we hear the wailing of terrified a little girl. She can’t assimilate what just happened around her. She’s in shock. All she can do is cry.

I relate to the little girl. I sense her fear. I’m scared, too.

Whatever I thought the world would be like when I grew up, this isn’t it. I never imagined the amount and the intensity of hatred in the air today. I grew up with all the Cold War rhetoric, the Cuban missile crisis, and ducking and covering under my desk. Later, there was Vietnam and the demonstrations and the Chicago police at the Democratic convention. With all that as a backdrop to my life, there was never the additive of the homicidal hatred that swirls in the smoke in Brussels, Ankara, Istanbul, Paris, Jerusalem, New York City.

What moves men to blow their bodies apart along with innocent victims? What kind of culture creates people so filled with the urge for violence? What can I do, can we do, to dial back the hate?

If there’s an answer to any of those questions, I haven’t found it yet. There are those who seek to draw a direct line from Islamic theology to the anarchic violence of ISIS. As far as I can tell, the Islamic faith as a religion does not condone murder. To blame all Moslems for the recent carnage in Brussels is ludicrous. To suggest that America will be safer if we refuse entry to all Moslems is racist and an example of Islamophobia par excellence.

I’m not naïve. The terrorists who have wreaked such destruction time and again declare that Allah is great, before detonating suicide vests, bombs and anti-personnel devices. As Fareed Zakaria wrote over 2 years ago, The places that have trouble accommodating themselves to the modern world are disproportionately Muslim. There is a cancer of extremism within Islam today. A small minority of Muslims celebrates violence and intolerance and harbors deeply reactionary attitudes toward women and minorities.

In 2013, of the top 10 groups that perpetrated terrorist attacks, seven were Muslim. Of the top 10 countries where terrorist attacks took place, seven were Muslim-majority. The Pew Research Center rates countries on the level of restrictions that governments impose on the free exercise of religion. Of the 24 most restrictive countries, 19 are Muslim-majority. Of the 21 countries that have laws against apostasy, all have Muslim majorities.

The problem isn’t Islam itself, but rather how it is twisted to justify violence. What are social conditions that allow despots to treat their people with such cruel, tyrannical laws, also in the name of Allah. How does the USA fight that? Who do you carpet bomb? How does Europe contend with a minority population that has felt left out of every stage of economic development and cultural amelioration?

At this stage of the situation, there is something we can do. I’m not sure if it will have any impact on potential terrorists, but then again, it’s not meant for them. We have something we can do for ourselves. We can behave like mensches. We can clearly differentiate between Muslim terrorists and Islam as a whole. We can acknowledge that the vast majority of Muslims are not jihadists. We can support those who seek to make peace.

We can do our utmost to keep chaos at bay, to denounce racism and stereotyping. We can uphold the Jewish values of justice and peace in the face of vigilantism. To rise to the heights of democracy and social justice and equality or to give a standing ovation to tyranny and violence: this is a choice we have to make. That, I can do. We can do this together.


Remember! Forget!

I don’t know what the breakpoint is, but at a certain age, as soon as you say, “I can’t believe I forgot __________________________” [fill in the blank], people will spontaneously groan along with you and share their own memory problems. What we forget plagues us. Where I put the keys, where I put my passport [I thought you had it], the name of the book I read last week, why I’m standing in front of the refrigerator, what it was I wanted to google… It’s a veritable cavalcade of frustration and stress.
Then there are things we are sworn to remember. Significant family dates: birthdays and anniversaries most of all.  Along with the family dates are yahrzeit observances. Then there are holidays, both secular and Jewish. There are also concepts and teachings: Never Again, Remember the Alamo, the Pledge of Allegiance, and so forth.
We do our best at the remembering and struggle valiantly against the forgetting. I don’t want to say that it’s a losing battle though at times it sure feels that way. The science does not deliver much in the way of good news on that front.
So this week’s special Torah portion makes for a perplexing challenge. This is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of remembering. It is observed every year one month before Purim. We read the following text taken out of the usual order in the weekly Torah cycle. But what exactly are we supposed to remember?
Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt.   When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God.  When the Lord your God gives you rest from all the enemies around you in the land he is giving you to possess as an inheritance, you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven.  Do not forget! Deuteronomy 25:17-19.
Why read this selection of Torah a month before Purim? Of course, the real answer is that we don’t know. But we can surmise that a group of rabbis decided that the darker aspects of Purim, namely that there were – and are people who want to destroy us —  needs to be considered along with costume selections. In other words, as my father-in-law would say, “This is a serious business.” Haman is considered to be related to Amalek, so to conflate the characters feels right. Indeed, to this day, people say that Hitler and Stalin and a variety of other bad guys are all related to Amalek.
Remembering what the bad guys have done to us is an essential aspect of preserving our history. Amalek is the quintessential bad guy, the ruthless murderer who kills without remorse, without pause. And yet, the text says to remember Amalek even as we blot out his name. I read this as the text saying, “Remember! And forget!”
This cryptic, almost contradictory message does make some sense. It reminds me of a quote from the great Israeli poet, Yehudah Amichai, who said, “After the Holocaust we are like Lot’s wife. We keep running forward even as we keep looking back.” Of course blot out Amalek’s name. Of course blot out Hitler and his swastikas and his goose steps and the stiff-arm salute. Of course blot out Haman’s iniquities and his genocidal plan. Why carry around such pain and horror?
But of course, you can’t blot it out if you don’t know what “it” is. To be a Jew in the postmodern world is to be a person who carries around so many memories that need to be blotted out. The proclamation to remember engages us in understanding the deeper context of our survival. As Captain Jack Miller (Tom Hanks) draws his last breath, he tells Private Ryan (Matt Damon), “Earn this.”
The ultimate Jewish imperative is to tell the story, not to rehash the past, but to point emphatically to the future. Remember woes and appreciate what you have now and what your progeny may yet accomplish. Amalek is long gone, but the lessons learned as we struggled remain. Earn this.

We Need Teachers not Role Models

For most of my life, I assumed that everybody wanted to be like somebody else. There were people, called role models, whom we were directed to emulate. How often have older siblings heard the charge, “Behave! You’re a role model for your little brother and sister!” How many adults have purchased sports jerseys for their children hoping that the athlete in the original shirt might inspire their kids? And, unfortunately, more than a few of us may have heard, “Why can’t you be like [fill in the blank]?”, from a teacher or parent.

It never occurred to me that the idea of a role model was anything other than good and even constructive.  Until I started reading Martin Buber’s collection of essays called, The Way of Man.  He shares this short tale: Rabbi Bunam (1765–1827), a beloved Hasidic master, once said, “I would never want to trade places with Abraham! What good would it do God if Abraham became like Bunam and Bunam became like Abraham? Rather than have this happen, I think I will try to be a little more myself.” Buber then writes ” … Here we have a doctrine based on the fact that humans, by their nature, are diverse and differ one from another. Accordingly it teaches that people must not be regarded as alike. Every person has access to God but for each individual the way is different. It is precisely the diversity of human beings and in the diversity of their natures and individual inclinations that we find the great potential for the human species…. Many years ago, when several students of a deceased rabbi came to study with the Seer of Lublin, a great rabbi and teacher, they were surprised to see that his customs differed from those of their former teacher. The Seer exclaimed, “What sort of God would have only one way in which to be served!”” And then he writes, “One can go wrong only by paying attention to how far another has come and then attempting to imitate the other.”

What a liberating notion Buber reveals to us here. Trying to be like someone actually defeats the primary purpose of our lives, which is to self-actualize into the mensch that we are. When we attempt to walk in someone else’s footsteps, we leave no imprint of our own.

Sometimes in jazz, a young musician will try to replicate a great master’s sound, down to the nuances of every solo. Every note, every breath, every syncopated beat is captured. But while copying the sounds of a master is a technical feat, it certainly is not the young person’s solo. It is not until that budding musician steps up and creates their own distinct sound that we can see their real virtuosity.

We don’t need role models, that is, people to emulate. We need good teachers, people who can give us tools with which to shape our own creations. It’s not a professional athlete’s job to be a role model. Their job is to win games. Period. Kids into sports can learn how pros do what they do without investing in their personal habits or gestures. I can study great writers without wanting to dress how they dress or go to school where they went to school.

Humans are as different as snowflakes. We not only have our own unique fingerprints and DNA. We also have each of us our own soul. Each of us has our own path, our own way. It’s true that it’s much easier to be like someone else; it keeps us from being too vulnerable. But there is no one else to be like, because there is no one else like you. Telling someone to be a role model is a losing game. Challenge someone, and challenge yourself! to be a great teacher. And the first step to being a great teacher is to teach from your own truth, your own path.  As Rabbi Bunam said, “Try to become a little more yourself.”

The Bumpy Road: Reform Jewry and Israel

There were some bright and shining moments for the Reform movement this past week in Israel. Here’s one: a few hundred Reform rabbis, men and women, went to the newly established area by the Western Wall for “mixed praying”; i.e., a spot that is officially designated for men and women to pray together. It’s hard to explain how it felt as we rabbis stood together with folks from Women of the Wall, the organization that has never given up on the belief that the Wall belongs to every Jew, not just the ultra-Orthodox.  These women have been spit on, pelted with rocks, insulted, and arrested for disorderly conduct, because they dared to come to the Wall to pray while they wore their talleisim and carried a Torah.

I imagined that there should have been a hundred shofars blasting out notes of liberation and celebration into the Jerusalem morning. To finally be recognized as an equal presence at the Wall is so meaningful. Of course, it’s not exactly there in the front area of the Wall, the place so famous in so many photos; it’s over to the side and back out of eyeshot from the large courtyard. But we’ve arrived.

Another moment: we were invited to the Israeli parliament, where 15 different Knesset members came and spoke to hundreds of Reform rabbis at a special session of a Knesset committee on immigrant absorption. And almost all of their speeches brought messages of cooperation and tolerance. What a feeling of recognition and respect!

Earlier in the week, a Reform delegation spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu and members of his cabinet to thank them for their support. The leaders told Netanyahu the Reform movement was globally committed to supporting Israel but expected the Israeli government to advance the values of pluralism, religious freedom, and equality.

But this newfound sense of connection and cooperation was short-lived. I suppose in my naivete I forgot just how important it is to the Israeli government that the Reform movement be treated with full parity – not.

Just today, Religious Services Minister David Azoulay refused to sign the new regulations that will officially establish that egalitarian prayer space I mentioned above. His remarks – which were published in media outlets, including the ultra-Orthodox website Kikar Hashabbat – confirmed his unwillingness to cooperate. “Our next generation will neither forgive nor forget if we do not tell the truth and that we can say, ‘My hands did not spill this blood,’” a reference to biblical laws governing murder.

You may ask, “What do laws of murder in the Torah have to do with Reform men and women praying together?” I have no idea, either. But his opposition could not be any more emphatic than this. Which means this wondrous moment when we prayed together at the Wall may not be soon repeated because the space will not be legally designated for that purpose.

But wait, there’s more.  Rabbi David Yosef, a prominent member of the Council of Sages’ decried giving Reform Jews an inch of space at the Wall. “Reform is a collaboration with idolatry. Reform are idolaters – simply and literally… I do not know why we ignore this today… The Reform are the biggest fighters against Zionism. They do not believe in the coming of the messiah. For generations they erased any mention of Zion and Jerusalem in their prayer books…. We will not rest and we will fight for it, and you will see that with God’s help we will win, they will not get the Kotel! The Kotel is a holy place, it is ours.”

Reform Jews still have so many opponents blocking our way to equal treatment in Israel. It is an ongoing struggle that we don’t seem to know how to win. As long as there are ultra-Orthodox Jews with political power at the highest levels of government, we will be beaten back every time. The Prime Minister, in the end, will give the Ultra-Orthodox what they want.

We will keep pushing for a pluralistic Israel even as we see the concept being pilloried and defamed. We will keep bringing groups to Israel, trying to explain the inequities that seem too easily embraced. Of course, we are still committed to Israel.  But this marriage between Israel and American Jewry has ended up not being so cozy or comfortable.

Shabbat Shalom