Monthly Archives: March 2019

Beyond Belief

Again.

I’ve read so much about the Holocaust, looked at Nazi propaganda, and wondered how educated people could look at us and then decide that because we are Jewish, we are, ipso facto, subhuman. Why are there people for whom our existence is an insult?

No matter how much I try, no matter what I read, I remain utterly clueless as to how it is possible for a person to plan methodically, and then carry out, a mass murder against people who have committed no crime, whose only “sin” is to be of a different color and/or religion.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Omar Ilhan, her statements that some see as antisemitic at most, and at least, insensitive to Jewish interests and historical trigger words. But I’m not worried about her comments. She’s a first-year representative; we’ll see how she does and the extent to which she’s interested in Jewish concerns. No, she’s not seeking to inspire a race war; she’s not glorifying mass murder.

What worries me, what keeps me up at night is white nationalism and the twisted ideology that fuels it. A hodgepodge of ugly, ignorant thinking riles people up who feel disenfranchised, left behind in a multi-ethnic future. These deluded people – mostly men – are motivated—at least in part—by the fear that whites are in the process of being demographically outnumbered and replaced. Hence the chants in Charlottesville, Virginia, of “Jews will not replace us! Blacks will not replace us! Immigrants will not replace us!”

You may have noticed that, when it comes to white supremacists, we Jews are not considered white at all. For the men who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, we are an enemy, a historical relic that must be destroyed, because we are Jews. For the shooter in New Zealand, for Dylan Roof, and some of the other sickos engaged in this despicable behavior, the Jewish people are no different than the folks sitting in the mosque, praying to Allah.

Now more than ever, we must acknowledge that we are a part of an alliance comprised of Moslems and people of color. We are in the same circle as Honduran refugees, eager to find safety. We share a real vulnerability to this kind of hatred and rage.

The phrase “white genocide,” a mythological conspiracy created by white supremacists – contends that people of color – and that includes us – are plotting to destroy the white race. Get used to hearing this absurd, stupid claim. It is the clarion call of the alt-right. It’s used all the time now.

We know white nationalist violence is here to stay. The real question is whether the United States and other governments will treat it with the seriousness it deserves and work together to counter this growing international scourge.

In the meantime, we stay vigilant. We monitor the hate groups and support organizations that get us accurate information. We extend ourselves to our allies and our friends, to all who, like us, are under threat from a small group of deluded and insecure men who work out their insecurities in violent, anarchic acts of murder and mayhem.

And of course, we send our condolences to the families of the victims in New Zealand. We pray with them and promise to do what we can to stand against these foul racists and murderers and their supporters.

The Western Wall and WOW


Netflix isn’t a streaming service. No. It is an alternate Universe of entertainment and education. Movies. Documentaries. Limited series. Old tv shows. Going to Netflix is like entering a casino with old familiar games and new ones you’ve never played before. I’m sure there’s a systematic way of surveying what’s available… but I don’t know it.

Last month while hunting Netflix for something to watch, I came upon an Israeli series called Shtisel. It follows the ins and outs of the Shtisels, a haredi (ultra-Orthodox, non-Hasidic) family in Jerusalem. As they speak a very stylized Hebrew and Yiddish (there are English subtitles), we learn about a unique, and little known Jewish sub-culture. We follow their complicated lives, observing their universal struggles through a very particular lens.

In so many ways, the show humanizes this Jewish sect that is generally seen as fundamentalist and extreme in behavior and ideology. Yes, we bump up against the sharp edges that are a part of haredi life, and the generally low opinion they have of the secular world – which is, essentially, everybody that is not them. But we also encounter a family’s deep love for each other, the loneliness of old age and widowhood, the ease with which they lie without any seeming pangs of conscience, the restrictive ways the rules bind and chafe at them.

As I watch Shtisel, I feel a kind of affection for the family and their humanity. I see the struggles that are a part of preserving their world, and the difficulties with living up to impossible expectations. It is a moving show.I thought of the Shtisel Family today as I watched coverage from Jerusalem of the Women of the Wall (WOW) celebrating the 30th anniversary of their movement. Or at least they were trying to celebrate. Unfortunately, ultra-Orthodox yeshivot and girls’ schools sent thousands of young students to block public access to the woman’s side of the Wall and ‘assigned’ the students to do whatever they could to disrupt the approximately 150 Women of the Wall and their supporters who showed up.

Anat Hoffman, the director of WOW, was there, proudly proclaiming the rights of all Jewish women to express themselves freely as Jews. She is a true champion of religious pluralism and of the rights of all Israeli citizens to equal treatment under the law. All they want is to read from the Torah, to wear a tallit, and to proclaim their love of God and the Jewish people. It is a public space of equal significance to all Jews.On her Facebook page, Melissa Carp, a member of our temple, a first-year rabbinic student, and an intern at WOW, wrote the following:

Today was probably one of the scariest days of my adult life. I have been anticipating Rosh Chodesh Adar II, that coincides with International Women’s Day and the 30th Women of the Wall Nashot HaKotel anniversary for months. I came ready to daven with revolutionary women that have been dedicated to this fight for over three decades. Instead I was greeted by 8,000 people in opposition, with such hate in their eyes they seemed completely soulless.Young girls were praised for their effective technique of bulldozing WOW supporters with their bodies, giggling and smiling at the older women that they had successfully knocked to the ground. I was almost trampled by these thousands of girls dozens of times, my feet in pain from using all my strength not to fall over.I’m tired. I’m tired of the word “Reform,” the denomination of Judaism that I hope to one day serve being used as an insult. I’m tired of the monolithic control of the Orthodox Rabbinate. I’m tired of panicking over the well being of my classmates at Shacharit. Yet, after today, I’m even more motivated. I’m even more motivated to repair today’s devastation and so grateful for the people I am lucky enough to stand with.

I watched film clips of the confrontation at the Wall. I watched ultra-Orthodox girls spitting on women, scratching their faces, pushing them down. I watched ultra-Orthodox men pushing, shoving and grabbing at the men who were there to support WOW. It was what Reb Shulem Shtisel would’ve called ‘a shanda,’ a shameful event. Yet it is also likely that the fictional rabbi would’ve sent his students to harass the Women of the Wall.

I’ve never managed to understand how it is possible to call oneself a Jew and then seek to destroy or to defame other Jews. I’m not naïve… I’ve seen it throughout Jewish history right up to the present day. It is a case where we are, once again, our own worst enemy.Until there is a willingness to talk, until we are able to see our shared history as a bond and a gift rather than a millstone around our necks, this madness will continue.

I wish Reb Shtisel and his family a gut shabbos. I wish they would respond with love and not violence. I wish words of kindness would flow from their lips instead of spit and revilement.

We are so proud of Melissa Carp and the other men and women who walked into the plaza of the Western Wall,outnumbered and vulnerable. The police did little to protect WOW, and stood by as they were abused by the crowd. But Melissa stood tall and proud. We salute her and wish her well.

When Anat Hoffman comes to TBA on March 29th, I hope you will join us at Friday night services to get her take on her recent experience as well as to hear Anat’s remarks on the future of pluralism and democracy in Israel. This is something around which we must all unite.

The Devil and Us

The other day, my dental hygienist asked me a very significant question. Of course, she had a dental probe in my mouth at the time. But it was so important that she removed it to let me answer. We’d been talking about her experiences as a believing, devoted member of the Armenian Apostolic church and their trip to Israel. During our conversation – well, her talking and my grunting – she asked me, “Do Jews believe in the Devil?”

I’m generally not asked questions about the Devil. It’s just not a “thing” for us. There was a period in the early centuries when the rabbis incorporated the figure of Satan as a demonic force loosed by God to test the Jewish people. In the Jewish literature of the rabbis, Satan is portrayed as a singular being who lures men into sin, and as a prosecutor in the divine tribunal, trying to convince God to mete out harsh penalties. He is said to have been a powerful angel, able to fly and assume the shape of men, women, and animals.

By the medieval period, this image of Satan as an actual being diminished. It was understood as a Christian belief, not to be emulated. This doesn’t mean that there were not appreciable superstitions related to Satan. In Christian dominated Europe, the image and the presence of Satan was ubiquitous, as was the unfortunate tendency to call Jews the devil’s spawn. This was picked up in popular Jewish culture and then channeled through the prism of Kabbalistic texts. The notion of an animated universe, filled with evil spirits, was anathema to many rabbis of the Middle Ages, but eagerly embraced by the common folk.

Many years ago, as a young rabbi in Texas, I put together a study group with a group from my temple and a group from a liberal-leaningDisciples of Christ church. The minister, Dick Lord, was a smart, funny, and open-hearted friend who was willing to take on any and all questions and controversies about our respective beliefs. I will never forget the day we spoke about evil. He was absolutely sure that there was a demonic force that existed in the world, an independent malevolent presence that sought to uproot human life. How else, he wondered, could one explain the evil in the world? It had to come from somewhere.

I replied that, from a Jewish perspective, there was no independent force, no Devil in the Universe. Jews believe in the Yetzer ha-tov, and the Yetzer ha-ra: the impulse for good and the impulse for evil. Human beings can perform selfless deeds of breath-taking good and have the capacity to commit unbearably evil acts. It is all about our individual existential decisions, choices to live a life of decency or conversely to stray from the path of righteousness. This dualistic battle, this endless acrobatic feat of finding a balance between our own selfish, self-serving agendas, and the greater good, is a struggle throughout our lives.

Most of the time we know what’s the right thing to do. But we also know what’s the most expedient thing that redounds to our benefit, and frequently, the two are diametrically opposed. 

No Jewish logic can justify saying, “The devil made me do it.” We may want to blame a force outside of ourselves. It makes us feel less overwhelmed and guilty.

The Jewish lexicon does not include the phrase, “The devil made me do it.” No force pushes us against our will to sin. It’s a decision, to do good or to do evil. The Yetzer ha-tov and the Yetzer ha-ra are impulses that make us think all of the time.No, Jews don’t believe in Satan. There’s no one to blame, no devil to shake our fists at. It’s all on us. It’s looking in the mirror and challenging ourselves to aspire to be our best selves.