Monthly Archives: January 2020

Ben Bag Bag

There’s a famous saying in Perkei Avot – The Ethics of Our Ancestors – attributed to a rabbi named Ben Bag Bag. We know nothing about him. There’s no bio, no way to trace his roots. We can reasonably assume that he lived in the land of Israel during the first century CE, prior to the destruction of the Second Temple.

Ben Bag Bag is quoted just once in the entire corpus of Jewish text. Yet his teaching, his few words of wisdom, are surely repeated several times a day and inferred in every place where Torah is studied. Not too shabby. Ben Bag Bag said: “Turn it over and turn it over again because everything is inside of it. Look into it; become old and gray inside of it. Don’t back away from it – there’s nothing so satisfying.”

This multi-valenced teaching is a favorite of mine. It boldly defines what continues to be a fundamental tenet in Jewish learning.  Torah study is available to all of us. It isn’t the exclusive domain of Torah scholars or erudite academicians. We are all invited into the palace of study.

Ben Bag Bag is not issuing a gentle bromide here. The Hebrew word for “turn it over,” hafoch, is written in the second person imperative. He is urging us to jump in with metaphorical shirtsleeves rolled up, to grab this learning enthusiastically and shake it up.

Hafoch is not a gentle word. “Turn it over” is not dramatic enough to portray the deeper meaning of the word. It would be more akin to shaking a snow globe and looking at it from every angle. The more significant point here is that one must actively engage, fearlessly entering the text without considering it too delicate or fragile.

In fact, the Torah teaches us this very thing in Deuteronomy 30: Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

There is no such thing as a stupid Torah question. There is no censorship, no holding back. Anything goes in Torah study. Go for it, Ben Bag Bag says. It’s your Torah.

Ben Bag Bag teaches us that the Torah study imperative is not transitory. It is a life long relationship. Stick with it!, urges Ben Bag Bag; “Become old and grey inside of it.” The thirst for Jewish knowledge is never quenched. It is an ever-present phenomenon. There is no age limit.

Sometimes people suggest that coming to Torah study on a Sunday morning sounds interesting, but… “I don’t know enough,” or, “I don’t know any Hebrew,” or “I’ve never done anything like it.” Ben Bag Bag would say, “Don’t back away,” that is, don’t worry about what you know or don’t know! Just come in! It just feels good; it feels right.

One could extrapolate from this famous maxim in Pirkei Avot to simply say that learning for learning’s sake is so good for you. It’s the continual exploration of the Universe in which we live. It’s recognizing the infinite possibilities of human knowledge and the reach for more. It’s the way we express our human curiosity, to boldly go where we haven’t been before.

The most profound truth of the Torah is its open invitation to hold it up to the light and deconstruct, then reconstruct it. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that goes together and then morphs into a new shape. So go learn: a Torah class, or an adult learning class or a Newton Community class or read a good book. Just keep turning it over and over. The palace of wisdom is an excellent place to become old and gray.

We'll Never Be Royals

I’ve never felt myself to be at a disadvantage, not knowing anything about the royal family. Generally speaking, the file cabinets in my head – or should I say the folders in my database – are arranged as follows: general knowledge, trivia knowledge, Jewish knowledge, cooking expertise, jazz knowledge – and then miscellanea. There is no data entry about who’s married to whom in the House of Windsor. 

Yet… having said all that, I do love watching The Crown, a Netflix series that I find utterly captivating. If you’re one of the last 500 people who haven’t watched it yet, get to it! The plot revolves around Queen Elizabeth II, from her childhood to the present day. It is genuinely captivating, filled with drama and intrigue and more than a little humor. In the end, of course, it’s a TV series, not a documentary. It’s historically accurate – most of the time. Like all docu-drama, there’s plenty of imagined conversations and spiced up dialogue and additional color for the sake of a show that runs an hour at a clip. It’s only a TV show. 

A viewer of The Crown, who is not a royal family groupie, may have nonetheless raised an eyebrow upon hearing that a British royal, Prince Harry and his American, divorcee, wife of color Meghan Markel, were calling a royal time out, stepping away from any official duties as royalty. I admit to pausing as the story played out on NPR. I haven’t read anything about it.

I think Harry has red hair and a child named Archie. I’ve never seen the beautiful Meghan Markel in a movie or TV show. However, I love their courage and their élan. After all the catty British tabloid articles, some racist in nature, defaming Meghan Markel, and then all the ridiculous empty rituals and the intense pressure of being a royal, they bagged it. 

When does tradition for tradition’s sake go into an entropic death spiral? When ritual becomes a Monty Python skit, when various conventions become foolish and unnecessary, well then, why bother? This is where Prince Harry and Meghan Markel’s decision gets interesting to a nice Jewish boy like me. 

When the fundamentals of a strict culture or tradition begin to chafe, something’s got to give. Humans don’t do well over the long haul when a system blocks access to the process of evolution. Daring to change brings out the best and the worst in people. It’s “liberté, égalité, fraternité,” and it’s the guillotine. 

 In the 18th century, some Jews experienced the hegemony of a strict, unbending system of theology and sociology to be stultifying and opaque. They experienced Jewish Law as it was practiced from the Middle Ages to be empty. It’s not like they wanted Judaism to disappear (to be honest, a few did want that to happen, but that’s a different article…); they just wanted to reinterpret it. They wanted to use a different lens through which to view Jewish life and ritual and obligation. Once that started to happen, it changed everything. One response was Hasidism. Another was Reform Judaism. 

We Reform Jews are the inheritors of a courageous decision to step back from the assumption that we must observe the same laws and traditions in the same way they have always been practiced. Our current practices are fluid, morphing over time and experience. This is a good thing – and sometimes, not so good.

It seems that in our rush to change, to adapt, we sometimes drop the ball. We’ve surrendered certain values that have defined us over time. Shabbat, the sacred presence of God, the holy dimensions of Jewish life as an ever-present part of our worldview – these things have been compromised or completely lost. 

The fact is, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Humpty Dumpty is broken. Period. It may well be that the decision Prince Harry has made will be the dramatic act that poked a gaping hole in the zeppelin that is the royal family and its overripe history. 

In the meantime, Reform Judaism is still looking to the horizon, still attempting to find just the right combination of traditional life and secular life, between Jewish law and Jewish ethics. Evolution makes life interesting. Daring to push the envelope, to go for something big and different, is courageous. I genuinely admire Harry and Meghan for that. I love the rebels with a cause.

The Darkness and The Light

It’s the first Before Shabbat blog of 2020, and I have to speak about antisemitism; again. Antisemitism was the central subject of my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur day sermons. I talked about it at length, reviewing the origins and the impact of antisemitism in America and in our own greater Boston community.

My motivation for those sermons was multifaceted. Some of it came from the terrorist killings in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Chabad synagogue in Poway, CA. These awful scenes of violence shook us all at our very core. It created a sense of fear and vulnerability where before there had been little to none.

When in our own community, a swastika was scrawled in a Newton middle school hallway, the impact was dramatic. That incident spurred me to think deeply about where we were in this challenging and turbulent time.It’s not stopping. And now, I am trying once again to come to terms with the latest violent attacks on Jews in America. It is confusing and harrowing to see this pattern of hatred playing out the way it has for centuries.

As David Nirenberg, the dean of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago said recently, “I think that, in every moment in which anti-Semitism really becomes an organizing principle in society, and anti-Judaism starts to do a lot of work in society, it is because of political polarization, economic stresses, et cetera, which make that language of anti-Judaism so useful as a system of thought. Every context is different, every period is different, but the reason that anti-Semitism can be put to work in so many contexts and periods is that anti-Judaism is such an integral part of the ways we have learned to imagine the challenges we face in the material world.”

Over and over, it’s “The Jews did it.” We crucified Jesus. We poisoned the wells and caused the Black Plague. We produced the financial collapses in every kingdom, fiefdom, and nation in the world. We are the capitalists set on taking it all. We are the communists set on taking it all. We participate in the blood libel.

The infamous images of hooked-nosed Jews with money bags are still recirculated from time to time, images that pre-date Nazi Germany by centuries. The claims that “Jews are rich,” or “Jews are smart,” still cause resentment. Those stereotypes, in turn, create hatred and envy towards Jews, which in turn, feed into the notion that if something bad is happening, it’s all because of the Jews.

This the madness of antisemitism. It is the ancient repetition compulsion that emerges from the darkest, ugliest, most paranoid crevice of Western culture. It is a dormant virus that is over 2000 years old.

Oren Segal, the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said, “We’re definitely in a different era, and it also looks like we’re seeing more assaults. A substantial proportion of these hate crimes involve brutal physical attacks on Orthodox Jews who are easily identifiable. Today anti-Semitism and ignorance about the Holocaust have simply become broadly acceptable, and that is reflected in the increasing number of assaults and diversity of offenders, who now also tend to be older. We are in an environment in which conspiracy theories seem to be in the news every day, and they’re not necessarily anti-Semitic conspiracies. But conspiracies are the lifeblood of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is becoming normalized. Most of the attacks are not done by extremists, but by your average Joe and your average Jane.”

You may be wondering what happens next. I wonder, too. How do we cope with this phenomenon? What are we supposed to do? I reviewed several options in my Yom Kippur sermon. But there is no strategy for “curing” antisemitism, no clear way to help people stop hating us.

Moving forward, we must be resolute when it comes to identifying antisemitism and hate crimes and then seek the full exercise of the law to prosecute the perpetrator to the fullest extent possible. We must neither hide nor barricade ourselves behind walls. We must be a safe and secure temple, even as we continue to be a place of openheartedness and community. We must be proud of who we are as Jews in America and hold fast to our freedom, a freedom we will not curtail, even if we are threatened.

None of these things is easy. But they are all vital components of how we will move forward. We are blessed to live in America, and we are cognizant, as never before, not to take our citizenship for granted. It is with a heavy heart that I submit my first Before Shabbat all about antisemitism. Again. I hope – and I will work for the possibility that we will yet achieve a time when it is calmer and safer for Jews, and for all others who are beaten and abused because of their race or religion or ethnicity or beliefs. It’s up to all of us to stand tough.