What Musar can Teach us About how we Talk About Israel

Each and every letter in a Torah scroll symbolizes an individual human being. Just as a Sefer Torah is incomplete if even one letter is missing, so too is all of creation incomplete if even one person is excluded by others.

So teaches a most profound idea of Musar, the Jewish discipline of ethical and spiritual development. The power in this teaching is that every single letter of Torah reflects the inherent holiness within each human individual, and likewise, the diversity of creation itself is a reflection of the Torah’s holiness.

In the wake of the AIPAC/IfNotNow standoff last month, I have been thinking a lot about this teaching as a religious response to the widening chasm in the Jewish world. Over the past weeks, I have witnessed conversations devolve into contests over who can cherry-pick the “right” biblical verse to show that “all” of Jewish thought somehow agrees with their view, or who can summon the best Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote to support their cause.

I want to share two exchanges illustrative of this divide that I have been unable to shake off: In one, an INN supporter told a rabbinical student that should this future-rabbi not make an active and vocal opposition of the occupation a central part of their rabbinate, there would be no place whatsoever in their community for this individual. In the other, an AIPAC supporter told a group of progressive Zionists that because of their critical love for Israel and anti-occupation stance, they should find a term other than “Zionist” to refer to themselves.

As these debates reverberate, a question has been gnawing at me: is there something profoundly un-Jewish about the way we are navigating this gulf?

Why? Each of these stances essentializes and condemn the identity of the person identified as opposite. Each posture creates a litmus test which says: unless you agree with me, then you’re not good enough for me.

As anyone remotely concerned about Israel can attest, these interactions are not unique or isolated. They are very much reflective of the increasing ossification within the Jewish world vis a vis Israel.

I want to suggest that the reason these exchanges (and the wider paradigms they reflect) do not reflect the best of what Judaism has to offer can be found in the very banner which INN uses to proclaim their resistance against AIPAC:

Photo Credit: ifnotnowmovement.org/weresistaipac

I don’t know whether INN had Musar in mind when they designed their graphic, but this powerful image of a Sefer Torah constructed out of a diversity of people is actually a perfect illustration of the moving teaching about the Torah and human holiness.

It prompts some uncomfortable questions: What about all the people dismissed from that Torah? In our debating over Israel, how many people are we excluding from a life of holiness?

Too much of the discourse on Israel and the occupation seeks to exclude others. Too much of our resistance against ideas or actions which we find to be morally unconscionable is having the side-effect of expunging the holiness inherent in each of us.

One of the core ideas of Musar is that we can combat divisiveness and work to increase holiness and inclusivity by balancing our capacity for judgement (Din) with our capacity for kindness (Chesed).

Yes, our passion to rectify ills in the world must indeed come from a place of judgment. But if it is only rooted in Din, without any Chesed, then it becomes far too easy for us to diminish the worthiness of each human being as one of God’s holy creations. I see this when we reduce others to but one part of the totality of their identity, when we operate with an “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” mentality, or when we deny the lived experiences of others.

Our vision of a more perfect world must be tempered by self-reflection and an ability to acknowledge the impact of how we treat those closest to us. As Jews, we’re blessed with something of an inbuilt way to do this.

What combination of Din and Chesed does this moment in history call for?

As I see it, we have an overabundance of Din, and are desperately in need of some Chesed. What we need is a willingness to acknowledge and confront hard truths, from a posture of love, kindness, and openness to the holiness inherent in every single human being as a creature of God.

Parashat Vayikra: A Salty Paradox

There’s a certain paradox to salt: it has the power to elevate our meals to culinary heights, or bring them crashing to the kitchen floor.

Salt is best when we’re not aware of it. We only notice it when there’s too much or not enough. Too much, and food tastes sharp and potent. Too little, and it lacks umph. But the right amount, precisely balanced, doesn’t just make food taste better; according to food scientist Alton Brown, it “makes food taste more like itself.” This is why professional chefs obsess over the right amount of salt, seasoning at every step along the way. It’s a technique that most of us – with our less-refined taste buds – won’t ever be able to match.

This salty paradox isn’t limited just to the foods the mineral graces – it applies to us humans, as well: Too much salt intake may eventually kill us, but our bodies also depend on it to survive; if we don’t keep up our sodium levels, we will eventually die. So much power, all within a tiny grain of sodium chloride.

Our parasha this week is also aware of the power of salt. We read of God’s commandments regarding the elaborate sacrifices to be brought up to God. Among all the minutiae, there is one peculiar instruction:

וְכָל־קָרְבַּ֣ן מִנְחָתְךָ֮ בַּמֶּ֣לַח תִּמְלָח֒ וְלֹ֣א תַשְׁבִּ֗ית מֶ֚לַח בְּרִ֣ית אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ מֵעַ֖ל מִנְחָתֶ֑ךָ עַ֥ל כָּל־קָרְבָּנְךָ֖ תַּקְרִ֥יב מֶֽלַח׃

You shall season (salt) your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of your covenant with God; with all of your offerings you must offer salt. (Lev 2:13)

Four times in one verse, God commands us to salt our offerings, as a symbol of the “salt of the covenant”? What is this melakh brit Eloheikhah – salt of the covenant? Of all the covenants we’ve encountered in the Torah, none of them have included the use of salt.

We all know that salt has a dualistic power: the power to preserve and the power to destroy; the power to kill and the power to maintain life. It turns out that some of our rabbis of old were also aware of this power.

Rabbeinu Bachya, a thirteenth century Spanish rabbi, brought his understanding of the workings of the natural world to his commentary on this verse from Vayikra. He knew that salt can both give flavour and preserve food, and also that land which has been salted will not grow. He understood basic chemistry – that salt requires the heat of the sun to evaporate water so that it can become usable.

Casting these observations in a mystical light, he wrote that salt has two competing forces within it, each one the opposite of the other: water and fire. He believed that these forces parallel the two divine elements upon which the world is sustained: God’s judgement – din, and God’s mercy – rachamim.

Din – God’s judgement – is like fire; it is salt upon the land. Like Noah’s Flood or the salty and sulfuric destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Torah is clear that human actions have consequences and that at times, God exercises judgement over humanity.

Rachamim – God’s mercy – is like water; it is the salt of preservation. Like God’s compassion toward the orphan, the poor, and the widow; or the redemption from Egypt and the parting of the salty waters of the sea, the Torah is also clear that our God is a merciful God, endlessly patient, and overflowing with love.

We want our relationship with God to be one balanced between din and rachamim. We need some judgement, so that we can discriminate the path God desires of us, and so that we can know that there is something at stake in our relationship with God. But we also crave God’s mercy, for we are only human beings – imperfect and struggling to do better in this world.

So why is salt symbol of our covenant with God? For Bachya, salt is a symbol of the competing forces of God’s judgement and mercy. Too much din, and we cannot survive. Too much rachamim, and there is no incentive to act according to God’s instructions.

Rabbeinu Bachya’s idea is beautiful, but how do we bring this lofty, mystical interpretation down to the salt-of-the-earth?

Perhaps we can think of salt as a symbol for how we live in relationship with those we hold most dear. All of our relationships – with our parents; our children; our friends – require certain things to sustain them: support, guidance, a hand to hold onto. Like the salt of the covenant, each of these has a dual nature: not enough guidance, and we lose our sense of place in the world. But too much, and we feel as though we are unable to chart our own path. Not enough handholding, and we may hamper developing empathy. But too much, and we risk becoming overbearing, helicopter-like.

Somewhere between these poles is the sweet spot – where those in a relationship feel as though they are both supported and nurtured, but also have freedom and agency.

Just as this is true in our own relationships, it is true for our covenantal relationship with God. When our ancestors brought forth salted sacrifices on the altars of old, they made a supreme declaration of the depth of their love of God. To seal those offerings with salt as a symbol of the covenant was a profound way of acknowledging those same competing forces inherent in any partnership – the forces of preservation and of destruction; of judgement, and of mercy.

The paradox of salt requires our attention to detail. I am inspired by great chefs, who constantly salt, then taste, then pause to reflect: “am I elevating this, or am I destroying it?” If we bring this care and love, then just like salt with food, our partnerships and covenants will bring out the best in each other, and our lives will be full of flavour.

At a time when others sought to erase our names from history, we proclaim loudly, as Moshe did: “hineini I am here; hineinu, we are here.”

How do we know who we are? One way is by the stories we tell ourselves.

Another way is by the stories others tell about us.

I was engrossed in watching the HBO television series Westworld. It is a window into a not-so-distant dystopian future, where wealthy humans live out their lavish fantasies in a wild-west theme park. The park is populated with lifelike androids who believe that they are human, but in truth, are pre-programmed with elaborately written storylines. They exist solely to meet the desires of the guests. They are slaves who don’t know they’re slaves.

“In one eerie scene, an unconscious [android] who is being repaired wakes up [in our world] … She’s trembling, panicked… with no idea where she is or what’s happening—she’s never seen anything except the [western] frontier set,— and when she stumbles into an empty gray warehouse… Her knees buckle, and she gets hauled away…”[i]

While the sci-fi elements are intriguing, I find Westworld to be at its best when it reflects more on the nature of our own humanity. The programme is ultimately about vulnerable citizens struggling to overcome atrocities and cope with their history. It is about a people who believed to their core that they were in control of their own narrative, who come to grips with the dark reality that others have a different story in mind for them.

How do we know who we are? One way is by the stories we tell ourselves:

The Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. (Ex. 1:7)

Our ancestors believed themselves to be free and safe – they lived and prospered on the shores of Egypt’s Nile.

How do we know who we are? Another way is by the stories others tell about us:

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase…” (Ex. 1:8-10)

Our people believed themselves to be one thing: people welcome in a place of safety and prosperity; They came to learn they were something else: Perceived insurgents. Outsiders. Unwelcome. Not the same.

Our rabbis teach that when our text says that Pharaoh didn’t “know” Joseph – אשר לא ידע את יוסף – the Torah isn’t speaking about mere recognition. “The usual rendering, ‘to know,’ hardly does justice to the richness of its meanings.”[ii] This new Pharaoh did not feel an emotional connection to the Israelites. He was ignorant and indifferent. He did not recognize us as bound up in each other’s fate, as his predecessor had. And as a result, suddenly, we became outsiders.

The miraculous stories that followed – as God revealed Torah to us, and as we became a people over 40 years in the desert – all have their start in this existential awakening. To be sure, in a unique phrase, found only once in the entirety of Torah, Pharaoh –  the arch-villain himself – refers to us as “the nation of the descendants of Israel – עם בני ישראל” (Ex. 1:9). Defined by someone else and cast as a foreign nation, we were labelled as different. Once we were together, now we were distinct. Once we were free, now we were slaves.

I wonder: did our people see this coming? Did they anticipate the ascendance of a new Pharaoh who didn’t see them in the same light? Or, like our misfit android from Westworld, was it a sudden realization of other-ness? Our text is silent about this.

But the unfortunate truth is… we don’t have to look far to wonder what it must have felt like.

Writing in The Atlantic in December 2016, Emma Green’s provocative headline calls out to us: “Are Jews white?” She notes that this US presidential election has “reopened questions that have long seemed settled in America.”[iii]

She paints a complex picture of who we are which is at once paradoxical: we are a group that “was historically considered, and considered itself, an outsider group, [that] in the space of two generations, [became] one of the most successful, integrated groups…” And yet at the same time, we are seen today by some as racially impure, “a faux-white race.” A majority of religiously motivated hate-crimes are committed against Jews each year. Still at the same time, we are seen by others as “part of a white-majority establishment that seeks to dominate people of colour.”

Jews do not fit neatly into typical racial categories, says Green. And while over time, Ashkenazi Jews of European descent became more integrated into American society – a process scholars refer to as “becoming white,” – it wasn’t our skin color that changed, it was status.

What happens when that status is called into question, as it seems to be today?

The Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt reminds us that the vast majority of American Jews benefit from white privilege, and yet, yet Jewish identity is shaped by many “exogenous forces—ostracism, and exile, and other forms of persecution [like] extermination… there is this sense of shared struggle … programmed into the DNA of the Jewish people.”

We think we are one thing, but society treats us as though we are something else. It is the paradox of modern Jewish existence.

How do we know who we are? One way is by the stories we tell ourselves. Another way is by the stories others tell about us.

 Throughout our history, a great pendulum has swung between outside forces who sought to tell us who we are, and moments of great creativity where we have asserted for ourselves who we are and what we stand up for. Today, we live at the nexus of those poles, pulled in opposing directions. Emma Green’s question of “Are Jews white?” is not so much a question of skin colour, but of identity and authority: who gets to decide who we are, and how we know who we are?

There are those, like Pharaoh, who want to write our story for us. To tell us who we are and what is our supposed destiny. I do not believe that our response to them should be to adopt an insular approach, closing ourselves off to the rest of the world in the hopes that our problems will just disappear.

Why? Because we are also living in a time of great Jewish resourcefulness, a new golden age of Jewish expression which proclaims loudly what it means to be Jewish. We must continue to discover and to rediscover the beauty of our own uniquely Jewish stories. This is the most profound response to those who would seek to tell us who we are.

As much as the question, “Are Jews white?” is a question of self-awareness, it is also one of empathy, mutual responsibility, and the ability to see beyond ourselves. As Green noted in a follow-up to her essay, “Asking, ‘Are Jews white?,’ is [also] a way of questioning the lack of racial awareness among some American Jews.”[iv]

So this is also a time be aware of those even more vulnerable than us; those whose stories others also seek to impose: undocumented immigrants, refugees, the LGBTQ+ community – both Jewish and not, black people generally, along with Jews of color from all communities. And our Muslim neighbours, friends and colleagues.

*          *          *

The android in Westworld, who awoke in our world could not at first cope with her destabilizing realization. She collapses on the floor, unable to function. It is only later, once she accepts the truth of her existence, that she begins acting with agency, striving to take control of her own destiny.

The Israelites awoke to the reality that they were no longer the same people; perceived as outsiders.

This is a moment of existential awakening. We find ourselves in a stark reality, unfamiliar to many. Will we collapse onto the floor, unable to function, with the hopes that we will reawaken in a blissfully naïve alternate universe? Or, will we confront this strange, new world head-on, with agency?

I do not suggest that we – like our Israelite ancestors – need to flee our homes in hopes of miraculous salvation. What we must leave behind is the notion that we are free of the oppression of others seeking to define who we are and who we can be. The past year has shown us that we are not yet living in a post-racial or post-ethnic world. Our ability to combat discrimination and oppression requires that we awake to this new world, just as we have done so many times before.

We must bring to this world what we know about ourselves. We know what discrimination looks like. We know it feels like when others would rewrite our stories. The Jewish response must be to do what we have always done: to assert our truths with an even stronger voice, and to help others to raise their own voices.

Perhaps that the secret to why this parasha is called Shemot – names. At a time when others sought to erase our names from history, we proclaimed loudly, as Moshe did: hineini I am here; hineinu, we are here.


[i] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/24/the-meta-politics-of-westworld

[ii] Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, pg. 318

[iii] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/are-jews-white/509453

[iv] https://www.theatlantic.com/notes/2016/12/jews-whiteness/509606

Tokho k’Voro: Matching our Insides and Outsides • Yom Kippur 5777

This is my sermon from Yom Kippur 5777 at Congregation Beth Emeth in Albany, NY

I had a dream last week. I was walking down a long, dimly lit hallway. As I moved past different open doorways, I noticed a large, ornate mirror hanging on the wall. I passed by the mirror, and glanced into it. What I saw bothered me. I looked into my eyes, at the face in the mirror – and while I sensed that it was my reflection, the face was not mine. It was a startling and haunting feeling – to not recognize my reflection; to look at myself, but not see myself.

I woke up in a panic. I reassured myself that it was just a dream, caught my breath, and went back to sleep. In the morning, I remembered it vividly, and tried to brush aside the memory as an errant nightmare.

You do not need a degree in psychology to suss this one out. It is no surprise that my mind was clearly on this season of introspection; this season when we are meant to look ourselves in the eyes and come face-to-face with who we are.

We all have a vision in our minds of what we look like – our ideal version of ourselves. Studies show that for many, this representative image – this avatar – probably looks to be around 25 years old, at the height of our youth. Wise, and beloved by many, with seemingly limitless abilities.

And then one day, we walk by a mirror, catch a glimpse not of our idealized avatar, but of our real self, and we say: “Who is that?!

Continue reading “Tokho k’Voro: Matching our Insides and Outsides • Yom Kippur 5777”

On Belief

Earlier this year, in my Medieval Jewish Philosophy class, we were assigned to fashion our own tenets of faith, a la Maimonides. What a daunting and audacious task! Of course, it also included a critical examination of Maimonides’ philosophy, and a consideration of the role of dogma in Jewish life. Here’s a look at what I put together… a fairly accurate portrayal of how I think of Judaism and Jewish life right now.

I started off by wondering what it must have been like for Rambam’s contemporaries to confront his articulated principles of faith. Could one have intellectually overcome the radical formulation of a formalized statement of Jewish belief? Were the articles an accurate reflection of mainstream Jewish beliefs? Would they have spiritual resonance for the masses? Or were they merely dogmatic representations of what was otherwise taken as “fact”?

In my imagination – while the abundance of legal codes and philosophical treatises prove otherwise – Jews of the past are often manifest as unquestioning believers in the reality of God and God’s presence in their lives. While I know this is a romantic fantasy, it is reflective of the depressed status of religious dogma in contemporary liberal civilization.

In today’s world – constructed upon extreme individualism and human domination of the natural world – it is no wonder that some (myself included) look nostalgically to the past with a modicum of historical revisionism as a time when it was easier to believe.

And yet, while the motivation behind and the exact form of belief espoused by Maimonides’ thirteen articles likely do not resonate with most Jews today, the idea of a personal manifesto of belief is not so foreign. Faith – in the sense of unquestioning religious belief – may not be palatable for most people, however the quest for authenticity, spirituality, and personal meaning are indeed resonant goals. In this milieu, is there, perhaps, a place for a contemporary affirmation of faith?

Could a contemporary approach to statements of faith, built on the quest for authenticity, spirituality, and personal meaning, remedy this anxiety?

Today, many of the so-called “Jews-of-no-religion” are apprehensive of blanket statements of belief; skeptical of those who attempt to proclaim what is true and absolute. But we also live in a time of great desire for connection beyond the superficial, for spirituality, and to unlock the secrets of the universe. Life in 2015 is simultaneously interconnected like never before, yet remarkably alienating. We have instantaneous access to the entire repository of human knowledge, yet we still have not answered the ultimate questions of the source of our existence or higher purpose. For those who do not believe that human existence is random, this can cause a Sartre-like nausea. Could a contemporary approach to statements of faith, built on the quest for authenticity, spirituality, and personal meaning, remedy this anxiety?

Daniel C. Petter-Lipstein, Chief Love Officer of The Jewish Montessori Society, describes the impact that this paradigm shift has had on contemporary Jewish life:

Now more than ever perhaps in the history of the Jewish people, the decision to live a life infused with religious purpose is very much derived from the intrinsic motivations and satisfactions that one believes comes from such religious commitment. Even if such motivation stems from a belief in divine commandment or historical or tribal fidelity, being religious (however one may define that term) is more than ever derived from a person’s inner life rather than outer force or influence.[1]

It is against this backdrop that non-Orthodox Judaism is evolving away from ideologies that seek to answer the question, “What do Jews do?” and towards those which seek to answer the inner question, “Why be Jewish?” So perhaps faith and belief – as inner faculties – are not antithetical to the current zeitgeist.

What is faith, if not a sense of being in relationship to something else – a social contract, built on the trust that we do not act only out of random, self-interest, but out of a sense of being in covenant?

In truth, the concepts of faith and belief are not dissimilar from the contemporary ideas of vision, aspiration, and responsibility – ideas with great relevance and potential for meaning. Aspiring to something greater is a basic characteristic of humanity – it is what separates us from other living creatures. And what is faith, if not the belief in or desire for something that is not yet realized? What is faith, if not the aspiration for what could be? What is faith, if not a sense of being in relationship to something else – a social contract, built on the trust that we do not act only out of random, self-interest, but out of a sense of being in covenant?

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, while an eminent rationalist, was far from Maimonidean in his religiosity. Nonetheless, over a century ago, he presented an understanding of faith that reverberates with Maimonidean philosophy:

“Vision looks inwards and becomes duty. Vision looks outwards and becomes aspiration. Vision looks upwards and becomes faith.”[2]

With this framework in mind, I present my own tenets of faith that represent my understanding of Judaism, and my vision of contemporary progressive Jewish life. Like Rambam and Rabbi Wise, they encompass duty, aspiration, and faith. They are directed inward, with a sense of spirituality and personal obligation; outward, with a sense of fellowship and responsibility to other Jews; and upward, with a sense of being in covenant with God.

1. I believe that God is like infinity. There is very little we can say with certainty about God. Like infinity, it is sometimes difficult for me to think about God, but like a mathematician’s relationship to the integral idea of infinity, it is even more difficult for me to think about a world without God. I am moved by Buber’s notion of the distinction between thinking or talking about God – something that is nearly impossible, and speaking to God – something which we can all do without restriction.

2. I believe that God’s presence can be found anywhere, and as a result – especially given my blessed and privileged place in society – I believe in expressing gratitude to God on a daily basis. I believe that – as one of God’s creations – God has an interest in me. I believe that I matter, and that all humanity matters to God.

3. I believe that a Judaism without God is absent something. But because each person is an individual who experiences the world differently, and the nature of Judaism itself is not monolithic, I believe it is possible to be Jewish and to express oneself in Jewish ways without believing in God, but I believe that this is missing the essence of Judaism.

4. I believe in the particularism and universalism of Judaism. Judaism is not merely one arbitrary option among many to understand the world – it exists for a particular reason, and all of the particular “accoutrements” of Jewish life are how we attempt to understand that particular reason. But the world is not and should not be monolithic; diversity exists for a reason – even Judaism understands this (cf. Tower of Babel). It is on the foundation of our own particular truths that we can share universal understandings and wisdom with the world. As such, Judaism and Jews must also engage in and with the rest of the world.

5. I believe that study is not merely about learning ethics or historical criticism; that the meaning of Judaism is found in a thick, deep, seriously engaged approach to learning and ritual. More does not always equal better, but I am not content with a pediatric approach to Judaism as a gloss on top of western liberal values. Just as we demand rigour, growth, and seriousness in secular studies, so too should we in Judaism.

6. At the same time, Judaism is not just something we do on our own in our heads – I believe that ritual is not merely symbolic, and that Judaism must be “done” to be understood. Judaism is like Shakespeare – you can read it in a book, but you cannot fully understand or appreciate its beauty unless you experience it in action, in a theatre.

7. Shakespeare’s plays have integrity in and of themselves – they might become more palatable, meaningful, or exciting when updated with a contemporary setting (precisely due to their ability to capture the human experience in beautiful poetry and prose), but they also must be understood in context. Likewise, I believe in the holiness and integrity of our texts – whether we believe they were divinely authored, divinely inspired, or human creations. I believe that in trying to understand our textual heritage, we must first get closer to the texts, without trying to force them to get closer to us. We should not begin by pigeonholing the meaning of the texts into our pre-conceived desires. This also means not ignoring or trying to expunge difficult sections of our textual history. Built on this foundation, we can then work to find the contemporary relevance and ongoing meaning of our texts.

8. I believe in the power of language, and that the words we choose should be not arbitrary when speaking to God. We should approach our prayers and study with the same respect, modesty, and honour that we would use in speaking to, writing to, or reading the words of a prime minister, president, or queen. While I believe that God does not selectively listen to the words of only one language, I believe in the importance of learning and using Hebrew. There is little wonder that so many Jews feel a sense of alienation, shame, or confusion when approaching prayer and study. Without an understanding of Hebrew, so much of Judaism is literally foreign, and a wealth of knowledge is out of reach for most Jews. Translation is acceptable, but as as Bialik wrote, it is like kissing through a veil.

9. I believe that an acquaintance with the rich, multi-faceted textures of Judaism will reveal that Judaism is not entirely rational – there are plenty of things we do that are seemingly irreconcilable with modern, rational thought, and a diversity of opinions and understandings of how to apply Judaism to daily life. The Talmud recognizes this, teaching that “Like the hammer that breaks the rock in pieces’ (Jer. 23:29) – just as [the rock] is split into many splinters, so may one Biblical verse convey many explanations” (BT Sanhedrin 34a). There are many contradictions and a pluralism of ideas about the essence of Judaism. That is acceptable, because also…

10. I believe in Klugkeit – the cleverness that lets us gets around these contradictions (both real and perceived). Klugkeit is “the magic preservative that lets religiousness and happiness coexist… It is what allows a human being of flesh and blood with a flawed personality and a beating heart full of love and fear live under the rule of an inanimate system of laws without going insane.”[3] As fallible, imperfect beings, we have the ability (indeed the charge) to figure out how to make Judaism work each day.

11. I believe that free will and autonomy are not the same thing. I believe I have free will, and as a citizen of a modern, western country, the freedom to express my will. But I am not fully autonomous. I exist in relationship to God and those around me, and my choices – religious or otherwise – are not made without significant consideration as to their impact on what others expect and demand of me, and what I expect and demand of them.

12. I believe that all Jews are responsible to one another (BT Shevuot 39a). The endgame for me is not one where Jews do whatever makes sense to them at any given time. I am not naïve – I know that Judaism is often fragmented, and that there are Jews who understand their sense of Judaism and Jewishness in ways that are significantly different from how I do. But I do not envision a Jewish world where small pockets of Jews build walls around themselves, defined by their religious or cultural red lines, blind as to how their choices impact others. This paradigm can be thought of through the term “citizenship” – a description of the relationship between individual Jews, between groups of Jews, and between individual Jews and the collective Jewish people. As Edward Hamburg writes:

The term captures the reciprocal nature of this relationship, how it involves having rights and responsibilities that are understood and exercised very differently, with very different degrees of efficacy and intensity, by each of us, just like the rights and responsibilities we have as citizens of conventional polities. When we become Jewish citizens by birth or election, we are presented with the rights to share a collective identity as well as participate in a liturgy, a host of traditions and conventions, a history, and a multitude of stories. How we decide to exercise the rights and accept the associated responsibilities of this legacy determines our position within the kaleidoscopic Jewish world. [4]

This idea is captured close to the very beginning of the Talmud: “Our Rabbis taught: If one sees a multitude of Jews, they say: ‘Blessed is He who discerns secrets’ — for the mind of each is different from that of the other, and the face of each is different from that of the other.” (BT Berakhot 58a)

13. This leads one to Anavut – humility. I believe that we must approach learning, practice, and our relationships with anavut. This is not an abstract value; it has real world implications. Laszlo Bock, the Senior VP of People Operations for Google, aptly teaches that a successful movement requires “the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others. Your end goal is what can we do together… Without humility, you are unable to learn.”[5] Predating Google by a millennia and a half, the Talmud implores us to recognize the same idea: “For this reason was man created single… that there should be peace among human beings: one cannot say to his neighbor, my ancestor was nobler than thine” (BT Sanhedrin 37a).


[1] Petter-Lipstein, Daniel. “Autonomy, Mastery and Religious Purposefulness in Jewish Education.” Jewish Philanthropy. n.p. October 24, 2013. http://bit.ly/11NySJJ

[2] Wise, Rabbi Stephen S. Sermons and Addresses. June 11, 1905, 72

[3] Kilov, Tzvi. “Judaism is Crazy, And that’s a Good Thing.” HevriaHsfasf

[4] Hamburg, Edward. “Thoughts on Saying Amen.” Jewish Philanthropy. n.p. December 12, 2014. http://bit.ly/1PdPY9f

[5] Friedman, Thomas. “How to Get a Job at Google.” New York Times. February 22, 2014.

Exiled, once again

The Kotel has a remarkable hold on people. I remember my first visit there, and not knowing at all what to feel. Or, I should say, I knew that I wanted to feel emotionally moved, but I couldn’t muster any raw emotions. I faked crying, because it seemed like the right thing to do. I walked up to it, touched it, prayed a little, then returned to my group.

On my dozens of visits to the Kotel, I still marvel at its beauty and am impressed by its historical significance. I love teaching students about the ancient Temple and the beauty of the Herodian architecture. But… for the most part, it’s just a wall to me. There’s a part of me, buried deep next to that part of me that still enjoys watching Sesame Street, that still wants to have a more deeply emotional experience. But at the end of the day… it’s just a wall.

Unless you believe that the Kotel itself holds some mystical or religious power, then the wall is ultimately a symbol. It’s a powerful and important one, but a symbol at that. Even if you desire to see the Temple rebuilt, the collection of bricks currently being fought over is still symbolic.

Unless you believe that there is some divinity imbued in a retaining wall built by “a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis,” then all of the conversations about the Kotel are ultimately about human matters. They are directed upwards to God, and have to do with how we conduct ourselves in matters of holiness, but they are, at the end of the day, about us.

This understanding seems to be missing from all of the self-congratulating and triumphalism taking place in the wake of the recent agreement on an enhanced non-Orthodox prayer space at the Kotel.

A wall is a wall – whether you pray at the northern edge or the southern edge, you’re standing in front of the same bricks. So we’re not actually talking about the wall itself. We’re talking about what it represents. What this discussion is really about is the symbolism of having a presence (or non-presence) at the Kotel.

In that light, I must admit that I am flummoxed by all of the celebrating taking place within progressive Jewish movements. I count no less than six triumphant emails from various arms of the Reform Movement, and dozens of Facebook posts celebrating victory.

What victory? The new plan is a symbolic step backwards that creates a new separate-but-equal status. Orthodox women who want to pray according to their understanding of halakhah, or who want to read from a sefer Torah, or wear T’fillin in a non-egalitarian setting are out of luck.

What triumph? The new plan relegates non-Orthodox Jewish prayer to a small parcel of space, on a far corner, out of sight, and out of mind of the “real” Kotel. It is the symbolic back of the bus.

But course, separate-but-equal is not equal. This is not an issue that can be swept to the outer edges of an archaeological park.

Vanessa L. Ochs, an original member of Women of the Wall, expressing her opposition to the agreement and the triumphalism, has this to say:

Jews have experience sustaining themselves when forced into a ghetto and when forcibly exiled. Those who are going to Robinson’s Arch are allowing themselves to be willingly exiled from a sacred site Jews have yearned for centuries. And they are using a trick from the religious-imagination playbook to put a pleasant spin on it: they are already calling the new space “the Kotel” just as Jews call their own table, after the destruction of the Temple, “mini-tabernacle” or mishkan me’at. In that place of exile, they will long for some future redemption that, to my mind, is far more significant than a spot for prayer: having freedom from Orthodox hegemony in the areas of marriage, divorce and conversion.

Anshell Pfeffer, In a scathing critique of any claims of success, comments in Haaretz on how “ridiculous” the shouts of victory and triumph are in the name of religious pluralism and egalitarianism:

Even if Reform Jews get a small corner at the foot of the outer walls of Herod’s Temple, that they can share with all the other non-orthodox Jews, their status within the Israeli establishment will not have improved… [The agreement] is a complete capitulation to the ultra-Orthodox establishment and acceptance of the fact that the most fanatical stream of modern Judaism continues to rule Israel, and the Jewish world’s most revered sites, without having to see women performing their own prayers, with a sefer torah. That is the bottom line. The fundamentalists have won.

The bottom line, indeed. For the Orthodox hegemony of the Kotel, nothing has changed. Orthodox prayer remains the standard at the site that – in the eyes of Israelis and Jews – will always remain the symbolically “true” Kotel. And the upstart Jewish women who wanted to pray joyously with the Torah, Tallit, and Tefillin are once again relegated into oblivion.

At the site symbolic of our long exile, another group of pious Jews has once again been exiled.

When studying text becomes prayer

I appreciate the sense of daily devotion required by a focus on close reading of Judaism’s classical texts. Inherent in the idea of text study is the notion that there is always something new to be learned; always some new grain of wisdom, or hint at a larger principle to be learned; there is always an opportunity to learn something new about the world.

What a beautiful gift we have been given, almost magical: the texts remain the same, yet the meaning grows and changes with us as we grow and change. Our own understanding transforms over time, yet the texts remain eternal.

It seems to me, then, that we should not treat our texts merely as books of wisdom to be pulled down off of the shelves when we need a juicy quote; that isn’t honouring their sacredness. Instead, we should be concerned with them on a daily basis, and should encourage this approach among those who we teach and guide.

In my own prayer practice, I am guided by the idea that we are meant to study six individual Torah episodes each and every day, with the understanding that they can have a positive influence on our daily behaviour and direct our intention throughout the day: Y’tziat Mitzrayim (to remove the bonds of slavery from all), Amalek (to always be on guard against evil), Ma’amad Har Sinai (to make Torah a part of daily life), Ma’aseh Eigel HaZahav (to beware of heresy), Korach (to prevent ego from overcoming), and Shabbat (to welcome the holiness of Shabbat each week). Indeed, the very exhortation to recall each of these episodes appears within our shacharit service, indicating the strong relationship between daily prayer, daily study, and our actions each day.

I believe that great spiritual meaning can be found in the close and daily study of text – almost bordering on prayerful moments. In that light, I am on guard to make sure to that my study of text does not merely become academic; that my study is always imbued with a reverence for the holiness within the text, and how my study can shape and affect my daily behavior.

At the Mouth of Eight Witnesses, the Jian Ghomeshi Matter has been Established

Yesterday, writing about the Jian Ghomeshi fiasco, I was still wrestling with how to respond. Was this a matter where the idea of innocent until proven guilty applied? Was this a matter of maintaining a balanced perspective in the face of he-said, she-said accusations? Was it a matter of discovering where there burden of proof lay? Here’s where I settled yesterday, a mere 24 hours ago:

I will not pass judgement on Jian nor on the women who are accusing him. Without evidence or more substantial information, nobody should enter this unfortunate game of he-said, she-said.

Thinking that this was an issue demanding a fair and non-judgemental response until more information arrived, I tried to strike an ever-so Canadian tone: “I will not pass judgement…

I also wondered what the Jewish response to a situation like this should be. How does my tradition teach us to respond when we want to honour the rights of all people to be treated fairly in the face of serious accusations? How do we respond when all we have to base our judgement on are the words of others?

There is a Jewish paradigm for what is taking place now in the streets of Canada and the tubes of the internet – a biblical perspective on a contemporary Canadian situation involving an Iranian. Fancy that. Here’s what the Torah says about such accusations:

One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sins; at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall a matter be establishment. (D’varim 19:15)

The Torah is concerned with ensuring that people do not level false accusations against another in order to spite them. Jewish law requires multiple witnesses to ensure fairness in judgement. To be sure, Jian Ghomeshi himself originally hinted at such a motive – that this was just a matter of a woman with a grudge to bear falsely accusing him.

But that was when there was one witness. Now there are eight.

Given the preponderance of evidence emerging against Jian Ghomeshi (you must read the Toronto Star’s full expose), it is now outright impossible to maintain a balanced perspective. The scales of justice have tipped against Jian. At the mouth of eight witnesses, this matter has been established.

And this is still hard for some to believe. We want to believe that something like this didn’t happen. Our brains literally have a hard time coming around to this truth. In this matter, I’ve been guided by the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who teaches us:

“Truth is not something we discover at one time. That is how things are for God, but not for us. For Judaism, truth – as understood and internalized by humanity – is a developmental process.” To Heal a Fractured World p. 156

This may be true on a very meta-level. I think we can be forgiven for not being able to perceive the entire truth of this affair all at once. To be sure, we are still discovering new truths about this matter.

But eight women should not have had to wait painfully in the dark for years for this matter to have been brought to light. These horrible truths should not have taken twelve years to distill so a quest for justice could emerge. Of course, it is a matter that should not have even taken place in the first place!

This sad, sad affair only illustrates that there is something fundamentally wrong with a system that allows for horrific crimes to be committed, and then remain hidden in the dark, unpunished. Yes, we should maintain a commitment to innocent until proven guilty, but we cannot be blinded from seeing indicators of guilt. We should be balanced and fair in our judgement, but we cannot malign or question the motivation of those leveling accusations only on the grounds that “Jian is a trustworthy figure.”

Unknowingly, I myself have been a  part of this system. I want to thank friends for challenging me and pushing me to reevaluate my perspective on this tragic story. I wonder – is the Court of Public Opinion strong enough to not only level justice in this affair, but to change a flawed system itself, to create a more just and righteous world?

Surely, Canada is better than this. Surely, Canadians are better than this.

It’s about us: the CBC & Jian Ghomeshi

Jian Ghomeshi
Image © CBC

One of the reasons, I think, that the imbroglio with Jian Ghomeshi is simultaneously so captivating and so shocking is that it involves the CBC. Somehow, this beloved and yet not-so beloved institution has become a synecdoche for our Canadian-ness. The CBC is was Hockey Night in Canada. The CBC is Peter Mansbridge. The CBC is Rick Mercer. the CBC is the Royal Canadian Air Farce. The CBC is balanced and (mostly) unsensationalized news reporting. The CBC is Fred Penner. The CBC is CanCon. The CBC is the antithesis of American-style media.

The CBC is not just a media behemoth. It is more than television studios and radio stations. It is a cultural institution that represents Canada’s values and aspirations. In a country infamous for it’s dearth of national identity, the CBC is one of the things with which we identify. It is a part of us. So when a trusted public CBC figure is accused of acting in a way that betrays these values and aspirations, it’s difficult to divorce the person from the institution and its values, and it’s hard to not feel a sense of personal attachment.

Consider: would we be reacting the same way to the allegations against Ghomeshi if he wasn’t a CBC figure? If he worked for, say, Sun Media, would we be so perplexed? The values we ascribe to the institution conflate with the being, and we’re left quite puzzled, thinking, “This doesn’t make sense. This doesn’t add up.”

On Sunday night, when Jian posted his now infamous revelation to Facebook, I – like many – was shocked. “This can’t be!” I thought. “Shame on the CBC,” I thought. In the dim light of a Brooklyn pub, I read and reread Jian’s words. I – like many – shared Jian’s status on my own Facebook wall, taking my own snide jab at the CBC: “The State has no business in the bedrooms of the nation. Jian Ghomeshi is a national treasure and this is a shocking and abysmal act on the part of the CBC.

My own first inclination – like that of many others – was to implicitly assume that the allegations could not be true. And not because they don’t deserve to be vigourously investigated (they do), but because somehow an attack on Jian is an attack on something Canadian itself, and such an attack spurs an immediate, gut reaction to defend our values. Consider my own words: “Jian Ghomeshi is a national treasure.” As if being a national treasure is a logical and appropriate defence against allegations of sexual abuse.

And then on Monday came the Toronto Star’s release of the details behind the story.

I went back to Jian’s words. I read the thoughts of others. I was chastised on Facebook for my gut reaction. Mea culpa. I did more thinking, expanded my thoughts. What had once appeared to be an issue of wrongful dismissal was in fact a larger issue of trust, sexual consent, abuse of power, and on whom the burden of proof lays.

Many people (including myself) are struggling with finding the most appropriate way respond to such an event, when the person involved was renowned in many ways for his sensitivity and humanity, and cultivated those values at the institution for which he worked. Just open the pages of any Canadian daily today, and you will witness how much of a lightning rod this story has become.

The doors of the Court of Public Opinion have been swung wide open. This private affair is now public, and for the members of the public who are drawn into it, there’s an understandable desire for justice. But who is deserving of justice is a matter for others to investigate and to decide. I am troubled by those who rush to assume that Ghomeshi is guilty when their is still no official evidence or case against him, just as much as I am concerned by those who assume that four women would individually concoct these allegations. I will not pass judgement on Jian nor on the women who are accusing him. Without evidence or more substantial information, nobody should enter this unfortunate game of he-said, she-said.

I’m with Margaret Wente on this one: “What a shabby, crummy story. No one wins. Everybody loses. I’m sorry for them all, and for us.”

My Love for my Sister on her Wedding Day

My sister, Emily, was married last week. There was so much love and joy on their special day. Here are my words for Emily and my new brother-in-law, Brett.

Photo Credit: Assaf Friedman | www.assafphotography.com
Photo Credit: Assaf Friedman | http://www.assafphotography.com

Emily, at your Bat Mitzvah, I think I gave the best speech of anyone in our entire family, when I sang to you my rewritten words to the Ricky Martin masterpiece, Livin La Vida Loca. Rest assured, I will not be reprising that spectacular performance today.

For the gorgeous bride, my beloved little sister, on her wedding day…

Emily, from the perspective of someone on the outside, you and I might appear to be some very interesting siblings. I have heard it said that a sister is the person who is most like you and also the person who is most different from you. Emily, this couldn’t be truer for you and me. When we remember our childhood together, the first thing we think about is almost always the time when at the age of four, you cut your own hair and blamed it on me. I was punished for weeks, and it wasn’t until mom and dad found your hair hidden in the corner of your room that I was found innocent.

It took a long time for us to calm down and get to where we are today. I think perhaps things started getting better when you stopped listening to the Spice Girls and Aqua, and started asking to borrow my Dave Matthews CDs. I’m so thankful for how we’ve grown closer together over the last decade, and how we now look forward to all the times we get to spend with each other. It’s especially a delight for me to appreciate great music together with you. I look forward to us getting to be the awkward older people at concerts. Maybe we’re already those awkward older people.

A little while ago, Brett showed up and started coming along to concerts with us. It’s interesting – I never really wanted a brother (sorry!) It was Emily who always wanted a sister, and she never hesitated to remind me how much she wanted – even how much she would have preferred to have a sister.

But now we find ourselves here today – I am blessed with a sister who is one of my best friends, and now I also get a new brother along with her.

This all started four years ago, when Emily came to me and asked if she and her friends could stay in my New York apartment over New Year’s Eve. Was I worried about four Toronto girls gallivanting around New York and having free reign over my place? Maybe a little. But I said “yes, of course!” and I am so thankful that I did, as it was on that trip to New York that Emily and Brett found each other.

Fast forward to around 18 months ago, when I was in Los Angeles for work. While in meetings all day long, I had turned off my cell phone. In the evening, I turned my phone back on. There were 7 missed calls from Emily, and a one-line text message: call me.

I was worried. Who was sick? What happened?

I rushed back to my hotel room and called Emily, out of breath. Without even letting me say hello, she screamed through the receiver: “I’M ENGAGED! I’M GETTING MARRIED!

While I knew that day was coming, it was such an unexpected surprise and a blessing of wonderful news. I’ve been looking forward to this day ever since then.

Emily – we are much more than just brother and sister. We don’t just share our wonderful parents. You and I share profound joys, difficult times, hilarious stories, inside secrets, a love of good music, blessings, and a friendship that grows stronger as the years go by. I am so blessed to call you my sister and my friend.

Brett, I don’t need to give you any warnings about my little sister, because I am continually impressed with the love and devotion you show to your bride. Today, it is my joy and delight to now get to call you a brother. And Emily, truth be told, I don’t need to give you any advice either, because while you may be my not-so little sister, it’s from you that I learn so much about creating a loving partnership. And I know how much that you and I have learned from having two parents who showed us how to nurture a loving, respectful, caring relationship.

Emily and Brett, separately, you are two special and remarkable people, but together you are complete. Your journey towards each other has overcome great physical distances, but was always one of two immensely close souls. In the immortal words of our mentor, Dave Matthews – “Turns out, not where, but who you’re with that really matters.” For me, I can’t wait for us to be neighbours in New York City, and to be close by as you and Brett start building your life together.

For you both, I wish you a life together where with each new step, with each new verse of your songs together, with every new adventure, you always know how blessed you each are to have someone with you that really matters.