Shared Kindness and Love: The Foundation of a Decent, and Democratic, Society

We often hear about the importance of being united as a people.  We hear the call for unity in America, which is increasingly fragmented along racial, political and socio-economic lines.  And we persistently hear the call for unity among the Jewish people who throughout our history have had more than our share of disputes and infighting.  But what does it mean to be unified?  Does it mean that we must all think the same way and believe the same things?  That hardly seems desirable or even possible for a group of people that is not a cult but a large community or nation.  Diversity among people is a good thing.  So, what does it mean to be unified?

This week’s Torah portion- Yitro- gives us a glimpse of what the concept of unity might mean.  In Exodus chapter 19, we read that the Israelites, newly freed from Egyptian enslavement, prepare to meet God at Mt. Sinai: “They entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness.  Israel camped there in front of the mountain.”  In the verse there is an odd grammatical form used in the Hebrew text that is not mirrored in the English translation.  The phrase “Israel camped there in front of the mountain” uses the singular form of the verb “camped” while all other references to the Israelites use the plural form.  It’s as if the Hebrew text is referring to the Israelite nation as a single person, not many people.

Several commentators interpret this quirk in the Hebrew text by saying that in this moment, the Israelites were unified as a nation.  For example, Rashi famously writes that the text uses the singular form because the people were “one nation with one heart as they stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai.”  But Rashi’s comment still doesn’t explain what it means to be unified.  Surely, it couldn’t be that all the people had the same emotional and spiritual response to the Revelation by God.  In what way were they of one heart?

A midrash called the Mechilta offers an especially meaningful and helpful insight:

When it says “Israel encamped” there (Sinai), it uses the singular form “vayichan.” When they were traveling, as in the Book of Numbers, it uses a plural form. This implies that at other times they were divided, but here they were unified. When they gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai they felt a shared kindness, loved one another, and were thus ready and able to receive the Torah. (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai)

Based on the interpretation of the Midrash, unity does not imply consistency of thought or belief among people.  Rather, it suggests shared kindness and love, understanding and tolerance.  Unity implies the capacity to make room for the ideas, feelings and needs of others, even when we disagree with them.  Unity therefore demands compromise and acceptance of the idea that no single member of a large and diverse community or nation will get everything he/she wants.  In the context of the Book of Exodus, the Israelites behaved toward one another with kindness and love, thus they were unified as a people.  Their unity made Divine revelation possible.

These interpretations convey to us that shared kindness and love lie at the foundation of a decent, and democratic, society.  To be a democracy requires respect for the voices and opinions of its people.  A democratic society thrives not only on the rule of law but on tolerance and understanding.

I write this message with a special and focused concern about the modern-day nation of Israel living in the State of Israel.  Israel is a democracy where cherished human and civil rights are upheld.  Israel has a truly democratically elected government, and guarantees the freedom of speech, of assembly and of the press.

But, oddly and disturbingly, freedom of religion is imperiled in Israel.  While the State of Israel does not mandate the practice of any religion, and each citizen’s freedom to practice or not practice religion is steadfastly defended, the government gives control of key social institutions, among them marriage, divorce and conversion, to the Chief Rabbinate, a union of ultra-Orthodox rabbis who, empowered and funded by the State, impose their strict religious views on Israeli society.  Unable to achieve their aims through education and persuasion, the ultra-Orthodox use coercion, threats and the state authority granted to them to sustain the religious ideals they believe must underlie Israeli society.

This complex issue deserves to be thoroughly discussed and understood.  A place to start is by reading the Vision Statement authored by Rabbi Marc Angel, Director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, and Rabbi Uri Regev, President of Hiddush- Freedom of Religion for Israel.  At the end of the statement, you will find scores of signatures of Jewish leaders.  I encourage you to add your own name in support of the Vision Statement and thus express your own passion and wish that the State of Israel enrich its democracy by strengthening the freedom of religion afforded its citizens.

True democracy, in Israel or anywhere else in the world, is made possible not by imposing uniform ideas on people but by living by the values of respect, kindness and shared love of our fellow Jew and human beings.

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Promises and Mini-Markets

Promises are important.  They have the power to instill hope and excitement, and can establish trustworthiness and integrity.  Four key promises are noted in this week’s parasha, where we read these words spoken by God to Moses:

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the Lord.  I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians, and will deliver you from their bondage.  I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.  And I will take you to be My people and I will be your God.  (Exodus 6:6-7)

These key promises—the end of physical enslavement, of mental enslavement, of redemption, and of relationship with God—form the basis for the pattern of four in the Passover Seder.  We drink four cups of wine, ask four questions, there are four distinct tellings of the story, there is the tale of four children, etc.

A fifth promise– I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and I will give it to you as a possession, I the Lord (Exodus 6:8)—is represented by Elijah’s Cup, over which no blessing is recited.  Tradition holds that when the Messianic Era begins, to be heralded by Elijah the Prophet, we will learn if the Talmudic Sages should have included the fifth promise in the Passover Seder.

Though the “jury is out” on whether the fifth promise should have been grouped with the first four, it still looms very large in our tradition.  The promise of the Land of Israel for the Jewish people lies at the foundation of our very existence.  Our connection to the Land of Israel makes us unique.  Judaism is not only a religion espousing beliefs, customs and a common story.  We are also a nation, a people rooted in a special place.  It is in the Land of Israel that our nation was born, and it is to the Land of Israel that we have been spiritually connected since Abraham and Sarah walked the earth.

Here’s what one commentator– Rabbi Shalom Isaac Lewitan, 20th century, Norway—wrote about the importance of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people:

The Torah uses the word “morasha” (inheritance) only twice:  here, and in Deuteronomy, where it says “Moses commanded Torah as a morasha.”  From this we can draw a parallel between Eretz Yisrael and the Torah, and and that our right to inheritance in Eretz Yisrael is strengthened when we act in accordance with the laws of the Torah.

Rabbi Lewitan seems to reinforce the idea, commonly held by strictly Orthodox Jews, that the purpose of the Jews’ presence in the Land of Israel is to live according to the laws and principles of the Torah.  Following that line of thinking, God brought us out of Egypt to deliver His Torah to us at Mt. Sinai and bring us into the land promised to Abraham, where we would be a holy people living according to the values set forth in its pages.

This is precisely the ideology of Religious Zionists, who believe that the purpose of Jews living in Israel is to follow the ways of the Torah.  Ultra-Orthodox Jews would want to see the State of Israel turned into a theocracy, a state governed by Torah and not civil law.  Extreme Ultra-Orthodox Jews, such as the Neturei Karta, believe that the modern State of Israel is illegitimate since it was brought into existence by secular Jews and not by a Divine act of redemption.

The problem is that modern Zionism is not comprised of only one ideology.  There are Zionists who believe that the purpose of the State of Israel is for Jewish culture to flourish, while others believe that the purpose of Zionism is political, a guarantee of Jewish safety in a world hostile to Jews.

It seems that God’s fifth promise doesn’t mean only one thing to our people.  Some believe that God promised us a land so that we can uphold the laws of the Torah, while others believe that we were promised a land so that we could live there as a people in all our colorful diversity.

This brings me to mini-markets.  Among the headlines out of Israel this past week was a little noticed story about the Knesset voting to give the Minister of the Interior control over what business establishments can stay open on Shabbat throughout the State of Israel.  The current Interior Minister, Aryeh Deri (an Ultra-Orthodox Jew who also happens to be a convicted criminal), introduced a bill that would enable him to force the closure of mini-markets in Israel on Shabbat.  Threatening to topple the government’s ruling coalition if the “mini-market bill” wasn’t passed, the Knesset voted, by a margin of 58-57, to give Minister Deri the power to force the closure on Shabbat of mini-markets throughout Israel.  The city of Tel Aviv was exempt from the law, but attempts to exempt Eilat, a city that attracts a lot of tourists, failed.  Soon after the bill passed, Deri claimed that it was a victory for what he called the “silent majority” of Shabbat observers.  He later changed his tune and said that the bill wasn’t his idea and that implementing it would be impossible.

Two ideas about the mini-market bill come to mind.  First, the State of Israel came into being as a democracy where people are be free to choose how to live their lives.  True, Jewish values permeate Israeli life.  Personally, I appreciate the spirit of Shabbat descending on the entire country on a late Friday afternoon in Israel.  But the Ultra-Orthodox shouldn’t be allowed to force people to conform to a religious standard that they don’t want to embrace, whether in matters of Shabbat observance, keeping kosher, marriage or divorce.  The Ultra-Orthodox are free to educate and to inspire, but should not be allowed to demand and extort the results they want.  Holding the government hostage until people capitulate to a religious standard they don’t want to uphold is simply ugly and wrong.

Beyond that, the mini-market bill reminds me that Zionism isn’t only about upholding Torah values in the land of Israel.  There’s more than one way to be a Zionist.  God’s fifth promise—that the Jewish people would live in our own land—should be interpreted in a variety of ways.  We can only hope that Minister Deri and other Ultra-Orthodox politicians in the Israeli government grow to see that truth.

Shabbat Shalom,

RABBI COOPER

This Time I Will Offer Thanks

The reasons that lie behind the names given to the sons of Jacob by their mothers, Rachel and Leah are fascinating. What’s striking about Leah’s choices is that they seem tragic and self-serving. She chooses the name Simeon “because the Lord heard that I was unloved,” the name Naftali because she won a “fateful contest with her sister and prevailed,” and the name Levi “so my husband will become attached to me because I have given him three sons.”

These names express Leah’s despondency that she is not loved, even hated, by her husband Jacob.  The pattern of tragic self-expression through her children’s names is broken when Judah is born.  The origin of the word Jewish, Judah is chosen for reasons that are not self-absorbed at all. Leah names her fourth son Judah as an expression of gratitude for those things that are above and beyond what she felt she had a right to expect in life. When Leah gives birth to Judah, she says “ha-pa’am odeh et Adonai…this time I will thank God” (Genesis 29:35). Why did Leah feel the need to thank God when Judah was born?  On this verse, the Midrash comments that Leah chose the name Judah “because I have assumed more than my share, from now on I should praise God.”  Because he was her fourth child, and she had assumed that each of Jacob’s four wives would be entitled to bear three sons who would become one of the ancestors of the twelve tribes. Judah was extra, more than she felt she was entitled to have, so she felt compelled to offer thanks to God.

I don’t consider this interpretation of Leah’s motivation for choosing the name Judah to be a satisfying explanation of the idea of gratitude.  Yes, we can all expect certain basic entitlements in life.  Americans have come to expect a safe place to live, food to eat, healthcare and education for ourselves and our children.  These are among the basic privileges offered to the people of a decent society, and we have come to expect them.  Beyond expecting them for ourselves, we are called to fight for the underprivileged among us who do not receive an adequate share of these minimum rights and benefits, if they have them at all.  But true gratitude asks us to be thankful for life itself and for each of the blessings we enjoy each day.  Nothing we have should be taken for granted or assumed to be owed to us.  That is why a Jew is asked to express gratitude as the first utterance upon waking in the morning, why we pause to say thanks for every morsel of food we eat before sitting down to a meal, and why we offer our gratitude for the clothing we wear.

Before we establish what think we are entitled to have and only express thanks for what we are given beyond that, we ought to consider that much of the rest of the world lives in poverty and destitution.  When we consider the material blessings that what we have each day of our lives, and the blessings of freedom afforded by our country, we might amend “this time I will thank God” to “I will thank God every time.”

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, I encourage you to offer the following prayer when you gather to share a meal with family and friends.

A Thanksgiving Prayer

(By Rabbi Naomi Levy)

For the laughter of the children,

For my own life breath,

For the abundance of food on this table,

For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,

For the roof over our heads,

The clothes on our backs,

For our health,

And our wealth of blessings,

For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,

For the freedom to pray these words

Without fear,

In any language,

In any faith,

In this great country,

Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.

Thank You, God, for giving us all these.  Amen.

 

 

There’s Nothing Like Being There

Not much distinguishes Isaac as one of the three great patriarchs of our people.  Though we recite his name every time we pray the Amidah, there isn’t anything particularly dramatic about his life story.

Abraham is a pioneer, the one to promote a revolutionary idea to the world.  His faith is complex and challenging.  His family relationships are equally so.

Jacob lives a turbulent life on his own terms.  He knows he will inherit the weighty mantle of leadership, but we are not sure he possesses the moral certainty carry on his family’s tradition.  He is a person of questionable character who inspires scrutiny and admiration for his behavior toward others.

But the most that can be said of Isaac is that he is the necessary link between the generations.  He is a passive figure, bound to the altar by his father in the role of victim, not trailblazer.

True, there are times to be a trailblazer and there are times to maintain the status quo.  Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in his book Biblical Images writes that, “It is known that the sons of great fathers, talented and significant as they may be in their own right, have to contend with the parental glory and from the beginning feel themselves as inadequate, burdened with a lesser or with greater degrees of helplessness.”  Frankly, who remembers the child of a revolutionary?  The point Rabbi Steinsaltz makes is that the generation to follow a revolutionary often must quietly maintain what was achieved.

On the surface, Isaac’s story is not unique and inspiring.  But the rabbinic sages credit him with one achievement in particular—he remained in the Land of Israel.  In chapter 26 of Genesis, we read that God tells him to stay in the land and that he will prosper by staying.

One might think that never leaving one’s homeland is hardly an impressive accomplishment.  But the sages credit Isaac with reinforcing the idea that a Jew must be closely connected to the Land of Israel not only spiritually but also physically.  For them, the land was a crucial aspect of Jewish identity.  They viewed the land as not an abstract promise made to Abraham but the place in which communal and cultural identity was formed and strengthened.  Simply put, they affirmed that Jews are not only a religion but also a nation.  We have in common not only values, folkways, history and customs, but also a shared connection to a certain place.

What was true for the Talmudic sages should be true for us.  Jews are not only members of a religion, but also a nation.  Our connection to the Land of Israel has been maintained from all the generations from Abraham to our day.  Our religious identity is expressed not only in prayer, study, holiday celebration and cultural experience.  It ought to be expressed through connection to the Land of Israel as well.

In that spirit, I share with you two opportunities to visit Israel with me.

  • The first opportunity is Oheb Shalom Congregation’s Family Israel Adventure, a 10-day tour from August 19-29, 2018. These dates come after summer camp sessions have ended.  Together, we will travel to places in Israel both historic and modern, seeing for ourselves how this remarkable and beautiful nation has grown over 70 years of statehood.  Each day will be packed with experiences and memorable moments that we will share together.  Oheb Shalom members and their extended family members are welcome to join.  The itinerary and registration form for Oheb Shalom’s Family Israel Adventure are both online.
  • The second opportunity is a Community Mission sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey. From October 14-22, 2018, hundreds of people from our community will travel together to Israel for a remarkable and memorable visit.  The cost is $1,999 (land only) for the first 400 registrants, and $3,499 (land only) for subsequent registrants.  I plan to be there, and we are hoping for a substantial representation from Oheb Shalom on this mission!

Isaac did not capture the headlines that his father or son did.  But he is known by our tradition for his close connection to the Land of Israel.  Let’s emulate his example.

Shabbat Shalom,

RABBI COOPER

Old- and Current- Attitudes Toward Women

The stories in the Torah often seem subordinating of women.  One of the two creation stories in Genesis describes Eve as being created from Adam’s rib because he needed a “helper.”  Sarah is depicted as a mostly passive character.  Her voice isn’t heard in the chilling story of the attempted sacrifice of her son Isaac, and her husband Abraham profits materially from his urging her to spend the night with another man.  Isaac does the same to his wife.  Decisions seemed to be made and directions determined largely by men.

That shouldn’t be too surprising.  We’re often tempted to judge the content of Bible stories through the lens of our own times and values, but that would be a mistake.  Ancient Israelite society was male dominated.  Women, for the most part, weren’t granted public or legal standing.  The Jewish law, upheld today by strict observers of Halakha, that women may not serve as witnesses for the completion of a Jewish legal document such as a Ketubah (wedding contract) or Get (divorce contract) is rooted in an obsolete assumption that women shouldn’t have a role in public matters.  Even the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony commonly practiced today is based on a law in the Mishna stipulating that a woman is “acquired” by a man, a sort of property concerning which a man had rights (many non-Orthodox Jews are choosing to make the ceremony more egalitarian).  It’s true that a balanced view of Talmudic laws regarding marriage and divorce would require us to acknowledge that women also had rights and were afforded protection from abuse enshrined in law.  But it’s indisputable that Jewish society from the past was male dominated.

We can object to these historic realities, though we shouldn’t express too much shock about how women were depicted and treated in Bible stories and in the times following the period of the Bible.  The fact is that here in America it wasn’t until 1920 that women were given the right to vote.  And the glass ceiling that prevents women from earning equal pay for equal work still hasn’t been broken.  Attitudes about women from the past that led to the subordination and subjugation of women very much exist today in our world and our nation.

Thus, we shouldn’t be shocked or surprised at the countless #MeToo stories of sexual harassment and abuse finally being shared by women who have quietly suffered at the hands of men who seem to think that their impulses and perverse needs can be fulfilled at their whim at the expense of women.  We need to listen with sensitivity and empathy to their stories of abuse, suffering and coercion, hold perpetrators accountable, and begin to create a culture in which men do not feel a license to dominate and abuse women.

And we need to be sure to emphasize, especially to children, those parts of the Torah that do depict women as smart, decisive and in control of their own lives, their families and their people.  One such character, whom we meet in this week’s Parasha, is Rebecca.  She is consulted before her marriage to Isaac is finalized.  And her character is described as someone in charge and who steers her husband toward an outcome that she thinks is best for her family, even if she can’t count on him to support her.  Rebecca stands out from most other females in the Bible as someone who is a leader.  We need to make sure that her story is told as an example of an empowered female.

We shouldn’t judge too harshly stories from the Bible, as they were written in a time long ago.  But, sadly, some of those ancient attitudes toward women persist today and we must do what needs to be done to make a change in our own times and stop subordination and abuse of women.

Shabbat Shalom,

RABBI COOPER

An Ethical Life

Note: At the end of this post is a reminder about our Adult B’nai Mitzvah service that will take place this Saturday, November 4.

I shared these words with our congregation in The Review, our bi-monthly printed newsletter.  I offer them here as well, along with my hope that many of you will take the opportunity to learn with me.

What is the essence of Judaism?  Is it prayer and worship, perhaps so because we wish to come closer to God?  Is it study and learning, perhaps so because we wish to discover faith?  Is it repair of the world, for there can be nothing more urgent than using our strength and resources to help the suffering?  Indeed, each of these practices has its place.  Yet, the strongest argument may be that the essence of Judaism is to live a life devoted to goodness, to being a good person in our actions and our thoughts.  All of Jewish life is a preparation for the ultimate human condition—to develop our lives into a symphony of goodness.

The study of ethics is a priority in Judaism.  A Jewish examination of ethics considers the values of Torah and the wisdom of the Talmudic sages and their intellectual and spiritual heirs.  The study of ethics from a Jewish perspective examines critical, current issues from a Jewish lens.

The Jewish Theological Seminary has produced a truly outstanding curriculum for adults to engage in the study of ethics from a Jewish perspective.  Here’s how the course is described:

From political and financial scandals to rapid progress in biomedical science and technology, the complex issues of modern society are, at their core, issues of ethical and moral concern. Now more than ever, we require a solid understanding of how Jewish ethics can inform our discussions and decisions about the critical questions of the day. Judaism has a long history of wrestling with moral questions, responding to them in a way that considers all sides of an issue. 

The course includes video presentations by JTS faculty members, as well as short videos featuring people who grapple with ethical challenges in their professional work.  Participants will be able to access all course materials, including videos, online.  Eight sessions of “The Ethical Life” will be offered, four on a Monday night and four on a Shabbat morning from November through March.  The Monday night sessions will be streamed online for those who cannot be physically present at the synagogue.  The Shabbat morning sessions will take place shortly after the start of the Kiddush luncheon (videos will be shown at the Monday sessions but not on Shabbat).

The topics are varied and interesting, and are presented independent of each other so that participants can attend sessions selectively.  Participants will chose which topics will be studied.

Ethical issues that will be offered for study include: food production; fracking; mass incarceration; modern-day slavery; torture and war; end-of-Life care; disabilities and inclusion; physical enhancement; and lying.

Monday dates: November 20, December 18, January 8, January 22 (8:00-9:30 PM)

Shabbat dates: December 2, February 3, March 3, March 17 (shortly after the start of the kiddush lunch)

I do hope that you will join me for what promises to be a stimulating and important time of learning and discussion.

Adult B’nai Mitzvah celebration- THIS SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 4

I hope that you will attend Shabbat morning services this week as we celebrate with five adults who are becoming B’nai Mitzvah.  Rick Gilman, Adele Nagelberg, Debra Ginsberg, Susan Waters and Harriet Siegerman have been studying with me for nearly a year and have prepared to participate in the service.  For each of these people, becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah as adults means something different.  Their personal journeys are unique.  For all of them, becoming Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a moment of affirmation of their Jewish identity and their place in the Jewish community.   I hope that you will be present to celebrate with them and their families.

Miracle People

We’ve come to the part of Genesis where God establishes a covenant with Abraham.  Near the end of Parashat Lech Lecha, in the opening verses of chapter 17, God summons Abraham to walk with Him and to strive to be wholehearted.  He promises him that his descendants will “exceedingly multiply,” will live in a land of their own, and that he will become the father of many generations.  To mark this moment in Abraham’s life and relationship to God, two things happen.  First, his name is changed from “Abram” to “Abraham.”  The difference between the two versions of the name is the single Hebrew letter “hey,” which symbolizes God’s essence.  The second thing is that Abraham is told that he, and all of his male descendants, must be circumcised as an outward, physical symbol of continuity of tradition and heritage between generations.  Abraham fulfills this command at an advanced age, by himself, while newborns males are entered into our Covenant with God on the eighth day of life.

Whenever we read this passage, it especially resonates with me.  I am a Mohel and am present at Brit Milah celebrations at which newborn boys are welcomed into the family of the Jewish people through the recitation of prayers and the ritual of circumcision.  When I officiate at a Bris, I most often tell the crowd that we have gathered to affirm that the story of the People of Israel continues in the life and generation of the newborn baby.  It is a story that began with Abraham, who began the Jewish journey centuries ago in a land far way and at a very different time in human history.  That our story continues in the times in which we live, that the Jewish people continues to thrive in the 21st century in a land of our own, that we continue to make major contributions to the welfare of humankind in every conceivable area of life, is nothing short of a miracle.  Those who know the history of the Jewish people know well that the is no logical reason that we continue to exist.  There are too many points in our history when we should have exited the world stage through military defeat or genocide.  That other nations and civilizations have vanished, and the Jewish people is still here, is simply astonishing.  Other than the part about his descendants being numerous, the promise made by God to Abraham has been kept.

That makes us the “miracle people.”  When a person encounters a miracle, how should he respond?  By expressing gratitude and awe, and by doing everything possible to preserve it.  That is what we the descendants of Abraham, are summoned to do.  As the People of Israel, we are called on to express gratitude that the Jewish story continues in our times and that we are part of that story.  And we are ought to do everything we can to preserve the miracle.  We must do our part to preserve our traditions, while at the same time responding with creativity and innovation to the challenges of our own day.

Every generation of our people must say to itself two things.  First, our continued existence is nothing less than miraculous.  And second, that miracle can end at any time.  Let’s not allow it to be on our watch.

Shabbat Shalom.

RABBI COOPER

 

 

Strengthening Israel

 

Note:  Phil Darivoff, AIPAC National Board Member, will speak on “What is the Future of the U.S.-Israel Relationship?” on Friday, October 20 at 8:30 PM, following a brief Shabbat service at 8:00 PM.

120 years ago, Theodore Herzl convened the First World Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland.  A man filled with passion for Zionism, Herzl predicted that within 50 years, a Jewish State would emerge.  Considered unlikely if not laughable at the time, Herzl was actually prophetic, for 51 years later the State of Israel was established.

If Herzl could visit Israel today, what would he think of it?  Would he be impressed by the remarkable pace at which the land has been developed, at which Jewish culture has taken root, and at which a Jewish army has been able to defend its citizens and Jews around the world? Would Herzl be satisfied to see Israeli medical teams fly to distant lands to help other states recover from earthquakes or agricultural specialists heading off to Africa to help drought stricken countries yield more from the land? Would he be disillusioned to see that tension and discord still rages between religious and secular Jews, or that there are parts of Israeli society still awaiting social and economic justice? Would he be disheartened that enmity between Arabs and Israelis has for the most part not abated and that peace has eluded the people who live in the land he worked so hard to establish? What would he think of an Israel that has done so much, yet still has many problems to solve. If Herzl could see the Israel of 2017, I imagine that he would see all these things.

I’m concerned less about what Herzl would think of the Israel of 2017 than I am about what American Jews think. What worries me most is our growing apathy toward Israel. I I worry that the voices of condemnation and harsh criticism, voices that typically come from a place of anti-Semitism as much as from a place of anti-Zionism, are dismissed. I worry that the rage expressed against Israel on college campuses is ignored. I worry that in 2017, a year that marks 70 years of the reestablishment of Medinat Yisrael, Israel is taken for granted by American Jews despite its remarkable, miraculous successes.

We are living in one of the most remarkable eras of Jewish history in centuries.  We are privileged to live in a time when a sovereign State of Israel exists.  And not only does it exists, it thrives.  A world leader in technology, agriculture and science, Israel is a strong democracy in a region inhabited by dictatorships and oppressive regimes.  That Israel has achieved so much in its 70 years of existence is utterly miraculous.  That reality makes the fact that so many American Jews take Israel for granted so tragic.

The great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote an essay on the relationship of American Jews to Israel titled “Kol Dodi Dofek – the Voice of My Beloved Knocks.” The image comes from the Biblical Song of Songs: in the middle of the night the lover knocks on the door of his beloved’s house, and she asks herself, “should I get up out of bed to answer the door?” That, for Soloveitchik, was the call of Israel to the Diaspora Jew: the voice of our beloved calling our name, pounding on our door, banging on our soul, summoning us to action, demanding that we get out of our comfortable beds, and answer the call.

There are many ways to answer Soloveitchik’s “knock on the door.”  One powerful way is to become active in AIPACFor nearly 70 years, AIPAC has been devoted to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship.  Through its work with Congress and every American administration, AIPAC advances Israel’s needs and, in so doing, strengthens America as well.  Working with the Israeli government, AIPAC advocates for Israel’s security needs.  The threats to Israel are quite apparent:  Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Syria.  There is no doubt that strengthening the relationship between America and Israel is key to enabling Israel to overcome any threats to her safety and security.

On Friday, October 20 Phil Darivoff, a member of AIPAC’s National Board, will visit Oheb Shalom to talk about AIPAC’s mission to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.  Phil’s presentation will take place at 8:30, following a brief Shabbat service at 8:00 PM.

I know that some people have questions about AIPAC’s stance on critical issues such as settlements, the policies of Israel’s current government toward the peace process, and even AIPAC’s approach to the current U.S. administration.  Those who have questions about how AIPAC does its work are encouraged to attend the presentation on October 20 and engage in a productive dialogue.

In this 120th year since Herzl called a meeting to see if he could work a miracle by setting in motion the process of rebuilding the Jewish State, in this 70th year since that miracle actually happened, I hope and pray that we will get up to answer Solveitchik’s door, for the state that Herzl envisioned and that is ours to claim is waiting.  We can start by attending the AIPAC presentation on Friday, October 20.

Rabbi Mark Cooper

 

Humility

Offered on the first day of Rosh Hashana 5778

The story is told of a rabbi who, one Kol Nidrei eve, was overcome with emotion as he recited the opening prayer that acknowledges the sins of the synagogue’s leaders and asks for God’s help to lead the congregation. He threw himself on the floor before the open ark and cried out, “God, I am a nothing!”  When the Cantor heard the murmur of approval from the congregation, he also threw himself down and shouted, “God I am a nothing!”  As the buzz in the congregation grew even louder, the synagogue president followed suit, practically screaming as his body hit the carpet, “God, I am a nothing!”  At which the Cantor nudged the rabbi and whispered, “Hmm, look who wants to be a nothing now.”

Humility—a modest view of oneself and one’s own importance—isn’t something that a lot of people identify with as a personal virtue or quality.  In fact, the watchword of our time may be the exact opposite—arrogance, or when a person thinks that he knows it all and that she doesn’t need to improve because she’s already so great.  There’s a lot of arrogance around us—in our politics, in our national discourse, in our society’s emphasis on the importance and centrality of the self.  And there’s not enough humility displayed around us.  And that’s regrettable because the virtue of humility, one that is deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition, is an important key to building a society that is guided by tolerance, coexistence and harmony, qualities that often seem to be sorely lacking in our nation and our world.

The Jewish tradition urges us to embrace the attribute of anavah, or humility, repeatedly declaring it to be the greatest of all the moral virtues.  What exactly is it that the Talmudic sages want us to emulate?  They emphasize the importance of placing our sense of personal significance in check.  They point to the heroes of the Bible as role models of suppressing boastfulness and excessive pride.  Abraham refers to himself as being “dust and ashes.”  Moses famously resists God’s call to lead his people out of slavery because he feels that he is underqualified and unworthy for the task.  Throughout the centuries, Jewish philosophers and sages counsel us to underestimate our own worth and value, at least in the way we present ourselves to others.  The Spanish mystic and philosopher Nachmamides, gave this advice to his children in his Ethical Will: “Let your voice be low and your head bowed; let your eyes turn earthwards—every man should seem in your own eyes as one greater than yourselves.”  Even the High Holiday Machzor is overflowing with phrases that try to persuade us that we shouldn’t think too much of ourselves, like the one at the end of the Unetaneh Tokef that reminds us that our origins are dust and our end is dust.

Now, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, that’s not a very uplifting or cheery idea to ponder.  Do any of us really want to spend these days being told that we are nothing, that we should walk around with our heads bowed low, deferential to everyone we meet, reluctant to express ourselves, positioning ourselves as a doormat for others to walk across?  Don’t we want to go home from these days of prayer and celebration feeling strong, proud and content?

The truth is that our tradition does not counsel us toward self-denigration.  We are not asked to abuse or punish ourselves—that is not the essence of humility.  Rather, in embracing the attribute of humility we are encouraged to diminish ourselves just a bit to make some room for others.  The humble person does not castigate herself, but suppresses the inclination toward vanity and boastful pride in order to see the value and blessing in others.  Instead of entertaining the metaphor of a doormat, we could consider the image of a threshold.  In that spirit, the Talmudic sage Rava teaches us:  “A low threshold across the house of your soul makes it possible for doors to close and open.”  Humility isn’t about becoming a doormat.  It’s about making a space for others to cross the low threshold of your being and enter your world.  A humble person doesn’t take up lots of space.  He makes space in his heart for others.  A humble person does not have an outlook that is self-important, self-satisfied, pompous or arrogant.  A humble person has room in her mind and soul for other people’s ideas and concerns.  The great sage Rashi tells us that there was a good reason that God gave the Torah to the People of Israel in the Sinai desert, a place where a person feels humbled by the elements.  Only by humbling ourselves, by subduing the notion we so often have that we know everything already, can we be open to the words and wisdom of the Torah.

Humility is also the reason offered in the Midrashic tradition that Joshua was chosen to succeed Moses.  Despite the macho image assigned to Joshua in movies, he is depicted in the Midrash as a very humble, even timid person who listened attentively and refrained from making bold, brash statements.  It could be debated whether those qualities are ideal for a leader, but God clearly preferred him to someone else who might have made big decisions without considering the opinions of those around him.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the attribute of humility in recent weeks as we have all witnessed the terrible hurricanes and the flooding and destruction they caused in Houston and Southern Florida.  Scores of people tragically lost their lives to the ferocity of nature, and the lives of thousands more have been upended.  At virtually the same time, we barely noticed that the largest wildfire in California history could not be contained as it destroyed thousands of acres of forest and dozens of homes.  These catastrophic events certainly call us to offer empathy and support to those who are suffering.  And perhaps they are also humbling reminders that despite our mastery of our world, the forces of nature can subdue and overwhelm us without mercy.  They remind us that we don’t know as much as we think we do and that we could all use a dose of humility.

There’s a term for the cluster of attitudes that we ought to embrace, both individually and collectively, that spur us to recognize and accept our own fallibility and own our limitations and biases.  Michael Lynch, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut, calls it “Intellectual Humility.”  And we sorely need it to creep into our national dialogue.  It’s not unreasonable for people to disagree with one another on important matters.  But people seem to disagree on so much that there are no facts any longer.  People hold onto their understanding of truth so fiercely that they lose all objectivity.  They lose the capacity to talk and listen to others, and to learn from others.  Intellectual Humility compels us to see our views as capable of improvement because of what others contribute to our understanding of the world.

An example comes to mind from the holy city of Jerusalem, home to what is the holiest site in all of Judaism—the Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi, or Western Wall of the ancient Temple Mount.  Soon after the Old City of Jerusalem was recaptured by the Israelis in the Six Day War and the city was reunited, the Israelis renovated the Kotel Plaza so that Jews could pray there in dignity.  It wasn’t long before the site was declared to be an official synagogue under the control of the Chief Rabbinate.  Now, if you follow Israeli politics then you know that the Chief Rabbinate doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of non-Orthodox forms of Judaism.  In fact, they consider Conservative and Reform Jews to be clowns who are engaged in nothing less than the destruction of the Jewish way of life.  And because they control the Kotel Plaza, they refuse to allow any form of worship to take place there other than their own.  Even after world Jewish leaders spent months negotiating a compromise with the government that would have enabled all three major denominations of Judaism to claim a place near the Wall, the ultra-Orthodox, who control a political party key to the governing coalition, demanded that the agreement be abandoned.  What is disheartening about this episode is not primarily that non-Orthodox Jews may not gather to pray at the Wall in a manner in keeping with our customs and traditions.  It is that some Jews are so entrenched in their own views and are so convinced that they, and they alone, possess truth and an understanding of the will of God, that they can make no room for the views and ideas of others.  It’s ironic and sad that those who claim to be fiercely loyal to Jewish law and tradition have overlooked one of our foundational teachings, namely that a person should humbly make room for the ideas and views of others rather than brashly and rudely claiming to have a monopoly on the truth.  I should add that while the example I’ve cited is from the right of the Jewish religious and political spectrum, the problem of arrogance and intolerance of the views of others is not restricted to the right.  There are many on the left, in the world of religion and politics, who are arrogant and intolerant to the point that they cannot listen to anyone but themselves.

Living with a sense of humility does not mean that we must abandon any claim to knowledge.  There is a point at which we must recognize that there is evidence to support certain facts.  There is a point that we must live with conviction.  As Prof. Lynch puts it, “Conviction allows you to know when to stop inquiring, when to realize that you know enough—that the earth really is round, that the climate is warming, that the Holocaust happened.”  To paraphrase the professor, conviction allows us to say, indeed demands that we say unhesitatingly, that racism is evil and that there were not decent people on both sides of the horrifying conflict that took place in Charlottesville last month.  Yes, we must live with an attitude of humility.  But we must balance humility with conviction.  There is a time to be humble and there is a time to stand up for the values that we know to be true.  Sometimes we must trust that we know the difference.

Among the ideas I learned and shared with the congregation on a Shabbat in the past year was this teaching brought by Rabbi Shai Held.  The Talmudic sages were fascinated by the idea that God is everywhere.  That’s what’s meant by the phrase in the Torah and Siddur, Kevodo Malei Olam…God’s presence fills the universe.  But at the same time, they wondered how, if God fills all space, there could be room for anything else to exist.  They reply to their own question by saying that God performs an act called Tzimtzum…contraction.  God withdraws the Divine presence to make room for other beings to inhabit the universe.   That is how God’s presence, otherwise filling all of space, could be contained within the Mishkan, the first Temple built by our ancestors who wandered in the desert.

So it is with us.  We, too, most often need to perform an act of tzimtzum, to contract ourselves, to reign in our instinct to fill the void with our views and ideas of what is right and true.  We, most often, ought to make room to listen to others, for in so doing we will learn and we will grow.

Coming Up Against the Wall

The big story in the Jewish world of the past few days has been the decision by Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to cancel the plan to build an egalitarian entrance and guaranteed access to the Kotel (Western Wall) for all Jews who wish to pray there according to their customs.  After lengthy negotiations, a plan was approved nearly 18 months ago that would have seen the construction of a new entrance and the allocation of space for non-Orthodox Jews to pray at the Kotel in egalitarian minyanim, something now prohibited by the Chief Rabbinate and the official Rabbi of the Western Wall.  Caving into pressure from Haredi Jews, who hold political power and form a part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the Prime Minister shelved the deal and created another commission to study the problem (a pointless task).  All of this infuriated the people who negotiated the deal on behalf of Conservative and Reform Jews in Israel and around the world, causing some to respond with harsh statements against Israel, and Natan Sharansky, an icon of modern Jewish history and current head of the Jewish Agency, to wonder openly if trust between Israel and non-Orthodox diaspora Jewry can ever be rebuilt.

To untangle this issue, we ought to focus on three elements:  1) To whom does the Wall belong, 2) What insights can be gained from the behavior of Haredi (ultra-Orthdox) Jews? and 3) How should Diaspora Jews respond to the situation?

Undoubtedly, the Kotel or Western Wall is among the most recognized symbols of the connection between Jews and the Land of Israel.  Built by Herod (73-4 BCE), Jewish ruler of Judea during the time of the Roman occupation, the Wall was reclaimed by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.  Since then, it has become a popular place to pray, stuff notes between the crevices of its massive stones and visit to appreciate the power of Jewish history in the land of Israel.  The Kotel is also an official synagogue under the supervision of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate, an arm of the government.  Is the Wall the possession of the State of Israel, so that the way it is accessed and used is the sole determination of Israel’s government?  Or is it the possession of worldwide Jewry, meaning that every Jew, regardless of denomination or the way we choose to practice Judaism, has a share in its ownership and thus a voice and vote in how it is managed?

That is certainly not a simple question to answer.  We who live here in America do not serve in the IDF, nor do we pay taxes in Israel.  What right do we have to determine the policies of Israel’s government?  On the other hand,Israel is not only home to Israelis, but also the spiritual home of worldwide Jewry.  Our relationship to Israel is different from our relationship to any other foreign country.  Our relationship to Israel ought to be an aspect of our Jewish identity.  There is a sense of belonging and connection to Israel that many Diaspora Jews feel.  We need to nurture that relationship, especially among Millennials, many of whom are increasingly alienated from Israel because of the unsolved dispute with the Palestinians, an issue that is far more important to them than whether or not Conservative Jews have equal access to the Kotel.

The question of “who owns the Wall” is also symbolic of a larger issue—are the views and needs of non-Orthodox Jews, in Israel and here in America, taken seriously by the Israeli government?  Or are we dismissed, primarily by the Haredim, as illegitimate clowns who pose a threat to the Jewish way of life by the way we practice Judaism?  That is certainly how the Haredim see us, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s acquiescence to their demands was seen as an endorsement of their views, nothing less than an insulting slap in the face to the millions of Conservative and Reform Jews here and in Israel.

What insights can we gain from the behavior of Hareidi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews?  These are people who claim to have exclusive understanding of God’s will and to have a monopoly on the truth.  Such a viewpoint is simply antithetical to the fundamental values of Judaism.  They exude intolerance and arrogance.  What they have not been able to achieve through education and gentle persuasion they try to achieve through coercion and even violence.  In the face of such obnoxious and offensive behavior, we must retain our dignity and our principles.  We must be unwavering in our assertion that all Jews matter, and unflinching in our upholding of the idea that no one has as a right to claim that they know and understand God’s will and thus have a right to impose their views on others.  Nothing good in human history has ever come from one group forcing another to submit to its will.

How should Diaspora Jews respond to this situation?  I do not believe that we should attack the Israeli government, threaten to withhold financial resources from the State of Israel, or make bold statements about how Israel is no longer a home for the entire Jewish people.  Rather, we must see the bigger picture.  Yes, egalitarian access to the Kotel would be a meaningful expression of the legitimacy of non-Orthodox Jewry in Israel and around the world.  But we ought not view this as a single-issue situation.  At the core of the problem is that Reform and Conservative (Masorti) Jews in Israel are perceived as too small and weak to matter.  Those who care about pluralism in Israel should invest resources in growing and strengthening the Masorti Movement.  Learn about the work of the movement and support it with your charitable dollars.  There is power and influence in numbers, and we must seek to gain influence by becoming bigger and stronger.

I welcome your comments on this powerful issue and look forward to a robust debate.

Shabbat Shalom,

RABBI COOPER