Too Much of a Good Thing?

A lesson often taught by parents to their children is that too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily good. Children may want to eat a second or third piece of cake, or play a favorite video game for an extra hour above many hours already spent on a computer or tablet, but parents likely know that moderation is the best pathway not only in childhood but throughout life.

Surprisingly, the Torah also teaches that when it comes to the practice of Judaism, moderation is also a good thing. In this week’s parasha, Va-etchanan, we read:

You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you. (Deuteronomy 4:2)

It’s fairly easy to understand the Torah’s statement that we should not “take anything away” from what God teaches. Here, we can presume that the Torah is coaching us to fulfill what we have been commanded to do and not less. But what does the Torah mean by saying that we should not “add anything to what I command you?” If we are sufficiently enthusiastic and motivated, why can’t we increase what we do in our observance of Jewish life?

To clarify, I don’t think the Torah means that a person should not aspire to grow in their Jewish knowledge or practice. Instead, the verse above is telling us that we should not, on our own, increase the number of times we perform certain actions beyond what we are supposed to be doing. Thus, Rashi says:

“You shall not add: For example, five instead of four passages in the tefillin, five species in the lulav, or five tzitzit, and similarly, or take anything away using three rather than four.”

And the Talmud provides another example of the mandate not to embellish the normal practice of Judaism:

From where do we learn that a Kohen who goes up to the duchan (the platform from which the Kohanim bless the congregation) should not say since the Torah has given me permission to bless Israel I will add a blessing of my own, for example, may Adonai the God of your ancestors add to you one thousand times? The Torah says, “You shall not add anything.” (Talmud Rosh Hashannah 28a)

Perhaps the Torah is concerned about retaining a sense of uniformity in practice. If the especially exuberant among us seek to extend their practice of Judaism in ways suggested by Rashi and the Talmudic sages, they may fundamentally change the way Judaism is practiced. And while Judaism respects individuality in many areas of Jewish life, it also places a high value on uniformity of practice. We keep our traditions alive and intact largely because the entire community upholds them in reasonably the same way. For example, there may be some individual differences in the way the Passover Seder is celebrated in each home, but we all follow approximately the same outline on the same night using roughly the same book and the same symbols. If it were not for uniformity of practice, it would be hard for a religious community to survive.

Even if the Torah means to teach us that we should strive for uniformity as a community by not embellishing the way we practice our religion, there is still a valuable lesson to be gleaned here. In most areas of life, including Judaism, too much of anything is probably not good for us.

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What Jews Should Know About Islam

When Mohammad Abdulazeez shot up a military recruiting center at a strip mall a week ago in Chattanooga, Tennessee and then drove a short distance to a navy operations support center where he murdered five servicemen, he did more than take the lives of five courageous members of our military, each of whom had a family, friends and loved ones and a bright and promising future ahead of them.  And he did more than trigger fears that lone terrorists here in the United States were acting on exhortations coming from ISIS on the other side of the world to wreak havoc and commit acts of violence in our country.  Perhaps without knowing it, Abdulazeez also managed to rekindle within some Americans fears and phobias about anyone whose name sounds like his own.  And that is unfortunate and regrettable.

A few days after the attack, a local radio station interviewed a Muslim community leader who spoke of the setbacks encountered by his community in the wake of Chattanooga.  He was, of course, deeply saddened and horrified by the killings of US servicemen in general, and he was mortified because they were done by someone whose name and background caused him to be openly identified as a Muslim.  (At the time of the broadcast, the FBI was still investigating whether or not there was a link between Abdulazeez and any known terrorist organization. Since then, it has become increasingly clear that the killer, though he had spent seven months in Jordan and had relatives there, had been using drugs, was depressed and suicidal and suffered from a manic-depressive disorder, and almost surely did not act under the compulsion of ISIS or any other terrorist group.)  All the good work and building of trusting relationships between his community and its neighbors was threatened.  The speaker expressed concern that people’s suspicions of Muslims were renewed.

We Jews who have so often been the subject of gratuitous hatred and misplaced aggression should be sensitive to the pain of being falsely isolated and targeted.  We should be able to recognize when the sins of the few taint the reputation and good name of the many, and when stereotyping results making incorrect assumptions about people’s values and intentions.

We’ve all witnessed and been horrified by violence committed by people who claim to be Muslims and who claim to be honoring Islamic values.  The actions of a few have obscured what it means to be a Muslim and have made it difficult to understand the message and meaning of Islam.  So it is that this Friday night I have invited a number of speakers to talk to us about what Jews should know about Islam, including Ashraf Latif, Chairman and President of the National Islamic Association and Community Center in Newark, and Abdul Alim Mubarak Rowe, Assistant Imam at Masjid Waarith ud Deen in Irvington. On an evening we’re calling “Tapas and Torah,” we’ll first share Shabbat services beginning at 8:00 P.M.  At 8:45 P.M., we’ll gather in Founders’ Hall to enjoy Tapas and Sangria and listen to our guests tell us what they feel we should know about Islam.  I hope you will join us for this special evening.

Why Commemorate Tisha B’Av?

A man once told his rabbi that he was not interested in practicing Judaism because most of the rituals seemed so medieval. The rabbi replied, “I think you have it wrong…we’re not medieval. We’re much older than that!”

As you might expect, I see the relevance of Jewish practice for the times in which we live. But it’s not lost on me that many of our practices are quiet ancient, and it can be hard to demonstrate the relevance of some of our rituals and customs. It can be difficult to explain to some people that we do something today because of an event that transpired 2,000-3,000 years ago. This is especially true for the fast days we observe throughout the year (other than Yom Kippur). Tisha B’Av, or the 9th day of Av, is one such day. It is largely observed by those who have a strong Jewish background and knowledge of Jewish holidays. And since it comes in the middle of the summer, a time when many people are on vacation, it doesn’t draw a lot of attention.

First, a little background. Tisha B’Av is considered to be a solemn day on the Jewish calendar which commemorates the destruction of both the first and second Temples that stood in Jerusalem (the Western Wall, or Kotel, a Jewish site recognized around the world, remains from what once was the Second Temple). In the year 63 BCE, the Romans occupied Judea (a sovereign Jewish state run by the Hasmoneans, descendants of the Maccabees), and the Jews rebelled against Rome about 120 years later, in 67 CE. A 3-year guerilla war ensued, which the Jews lost in a big way. The Romans breached the walls of the Temple on the 17th of Tammuz in the year 70 CE (also a fast day on the Jewish calendar) and burned the Temple to the ground on the 9th of Av (three weeks later). To this day, the three weeks from 17 Tammuz to 9 Av are observed as a solemn time period on the Jewish calendar, during which traditional Jews do not hold weddings or other celebrations. During the first nine days of the month of Av, the solemnity increases, and traditional Jews do not eat meat (except on Shabbat), shave or cut their hair, or hold festive celebrations (this year, the month of Av and the “Nine Days” begin on Friday, July 17). A small group of Jews escaped to Masada, a winter fortress built in the Judean desert by Herod, the Jewish governor of Judea, and remained there for three years.   The Romans encamped at the foot of the plateau (the remains of their encampments are visible today), and finally overran Masada in 73 CE, only to find that the Jews living there had committed suicide rather than be taken as prisoners by the Romans. Tradition holds that the First Temple was also destroyed on the 9th of Av, some 600 years earlier. Tisha B’Av is observed with a 24-hour fast and the reading of the Book of Eicha (Lamentations) at night and again in the morning.

The history may be fascinating, but the question of the relevance of Tisha B’Av remains for some. Should we really fast today because the Romans destroyed the Temple 2,000 years ago? Do we really feel this is a cause for solemn, mournful behavior? Those questions have been asked by quite a few people, and not only in our time. Even the Talmudic sages sought reasons and explanations for why Tisha B’Av should be observed (though the events it recalls were far more real for them than for us). They wrote Midrashim that suggest that gratuitous hatred and lack of national unity were reasons that the Temple was destroyed, and imploring us to value positive and supportive relationships between individuals and communities and to see the importance of unity among Jewish people everywhere despite cultural and religious differences between us.

To those reasons I would add that Tisha B’Av teaches us that gratuitous violence never results in anything positive and, to the contrary, brings out the worst in us. Yigal Amir, the lunatic who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin more than 20 years ago, thought that an act of violence would make Israel better and stronger, yet he was wrong. True, sometimes we must use violence to achieve a noble end, as in a war waged to bring an end to suffering and to stop further destruction. But Tisha B’Av serves, to this day, as a reminder that never in history did violence for its own sake, for the purpose of conquest and domination, bring about a virtuous end.

So I invite you to participate in commemorating Tisha B’Av this year on Saturday evening, July 25 and Sunday, July 26 (click here for details…and it’s worth knowing that this year the 9th of Av is observed on the 10th of Av because the 9th falls on Shabbat and the only fast day that overrides Shabbat is Yom Kippur). Come to hear the haunting melody of the Book of Eicha…come to study and learn with other members of our community…come to stress the importance of Jewish peoplehood…and come to affirm that violence should never, ever be glorified or exalted.

Fear and Hope: A Day Long Encounter with Palestinians

While here in Israel visiting Josh and Yoni, I participated in a day long visit with Palestinians sponsored by Encounter. Encounter’s mission is “to provide Jewish Diaspora leaders from across the religious and political spectrum with exposure to Palestinian life,” and “to create human connections across lines of enmity, and expand personal and political understanding.” Encounter is not a political organization and does not take a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, they aim to create understanding if not agreement.

image3After a long day of conversation, it’s clear that the Israelis and the Palestinians each have conflicting truths and conflicting narratives of the conflict they have endured for decades. Any chance of resolving the conflict requires these narratives to be set aside and both sides to pay attention to the needs and concerns of the other. It’s also clear that there’s no easy solution. Having listened to six Palestinians offer their insights, I am left with feelings of both fear and hope. I fear that the conflict can’t, and won’t, be resolved anytime in the foreseeable future, and I hope that both parties will find the courage, and identify the leadership necessary, to move toward reconciliation. What follows is a summary of what I heard today in Bethlehem.

After an orientation at a local hotel here in Jerusalem, the group I was a part of traveled by bus to the Bethlehem region, to the home of Ali Abu Awwad. Ali runs an organization called Jubur-Roots, whose mission is to develop and empower non-violent leadership in the Palestinian community. Ali, a man in his late forties, was raised in a politically active family with strong ties to the PLO and, as a younger man, was personally involved in what he calls “resistance against the Israeli occupation.” He was arrested and imprisoned, though he did not elaborate on exactly what he did to get arrested. Did he throw a rock or a Molotov cocktail at a tank, or did he participate in a kidnapping or killing? Ali was never able to imagine the pain of Israelis who were victims of Palestinian violence. However, after he met and talked with Israelis who had lost someone to the conflict, he founded Jubur-Roots and today works to build a movement of Palestinians who seek a non-violent approach to conflict resolution.

image2Ali sponsors regular dialogue with settlers and seeks to foster a deeper understanding of each side’s pain and fear. Through dialogue he hopes to lower the volume on what he calls “the security myth” and build a shared vision of what justice would look like in this region. He talks openly about the corrosive effect of occupation on both sides. He told a story about waiting for two hours to get home at a check point in the West Bank during a cold and driving rain. When he finally reached the check point, Ali relates that the soldier asked him, in a tone he regarded as sarcastic and cynical, “How are you?” Ali answered, “I’m fine. Not only am I dry and warm inside my car, but soon I’ll be home with my family and you will still be standing here at this check point making all these people suffer.” Ali suggested that his response to the soldier put a human face on the ugly routine of making people wait countless hours through check points, and he spoke of the need to understand each other’s suffering. Ali acknowledges that the Palestinian community also suffers because of internal divisiveness, political corruption, and a great divide between the idealism of non-violence and the reality of incompetent political leadership.

Hamed Qawasmeh, originally from Hebron and raised in Kuwait, today lives in Hebron. He earned a Master’s degree in political science at Idaho State University and a Master’s in Business Administration at Bar Ilan in Israel. Hamed works for the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and is an active member of the Israeli-Palestinian Villages Group. Hamed talks about how the area in which a Palestinian state could be developed is rapidly shrinking due to the creation of military zones and nature reserves, closures that create isolated pockets of habitation, the denial of building permits and the threat of demolitions, and the pathway taken through Palestinian villages by the separation barrier. Using maps and statistics, he makes a compelling case that the current approach is rapidly making an independent Palestinian state impossible. But Hamed’s commentary seems less than objective at times. He uses phrases like “the settlement of Gilo,” referring to a thriving town on the outskirts of Jerusalem next to Bethlehem that, by all accounts, would remain part of Israel in any future agreement. He speaks cynically about how the Israelis restrict Palestinian access to water resources, depicting the Israelis as lacking compassion and creating a desperate situation that chokes off agriculture and normal living standards, but there is a sense that his take on the matter is quite one-sided. When asked to explain the fact that violent attacks against Israelis by Palestinians decreased dramatically after the creation of the separation barrier, Hamed answers that the drop in violence resulted not from the wall but from a new attitude among Palestinians that violence is not an acceptable pathway to take. When asked why the population of Christians has decreased in Bethlehem, Hamed answers that Christians were not persecuted by Muslims and forced to leave, but made a choice to leave seeking better economic opportunities in other countries.

Hamed was asked if he blamed the Palestinian political leadership, specifically Yasser Arafat, for turning down the offer made by the Israelis 15 years ago to establish a Palestinian state on nearly 96% of the land in the West Bank in a deal that did not include Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem. He answered that Arafat felt he could not accept a deal that did not include Jerusalem because, not being a religious leader, he felt he was not in a position to speak on behalf of Muslims around the world. So he consulted with the president of Egypt and the King of Saudia Arabia, both of whom indicated that the deal should not be accepted. I asked Hamed if he would accept the same deal today if Israel were to make the same offer and he immediately answered that he would not, adding that any deal that does not include Jerusalem is unacceptable to Palestinians. He views negotiations based on the pre-1967 borders as representing a massive compromise on the part of the Palestinians and does not think any further compromise is called for.

I asked Hamed if he acknowledges the validity of Israeli security concerns and whether or not Israel has any reason to be concerned about relinquishing control over the West Bank. He immediately related his view that a Palestinian state would be fully capable of keeping the peace. Hamed does not believe that there will ever be an independent Palestinian state, but he greatly values the daily cooperation and support provided by the Israeli-Palestinian Villages Group through which he can bypass the bureaucracy of the military administration of the West Bank and simply obtain some of the services he needs for Palestinian villages.

Sam Bahour, a Palestinian-American business consultant who lives and works in Ramallah, spends his time helping Palestinians to develop businesses in the West Bank. He spoke openly about the destructive effect of occupation on creating a thriving economy in the West Bank, and his view that encouraging business development is a non-violent means of resistance. He feels that the occupation is like “a boot on the neck of the Palestinians.” Like Hamed, he views the Palestinian position of establishing a state based on the pre-1967 lines as a significant compromise, and cannot imagine accepting any deal that does not relinquish control of East Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount and the Kotel, to the Palestinians. I asked Sam if he felt that the sole cause of Palestinian resistance is the Israeli occupation, or if Palestinians and the Arabs reject the very idea of Zionism. He answered that, without doubt, Arabs reject the idea of Zionism, telling me that “there’s Judaism, Zionism and Israel, and there’s a reason there are three separate words used for each idea.” He claims that Zionism is an ideology which Arabs need not accept, that Judaism is a religion and that Israel is a political entity with which they must contend.

image1Without doubt, all of the presentations I heard on my Encounter reflected a Palestinian perspective. There was no discussion of Israel’s security, concerns that Hamas militants would rapidly supplant Fatah leadership in the West Bank in any future Palestinian state, turning the area into an armed terrorist training camp and launching pad for routine attacks against Israel. There was no mention that removing check points or the security barrier would likely result in the regular movement into Israel of terrorists wearing suicide vests with the intent of blowing up civilians going about their daily lives (despite Ali’s commitment to non-violence). There was no discussion of a Palestinian education system that teaches children that Jews are inferior to other humans and evil, the demonization of Jews in the Arab press, the glorification of violence against Israelis, or the honoring of terrorist thugs with bonuses and streets named after them.

My day long encounter with Palestinians stirred feelings of both fear and hope. The people I heard tell their stories speak of a grim reality faced by Palestinians and that the window of opportunity to change that reality is rapidly closing. The reality of a military occupation with no end in sight and continued settlement building undoubtedly have a corrosive effect on the soul of Israel and threaten the democratic nature of the state. Yet, there is hope that through grassroots dialogue the essential humanity of the Palestinians, the security needs of the State of Israel, and respect for each other’s narrative can emerge and take hold.

Masorti Judaism Disenfranchised

In this week’s post, I share with you a press release put out by the Masorti Foundation a week ago describing the disappointing events in Rehovot, Israel involving a B’nai Mitzvah ceremony for disabled children, the Masorti Movement and the Orthodox Rabbinate. While the majority of the Israeli public, and the majority of world Jewry, support a pluralistic approach to the practice of Judaism in Israel, the official Orthodox Rabbinate retains full control over how official, state-run institutions must practice religion. The grip on state-sanctioned aspects of Judaism by the Orthodox is ingrained in the political system, as the most recent coalition agreement engineered by the Likud party after the March election demonstrated again.

It is truly unfortunate that the emotional and spiritual needs of a group of Israeli children with disabilities were overlooked in deference to a narrow view of Jewish law. And it is disheartening that an entire movement of Jews who wish to practice Judaism in keeping with a time honored, historically legitimate and compelling ideology are thwarted by a small minority of narrow minded Orthodox rabbis and leaders who have the backing of the government. Some would say that these matters are the business of the Israelis and that if the Israeli public wants things to be different, then they will vote for Knesset members who will change the system. I would argue that the relationship between Israel and Diaspora Jews is more complex than that, and that it is reasonable for the Zionist project to be shaped and influenced by world Jewry, not only those who live in Israel.

Please read the message that follows and ask yourself if it is fair that the Masorti Movement, which has invested itself in physically and spiritually in bringing Israelis closer to Judaism, should be demeaned and disenfranchised by a small government-backed minority. If you feel that what is happening is not at all fair, then respond by strengthening the Masorti Movement so it can broadcast its message even louder and with greater passion.

The new week dawned dreary for the families of the children with autism who had been working for six months towards a participatory and inclusive Bar Mitzvah ceremony with specially trained Masorti staff and rabbis in Israel. 

Through the auspices of the Masorti Foundation, a groundbreaking B’nai Mitzvah program for almost 4,000 children with disabilities has been held for the past two decades in 500 services all over Israel (click here to read more about the program).

While the interpretation of Halacha practiced by Israel’s official rabbinate prohibits those with such disabilities from being counted in a minyan or being called to the Torah, Masorti’s understanding of Halacha provides religious training and welcomes each individual into the fellowship of the Jewish People.

The previously cancelled, much-publicized and greatly compromised event was held yesterday but it was a shadow of what had originally been planned, say Masorti leaders.

The families of nine B’nai Mitzvah with autism found themselves spectators at a shell of a ceremony at an Orthodox synagogue in Rehovot, presided over by a rabbi whom they did not know but who filled a single requirement: being Orthodox. The atmosphere was gloomy and tense, reported observers.

On Sunday (a day in which the Torah is not read publicly by any Jews), the children were virtually passive spectators in an almost joyless ceremony, despite the extensive training they had undergone. 

Rabbi Mikie Goldstein of Rehovot and other Masorti professionals – who had worked extensively with the children –were excluded by the event’s planners. This shadow Bar Mitzvah ceremony was the culmination of a drama that began in early May when Rahamim Malul, the mayor of Rehovot, cancelled the original B’nai Mitzvah ceremony on the eve of the event because it was to be held in a Masorti synagogue.  The story of the narrow minded, rigid Orthodox mayor and the kids with disabilities provoked outrage in Jewish communities around the world.

Shortly thereafter, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin further infuriated non-Orthodox Jews in Israel and around the world by reneging on an agreement to which he was a full partner to host the event at his official residence to be co-officiated by an Orthodox and Conservative Rabbi. Instead, he issued a public invitation to an exclusively Orthodox ceremony without any warning. 

At the time of Mayor Malul’s cancellation of the ceremony, Rabbi Goldstein wrote, in an essay that ran in the Times of Israel, “In Israel, there is no freedom of religion for Jews: it’s either the Orthodox way or no way. Any official, state-run Jewish institution is Orthodox. There is an unholy alliance of politics and religion in Israel that has led many Jews to reject Judaism outright.”

Shock does not adequately capture the reaction of the Masorti leadership in Israel when they found out, after the fact, about the staged B’nai Mitzvah ceremony that took place yesterday, said Rabbi Robert B. Slosberg, chairman of the Masorti Foundation.

“What happened, in essence, is that the children, who had all volunteered to be in our program were taken to an unfamiliar synagogue, propped up and posed for a photo-op instead of being given a legitimate and respectful Bar Mitzvah ceremony,” said Rabbi Slosberg. “We were neither invited nor informed of the ceremony. In a situation where all services for children with disabilities are provided by the municipality, Mayor Malul coerced these parents and their children into participating in a sham ceremony, and spat in the face of Masorti Judaism.”

“This is a pattern of intolerance against non-Orthodox Judaism”, added Laura Lewis, Executive Director of the Masorti Foundation. ”Just last week, Israel’s new minister of religious affairs, David Azoulay, called the Reform movement “a disaster for the nation of Israel.” 

In the disappointing aftermath of the B’nai Mitzvah debacle in Rehovot, the Masorti Foundation is discussing its next steps. An emergency mission to Israel is in the works, with high-level government meetings.  

For further information on the Masorti Foundation, please visit www.masorti.org.