What To Do With Our Ancestors’ Customs Placed In Our Hands

The holiday of Passover is around the corner and with it comes the oft-asked question: Can we eat kitniyot? “Huh?” you ask! “What’s kitniyot? And why can’t I eat it?” The answer is an interesting example of the intersection between tradition and change.

To understand the issue of kitniyot, it’s necessary to know what “chametz” or leaven is. Jewish law prohibits the consumption of leaven during Passover, which is any one of five grains—wheat, barley, oats, rye or spelt—that have come into contact with water and been allowed to ferment. Jews are also prohibited from actually owning chametz on Passover (which is why so many people actually “sell” their chametz prior to the holiday), deriving any benefit from it, or even seeing it (hard to accommodate that part of the law nowadays). The prohibition on the consumption of chametz is pretty extensive, including leaven that is both visible and mixed into other foods as well as dishes and utensils on which it is served and cooked. Strictly speaking, even a speck of chametz is disallowed during the holiday.

Up until about 700 years ago, eating on Passover was pretty much just about setting aside chametz. During the 13th century, some Ashkenazic rabbis began talking about prohibiting rice, beans, millet and legumes, collectively known as “kitniyot.” Some suggested that these foods should be prohibited either because they were prepared in ways similar to chametz or were stored in similar containers and in the same location. They were apparently concerned that some people might wrongly assume that if “kitniyot” are permitted, then so are the prohibited chametz grains. (Sephardic rabbis had no problem with kitniyot, likely because of different agricultural and consumption practices in Sephardic lands, and to this day Sephardic Jews have no problem eating them.)

Some scholars across the centuries supported the ban on kitniyot. But mostly, the ban was acknowledged as pointless and even confusing. Some saw it as heaping unnecessary restrictions on people during a holiday that is meant to be joyous but is often experienced as a burdensome time. But the Ashkenazic ban on kitniyot stood the test of time. That is, until a few years ago. First, Rabbi David Golinkin, President Emeritus of The Schechter Institutes in Israel wrote an extensive paper (known as a teshuva) permitting the consumption of kitniyot. And just a few months ago, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (CJLS) published a teshuva by Rabbi Amy Levin and Rabbi Avram Reisner permitting the consumption of kitniyot on Passover by Conservative Jews.

Rabbis Levin and Reisner acknowledge that there is a long standing practice of honoring the decisions and practices of our ancestors, even in cases when we don’t agree with their reasoning or understand what prompted them to embrace those practices. There is a principle in play here: minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu…the customs of our ancestors are in our hands. In other words, we should be careful to respect and honor the practices of previous generations. Judaism is a religion based on tradition, and we are typically not quick to dismiss what the past has given to us.

But tradition must be balanced with change, an open and honest embrace of the present and the future. We must consider seriously the values and priorities of our own times if our religion is to have meaning and relevance. Thus the teshuva written by Rabbis Levin and Reisner also addresses the inapplicability of the primary concerns that once gave rise to the ban on kitniyot, the need to create a Jewish experience that is unencumbered by burdens and needless prohibitions, the need to lower the cost of “making Passover,” and even the health benefits of eating legumes (the teshuva reminds us that all processed foods should have a Passover “hechsher”).

So eat rice and beans during Passover! Embrace change even while maintaining a healthy respect for the traditions practiced by the generations of Jews who came before us. And remember that Passover should be about more than what foods are permitted and what foods are not. It’s about celebrating the fundamental freedoms that are the right of all human beings and our obligation to uphold them.

Chag Sameach v’Kasher!


Report from AIPAC

I’ve just returned from the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington where more than 18,000 people gathered to learn about Israel and the Middle East, discuss pro-Israel strategies and find new inspiration for supporting Israel. This year’s AIPAC Policy Conference set a record for attendance. The number of people in attendance was so large that general sessions could no longer be held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center (a massive and sprawling complex) so they were relocated to the Verizon Center, a sports arena a few blocks away that seats well over 20,000 people.

This year’s AIPAC Policy Conference was controversial because Donald Trump was invited to address the convention along with other leading candidates for President and political leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Vice-President Joe Biden. Some people, viewing Trump’s statements and positions are bigoted, insulting and racist, felt that AIPAC should not have invited him. Others stressed that AIPAC is about political strategy and accomplishes its pro-Israel mission by creating and nurturing bipartisan ties to members of Congress. As AIPAC’s Executive Director Howard Kohr said, an invitation to speak at Policy Conference is not an endorsement of the speaker’s views. It is, rather, part of a strategy to engage all leading political figures in dialogue about supporting Israel.   Listening to Donald Trump’s speech does not require endorsing what he says, let alone voting for him.

Mr. Trump’s speech on Monday night was hardly boycotted. The arena was packed with more than 18,000 people. Yet, I was appalled at the response he received. Rather than disrupt him (which I think would have been inappropriate and undignified), he received numerous rounds of applause and standing ovations. Perhaps this is typical behavior when someone well known addresses a large gathering and makes pro-Israel statements. But there was no rejection of Mr. Trump’s divisive rhetoric, his statements condemning an entire faith group, his comments that denigrate women, or his failure to forcefully condemn white supremacists.   As a whole, the group shockingly embraced him, even when he made ugly and inappropriate comments about President Obama (the next morning, Lillian Pinkus, the newly installed President of AIPAC, tearfully apologized to the convention attendees at the general session for the divisive tone set by those comments). I rejected the idea of boycotting Mr. Trump’s speech, advising instead that we must hear what Mr. Trump, and the others, have to say about their views on Israel. But I was terribly disappointed and dismayed to see how enthusiastically he was received. Where was the rejection of hate and bigotry? Where was the Jewish stance against discrimination? I only wish that it had been possible to mobilize the crowd to mute its response to Mr. Trump and thereby demonstrate to him that while we are willing to hear his views on Israel, we are unwilling to tolerate positions that are racist and unjust.

In general, the reaction of the crowd to pro-Israel speeches was at times bewildering.  This is not a commentary on AIPAC as an organization or its supporters, but rather an insight into crowd behavior in general.  Some speakers made statements that are simply unrealistic or unbelievable.  For example, Trump mentioned the anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist nature of education in the Palestinian school system.  That’s a concern of course, one raised by others, including Ellie Wiesel (here, I invoke the Hebrew word l’havdil, which means to separate, and is used to convey that two people shouldn’t be mentioned in the same sentence).  It’s worth noting that Palestinian educational culture is shaping a generation of young people to hate Israel, but Trump added that if he becomes President, “that will stop.”  When I heard that, I wondered how on earth he would, as President of the United States, change the curriculum and educational culture of Palestinian schools.  But the crowd applauded and gave him a standing ovation.  Another example is the statement, made by several candidates, that as President they would quickly move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (normally an embassy is in a nation’s capitol and some have pushed for the United States to make a statement about Israel’s capitol by moving our embassy to Jerusalem).  Frankly, moving the embassy is a fairly low priority issue.  But saying it gets a good reaction from a large, staunchly pro-Israel crowd.  Here, too, people stood up and applauded loudly.  (I preferred Hilary Clinton’s approach on this issue, who said that moving the embassy is unnecessarily provocative and would harm any potential progress toward a two-state solution.)  So not only was the applause bewildering because it appeared to embrace Donald Trump despite his rhetoric, but also because it seemed to be a virtually pavlovian response to hearing anything a candidate might say that sounds pro-Israel.

Putting aside the controversy generated by Mr. Trump, I want to encourage you to get involved with AIPAC. This is an organization whose sole purpose is to support Israel by strengthening the U.S.-Israel partnership. Those who attend Policy Conference come away inspired to support Israel, having learned something valuable about Israel, the Middle East and world politics, and feeling the power and strength that come from such a large pro-Israel gathering. Beyond hearing from politicians, AIPAC is a place to learn about how Israel is an innovator in the field of technology, especially technology that is designed to help people overcome life’s obstacles. It’s a place to learn how Israel reaches out a helping hand to distressed communities and countries that experience disaster and tragedy. Next year’s policy conference will take place on March 26-28, 2017. But even before that, there will be opportunities in the next few months to gather together to learn about AIPAC from members of our own synagogue delegation and other speakers.

Israel is a strong, democratic nation that still needs the support and love of people around the world, and AIPAC is one of the most important and successful ways to mobilize that support. I hope you will get involved.

Dear Mr. Trump

Dear Mr. Trump,

I am the rabbi of a synagogue in South Orange, New Jersey.  We are a diverse group of people who share the common purpose of making our world a better place.  Through the practice of Judaism, we collectively affirm the inherent equality and dignity of all human beings.  By actively engaging in repairing the world, what we call Tikun Olam, we assert that each one of us can do something to heal the brokenness around us, bring justice to the oppressed, free those who are enslaved, and help to make our world whole.

I will be at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington D.C.  Let me say, upfront, that I plan to be in the room when you speak at the conference on Monday night.  I will not boycott or protest your speech by making a point of getting up and leaving the room.  I will not wear or circulate stickers or buttons that object to your being invited by AIPAC to address the conference.  That is not because I am not concerned, even alarmed, by some of the things you’ve said publicly in your campaign for the Republican nomination for President.  In fact, the opposite is true.  Some of your comments about Mexicans and Muslims are not only divisive and contrary to the teachings of Judaism, but also raise great concern about whether or not you would act on those views should you be elected President.  Your position that torture is an acceptable way to deal with one’s enemies flies in the face of American, and Jewish, values.  Your comments at your rallies about responding to demonstrators with violence are troubling and make it seem as if you condone, even encourage, such behavior.

No, Mr. Trump, I will not boycott or protest your speech, for two reasons.  The first reason, one that is deeply ingrained in the Jewish tradition, is that people on opposite sides of an issue must continue to engage in civil dialogue.  The great Talmudic sages Hillel and Shammai held opposite views on nearly every issue of Jewish law and society.  Yet they maintained respect for one another and heard each other’s views.  If we are to have any chance at solving the problems we face in this country and in the world, we must be willing to listen to one another.  If people who vehemently disagree with one another genuinely listen to each other, it becomes possible to bridge the gaps between them.  Turning my back on you and refusing to listen to what you have to say will accomplish nothing.

The second, and more important, reason I will not boycott your speech to the conference is that AIPAC’s purpose is to advance the U.S.-Israel relationship and to strengthen the State of Israel.  AIPAC invites political speakers in order to hear their message about the U.S.-Israel relationship without screening them based on their political ideology or their views.  That’s more than reasonable, as the people who attend Policy Conference can listen to the various people who make speeches and judge their words for themselves, without a filter.

Just as important, AIPAC is committed to creating allies who understand Israel’s security needs and will support Israel.  And the frontrunner for the Republican party’s nomination for President is certainly someone who may very well be in a position to shape the U.S.-Israel relationship.  I won’t boycott your speech precisely because I need to hear if you will present a detailed, specific position about how you would manage America’s relationship with Israel.  I need to hear if you understand Israel’s security needs and how you would protect Israel if and when the Jewish State is threatened.  I’m glad to hear that you have marched up Fifth Avenue in the Celebrate Israel Parade, and that your daughter and son-in-law are Jewish.  But in my view those things by themselves do not make for a solid record of support for Israel.  You have stated that objectivity in leading negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is important, but I want to know that you understand the existential threat Israel faces from hostile enemies that surround the Jewish State.  AIPAC is devoted to strengthening the U.S.-Israel partnership, and on Monday night I not only hope to hear that you are as well, but how specifically you intend to support Israel.

Mr. Trump, I’m concerned about the divisive, even racist, rhetoric that has characterized the campaign for President.  I have no doubt that we don’t agree on a lot of issues.  But you might become the President of the United States of America, my President.  You may be the person who has the greatest influence on the U.S.-Israel relationship and how and to what extent America supports Israel.  So I will not boycott or protest your speech on Monday night.  No, I’ll be there, listening carefully to every word and hoping to hear from you a reasoned, clear and detailed statement about your views on Israel.  The Jewish State, which I love, may very well wind up having to count on you.



Are You Your Brother’s Keeper?

It can be argued that a central theme of the Book of Genesis is our obligation to care for others. Cain kills his brother Abel and when God asks him to account for himself he sarcastically answers, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” That answer is the prelude to the struggle that unfolds in the rest of the book between the various descendants of Abraham, one that culminates with Judah putting his life on the line for Benjamin and Joseph forgiving the brothers that had mistreated him. When he breaks down in tears and embraces them, he answers the question of “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with an unequivocal yes. We are not meant to struggle or live in perpetual strife with our brothers but to live in harmony.

The theme of living harmoniously with our siblings continues in the Book of Exodus, which we conclude this Shabbat with the reading of the final parasha, Pekudei. The construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) has been completed, along with the special vestments worn by Aaron and his sons who will serve as Kohanim (priests). The Mishkan will soon be dedicated and then become an active hub of religious life for the Israelites. In this context, God commands Moses to oversee the consecration of Aaron and his sons as Kohanim:

“Put the sacral vestments on Aaron, and anoint him and consecrate him, that he may serve Me as priest. Then bring his sons forward, put tunics on them, and anoint them as you have anointed their father, that they may serve Me as priests. Their anointing shall serve them for everlasting priesthood throughout the ages.” (Exodus 40:13-15)

 The verse in question seems straightforward, but some commentators wonder how Moses truly felt about presiding over his brother’s consecration as High Priest. Was he proud of him? Did he feel honored to be God’s representative in enacting such an important and powerful ritual? Or did he feel envious that his brother was being elevated to a position of prominence and power that he coveted for himself? And why, wonders one scholar, does the Torah specifically state that Moses was to “anoint and consecrate Aaron” and then add “bring his sons forward and anoint them as you have anointed their father…”? Why was it necessary to mention the consecration of Aaron’s sons separately?

“It was necessary to tell Moses to anoint the sons of Aaron just as he had their father to signify to him the spirit in which he was to perform the ceremony. Moses had not been jealous of the priestly sanctity conferred upon his brother Aaron because he, Moses, had himself been prophet and king of his people and even fulfilled the functions of high priest during the seven days of preparation which preceded the Giving of the Torah. But Moses might well have resented the fact that his own children could not have been raised to lofty position… It was for this reason that the Lord reminded Moses that when he would anoint Aaron’s sons he must do it with the same joy and eagerness as he had shown when consecrating their father.” (Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 1843-1926, Lithuania)

Rabbi Dvinsk asserts that Moses was not at all jealous of his brother becoming the High Priest because he enjoyed an equivalent, if not higher, position as God’s prophet. He even functioned as High Priest himself for a week. If Moses was envious of Aaron at all, it was because his nephews, the sons of Aaron, would inherit the priesthood while his own children would not enjoy any significant position of communal leadership. It was for this reason that God reminds Moses to “anoint Aaron’s sons with the same joy and eagerness” that he displayed in anointing his brother.

These commentaries ask us to reflect on whether we are proud of the success of our siblings, family members and friends and happy for them, or if their success causes us to feel envious. There is no absolute answer to such a question. At our best, we do not feel envy or resentment of the success of others, especially those closest to us. At our worst, we are bitter and annoyed when others earn or have things that we do not. Most of us are likely somewhere in between two extremes in our emotional responses to life’s challenges.

As we close out this year’s reading of the Book of Exodus, we end on an encouraging and inspirational note. We are reminded to subordinate feelings of envy when those close to us achieve success or prominence. And we are reminded to answer some of the Torah’s key questions—Are we our brother’s keeper…do we truly care about what happens to those close to us…do we care about the people with whom we share a community and the world…do we act on that caring?—with a resounding yes.




The Message of Shabbat Shekalim

This Shabbat, known as “Shabbat Shekalim,” is the first of four special Shabbatot that occur in the weeks before Passover. Its name derives from a passage taken from the Book of Exodus that is read as a special supplement (maftir) to the main Torah reading:

“This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay…a half-shekel by sanctuary weight. Everyone…from the age of 20 years and up shall give the Lord’s offering. The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel.” (Exodus 30:11-16)

A half-shekel was collected from Israelites 20 years and older both as a way of assessing the size of the nation’s fighting force and as a way of raising money for the maintenance of the Temple. The tax was due on the first of Nisan (the beginning of the year in the Biblical and Temple periods), and people were reminded a month in advance to pay. We recall this tradition in our own time by reading the relevant passage from the Torah on the Sabbath prior to Rosh Chodesh Adar (the beginning of the month of Adar, which is one month before Nisan). That Sabbath is called “Shabbat Shekalim,” the Sabbath of the Shekel. Other than recalling an ancient tradition of donating a half-shekel, does this occasion have any meaning for us? Two points come to mind.

The first is that we are nothing other than the sum of our parts. Every individual matters to the success of our community. While it’s true that the half-shekel was collected from those able to serve in the army, there is no doubt that our community, just like that of the ancient Israelites, needs the talents and attention of each one of its members. That means that, as a former Oheb Shalom member who has passed on once wrote, “We make of our congregation what it is and what it will become. Its pews will be filled if we fill them. It will be friendly if we are friendly. It will do great and noble things if we help to make great things happen.” Shabbat Shekalim reminds us that we each have an opportunity—indeed, a responsibility—to enhance our congregation.

The second point is captured by the verse that says “the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel.” Perhaps this equalizing of payments was meant to ensure an accurate count of the nation’s fighting force. But there is something else implied by these words—every person matters equally. Of course, charitable institutions, including synagogues, benefit from and even rely on the generosity of people who possess financial resources. That generosity should be applauded and received with gratitude. Yet, there is something symbolic, something deeply meaningful, in stating that the members of a community, those who are well off and those who are struggling and everyone in between, all have something to contribute to its vitality. While we do not all have equal financial means, we all have something of equal value to contribute to the success of our synagogue—our caring and our love. To paraphrase the Torah, the rich and the poor give equal portions of caring and love to synagogue.

Oheb Shalom relies on your gifts of caring and love, given in equal measure by all of our members, to succeed in what we do. We cannot, and will not, take them for granted.

Shabbat Shalom.