Follow My Blog via e-mail

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

I Get It

(NOTE: This was written Sunday morning. Due to a lack of internet connectivity it has taken time to post it. After much thought, I decided to post the original piece as written, without altering it in light of Monday’s Presidential news conference.)

I get it. I totally get it. Friends and acquaintances have been telling me for years how you see the world differently once you have grandchildren. It’s been 5½ months since Ian’s birth. All I need to do is look at the most recent pictures his parents have shared or even better, answer the FaceTime call from his father which I know means Ian is available for chat. It is instantaneous delight. It immediately brings a broad smile to my face as it takes me away from whatever I was doing, transporting me to a better, more hopeful place.

This morning that was precisely what I needed. I’d been sitting with my morning coffee, reading the Sunday paper, catching up on what’s been going on, most especially yesterday’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia. This morning was my first real chance to sit down and try to get a fuller picture, as I often do, from various sites which offer a range of takes on the news of the day.

The events of Friday and Saturday are deeply disturbing. In the ever-widening rift that divides our nation, a right-wing, White Nationalist rally was alarming to contemplate even before it convened. In what I believe must be called domestic terrorism, one of the attendees at the rally drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors. He took the life of a 32-year old woman while injuring almost a score of others. Two state troopers lost their lives later in the day in a helicopter crash, as they were assisting with crowd control. Three lives lost in an ugly scene that should leave a bad taste in all our mouths.

Voices calling for calm were heard. Leaders from both sides of the political spectrum responded, on Twitter and other media, to call out the evil and banality of the racist, hate-filled gathering. Even our First Lady, Melania Trump, tweeted (well in advance of her husband) a responsible message in reaction to the violence and hatred.  Our Tweeter-in-Chief, however, seemed to be missing in action. Even popular author J.K. Rowling noted in a tweet that it was an ironic time for our President to “forget how to tweet."

As it happens, perhaps it would have been better had he not spoken out. While the President did condemn the violence, he served up moral equivalency. This I believe, bespeaks his continued support for the hate-mongering and divisive climate that his candidacy, and now his presidency, have nurtured across our nation. It is true that fault can be found on “many sides” when it comes to the divisions and intolerance found in our nation. However, yesterday’s events in Charlottesville were a poor choice for him to choose as an example of the many corners in which hateful rhetoric can be found. The hateful rhetoric, the overt expressions of racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry on display in the past 48 hours were not “on all sides.” They were on one side – that of White Nationalism, neo-Nazi, anti-Black, anti-Semitic, and a host of other expressions of hatred which had gathered for the “Unite the Right” rally. Indeed, one white-nationalist outlet, The Daily Stormer saw in the President’s remarks an affirmation of the central message they had hoped to trumpet in Saturday’s gathering – America belongs to White Christians.

I feel as if each week’s outrages, which arise from the blustery pronouncements and rapid-fire fingers of our top elected official, have been feeding a slow burn in the blood in my veins. I know I’m not alone. This weekend’s events provided the context for many on the right wing of the political spectrum, who hold and pronounce loud messages of hatred and bigotry, of prejudice and intolerance, to allow their rhetoric and actions to be on full public display. They claim that theirs is a righteous anger and that they are speaking out to help fulfill the President’s campaign promises and national agenda. Well it’s way past time for those of us who hold a different vision of our country and its values to feel our own blood boil – not into anger, violence and hatred – but into strong, peaceful,
non-violent protest. Our protest must not be limited to condemnation of these past few days. It is well past time to call for accountability from our elected officials in our nation’s capital, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, at all levels. To those who still say, wait, the pivot is coming, I say forget about it. There will be no pivot. As I have written previously, this President reminds me of Maurice Ogden’s powerful poem, The Hangman in which the protagonist in the end proclaims, “I went no further than you let me go.” Let’s take our President at his word, for he does not mince them. Rather he fearlessly and irresponsibly speaks hatred and division, every day of every week.  Stop waiting for the pivot, or for the latest grown-up like General Kelly to rein him in.

To me, our President is man-child and a self-absorbed, self-promoting, shallow person. I look at pictures of my young grandson playing with a stuffed New England Patriot’s football which his parents recently gave him. The images and videos make me smile. But then reality calls me back and I want to scream – somebody get that man-child in the White House a stuffed football, and let’s get that national security “football” (about which he has also been irresponsibly ranting in the past week) out of his reach.

I get the grandparent-grandchild connection and joy. I absolutely do not get why our nation, across the political spectrum, is not more alarmed and responsive to the rantings and damage our highest elected official is wrecking upon us. It’s time we all get it – and act, before it’s too late.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Torah All Around

The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts are a sacred place to me. Ever since my first summer working at the Eisner Camp, all the way back in 1973, the Berkshires have held a special place in my heart and my life.  That has become more profound as our family all claim this beautiful place (both the Berkshires and Eisner Camp) as a precious anchor in our lives.

But it is not just the beauty, or the cultural banquet table of this part of New England that is special. All the way back to that very first summer, this has been a place or Torah for me. To be sure there are many other “Torah places” I hold dear in my life – the communities in which I have served as a rabbi; Jerusalem in particular, and Israel more broadly; and the many coffee shops, batei midrash (learning spaces) and public libraries in which I have sat to share words of Torah with a colleague, friend or student.

But the Berkshires and Eisner Camp are high on my list. This past week has offered me at least two concrete examples which reinforce that sentiment. Having pondered why this is so over the course of four-plus decades, I am convinced that this “place” is extra special for me as it is not solely a place of learning Torah. Beyond the learning there is the living of Torah. 

Most people have long since forgotten (or perhaps never knew) that full name of Eisner Camp is the URJ Joseph Eisner Camp-Institute for Living Judaism. It is a place where campers and staff come together anew each summer to form a nurturing and nourishing organic community based upon Jewish learning and living Jewish values. Eisner offers the full array of what one expects at a summer camp: sports, swimming, lakeside activities, campcraft, arts and crafts, music, dance, drama and so much more. Watching my four children grow and develop into the people they are is in no small measure due to their experiences within what is lovingly referred to as “the Eisner bubble.” For each of them, camp has not only been a place where they were nurtured as campers.  Each, in his or her own way, has risen through the ranks of staff and leadership. This means a lot to me as I believe that so many of my own leadership skills and my important learning took place at Eisner in the 70’s and 80’s when I served for many summers on full-time staff.

Last night I had the fortune to be present for the closing events of camp’s annual Maccabiah, a three-day festival which allows campers of all ages to participate (and yes, compete) in events spanning the full gamut of camp’s activities.  What inspires me each year is the ways in which the campers, and staff stretch themselves in a supportive and nurturing way to allow each participant to feel accomplished, in spite of the outcome. The perennial chant of “it just doesn’t matter” after the identity of the winning team is revealed speaks volumes about the higher goals and ideals of camp and this part of its programming.  It’s hard not to feel that all are winners, even after one of the four teams has been declared victorious. The community has won as a whole because of the learning and living of Torah and Jewish values. Last night was a powerful reminder of why this place is so sacred for me in my life and the life of my family.

This past Sunday I had the good fortune to be on the lawn at Tanglewood for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance. I relish the opportunities to attend concerts each summer. I especially enjoy the confluence of my ability to attend when the concert includes a performance by master cellist and musician extraordinaire, Yo-Yo Ma. Last Sunday was one such occasion.  I have used Mr. Ma’s artistry and skills as lessons, “Torah” if you will, on numerous occasions in my past High Holy Day sermons. This past Sunday, Yo-Yo Ma lifted it to a new level for me. He played with the BSO in the second of its three selections for the afternoon, Schumann’s Cello Concerto. While I could not see the orchestra nor Yo-Yo-Ma from my vantage point on the lawn, from past experiences I knew he was totally immersed in the piece.  Friends who were sitting in the Shed confirmed, noting that they had never seen a soloist interact with the different sections of the orchestra as Ma had that afternoon.

Then came intermission. People all around us were standing up to stretch when suddenly a voice came over the loudspeakers. “Excuse me. I don’t if I’ve ever done this before . . .” It was Yo-Yo Ma  asking for our attention. It was not for himself. Rather he was sharing that the afternoon’s conductor, David Zinman’s dog had gotten lose from the home in which he and his wife were staying. Ma was calling attention, not to himself, nor to the orchestra. He was enlisting the help of the audience, which as he noted, surely included many who’d be returning to Stockbridge and Lenox neighborhoods in locating the Zinman’s beloved pet. Seemingly a simple matter, yet as pet owners know, and share in common, a beloved pet is a cherished family member. We were all stunned. Though with whom I was (now) standing and I noted, here is a man who could have asked for our attention for a million different reasons. His request was totally selfless, totally an act of kindness and, I would say, of menschlikiht. To me it was Torah values come alive, from a teacher, not Jewish himself, from whom I have learned many Torah lessons over the years, simply by sitting in his audience and watching this incredible human being make music, and live life.  It’s a moment of kindness and the best of humanity that will long remain with me.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Summer Light

It’s mid-summer! It’s been quite a ride on my annual readathon.  Summer always affords me more time – and brain-space for reading.  As always, I’m reading a pretty diverse set of books, somewhat simultaneously.

I returned from Israel almost three weeks ago with a copy of my teacher Micah Goodman’s newest book. I was determined to challenge myself to read it by reading Hebrew for 30-45 minutes everyday. So far, so good. In English, its title would translate to “Catch-67.” In this profoundly thought-provoking work Micah delves into Zionist history, Israeli identity, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jewish values and more. The last thing I expected from the book was a page-turner. But I am tearing through it – and loving the Hebrew.  (Micah tells me the English edition is at least a year away. You might consider adding it to your list.)

For “fun” I’ve been listening to a series of audiobooks on my car treks to and from Newton and the Berkshires, mostly mysteries. And I’m reading a book given to me by a friend back in early June. It’s called The Bottom of the 33rd -Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game, by Dan Barry. The author recounts the story of the epic Pawtucket Red Sox game on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday in 1981. Given the book’s title, the game obviously ran to an incredible, historic length. It’s a delicious peek behind the scenes of baseball, mostly smaller town, minor league baseball. I’ve enjoyed the minors since my years living in Jackson, Mississippi.  We loved taking in AA Jackson Mets (and then Generals/Astros) games.  Berry’s book has been a fun addition to my summer dose of baseball.

I always set as a goal reading some books that I think of as weightier. (Certainly Catch-67 fits this bill.) Ofttimes this is both a matter of intellectual pursuit as well as what we rabbis call chomer l’drush, which I’ll render as “sermon material.” I won’t be delivering sermons during the upcoming Holy Day Season. Nevertheless I treasure the exercise in terms of reading and thinking. In my time of transition, this has been especially meaningful. One book which has me thinking is Henri Nouwen’s Aging: The Fulfillment of Life. It was recommended by a colleague and, I have to admit, it has me thinking a lot about life and the changes I am pursuing. In one sense, Nouwen’s book follows other books about later life and career transitions I read during the Spring. What I especially finding meaningful in Aging is Nouwen’s gift of rendering facets of life through a spiritual prism. Though he writes from a Christian perspective, he touches the human soul without regard to doctrine. Writing primarily about life’s later stages and the life of elders, Nouwen talks a lot about “letting go.” It’s a powerful message for me as I let go of one bar and look for the next one ahead of me.

In one section of the book, Nouwen offers a selection of vignettes under the heading of “Aging as a Way to the Light.” So often, our visions of the latter part and the end of life, are shrouded in darkness. In a bril shift, Henri Nouwen makes it about light and speaks of the importance of hop, humor and vision. These themes spoke powerfully to me as I look for where I might share my light and benefit from that of others.  Some examples of what has brought light to the path for me:

“Every time life asks us to give up a desire, to change our direction, or redefine our goals; every time…. we start a new plan, we are invited to widen our perspectives and to touch, under the superficial waves of our daily wishes, the deeper currents of hope.” Yes, I thought. These words I want to carry with me in the months and years ahead.”

“I have found it very important in my own life to try to let go of my wishes and instead to live in hope. I am finding that when I choose to let go of my sometimes petty and superficial wishes and trust that my life is precious and meaningful in the eyes of God something really new, something beyond my own expectations begins to happen for me.”

And finally, “Humor is knowledge with a soft smile.”  As I read these words I thought about how often I could have used those words in recent months, even as I mark them so I can recall them on the journey forward.

Summer marches on. I still have many books on the pile I yet hope to tackle. Each one – fun, serious, thought-provoking – offers its gifts for this season of renewal and introspection.

May the “rest” of summer bring you hope, humor, and vision!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Wanted: A New Reality

I’m no technophobe.  Yet, as comfortable as I may be with our ever-expanding digital world, I’ll never be what my friend and colleague, Rabbi Neil Hirsch calls a “digital native.” I was an early user of America Online, back in the days of dial-up modems that ran at 300 baud (I’ll let you look that up on Google.) I was an early owner of a VCR back in the day. I was even able occasionally to successfully program it to record something I was going to miss. I’d watch it “later.” Later came to mean countless tapes I never got around to watching. I am playing some "catch up" this summer as I’m finally watching The West Wing. I can’t count the number of friends who’d told me that I’d love it. I even purchased the complete series on DVD when it came out, which one of my sons quickly made off with. So I’m seizing the moment. I am deep in Season 2 – and I am loving it - for more reasons than the simple artistry of this highly acclaimed television series. The writing is smart, and the acting is excellent. It’s no surprise that the series garnered over 275 nominations and won almost 90 awards. Better late than never – I’m catching up.

I am enjoying The West Wing for more than its artistry. As this summer and my viewing winds on, this fictitious American reality is better and more tolerable than the real one in our nation’s capital and our current Administration. This series, which went off the air in 2006, is proving its staying power and it’s strengthening my faith in our long-running experiment in democracy. As I traveled abroad this summer, spending time in Prague, Krakow, Warsaw and Israel, it was interesting to listen to folks living in the cities I visited share their perceptions of our country and our President. It was often not pretty. I did not hear much admiration. My casual interactions, as well as my time with longtime friends who cover a broad spectrum of opinions, were no echo chamber. Neither have I been isolating myself since returning home. If anything, I have broadened the scope of my online news sources. In the less than two weeks that I have been back home in Massachusetts, I find myself surrounded by disbelief as we seem to keep sinking to new lows. I no longer leave the tv tuned to one or another news channel as background noise. DVDs and online streaming are providing me with alternatives which cushion me from the bizarre reality that is our government in the summer of 2017. At least when the credits role, I know I’m watching fiction. But too much of today’s true reality is beyond incredible. And yet, it is reality.

Last summer, when I launched this new blog, I stated that I had "chosen to launch this new Blog on which I can more freely share my musings, thoughts and questions, in ways which might be inappropriate on a site linked to my congregation.” At this point last summer, I remember trying to wrap my brain around the reality of our current president as the nominee of one of our two major political parties for our nation’s highest office. I wrote last summer about Maurice Ogden’s poem, “The Hangman” as a cautionary message for our time. I mused about how far a candidate could stretch the boundaries of our political system. I wondered then, and still wonder now: How far can the limits of what is tolerable and intolerable, or what is true and what is a lie, be extended? It’s now a year later. I am still thinking about what I wrote a year ago as I paraphrased the Hangman’s words to his final victim, for whom there was no one left to turn. They still echo loudly in my ears: “They have done no more than we’ve let them do!” 

I am trying hard not to view this through the prism of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents; women and men; gay or straight – and I could go on . . . At what point do we rise up and declare that our President’s words and actions are unacceptable? How low will we allow our stature as a proud nation to go before we cry, “Enough?”  A year ago, I could not imagine the reality in which we find ourselves. I was not alone then and I know I am still not alone. I am alarmed at the lessons our children may be learning from the behaviors of our Administrations, and many of our elected officials. I am concerned by our President’s words and actions. I am concerned about where he will yet take us given the power inherent in his office, and the reality that being created daily through his words and tweets.

It’s still summer. We all seek a bit of escape in summer, at the beach, in the mountains, in books and at the movies. My summer escape is being fed (and nourished) by The West Wing. But as a nation we can ill afford total escape. Our reality is too fragile and too important to continue unfettered. May we – and our leaders in our nation’s capital awaken – now, before reality is too far gone for rescue.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Ache in My Heart

It has been nice coming home - to the US, to Massachusetts, to the Eisner Camp community, and most especially, home to my family. My three plus weeks in Europe and Israel were terrific. But it’s a long time to be away.

Yet, even in coming home, there is some unsettling in my heart and soul. I left Jerusalem and Israel just days after the events at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City erupted. Now, a bit over a week later, I find myself anxiously reading the news from Israel. As happy as I am to be home, I also feel a little like I’ve abandoned my friends and family in the cauldron that is Jerusalem in these days.  In my final days in Jerusalem I could feel the tension rising.  My apartment-mate, Rabbi Howard Jaffe, and I heeded the warnings to avoid the Old City. We’d planned a visit for our final days but understood that the authorities were eager to keep anyone who did not “need” to be there away. For both of us this was likely our first time in Jerusalem without even a brief visit to the Old City.

Now I watch from a distance and my heart aches. The precipitating incident, in which three Israeli Arabs charged out of the Temple Mount complex guns blazing, and their murder of two Israeli Police officers was horrific. For Israeli security forces to pursue the attackers should make sense in any civilized society. The subsequent decision, to place metal detectors at the entrance to the plateau, sacred to both Jews and Muslims, seemed sensible. But it is not uncommon for the seemingly sensible to make no sense in the volatility of the Middle East. One colleague left Israel to travel with his family in Italy before returning home. In a post on Facebook a few days later he captured a bit of the irony and complexity of making sense in a perplexing place: “A little reminder to my cousins protesting on the Temple Mount. (I’m) visiting the Vatican today. They have 4 Million visitors every year. Each one passes through a metal detector. Each one.” Additional security in the aftermath of a terrorist attack might seem sensible. But Jerusalem and its Holy sites may be exempt from sensibility. It’s hard to listen to a seeming lack of perspective about security needs at that holy site. But I am watching from my perspective, a Jewish, pro-Israel perspective.

Since my return I have been engrossed in reading my teacher, Micah Goodman’s newest book, Milkud-67. In English, this translates as “Catch 67.” I first heard Micah address the topic with the group I brought to the Hartman Institute in December during our Israel trip. I heard him speak at greater length in Jerusalem a few weeks ago. I set myself the goal of reading his book once home - an exercise in both expanding my Hebrew skills and reading this important addition to the ongoing debate over Israel-Palestine and the future in that tense region. Just this morning, I was reading Micah’s analysis of the conflict through the prism of early Zionist history. Though in this morning’s chapter he was only discussing the divides in the Israeli community, in his "Introduction" he makes it clear that he sees divides on both sides of the conflict.

Sadly the events of the past 10 days have thrown the conflict into a more complicated and fragile state. The precipitating act was one of violence initiated by Arabs against Israeli police officers (who ironically were Druze - a cognate faith group related to Islam.) Yet, the outcry from the Palestinian leadership, and Arab leaders more broadly, seems to ignore that fact. The silence from Palestinian and other Arab leaders about the heinous attack on a family sitting to Shabbat dinner in their home this past Friday night is also difficult to comprehend.  Furthermore, it is also a sad commentary on the state of affairs in our own country, that our president seems to be oblivious to the events of the past ten days. While the Administration is involved, I still want to believe that we can expect moral leadership in the face of world events from our top leader.

Daily I pray that the spiral of events can be brought under control. No one in that fragile place needs the sacrifice of more blood and lives. While I do not presume to have “the answer” to this current violent episode, I pray that the leaders - on all sides will bring the best of their thinking and leadership to calming the city, the region, and the peoples who share it.  In the meantime, my heart aches and breaks as events continue to spiral. While I am thrilled be at home with my family, there is a part of me keenly focused on where I have been.

Micah Goodman writes in the Introduction to Catch-67, our Rabbis teach that “Torah scholars increase the peace in the world.”  He notes, that they are not meant to create that peace, but through their actions, to increase it. Micah writes that it may be time to give up on the notion of complete peace and focus on how we increase peace. May all who so desperately need greater peace find it – through the actions of our leaders, through their own individual actions, and through what I continue to pray will be a more broadly held commitment to increasing the peace.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Taking a Walk

“I want you to go for a walk with someone you wish could be at your side.”  That was the instruction. It was Day 3, maybe 4, of my week at Kripalu with Jack Kornfield in January 2014. I’d been struggling with this notion of "Walking Meditation."  Each day had been a blend of teaching mixed with various forms and durations of meditation. As instructed, at various points each day, I walked the hallways of the main building at Kripalu. The ground outside was frozen, covered in snow and ice.  Most of us chose to do our Walking Meditation in the hallways. Each time we were sent forth to walk, I set out anew, trying hard to lower my gaze, focus on my breath and to keep my balance all at the same time. Each dose of Walking Meditation was a struggle.  The sitting practice was fine.  As the week went along, I was, more often than not, “in the zone.”  But the Walking was challenging. Now you want me to share the walk with another!?!  “It can be someone you knew, someone you would like to be with.  It can be an historical figure you wish you had met. Go, take a walk.”

I returned to the hallway and set out. With whom would I share this walk? Step, breath, where’s the wall? Am I too close to the person walking in front of me?  It seemed just like the same challenging walk of the days before. Suddenly, I felt a presence.  Something in me had summoned Rabbi Hillel.  I’m not sure why. I'd been hearing stories about this larger-than-life first century Rabbi since childhood.  And I’ve been telling some of those same stories during over the years I’ve served as a rabbi. Okay, I’m walking. I’m breathing. And it seems I am not alone. I figured as long as we were walking together, I should ask some questions.  Frankly I don’t really remember what they were. I only know that having Rabbi Hillel by my side seemed to make the walking easier.  Was that it?  Did I need an “imaginary friend,” a companion to divert my attention from the mechanics to help it make sense?  I still don’t know.  Yet, along we walked, down and back, down and back.  One aspect of that week of meditation was that it helped me be less conscious of time. I found I was more focused on my breath and letting my thoughts “pass like clouds in the sky.”  Maybe the old salt is true, “practice makes . . .”  No, not perfect, but better.

After decades of studying Jewish tradition, I felt privileged, as if I had actually been granted an audience with a major figure of this tradition which is so precious to me. Then it happened. Something shifted. I could not understand how, or why.  I only remember that suddenly Rabbi Hillel was no longer by my side. I wasn’t sure whether he had fallen a few steps behind, or whether he gone off to grab some coffee downstairs.  Yet, I was still not alone.  Another Rabbi, another cherished teacher had taken Hillel’s place.  It took a few moments. Then I realized I was now walking alongside my cherished teacher, Rabbi David Hartman z”l.  I knew in my gut that Reb Dovid, as we called him, could not really be at my side. He’d died 11 months earlier. Was it really any more fantastic to imagine Hillel at my side who’d died two millennia ago, than someone who I actually knew and had only been dead not quite a year? Step, breath, balance . . . step, breath, balance. Having found some level of comfort I was determined to keep going as long as I could. Or at least until the bell rang for us to return to the main hall.

Walking with Reb Dovid was different from walking with Rabbi Hillel. With Rabbi Hillel I asked the questions. Reb Dovid was a different story.  I guess I knew that would be the case once I noticed him. I'd first heard Rabbi David Hartman speak sometime in the Spring of 1977. I remember little of what he said, but I can conjure that moment and the impression he'd made on me. Fast-forward to Summer 2004.  I'd come to Israel to spend two weeks at the Shalom Hartman Institute as part of their annual Rabbinic Torah Seminar. Who should turn out to be the elder statesman of the Institute? Rabbi David Hartman. I’d heard his name over the years.  I'd read some of his books.  But here he was. We both looked 30 years older.  But his passion and dynamism took me right back to the stadium at K’far Maccabee.

A few years later I was invited to participate in the Institute’s more intensive 3-year Rabbinic Leadership Initiative. At K’far Maccabee I sat amongst thousands. At the Summer Rabbinic  Seminars I have sat amongst 150-200 rabbinic colleagues. Now I was suddenly one of 27 rabbis sitting at Reb Dovid’s feet, where we relished sitting over the three years of our RLI experience.  To be sure, those years brought me face-to-face with some of the most influential and impactful teachers with whom I have ever studied. Though he was increasingly in failing health, Reb Dovid was, nonetheless, still the elder statesman of this Institute he'd founded in his father’s memory in the late 1970s. Sadly, Reb Dovid died just days after our group left Jerusalem following our third and final Winter session at the Institute.  The following summer would mark our graduation from the program. He would not be there as we marked our transition to a different place in the life of the Institute which would now and forever be different for the absence of its founder and elder statesman, Rabbi David Hartman z”l.

And there I was in  January 2014, walking the halls of Kripalu, with my teacher, Reb Dovid by my side. I don’t know if he pushed Hillel aside, or if Hillel invited him to take a turn. I do know, the dynamic of my walking meditation experience changed. I was no longer asking the questions.  It was Reb Dovid’s turn, and he really only had one question for me. “Eric,” he began. I was never quite sure he even knew my name. But walking down that hall he certainly knew who I was. “Eric, what’s your Torah?”  “Excuse me, Reb Dovid?” I asked. I wasn’t sure if I had heard him correctly. I was so conscious, not only of his presence, but also of my breathing, my gaze and my steps.  I certainly did not want to stumble and fall against my elderly teacher, whose own walking was not all that stable.  “Eric,” he repeated.  “What’s your Torah?”  “What’s my Torah?” I echoed.  I opened my mouth and began to answer.  At least I think I did. Then suddenly someone gently struck the meditation bell signaling that it was time to return to the Great Hall, to our cushions, and to our learning with Jack Kornfield.

“What’s my Torah Reb Dovid?”  If I’m honest with myself, I have spent over 34 years as a rabbi wrestling with that question. But that day at Kripalu, I really felt my teacher asking me. I don’t know if we will ever have the chance to walk together again. But whenever and wherever I walk, whenever and wherever I teach, you are with me. You are with me, along with all the the incredible, dynamic teachers you allowed me to meet and learn with, including your son Donniel.  Indeed I'd practically forgotten about that day until just a week ago, at this summer's Rabbinic Seminar, Donniel asked us all, "What's your Torah?" That walk came right back to me. You are all a part of the Torah I am forming into words as my Torah. I only pray that as my journey takes a new pivot the Holy One grants me the time to make sense of it, that I might share it with others with one percent of the passion, intellect and soul with which you, my teachers, have shared your Torah with us!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

From Zeal to Zealotry

In the opening of yesterday’s Torah portion, Parshat Pinchas, we read: “The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion. Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship. It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’ ” (Num. 25:10-13)

This passage has long puzzled commentators.  The Torah states that Pinchas is rewarded with Brit shalom – God’s eternal covenant of peace (which JPS translates as “pact of friendship”).  Some see in Pinchas’ actions bravery, courage and valor.  Others see it as an act of zealotry, in which Pinchas arrogated to himself the role of judge, jury and executioner as he killed the Israelite Zimri, and his Midianite consort, Cozbi. As the highly regarded medieval French commentator Rashi often says, “this passage cries out – darshaini – “Explain me!”

I was reminded of this passage more than once over the two weeks since I arrived in Israel. No matter which way Pinchas’ actions are read, for good or as an act of arrogance, they are always linked with the concept of zeal, or zealotry. One dictionary defines zeal as “fervor for a person, cause, or object.” Zealotry as “fanatical and uncompromising pursuit of religious, political, or other ideals; fanaticism.”  I suppose that one’s view will almost always be based on one’s perspective or views.

I believe that we have seen more than a few examples of abundant zeal, and even zealotry in recent weeks.  I’ll mention just two.  I’m not equating them per se. I offer these two as a reminder that zealotry comes in different forms.  (I could easily select other examples from home in the US.) The first follows upon actions taken by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in cancelling the agreement from nearly 18 months ago wherein a compromise was struck regarding access to the Kotel (Western Wall) for Jewish streams from across the spectrum, from liberal to orthodox.  In face of a threat by his Ultra-Orthodox coalition partners to leave the government and thereby cause it’s collapse, Netanyahu cancelled the agreement. Coincident with that decision, leaders of the Haredi community pushed forward with a bill to change Israeli law as regards conversion to Judaism. There has been a ramping up of denouncements of Reform and Conservatives from haredi leaders. A week or so ago a “Black List” of Diaspora Rabbis, compiled by the office of Israel’s Chief Rabbi from around the globe was published. Some of my colleagues have taken umbrage that they were not included on the list. Others have declared the list meaningless. Virtually all of us see these actions as a form of religious zealotry in which the Ultra-Orthodox community here in Israel is attempting to consolidate its political clout and arrogate to themselves all decisions as regard all Jews, wherever they may live. This string of pronouncements and acts have driven a deep wedge into the heart of our Jewish people. How we step back from this precipice, or can we do so, remains to be seen. In spite of the cause, and potential outcome as regards the Kotel and the Conversion bill, I do take some comfort that an unusually broad coalition of Jewish organizations, who often find themselves at odds, have in this instance aligned to prevent this from going any further.

Zeal and zealotry are hardly limited to the realm of words and pronouncements.  This past Friday, like the Israelis around me  I was stunned to learn of the horrific events in and around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City.  Three Arab-Israeli cousins from the Israeli-Arab village of Umm al-Fahm, burst out of the Temple Mount complex guns blazing. They killed two Israeli Border Police officers and wounded another. Israeli police officers responded quickly and ultimately cornered and killed the attackers who’d fled back into the Temple Mount complex from which they launched their attack in the first place.  The initial terrorist act has rattled Israelis – Jews and many Arabs.  There is an uneasy pall today as the Temple Mount complex will be reopened for Muslim worshippers.  I’ll leave the varying responses from Israel’s Arab neighbors, the Arab League and others aside for this moment. Certainly we can debate what caused these three young men to act as they did. But what they did was an act of terrorism. The Israeli police below the Temple Mount complex were doing their job in responding to their attack. There seems to be some evidence that the three Arab cousins sought to ignite a broader Middle Eastern conflict by their actions. There is can be no question that this awful chapter was set in motion by the zealotry of three cousins from an Israeli-Arab city.  These were not attackers from beyond Israel’s borders but rather Israeli-Arab citizens.  Only time will tell whether Israeli, Palestinian and other leaders can calm the waters and use this moment as a possible opening to addressing the ongoing grievances of both sides, or if a new round of violence is about to erupt. I pray for peace and calm with leadership on all sides.

Zeal and zealotry have been a part of the human behavioral and attitudinal repertoire for a long time. Yesterday’s Torah reading is a reminder of that.  Be it the Ultra-Orthodox Rabbis here in Israel, young Arab men from an Israeli-Arab town, or even political leaders here in in Israel or back home in the US, there must be a way to channel passions so they do not cross the line from zeal to zealotry.

One last note:  Commenting on Pinchas’ act, my colleague Rabbi Micky Boyden from Hod HaSharon here in Israel, responding to recents events notes: On the face of it, Pinchas is awarded with "a covenant of peace" (b'rit shalom) for his act of religious zealotry. However,” in the Babylonian Talmud, “Rav Nachman points out that the Vav in the word "shalom" is broken in the middle because Pinchas was not shalem (whole) but chasseyr (lacking). The same can be said of Israel's religious and political establishment, but our love of Israel is not conditional upon their behavior.”

In the aftermath of these recent weeks, we as a people are not shaleym – we are not whole. That’s not exactly new. But we need to find a way towards a great sense of wholeness with and in regard to one another – as a Jewish people, as co-inhabitants of this fragile planet, and its nations.