Friday, July 27, 2012

The Stones of Robinson's Arch: Tisha B'Av 5772

One of my favorite places in all of Israel is Robinson’s Arch.  I like going there because I can pray at the Western Wall without all the “noise” of “the Kotel” -- without the mekhitzah separating men from women; without being solicited in the middle of my Tefilla for tzedakah for some yeshiva that does not recognize me as a rabbi or categorizes Conservative Jews as “destroyers of Torah” -- and quite literally without the noise of the Kotel itself.

I also like Robinson’s Arch because of the juxtaposition of the Second Temple period, its destruction and the modern State of Israel and Yerushalayim Habenuyah, rebuilt.  For this reason we celebrated the occasion of my daughter Ziva becoming Bat Mitzvah there and we will likely celebrate my daughter Alana’s becoming Bat Mitzvah there too, next summer.

An artist's rendering of
Robinson's Arch.
Whenever I am at Robinson’s Arch with a group, as I was with one of our six USY Pilgrimage groups this summer, I like to tell them the story of the Western Wall.  This is a synopsis of the story I tell:

As part of their lethal campaign against Judaism, Jews and the Grand Temple, Titus tasked the Roman General Panger with the responsibility of destroying the Western Wall.  For whatever reason, he decided to leave a section of it in tact, the section that we have reclaimed today.  When asked by Titus why, General Panger responded that it should be a sign for all time of the power of Rome and the force brought to bear on Jerusalem for rebellion. 

Robinson's Arch today
Standing at Robinson’s Arch, one can well imagine the magnitude of that force.   Archeologists have uncovered and preserved the catapult cannon balls as well as the two-ton stones that were tossed from above.  One can see the impact they made on the street below, creating huge indentations and potholes.  From just this one small section, of what ultimately is three football fields in length, one understands why Tisha B’av, 2000 years ago, is the Jewish People’s equivalent of 9/11.  Indeed, Tisha B’av was the largest and most devastating anniversary, prior to the 20th Century, which ushered in new and terrible days of remembrance. Tisha b’Av inspired the custom of greeting mourners to Kabbalat Shabbat services Friday evenings with the words: HaMakom yinakhem ethkhem b’tokh sha’ary avalai Tzion Virushalayim – May The Place (God) comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. 

In the 25 hour house of Tisha B’av all Israel are mourners.

My visit to Robinson’s Arch with USY took place two weeks before Tisha b’Av.  I shared with this story with the teens asked them to think about Panger’s goal in preserving the Western Wall. Then I challenged them to contemplate where Ancient Rome is today.  The obvious answer is that the Roman Empire does not exist. Panger wanted an eternal sign of the might of his people, but history proves that might is not found in an army or in weapons of mass destruction.

Might is found in noble ideals, in righteous living, in hope, in God. 

The prophet Zechariah, just prior to the Second Temple period, stated famously: “Not by power and not by might; but by My Spirit alone shall all people live in peace.”  (Zechariah 4:6)

To stand at Robinson’s Arch in the summer of 2012 is to realize the prophetic power of Zechariah’s admonition. While other nations have risen up and fallen, the Jewish people yet live.  Am Yisrael Chai. The Jewish people have done what none other has done before them.  We have reclaimed our ancestral homeland in sovereignty after 2000 years of exile.

And the eternal power of our Torah is renewed every minute by our righteous deeds, actions and words, by the way in which we live our ancient tradition, with its deeply ethical teachings.

To create an indelible teaching moment, I asked the USYers to do what I ask every group to do at that place:  Take a picture of the stones.  Take a picture of the street destroyed by the Roman army 2000 years ago.  Pull out those pictures on Tisha b’Av and remember what the day is about and all the lessons you have learned of it.

And then, because destruction is only part of the historical lesson, I told the USYers:  Take a picture of yourself in front of the stones and remember that you were here on a hot day in the summer of 2012, that we ARE here today in this eternal city.  Remember that the Jewish people continue to thrive because – though rooted to the past -- we always look to the future.

We are here because we recognize that we are not alone, but in partnership with each other, with God and with our commitment to Torah. Living with this mindfulness of unity and shared mission will give us the strength to fulfill the ultimate prophetic vision expression by Zechariah, “that all people shall live in peace.”

Tisha b’Av begins Saturday evening, immediately following the end of Shabbat. Please participate in its commemoration at a Conservative Kehilla near you. To find a kehilla, please visit

May you have a meaningful Tisha b’Av.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

News of a Terror Attack is Different When You're In Israel

It is especially disorienting to receive news of a terrorist attack against Israelis in the Diaspora as an American Jew visiting Israel.
Word of the horrific incident in Burgas, Bulgaria – where Israeli Jews were not only murdered but targeted for death – reached me on the final day of my Israel trip, where I had come to visit programs administered by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.  As the media began to broadcast the details of the attack, the news traveled through the closely-knit human network that is Israel’s best asset. In this tiny country, everybody knows somebody who is touched by such tragedy. People took stock of friends traveling in Europe. Parents called children abroad and friends sent each other frantic text messages.
In this small nation, there is no such thing as an irrelevant headline.
Arriving, as it did, on the 18th anniversary of the shocking attack against the AMIA – the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, today’s bus bomb in Burgas resonates throughout the global Jewish community.  As it did in the case of the AMIA attack, the Israeli government has followed the terror trail for today’s tragedy straight to Iran, which never misses an opportunity to pronounce its intention to annihilate the State of Israel and its citizenry.
While we are shocked and angered and saddened by the murder of our Israeli brothers and sisters in the middle of their summer holiday, let us find a small measure of solace in the solidity of our worldwide communal bond. Even as we grieve for the loss of innocent lives, let us draw strength in the fact of our eternal peoplehood, winding through the course of our history, transcending time and place.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: A Snapshot of Israel Through the Lens Of Conservative Judaism

Jerusalem, Israel -- As the chief executive of United Synagogue, one of the best perks of my job is my mid-summer trip to Israel to visit our various programs.

Whether participating in Shabbat prayers at the Masorti kehilla V'Ahavta in Zikhron Yaakov, joining a hevruta at the Fuchsberg Center, hiking alongside teens on USY Israel Pilgrimage, singing with Ramahniks, or simply bearing witness to the valiant efforts of the Masorti leadership to gain a foothold in Israeli society, my summertime Israel trip leaves me overflowing with inspiration. I always return back to New York assured of the vitality of Conservative Judaism.

Arriving in Tel Aviv one week ago, this trip was no different as far as the good vibrations of Conservative Judaism in action. If anything, it seems that the intensity of the ruach of the USYers was even higher. Hearing them sing at Neot Kedumim, I was transported to the USY experience of my own adolescence, reliving the thrill of Jewish Peoplehood in an elemental way.

But what was new about this trip was the juxtaposition of inspiration and frustration borne of the struggle of non-Orthodox Judaism to thrive in the Jewish homeland.  My warm and moving communal visits were punctuated by meetings with high-level officials in government and beyond to advocate for religious tolerance in Israel.

At times I felt like a stranger in a familiar land. I gave a presentation to the Israel Hotel Association in the wake of the threat by local Kashrut authorities to revoke the kashrut certification of any hotel that permits egalitarian prayer services. I impressed upon the hotel group the unshakeable Zionistic fervor of the Conservative Jewish community in the Diaspora. I spoke with Natan Sharansky about religious pluralism and agreed to disagree with David Rotem, author of the infamous Rotem Bill, which gives the authority to decide “who is a Jew” solely and unequivocally to Israels Chief Rabbinate.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Parashat Pinchas and Zealotry

Among the most complex and controversial episodes in the Torah is that of Pinchas and his response to an act of hillul Hashem -- desecration of God's Name. (Numbers 25). In this drama, the Children of Israel stray from God through both inappropriate sexual encounters with Midianite women and idolatry.  The Biblical connection of fidelity amongst humans and between humans and God is a theme that winds from the Five Books of Moses through the books of the Prophets. The loyalty that God demands from His nation is a template for the loyalty which must exist between loving partners.

Thus, Monotheism is the Divine paradigm for monogamy.

Returning to the narrative of Parashat Pinchas, when an Israelite man named Zimri brings his Midianite lover Cozbi to engage in intimate sexual acts before The Tent of Meeting in the sight of Moses, Pinchas, in an act of passion, "rose up from among the congregation and took the javelin in his hand" running it through the illicit lovers. 

According to the text, this graphic and brutal killing appeases God's anger and Pinchas is given a Brit Shalom, a Covenant of Peace. 

Let’s examine the biographies of the players in this story. Zimri is not just any Israelite; he is a prince from the tribe of Shimon. And Pinchas is not just any freelance crusader, he is none other than the son of Elazar and grandson of Aaron the Priest.

Significantly and troublingly, Pinchas's act of zealotry became the Halakhah: "He who cohabitates with a heathen woman is punished by zealots" (Sanhedrin 82a). 

This presents a conflict for contemporary Jews of the moderate persuasion. How do we balance our personal and collective disdain for zealotry with the Halakhah of Pinchas? 

The commentators were troubled by the text as well. The Talmud Yerushalmi resolves the problem by stating that this was not the normative Halakhah, meaning that it was a minority opinion or limited to specific circumstances.  The Talmud Bavli takes the argument further, justifying Pinchas's act but limiting it to Pinchas alone by creating a set of circumstances by which no other person would possibly be able to be justified in doing the same. Rashi solves the problem by making Pinchas a vessel of God who was enacting the Divine will.  In other words, don't try this at home, only when God intervenes, can one respond in this way.  Of course, this explanation raises all sorts of problem in identifying when exactly God's will is at play.

Still, why would Pinchas earn the Brit Shalom?  Why the Covenant of Peace to a man who committed a violent act of passion?

One, nuanced understanding of Pinchas’s Brit is that is more like a badge of protection, akin to the Mark of Cain. Another way to read this ostensible reward is that the Brit is a way of reining in future zealotry. By institutionalizing the incident, it falls under the jurisdiction of Jewish legal authorities. This second interpretation acknowledges the dangerous act for what it is.

Indeed, the Torah itself preserves our unease with the Brit.  The vav in the word “Shalom” is broken, as if to remind us for all time what Reb Moshe Katz teaches us, "that we shouldn't rush to praise" those who are not praiseworthy, or at least those for whom praise is complicated.

The takeaway from Parashat Pinchas has special resonance for me, writing, as I am, from Jerusalem. A shocking aspect of contemporary Israel is the unwelcome mat extended to the non-Orthodox by the Chief Rabbinate. Or, put another way, the conditional nature of the love that the State of Israel has towards Jews.

In Eretz Yisrael, to paraphrase Animal Farm, “All Jews are created equal but some Jews are more equal than others.”

The inequality is manifest in a myriad ways – from the limited access that egalitarian-minded daveners have to the Kotel plaza – to the curtailed rights that the same prayer services have to assemble in Israeli hotels.

In recent months, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has threatened to withdraw the kashrut certification from hotels that permit non-Orthodox prayer services on their premises. A punitive gesture such as this, which threatens hotels with severe financial repercussions, is the very definition of zealotry.

Israel’s rabbanut  should take heed of the lessons learned from Parashat Pinchas and the ancient rabbis’ efforts to rein in the human impulse towards rash action borne of the conviction that one is acting as God’s proxy, meeting out Divine Justice on Earth.

The zealous nature of the Israel Chief Rabbinate’s actions are highly unjust. Worse, like Pinchas, they drive a spear into Israel’s democratic heart and soul.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, July 6, 2012

Bilaam's Hasbara Agency: Parashat Balak

Parashat Balak opens with a report of Balak, king of Moab, seeing how Israel had totally defeated the Amorites, who challenged them in battle. Balak is in dread of the Israelites. He is afraid they "will lick up all that is around them as the ox licks the grass from the field."  (Numbers 22:4)  So Balak hires a hasbara, public relations, expert by the name of Bilaam, whom he hopes will curse and vilify Israel so that it becomes an international pariah. Once a pariah, Balak hopes that he will gain international support for his attempts to destroy Israel.

Sound familiar?

Thousands of years later Balak would have plenty of applicants for the job: Ahmadinejad, Morsi, Assad, those Palestinians now suggesting that Arafat was poisoned, and more. The sad truth is that there is no need to hire anyone-- there are plenty of volunteers!

In the end the strategy does not work. In a wonderful dramatic twist, Bilaam's curses come out as blessings, one of which, Mah Tovu, ironically becomes the first blessing of the siddur recited upon entering the sanctuary. 

No one expects Israel's enemies to turn around and bless her, but what did Bilaam see in Israels tents and dwelling places, and what do they represent for Israel to be worthy of such a blessing?

The traditional response is that the tents of Israel represented schools and the dwelling places, homes. According to Nehama Leibowitz, "Bilaam was impressed by the historic continuity of our people, the vigor and firm foundations of the traditions initiated by the patriarchs and matriarchs."  When schools flourish and Jewish homes are intact, no curse, ancient or modern, can defeat or destroy our people. 

I once heard Irwin Cotler, a leading international expert on human rights and former member of Canada's government, speak to a group of Jewish leaders about the best response to those who would curse us. His point was that our strongest strategic asset is the belief in the justice of our own cause. If we don't assert our own ethics, he argued, how can we expect others to?

Mah Tovu, then, is a reminder that our schools and our homes are the bastions of our ethics and our goodness. They are the teaching places of the justice of our cause, the rightness of our position. When they are strong, our hasbara is strong, too, and blessings are abundant.

Shabbat Shalom