Waxing Over My Bar Mitzvah ……

 (Parashat B’Chukotai Leviticus 26:3-27:34)

 Like most people if you just look at the Pshat – the SIMPLE way of looking at the Torah – the Torah portion this week,  B’Chukotai really is not all that inspiring. That is of course why we also have the Remez, which is the Hinted meaning of the text on a deeper level. And of course the Drash, which helps us find the extrapolated meaning of the text. Finally there is the Sod which is the secret meaning of our Torah. At this moment in time I am in more of a Pshat mode …. a Simple mode; so I thought I would try to stay with the simplicity of the text.

But the truth of the matter is that whenever I look at this text, I am forever stuck within a far more complicated context. For me, every time I read this Parsha…. I do not think of the rules and threats that the Lord God makes to the Children of Israel, but rather I think about being stuck in a leisure suit (they were very poplar when the Six Million Dollar man was on TV), a mouth full of braces and a haircut that made me look like one of the younger Hudson brothers. Yes this is my bar mitzvah portion. And it takes me back to the 1970’s and a time when Conservative Judaism ruled the day. Perhaps this is what Freud calls a screen memory, but I also remember there being a sense of certainty about Jewish life – when Jewish kids were sent to Hebrew school to suffer and sat there bored and confused in their Little League Baseball uniforms. I remember my Bar Mitzvah teacher Cantor Lazar Wax (that really was his name and for years I was so confused that his name sounded like a cleaning product). Cantor Wax came from Poland, he survived Auschwitz and probably had little patience for a snot nose suburban kid like myself, who – like the young man in the film, “A Serious Man” (I did not like the movie nor do I like the Coen brothers very much) – I too probably wanted to watch “F Troop” more than practice for my Bar Mitzvah. I remember Cantor Wax’s frustration with my atrocious Hebrew. And how he yelled and rolled his eyes. His greatest line was when he looked at me and said that I was “as dumb as the desk.” This was not the kinder gentler days of Hebrew school… this was “War of the Worlds”… literally two worlds colliding and not understanding each other. Lazar Wax had been a Yeshiva Bucher and Hazan prodigy who lost his entire family and survived WWII and I was Gilligan. Only now do I appreciate the man who taught me my Torah portion and only later did I understand the rich world that he had lost. I don’t think he understood me or the rest of my gang. I was scared of him but I fought him tooth and nail and was incredibly irreverent; it is still mortifying to think about my behavior and the way I spoke to him. And yet I have never forgotten him nor the Torah portion he taught me.

And here I am in the NFTY Office in Israel racing around like mad to build programs that bring young Jewish people not only to Israel but also programs that bring young people to where Cantor Wax came from: Poland. We of course bring young people to Poland to teach them about a Jewish world that was lost – the world of Cantor Lazar Wax. In a strange way Lazar Wax and I were having a Jewish conversation, a Jewish argument, connecting and not connecting- we were generations that simply did not understand each other. I have no idea where he is, but in a strange way my work in Jewish education has been about bridging the gap between Cantor Wax and me. This Parsha is about covenant and remembrance. Cantor Wax turned out to be the person who helped bring me to the covenant through reading Torah and I remember him. Perhaps Nachman of Bratslav put the conversation between Cantor Wax and myself best:
“Two men who live in different places, or even in different generations, may still converse. For one may raise a question, and the other who is far away in time or in space
may make a comment or ask a question that answers it. So they converse, but no one knows it save the Lord, who hears and records and brings together all the words of men, as it is written: They who serve the Lord speak to one another, and the Lord hears them and records their words in His book (Mal 3:16)”

 

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Achmad & Rich Not to be confused with Akbar & Jeff (for all you Matt Groening Fans….….)

It’s a long story but my brief relationship with Achmad began when I decided to build an office in my house in order to stop having to work with my laptop on the kitchen table. Our small Jerusalem apartment is crowded and most of the space is dedicated to books- actually two different genres – books on Judaism and Film and or books on Film and Judaism. It was then that I realized that I was going to have to build more of a “micro” office, closer to the size of what we called back in the day – a phone booth. But at least it would have a computer with a giant screen (my eyesight has gone) and lots of drawers and cabinets that were much needed.

And so began my search for a carpenter in Jerusalem which lead me to the quite normal and unsuspecting Achmad. For me finding a carpenter, an electrician and or any type of handy man in Jerusalem is not as simple as it sounds. This is because of my American accent. Even after ten years of living in Israel, it’s not that my Hebrew is so horrible (in spite of what my children say) but it is the unmistakable American accent that encourages every workman who comes into my house to overcharge me by at least 25%. I have become an obsessive comparison shopper, and have learned to trust absolutely no one in the Holy Land. Actually it is times like these when I do miss living in the Midwest when a nice well mannered Protestant plumber or other professional named Jim would come to my house, fix the problem, clean up and offer me a fair price. But those days are long gone. So I go about interviewing at least ten carpenters for this project. And although I am just looking for a carpenter – like many aspects of life here in Israel – the Mideast conflict comes knocking at my door.

I interview countless carpenters – and one thing becomes exceedingly clear – Arab Palestinian carpenters are just cheaper than Jewish Israeli carpenters – and by a lot. This brings up a number of issues for me. Hey I know what you are thinking …….AH HA!!!! After ten years of living in Israel the rabbi who used to work with “Rabbis for Human Rights” has finally become a racist!!! And I ask myself…. what exactly is going on here…and then I realize …. Any time I have interactions with Palestinians (and for the most part I don’t) I am conscious – I mean hyper conscious about the conflict – which as we all now know, is a conflict with no end in sight. Israelis and Palestinians can maintain a dysfunctional “non-articulated” understanding with one another, personally and professionally but as long as there remains a national conflict, we will always have a simmering hostility that boils close to the surface.

I remember the day when a bunch of very nice Palestinian workmen were fixing the roof of my apartment building and I was helping them find the source of a broken water heater. Here we were, all of us on the roof bending over trying to fix this water heater and this is on the same day that we were all listening to the news on the radio about how Hamas sent 23 rockets into southern Israel and Israel retaliated by hitting the Gaza strip. And there I am on my roof playing in water with a bunch of burly Palestinian workmen while Palestinians and Israelis are killing each other down south. This is one of those times to smile and say – “Yes in fact I am a Reform rabbi and yes I do vote for Meretz (Left wing party in Israel). I must confess that when I was leaning over the roof surrounded by my Palestinian pals, I was immensely conscious that their lives are much worse than mine because of the conflict, because of the occupation, because of home demolitions, etc…and that there was no reason for them to have any great love for me (military occupation will do this). I too have issues with my Palestinians neighbors. Hamas is insane, cruel and fascist. And the leadership in the West Bank is corrupt and incompetent.

All of this is in my head as I interview carpenters. Do I go for the Israeli Jew who will rip me off; or do I go for a Palestinian carpenter who is half the price, but brings a certain uncertainty into my home (whether real or perceived). Where is Jesus, a well known carpenter in the Mideast, when you need him? In the end I decide on a guy named Achmad (what an unusual name…) I get some recommendations, he seems like he does quality work and of course he is half the price of the Israelis I considered. And so I meet with Achmad. We review everything, we take measurements and I hire him for the job. Then of course I need to give him a down payment to buy the material. I give Achmad a fairly large amount of cash. However he has no formal receipts, no business card and he just scribbles out something in pencil. I know that he has worked for other friends of mine but still I am uneasy. And so before he drives away I surreptitiously take a photo of his license plate.

Three days later Achmad is not answering his phone, only a recording that says the phone is not in service. Eight days later still no word from Achmad and the phone has the same recording. Like a schmuck I just gave this guy thousands of shekels and he drove away giggling and cursing his Zionist enemy and probably laughing with his friends in Beit Lechem- where I will never be able to find him. And then I realized of course he took my money and ran. Didn’t I read Ari Shavit’s book “My Promised Land” didn’t I read that part about Lydda and what we did to the Palestinians in 1948 (by the way they would have done the same to us and worse but they lost..). How can I forget about check points, and home demolitions and house searches, the Second Intifada, suicide bombers and more than a hundred years of war between Jews and Arabs in this land. That son of a bitch took me in and stole my money! And I realize that at this point in time, we simply cannot work together, we cannot be friends, there is too much hate, too much anger, too much history, why should I expect anything else given the context we are living in between Israel and Palestine!

And while I am seething in my tirade….. I get a phone call.

“Hi Rich it’s Achamad, everything is ready, I’ll bring the desk and cabinets to your house tomorrow morning.”

To which I reply, “Oh great thank you so much Achmad …..”

My office is great.

But the conflict SUCKS.

 

 

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And So Ahad HaAm Said……Public Jewish Culture: Davka Something Israel got Right

So it is 6:00 am and I am in my car freezing while driving to the Jerusalem Pool on Emek Rafaiim Street. The pool is not exactly a mikveh, but what won’t I do to surround myself with a bunch of old naked guys kibitzing in Yiddish, Russian and Hebrew in a locker room on a cold Jerusalem morning. And as I am driving to the pool, I turn on the radio and lo and behold it is the Kriy’at Sh’ma prayer being read by the radio announcer. And it is both kitsch and moving at the same time; and it is probably the reason why I live in Israel.

I know that in the larger Jewish world we are obsessed about the on- going saga and struggle for a sovereign Jewish state. Clearly Jewish sovereignty, which is the ability for the Jewish people to control their own political destiny, should not be taken lightly. And the only reason that any of us are here (or that I can go to a pool on a cold Jerusalem morning) is because every day, 24 hours a day, we have our young people serving as soldiers surrounding this country and making sure that we are safe. Books, articles, commentaries, documentaries, radio shows etc concerning Israel are primarily obsessed about one thing- our ability to survive. And if we aren’t focusing about the struggle for survival and sovereignty; then we are wrestling inside and outside with the idea of “ethical sovereignty.” Ethical sovereignty” –meaning now that the Jewish people are back in their land, can we justify the way we came back?  And if we aren’t ruminating about the origins of the Jewish State, we are pondering how we can justify our behavior as a Jewish state in light of some very difficult situations, if not difficult neighbors.

These are important questions and worth our perpetual Machlakot l’Shem Shamayim- Arguments for the Sake of Heaven (we hope). However I often feel that there is an elephant in the room, an elephant in the conversation regarding Israel. And that is because there is so much more to Israel than just the realm of sovereignty, and/or the conflict. In fact most of the time that Israel is the topic of conversation, we tend to forget about what it was we were fighting for in the first place and we miss what we actually have here. Don’t get me wrong – I am grateful to Herzl and political Zionism and I take being a Jew in the Jewish state as a historical privilege and at times I am amazed at living in the Third Jewish Common Wealth. And I know this as I am on my way to the pool.  I also think about my own kid on these mornings who is in the army on a base down in the desert next to the Egyptian border. Nevertheless it sometimes astounds me that for so many people, both inside and outside Israel, we miss time and time again – the elephant –and that elephant is one of the more remarkable achievements of the Zionist revolution (there…I said it…the word…Zionist).  One of the main benefits of living here and in fact visiting here, is that this is a country like no other because simply said…the public culture is Jewish.

I first learned about the power an importance of public culture from my friend and teacher Michael Brooks at the University Michigan Hillel. Michael wrote this definition about Public Culture seventeen years ago in “Sh’ma-A Journal of Jewish Responsibility” and his definition still resonates with me today:

“Public culture is that rich and complex matrix of things, both substantive and symbolic, which informs our understanding of what membership means. It is the fabric upon which all of us sit but which few of us are consciously aware and it shapes our feelings about whether we want to be connected in the first place.”

Israel is a public culture that is Jewish, and that alone is one of the miracles of the Jewish state “but which few of us are consciously aware.” In fact when the public culture is so successful it often makes it more difficult to define. Somewhat like living in Ann Arbor, MI, where no one would dare ask you, “why are you going to the football game?,” because going  to the football game it is just what you do in Ann Arbor, MI. Here in Israel no one would ask you, “why are you running around the supermarket like a nut late Thursday night or why are you racing around like a madman on Friday after noon?”- Getting ready for Shabbat is just what everyone does. Defining Public culture can be illusive. However over ten years of living in Israel there have been more moments than I can recount when a type of Heschelian awe has over took me and the Jewish public culture that takes place here has simply amazed me about the place I call home.

The idea of Israel and Jewish public culture first dawned on me during a linguistic incident. Years ago, when I was a rabbinic student in Jeru­salem, a friend of mine, a sabra who was serving in the army, claimed to me that he was Jewish because he spoke Hebrew, served in the Jewish army, and lived in the Jewish land —and that was enough. I was always pointing out that he was completely ignoring the religious component of our identity. One day, as we sat in his kitchen, we saw a long line of ants crawling on the floor. I immediately said, “What is this, a stampede?” That word, stampede, was my first instinct, having grown up with cowboy TV shows (apparently my inner narrative is that of a cowboy…a cowboy from Long Island that is…. ). However what did my friend, the anti-religious Israeli say? “Ma zeh, Yitzitat Mitzrayim?”“What is this, the Exodus of Egypt?” It was then I realized that even the most chiluni (secular) Israeli is far more connected to Jewish religious tradition than we often realize.

Biblical Hebrew metaphors are just part of our daily life and they seem to roll off of our tongues in the oddest places. In Israel the Hebrew Bible just doesn’t take place in the synagogue or the Beit Midrash, it happens everywhere. Like the morning I was driving my oldest daughter to school (she was in 5th grade at the time) and on the radio the news was reporting about a scandal in the Knesset (what’s new) and the phrase they used was “Aitzat Achi TofelThe Advice of Achi Tofel.  Achitofel was a counselor who deserted King David (Psalm. 41:9; 55:12-14) and espoused the cause of Absalom (2 Samuel 15:12) and my daughter without missing a beat said – oh that’s from Sefer Shmuel – the Book of Samuel, and I nearly crashed the car. There is a wonderful synergy here in Israel where we take the holy and bring it into the mundane. There are other events which just make me smile. Like when you see the basketball team -Maccabee Tel Aviv play against the National basketball team from Greece on Hannukah and the snack food at the arena during half time is jelly donuts. It is like when my second oldest daughter was in the play “The Sound of Music” and the nuns sang in Hebrew – that was when I definitely knew I was in a Jewish country. It is like when my son plays me an Israeli heavy metal band (I hate heavy metal) and the chorus is Avinu Malkenu (seriously).

Whether it is theater, cinema or literature the context is a Jewish one, and not forced, but organic. Even the comedy movie Zohi Sdom, about Sodom and Gamora, begs knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, otherwise it is not funny. From the rhythm of the work week and school week that starts on Sunday to the nightly news, “Jewishness is the fabric upon which all of us sit.”  Even when you enter the country as you walk out of the baggage claim, you pass through two small walls of cascading water, symbolizing you have crossed the Red Sea and are entering the land of Israel. Simply said, being Jewish is in the details of everyday life. And because it is the dominant culture, even people who are not Jewish cannot help but soak in Jewish culture. Our Arab cousins (they also call us cousins in Arabic) speak beautiful Hebrew and better than many Zionists. The Arabs in Israel know most of our customs and traditions. In fact I actually had an argument with an Arab man in the supermarket about whether something was Kosher for Passover or not, and he knew the Halacha (Jewish law) better than I did. The issue here is that the more time one spends in Israel the more time one can soak up this Jewish culture that surrounds them and “it shapes our feelings about whether we want to be connected in the first place,”  and over time most people want to be connected.

It sometimes strikes me as ironic that the two most difficult issues in Israel, sovereignty and religion, have captured our attention more than any other. Maybe because there is so much work to be done in these areas.  Coming back home after two thousand years of exile we have absolutely no idea about the role of religion and state. Actually we do have ideas, but thousands of different ones. Do you run the electric company on Shabbat? Do buses run on Shabbat? Which buses? Who is a Jew? And who is a rabbi? Let’s face it it’s a mess.

Davka the religious aspects of the Jewish state did not bring me here nor do they keep me here. Nor am I always crazy about the political realities. I am not particularly militant but everyone in my family knows the importance of serving in the army. And I could not imagine living in a country where I would not be willing to be a part of that country’s national defense. The lessons of Jewish power and powerlessness are part of who we are when living in this country. And granted it is easier to be ethical when you are powerless, and of course the real test of ethics comes each and every day now that we actually have real power.

I understand the importance of Herzl, Ben Gurion, The Rav Kook (who I could live without); however if you ask me Ahad Ha Am may have gotten it right. And in the words of this prophet of cultural Zionism (oops I said that the “Z” word again) “Only through national culture for its own sake can a Jewish state be established in such a way that it will correspond to the will and the needs of the Jewish people.” And it is this aspect of a national Jewish culture that is consistently undervalued but it is really one of the best things we have going for us in the Jewish state and it is the best reason for living and/or visiting here. When you are in Israel you are surrounded 24 hours a day by Jewish time and Jewish space and this is like no other place, except for maybe Jewish summer camp for 2 months a year. Here public space is Jewish space. And Jewish public culture is davka something Israel got right.

And as I am thinking about all of this as I am driving early in the morning to my Jerusalem pool. The word for pool in Hebrew is Breicha which sounds like Bracha -the Hebrew word for blessing…as in the blessing of the Sh’ma prayer. And so I go from Bracha to Breicha – recontextualizing the holy into the mundane.  What can I say, here…even the pool is Jewish.

 

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Parshat Tetzaveh: On Siblings and Sublimation

Exodus 27:20-30:10

So what do we have here in this week’s Torah Portion of Tetzaveh? Unfortunately we have a very long and not a very interesting description of the High Priest and the clothes he is about to wear before ordination. We have instructions for building the Altar and finally we have in-depth details regarding  the gore of the sacrifices that seem something like out of a Quentin Terentino film( Pulp Sacrifices ?).

 For example Exodus 30:1:

“A cubit shall be the length thereof, and a cubit the breadth thereof; foursquare shall it be; and two cubits shall be the height thereof; the horns thereof shall be of one piece with it.”

 But wait ………before we panic and throw up our hands with the cry that this is boring and irrelevant ……we need to remember that Torah study has never been easy and maybe it shouldn’t be easy. As Jews who  love Torah, we know that if we just look at the Pshat (The simple and  plain meaning of this Text) we are  toast, we are like a bad football team tackled on our own  2nd yard line ( I am writing this on Erev Super Bowl and thought I would try to throw in some type of sports metaphor; although I have not followed pro football since Roman Gabriel played for the LA Rams.) Our  job is to be “Jews for Exegesis” (sorry….) and when we encounter a text like this ….our first response needs to be —- that we will dive down deeper into the layers of the text and into the deeper meaning . This is a Torah portion that begs us to go  beyond the vivid descriptions of the clothes and the costume of the Kohane HaGadol  (The High Priest) , and asks us to see the man under these priestly garments. And if there is  one thing we should know about the High priest in this Torah portion,  is that  he is Aaron, the brother of Moses. This is not and should not be  a minor detail. We all know the importance of family relationships and how they are determining influences in our own lives and the lives of the leaders of our people . And the Torah knows this too; which is why the Torah narrative begins with the story of the Jewish people starting out as a family – yet  sadly this narrative tells the story of a very….. dysfunctional family.

 Let us review:

  • Cain Kills Abel
  • Abraham banishes Ishmael and Hagar into the desert for almost certain death
  • Abraham nearly kills  Isaac to show his devotion to God  -Remember the Akkeda (the binding of Isaac)
  • Rebecca lies to Isaac
  • Jacob tricks Isaac
  • Jacob steals Esau’s Birthright
  • Esau tries to kill Jacob
  • Laban fools Jacob into marrying the wrong daughter Leah
  • Dinah is raped by Shechem and is forced to marry the man who rapes her
  • Shimon and Levi ask Shechem and his people to circumcise themselves as a gesture of being part of Jacob’s family
  • Shimon and Levi then kill every man in Shechem’s  town while they are recovering from their circumcision
  • Joseph’s brothers want  to kill him
  • Joseph’s brothers sell him into to slavery
  • Joseph’s brother lie to Jacob about Joseph being killed
  • Joseph slowly tortures his brothers and enslaves Benjamin before revealing his real true identity to his brothers in Egypt

 Let us face it—it takes a whole book in the TANACH (Hebrew Bible) to figure out how to become a semi functional family. Only when we get to Joseph’s sons at the end of the book of Bereisheet (Genesis) do we get some kind of familial normalcy in terms  of how brothers need to treat each other, like with Ephraim and Menashe. According to tradition – Ephraim and Menashe treated each other with respect and fairness. This is why we give the blessing on Erev Shabbat (Friday nights)  to boys  “ישימך אלוים כאפרים וכמנשה “ You should be like Ephraim and Menashe” as opposed to saying “You should be like  Cain and Abel” or “You should be like Jacob and Esau”-which would be awkward.

 Only after we figure out how to be a family at the end of Bereisheet (Genesis) are we ready to learn how to become a nation in the book of Exodus. However even as we are becoming a nation in Exodus, the Torah portion does not forget some of the key lessons from Bereisheet (Genesis). When looking back at all of the horrible ways siblings treated each other in Bereisheet – this Torah portion  is incredibly beautiful within the context of the relationship between Aaron and Moses. Take note from the wider story of how Moses who was the more exalted of the two brothers, lovingly helps dress Aaron in the clothes of the Kohane HaGadol  (The High Priest) . In contrast to Jacob, who dressed in his brothers clothes,  in order  to deceive his father Isaac and steal his brother Esau’s Birthright. Here we have two bothers who deeply care for each other and who help one another (I learned this nice insight from Rabbi Levi Weiman Kelman one Shabbat morning at Kol HaNeshama –see Levi I am paying attention….. ). This is a wonderful but difficult arc that is brought to a close with two brothers creating a Tikkun (a correction) for what their forefathers did to one another and an important Kavanah underneath the fanciful descriptions of the clothing of the Kohane HaGadol  (The High Priest).

 However there is more than just a beautiful tikkun here, but in fact there is a thoughtful balance of power as reflected in the roles of Moses and Aaron. Moses is the leader of the people, the one who  received the Torah on Sinai, but he does not need to be the  Kohane HaGadol (The High Priest), rather it is given to Aaron. In this Torah portion there is a separation of religion and state, there are checks and balances in the Torah. There is an appreciation for sharing power and there is an acknowledgement of the importance of moving from a functional and healthy family to a functional and healthy nation.

 But perhaps one of the most fascinating parts of this Torah Portion is to zoom out and ask the question about the actual need for Kohanim and Levites in the first place . Why would the people of Israel need to single out the Tribe of Levi to be Koahnim (High priests) and Levites (the helpers of the Kohanim) to attend to the sacrifices and eventually watch over the Temple in Jerusalem? Apparently this goes back to our stories from Bereisheet (Genesis) about siblings and brothers and about Shimon and Levi. Shimon and Levi ( the name sake of the two tribes) killed every man in a town in revenge for the rape of their sister Dinah – Breisheet 34:25  . These actions by Shimon and Levi showed an affinity for violence if not rage. Even if you look at the story of Moses when he comes down from Mount Sinai and sees the Israelites worshiping the Golden Calf in Exodus 32:28, he kills 3000 people (we usually do not hear about this story,  but it’s there). The Torah makes clear that the Tribes of Shimon and Levi had some major anger management issues. And in a brilliant safe guard for the people of Israel there is a decision made regarding Shimon and Levi. If you ever look at the maps of the Tribes of Israel, you will see that although Shimon gets a portion of  Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) it is a portion of land entirely surrounded by the Tribe of Judah. As if to say, we trust your tribe,  but only so much , and just to make sure you behave, you will be surrounded by the tribe of Judah. For the tribe of Levi (the tribe of Moses and Aaron) because of their history –they are not given any portion of the land of Israel but are in a way made God’s “special helpers.” Just like the kid who misbehaves in class, there is an attempt to take their anger and channel it into more healthy and productive venues. And remember what ultimately the Kohanim do; they cut up animals all day (thank you my chevrutah at Grand Café on Derech Bet Lechem ). Call it reaction formation or sublimation, but there is something fascinating about taking the most violent brother/tribe and making them the priests.

 And so Aaron, Moses’ brother the Kohane HaGadol (The High Priest),under all of his priestly vestments, is thinking to himself,  “here I am Aaron …..coming from this  crazy family that somehow made things better, trying to figure out how to manage power that is effective, efficient, smart and fair. How do I to acknowledge all of this burning anger and all of this rage that is a part of my family? And how do I direct all of this into something that is worthwhile and meaningful.” And at that moment Aaron looked up and saw his brother Moses, and knew he would be okay.

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Tuesday the Rabbi Was Not A Friar: When Sirens Sound Across Israel

This morning was one of those mornings I dread living in Israel because I had given in to my wife’s demand that it was my turn to take the car to the garage and get it fixed. This is always the moment of truth when I know the essence of my manhood will be tested. A virtual auto motive Akedah (the binding of Isaac) if you will…. where I am forced to go up a mountain in Jerusalem (actually Talpiot where all the garages are) and hand myself over as an offering-  if not an actual sacrifice to my auto mechanic -Amnon. I am not mechanical and never will be…hey, I from Woodmere, Long Island. And any time men get together to talk about power tools or automotive matters …I try to switch the conversation to an interesting and sensitive midrash. Now when I was living in the States it was bad enough, but here with my fellow Jews speaking in the holy tongue of Hebrew  …it brings up my issues about actually living up to the Zionist dream. Here in Israel is where we were supposed to be workers of the land, here we were going to take the Jew out of the exile and the exile out of the Jew. And here I am a supposed to be a Gever (the Hebrew word for a man’s man). But as soon as I arrive at my mechanic, I never know what he is talking about and I just cannot help but flash that sign on my face that says “deer in the head lights” or in Israeli terms FRIAR! A FRIAR is the last thing that anyone wants to be in Israel, A FRIAR is somebody’s sucker or in this case – paying way more than you actually should. The Israeli national pastime is to prove why everyone else is a FRIAR and that you are in fact no one’s FRIAR. But when my mechanic Amnon told me that I needed a boxer  to change my joont….my goose was cooked and it was clear that I had no idea what he was talking about. Apparently he was telling me that I needed a special wrench to take off the wheel of my car so it could be fixed. What language was this? Boxer…….Joont they didn’t teach me these words when I studied at Hebrew Union College. And then I was sent all over the city to find his buddy “YiItzhak the Tire Guy” who really has the tools to fix it. And the whole time that I am racing around Jerusalem, I am determined that when I get to Yitzhak’s I will come off as a Gever (a man’s man) and more important not as a FRIAR (a sucker, a patsy, etc..)!   

So I arrive at Yitzhak’s Tire place all puffed up ready to present my automotive challenge when a siren goes off in Jerusalem (and around the country). And then I remembered that this was the morning that everyone has to go through a test run in case Iran decides to fire Inter Continental Ballistic missiles at us. I also made a mental note that we made sure to tell our kids (ages 15, 12 and 9) that there was going to be a drill today and not a real war. A few months ago during the War in Gaza, the siren in Jerusalem actually went off by mistake and my children went running in a panic down to the bomb shelter in their school. These experiences are not without their emotional and psychological impact. And so while I am racing all around Jerusalem intent on not being anyone’s FRIAR, the Jewish State was simply trying to make sure- we won’t FRY.  

 

 

 

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Rambam was an Epikores too….

(Parshat V’tchanen)

SO ONE DAY MY DAUGHTER walks up to me and tells me that she thinks Judaism is a lot of baloney. And then she goes on to tell me how in fact the Rambam (Maimonides, the preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher and one of the greatest Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, 1135-1204) was a complete epikoros (heretic). This analysis was based on her understanding of Rambam’s classic treatise on Jewish Law – the Mishne Torah.

How one child manages to depress and give nachas (joy) at the same time is a rare gift but it is also a test of boundaries (and natural for any 16-year-old). And so my manic depression: On one level, it is unnerving for me to hear my child say that Judaism is a sham (and that she is an atheist) and yet it is completely encouraging when I see that she can read and understand the Mishne Torah in fluent Hebrew.

After six years I am still figuring out the boundaries of Jewish life in the Land of Israel. Raising children in Jerusalem and trying to help them navigate between dangerous religious fundamentalism, vacuous pop culture and a small but growing Progressive Judaism, one knows that boundaries aren’t always clear.

Even more ironically, this Torah portion, V’et’hanan, reminds us time and again that Judaism is based on the obsessive pursuit of boundaries, and yet here in the Jewish state we still have no consensus on where our own religious boundaries lie and where our geo-political boundaries should be established.

In the portion, we find a critical statement in Chapter 4, verse 2, when we read, “You shall not add a word which I command you, neither shall you subtract from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God.” As we know this is easier said than done. In his Mishne Torah, Rambam has a chapter entitled De’ot (the Laws of Ethics and Ideals) and for him the right path is in fact the middle ground. We should always try to achieve the balanced life, or what he calls the “golden mean.”

Well, this may have been fine for the Rambam, but for many of us, and especially for those of us who are not bound by halakha, the religious law, trying to find the balance between Jewish law and what we feel will work in our modern lives is not easy. Maybe there are people out there who have a far better sense of how to achieve this balance.

Truth be told, many times the inconsistency of my own religious life confuses even me. I often ask myself – as a liberal Jew – how many times a day do I pray? Should I say birkat hamazon (the blessings after eating) only after Friday night meals – but what about all other meals? Dare I daven (pray) in a minyan that is not egalitarian? These are the type of questions with which I successfully make myself crazy from Havdala on Saturday night until the next Shabbat. A perpetual wrestling match of indecision, conflict – and, yes, a good deal of whining to go along with all of this.

To ignore the influence of living in a public culture that is Jewish (read: Israel) would simply be intellectually dishonest. Living in Israel has had a huge influence on my religious life whether I admit it or not. Here everything is so infused with being Jewish that suddenly there is no longer the necessity for my Jewish boundaries to only be religious boundaries.

I revel in the celebration of being Jewish outside of the religious commandments, whether it is going to watch my beloved Jerusalem basketball team Hapoel play against the Greek national basketball team on Hanukka (and eat jelly doughnuts at the snack bar) or just listening to the Hebrew language as a Jewish narrative. These mundane parts of Israeli life are for me a constant exercise in Heschelian awe. No matter where I go in this country, I am knocked out by nonstop Jewish references.

However, there is something else in this culture that concerns me less about subtracting from the commandments and more about adding to them. Finding the balance between subtracting and adding is not easy, and finding the religious balance in Israel today is even harder. When did every Orthodox man (especially in Jerusalem) begin walking around on Shabbat wearing his tallit on his back so he looks like Superman? As we know, in this country we are obsessed with character armor. And everything that we wear says what team we are playing for and what we believe.

But lately it feels like “the center cannot hold.” When I drive my children to a Scouts meeting on Shabbat, I can feel the disapproving looks from my neighbors, who think I should not drive. Yet this does not make me feel like I should be more observant, but rather I am seized with the desire to run to the local movie theater open on Shabbat and there find “secular people” having a meal and enjoying themselves.

Must religious life in Israel be everything or nothing? How do we determine what is too much in terms of observance and how do we determine what is too little? And who determines this? The dangers of falling into a vituperative volley between the broad arrays of observance is a challenge.

Perhaps the hardest part in finding the “golden mean” through the “subtracting” and “adding” has less to do with the commandments bein adam ve makom (between people and God) and more with those that are bein adam ve havero (between people and people). Since the Jewish people have come back home and have assumed responsibility for themselves in the form of a sovereign state, few parts of our national drama have been as complicated as the place of religion and state. All of us long to find the right formula: this uncertainty is too much for our collective identity.

Yes, everyone loves certainty; but the problem in this country is that we love certainty way too much. To quote my teacher Rabbi Leonard Kravitz (the Litvak, not the rock ‘n’roll star): “They may be wrong but at least they’re certain.”

And so somewhere between adding and subtracting from the commandments I wander in Jerusalem with the utmost uncertainty between the pool, the shul, and driving my kids to Scouts. And sometimes I catch a very good film at the local theater. And of course, it’s always good to know that the Rambam was an epikoros too.

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Hanukka in a Subatomic Particle Accelerator

From my office window I have an incredible view of the Old City of Jerusalem that has forever shaped the Jewish people and Jewish history. But this Hanukka, as I catch my morning glimpse of the Temple Mount, my awe morphs into an unsettling anxiety.

What is the miracle of Hanukka, anyway? Is it the miracle of light,when one small vessel of pure oil lasted eight nights? Or is it about themilitary victory of a small band of Jews who prevailed over the overwhelming army of the Seleucid Greek Empire? The first time we read about the miracle of light is in the Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 21b-22a. Here the rabbis ask,“mai Hanukka?” “What is Hanukka?” But before the rabbis even finish this question, they are ready with the answer. The heavy-handed narrative of Hanukka in the Talmud makes it abundantly clear that some of these authors and redactors had a lot invested in propagating the idea that “the miracle” was, indeed, the miracle of light. Butthe miracle of light is nowhere to be found in the Book of Maccabees, which was written in the 2nd century BCE – hundreds of years before we ever read about the light in the Talmud. So why would the Talmud favor a miracle about light over the military victory?

I have a theory. (Actually, it’s Yehoshafat Harkabi’s theory, but it is atheory.) Maybe the rabbis also had an incredible view of Jerusalem. And maybe when they looked at the Temple Mount during Hanukka, they remembered that the Jewish people has always been divided and thought about how and why the Temple was destroyed. After all, the rabbis knew their history and understood that the Jewish Zealots’ refusal to compromise with the Romans lead to a disastrous war; in 70 CE, the Second Temple was destroyed and Jewish sovereignty was lost for 2,000 years.  

If the First Jewish War were not traumatic enough, the lesson from the Second Jewish War waged against the Romans 65 years later, in 135 CE, under the leadership of Bar Kokhba brought an even more painful lesson. In the Second Jewish War, the Jews suffered such a cruel defeat that they became a minority in their own country and the Jewish people almost came to an end; the Romans razed Jerusalem, renaming it Aelia Capitolena, and, adding insult to injury, they renamed Judea, calling it Palestina. Taking these disastrous lessons to heart, the rabbis told the people, “Boys, no more fighting” and made sure that the people would always be afraid of ill-prepared, irrational military ventures, zealots and zealotry, fanatics and fanaticism. The rabbis were petrified that the burning zeal and fanaticism of Pinchas and Mattathias would only lead to our own destruction. And when they looked at the Hasmonean dynasty, heirs to the Maccabees, they saw even more corruption and disaster. This is why we find passages in the Babylonian Talmud like Tractate Ketuboth 110B-111A, which implore the Jewish people to be bound by three conditions:

1. Not to move back to the Land of Israel in a massive immigration;

2. Not to rebel or take up arms against the nations of the world;

3.That the nations of the world will not oppress Israel too much.

But times changed and the constraining textual apparatus created by the rabbis to contain Jewish national aspirations came crumbling down with Zionist revolution. Suddenly the Maccabees were heroes. Jewish judo strikes again. Zionism flipped the rabbinic narrative. The miracle was no longer one of light; it was the miracle of the military victory. If you live in Israel and have any doubts – just check out the names of sports teams, one of the largest national healthcare providers or the beer you drink.

It was the Zionists who wrote the Hanukka song that we all sing (in Who can retell the things that befell us / Who can count them? Brave Maccabeus led the faithful band / But now all Israel must as   “goel ha’amwhich does not translate well is A powerful polemic against traditional Judaism, ” that will redeem us.

And so, to mix a reference, why is this Hanukka different than all other Hanukkas? Lately I have come to feel as if the Jewish world with all of its broad and diverse narratives, from assimilation to ultra- Orthodoxy and everything in between, has been thrown into a subatomic particle accelerator. Ultra-Orthodox fanatics claim they have a monopoly on the “light of God.” Jewish Nationalist zealots refuse to listen to any form of compromise. Our own current version of Greek wisdom plays out in an alarming rate of assimilation. The fabric of the Jewish people is being stretched; it is as though the Jewish world has moved from “post-modern” to “post-denominational” to simply “post-rational.” This Hanukka, balancing light with power will require a lot of work because miracles do not happen every day.

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