Sunday, August 13, 2017

Charlottesville, August 2017

Shame on you, 35!
Shame on you, Donald Trump

When evil slaps you in the face, condemn it.
Clearly and Unequivocally, without Reservation.

Over 70 years ago we fought a war to defeat fascism: against racism, anti-Semitism, homophobism and on and on.  How can we as Americans see Nazi-style violence in our streets and not condemn it and its perpetrators without hesitation?

Though Charlottesville may feel like a one-off, unusual event, Hitler began with street riots that Germans dismissed as acts by a bunch of hooligans.  Of course what we watched there is not the resurrection of German-style Nazism in America.  Nevertheless the president's equivocation, condemning hatred and violence on both sides, is shameful.

Those 1930's hoodlums created sufficient chaos that the Hindenberg government thought the best way of bringing them under control was to bring them into the government.  Mistake! The Holocaust and World War II were the result.

I am not unbiased on  this issue.

One night in 1938 a local cop that my grandparents knew, knocked on their door to inform them that my grandfather was on the list for arrest the next day.  As a manufacturer's rep, my grandfather had a current passport and left town that night.

My grandmother put my mother and my uncle on a train with other children to be kept safe in a Kindertransport to England, unsure whether they would ever meet again.  For many children this was the last time they saw their parents.

These people are not to be tolerated though their right to freedom of speech must not be curtailed.  They are dangerous physically.  They are dangerous to the country's emotional and psychological well being.

Condemn them, Mr. President, unequivocally.  Prosecute their violent and illegal acts to the fullest extent of the law.



 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Stolpersteine/ Stumbling Stones

German artist Gunter Demnig initiated an amazing personal art project in 1992.  He proposed creating cobble-stone sized concrete cubes bearing brass plates that would be inscribed with the names and life dates of victims of Nazi extermination and persecution.  These plaques would be placed in front of homes which were families' last residences.  He ingeniously named these memorials Stolpersteine or Stumbling Stones.  As of January 31, 2017, Mr. Demnig had laid 56,000(!) Stolpersteine in 22 European countries, making the stolpersteine project the world's largest decentralized memorial. Though the stones commemorate mostly Jews, they also commemorate Romani (Gypsies), homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Blacks, Freemasons, Communists, the physically and mentally disabled, military deserters and political resisters.

The name Stolpersteine can refer to something one stumbles over as a constant reminder of what happened, who lived or worked here, but it can also have the meaning of stumbling across, discovered by chance, a curiosity.  To be noted as well, in Nazi Germany, when accidentally stumbling over a protruding stone, an anti-Semitic saying was, "A Jew must be buried here!" In addition when Nazis destroyed Jewish cemeteries often tombstones were re-purposed as sidewalk paving stones.  Though the clear intent was thereby to desecrate the memory of the dead, the Stolpersteine function as both reminder and a means of honoring the memories of those who lived normal lives there, raised children, contributed to society, fought in defense of their country.

Although my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles were refugees from Nazi Germany, I peculiarly never thought of myself or my family as "Holocaust survivors".  My immediate family were never deported to concentration camps, never engaged in forced labor, never the subjects of medical experimentation, never lived in ghettos.  So, until recently I did not even think of requesting a Stolperstein be prepared in front of either the homes where my mother and father lived before fleeing Germany.

I am a first generation American.  Both of my parents were born in Germany, my mother in Berlin and my father in Asschaffenburg, a small town in Northern Bavaria.

Hitler interrupted the normal growing up and educations of my parents.  Neither of them finished high school.  My father departed for Palestine at 17 in 1937.  My mother accompanied her brother in 1938 on a Kindertransport to England.  She soon became a companion to a handicapped child.  The family took the child to Switzerland and included my mother.  As a terribly shy 16 year old my mother unaccompanied made her way through Spain to Portugal where she caught a boat to America.  My father remained in Palestine until 1947, having served during the war in the Royal Air Force in North Africa.  He came to San Francisco, where his mother, sister and brother had settled.  Living in Chicago, my mother came to San Francisco to visit a friend.  There she met my father, newly arrived from Palestine, the friend's brother-in-law.  Thus the friend and her husband became my aunt and uncle.

My maternal grandfather was a war hero, having served on the front lines in the German army in World War I, a recipient of the German Iron Cross.  Those grandparents lived comfortable middle class lives.  My mother recalled seeing Hitler pass their apartment building on his way to the 1936 Olympics.  My paternal grandfather was a tailor, living a more modest existence.  He died of natural causes and is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Asschaffenburg.

Growing up the only Holocaust casualty I was aware of was my maternal greatgrandmother who it appears was gassed in a train on the way to Auschwitz.  My other maternal greatgrandmother survived the "model concentration camp" in Theresienstadt and lived to 106 in the Jewish Old Age Home in San Francisco.  Only after marrying when Carol sought to collect a family medical history did I come to realize that many members of my extended family had not gotten out of Germany.

So now I decided it was time to pursue Stolpersteine for my own family.  The website said that the first step in the process was to acquire permission from the relevant city.  I sent an email to the Berlin City Hall.  They responded immediately directing me to the respective authority, who referred my to the particular district where my mother had lived.  The notice I then received was that the backlog was so great that the quota for 2017 and 2018 were already filled and that I would be added to the list for 2019.  It had been my hope to plan a trip for cousins, children and grandchildren.  That will alas have to be put on hold.

I have not yet made contact with Asschaffenburg.  I fear that like Munich they may not allow the Stolpersteine.  In refusing Munich has claimed it is seeking for an alternative means of commemoration.  I will continue to pursue the effort.

Nevertheless I am grateful for Mr. Demnig and his privately conceived project.  The Nazis destroyed so much, first of all the millions of lives that were snuffed out, but additionally they interrupted normal growing up, educations, careers, possibilities, based on nothing but pure hate.  It is important that this horror be a constant reminder to the descendants of the people who perpetrated it.      

Thursday, June 22, 2017

To Agree to Officiate at Intermarriages or Continue to Refuse

Conservative Rabbis, i.e. rabbis affiliated with the Rabbinical Assembly, agree to abide by only two "Standards of Rabbinic Practice". First, we agree not to officiate at intermarriages, that is a marriage between someone Jewish and someone not Jewish. (Where the born non-Jewish partner converts to Judaism, s/he is fully Jewish.) A Conservative rabbi is technically subject to being dismissed from membership in the Rabbinical Assembly for violating this standard. (In practice I know of no rabbi so dismissed.) In fact, so as not to lend any endorsement, members of the Rabbinical Assembly are not only not willing to officiate, we may not even attend an intermarriage. The halakhic basis for maintaining this practice is that Judaism officially only recognizes the marriages between two Jews. Secondarily such refusal demonstrates the threat intermarriage poses to Jewish survival. (The second standard is the agreement of rabbis not to officiate at a remarriage without requiring a formal Jewish divorce from the first spouse where the first marriage ended in divorce.)

There has been general agreement to maintain these standards, though there have been a few violators. Recently the intermarriage standard has come into serious question. A year or two ago one particularly prominent Conservative rabbi publicly announced after serious thought that despite the likelihood of losing his membership, he would begin officiating at intermarriages. More recently rabbis at two popular Manhattan synagogues, following serious study and introspection, made similar decisions. Other rabbis are considering their own practice. Although I have never officiated throughout my rabbinate at an intermarriage, I can appreciate the growing conversation and must admit to a degree of sympathy. (I will admit to attending two intermarriages, but that is a conversation for another time.)

What has happened?

50 years ago with notable exceptions a Jew who decided to marry someone not Jewish, who did not convert, was walking away from the Jewish community. S/he was stating that his/her Jewish identity was largely unimportant. S/he wasn't prepared to convert to the spouses faith, but for the most part the couple would live without affiliation or participation. They had no plans to raise any children Jewish either. In return the Jewish community made no effort to try to save them.

Over the years that has largely changed. Today many Jews see no contradiction between marrying a non-Jew and continuing to identify: to continue to celebrate Jewish holidays, to join synagogues, to be committed to raise children Jewish and provide them with a Jewish education, and often receive the support of his/her spouse in these efforts. By refusing to officiate at their marriages, are we turning away young couples who may have every intention of affiliating with the Jewish destiny?

Alternatively there are those couples who are not committed to Jewish identity, but seek the services of a rabbi in order to salve the emotions of parents or grandparents. How might we distinguish between the former from the latter? Are we simply making a difficult situation of intermarriage easier? By agreeing to officiate are we not undermining our own legitimacy?

A survey once asked the born non-Jewish partner why s/he converted or did not convert. Largely those who converted claimed that it was made very clear that converting was important and desirable, whereas those who didn't convert argued that the issue was never raised, implying that had they been asked, in retrospect several would have agreed to convert. Should Conservative rabbis agree to officiate at intermarriages, would even fewer Jews raise the issue of conversion with the partners they are committed to? Will potential Jews neglect to convert simply because intermarriage is easier and acceptable?

Familiar with our own young people from Neveh Shalom who intermarried, at whose weddings I would have loved to officiate and felt badly that I couldn't, I personally and reluctantly remain hesitant to endorse officiating at marriages between Jews and non-Jews for many of the above stated reasons.



Here's how the Seminary, the school that trains Conservative rabbis, responded to the challenge proposed by the challenging rabbis:



"...Individuals from other backgrounds are warmly invited to join the covenant through conversion. There is also much that Jews can and must do to signal our respect and welcome for non-Jews in our community, whether or not they choose to become Jewish. What we must not do is abandon the core beliefs and practices which are the very foundation of Jewish life.

"For JTS and its partners in the Conservative Movement, the wedding ceremony is not only a celebration of a couple, but a commitment to the Jewish covenant. Its opening blessing thanks God for infusing our lives with holiness through the mitzvot, and its closing lines connect this marriage to the rebirth of the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Such statements can be said truly only if both partners identify as Jews.

"Judaism was never meant to be practiced alone. Our faith emerged as a family journey, and it is in the concentric circles of family, community and peoplehood that Jewish civilization has flourished. Throughout our history many individuals from other backgrounds have been welcomed into the Jewish people. That remains true, even in the greatly altered circumstances of life today. For those who are or wish to be members of our communities and of our families, the door is open to study and commit to join our ancient faith. We respect the choice of those who prefer not to become Jewish, understanding that their religious identity is no less significant than our own.

"..we believe--and the data confirm--that by far the most effective path toward building a Jewish future is to strengthen Jewish identity, beginning with a Jewish family. This is also the path which Torah and tradition command.
...This is not the moment for Conservative Jews and their rabbis to abandon the profound and joyful practice of rituals and learning, work for social justice and encounter with the Divine, love of Torah and love of the Jewish people that continue to make this form of Jewish life a source of community and meaning for hundreds of thousands of Jews in North America and beyond..."












Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Thoughts About God for Our Time: What Would Heschel Say??

Several years ago Rabbi Laureate (that's the title his congregation gave him upon retirement)Harold Kushner, spoke to rabbis gathered in a plenum at the Rabbinical Assembly convention. Kushner is the much celebrated writer/theologian of numerous significant books, most notably "When Bad Things Happen to Good People". In addressing the subject of writing about religious topics, and looking to have the book become a best seller, Kushner commented that Abraham Joshua Heschel was the only writer to dare to put "God" in a book's title. For anyone else, he implied, doing so would be the kiss of death. Though the subject may clearly be faith and/or belief, only Heschel's reputation preceded him such that putting "God" in the title would not deter sales.

Abraham Joshua Heschel is also one of the rare authors on subjects of faith from a Jewish point of view who attracted readers from all faith groups. His thinking and teachings are so well respected that he continues to be quoted in speeches from a broad spectrum of theologians.

That is the case in a New York Times op-ed piece yesterday by Emory University philosophy Professor George Yancy. The Times doesn't often publish op-ed contributions on the subject of God. Yancy also did not fear putting God in the title of his piece...


"Is Your God Dead", June 19, 2017 New York Times opinion



"Is your God Dead?

"I don't mean the God of the philosophers or the scholars, but as Blaise Pascal said, the 'God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.' With no disrespect, I hope the question comes as a jolt. And without being outrageous or quick to accuse me of 'blasphemy,' know, too, that I am hopeful monotheist. I might even be called a Christian, only I continue, every day of my life, to fail. Friedrich Nietzsche's observation weighs heavily on me: 'There was only one Christian and he died on the cross.' Call me a failed and broken Christian, but a Christian nevertheless.

"So, is your God dead? Have you buried God in the majestic, ornamental tombs of your churches, synagogues and mosques? Perhaps prosperity theology, boisterous, formalistic and mechanical prayer rituals, and skillful oratory have hastened the need for a eulogy.

"Perhaps by remaining in your 'holy' places, you have sacrificed looking in the face of your neighbor on the street. You know the one: the one who smells 'bad' because she hasn't bathed in days; the one who carries her home on her body; the one who begs. Surely you've seen that 'unholy' face. I've seen you suddenly look away, making sure not to make eye contact with the 'unclean.' Perhaps you're preoccupied with texting, consumed by work or a family matter. Then again, perhaps it's prayer time and you need to face east, or perhaps you're too focused on holy communion as you make your way to church. Your refusal to stop, to linger to look into her eyes, has already does its damage. Your body has already left a mark in the absence, in its fleeing the scene.

"My hands are also dirty. I'm guilty of missing the opportunity to recognize something of the divine in the face of the Other on the street. I'm pretty sure I looked away when I caught a glimpse of a homeless man approaching the other day. How different is this from those who walked by the beaten and the abandoned man in the parable of the good Samaritan? I failed to see the homeless man as a neighbor.

"When we turn away like this we behave as if our bodies had boundaries, as if our skin truly separated us from the Other. But what if, as I would argue, our bodies don't have strict edges? What if we could develop a new way of seeing the body that reveals that we are always already touching, that we are inextricably linked to a larger institutional and social body that binds us all?

"In meditating on these questions, I have found that the prophetic voice of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), a Polish-born Jewish-American rabbi and activist, can help us toward an answer. Heschel, who studied in Germany with Martin Buber, and later became a close friend of Marin Luther King, Jr., warned frequently of the dangers of theological and religious shallowness, of our tendency to 'worry more about the purity of dogma than about the integrity of love.'

"Heschel cautions against 'an outward compliance with ritual laws, strict observance mingled with dishonesty, the pedantic performance of rituals as a form of opportunism.' And while there are many who worship in churches, synagogues and mosques, who understand that religious truth must be lived, who make a point of looking into the eyes of the woman on the street and shows her mercy, too many of us refuse to look, to stop.

"As the religious scholar Elisabeth T. Vasko writes, 'to be human is to be a person in relation.' And it is this social and existential relationality that ties you to, and implicates you in, the life of that destitute woman. Heschel writes, 'How dare we come before God with our prayers when we commit atrocities against the one image we have of the divine: human beings?' If there is a shred of life left in your God, full resuscitation might begin with remaining in the presence of that suffering face. If your God is dead, the possibility for a resurrection might be found in attending to the pain and sorrow of that image of the divine there on the street.

..."Indeed, King wrote in his letter from the Birmingham jail, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' Heschel suggests that we should be mortified for the inadequacy and superficiality of our anguish when we witness the suffering of others, the sort of anguish that should make us weep until our eyes are red and swollen and bring sleepless nights and agonizing days. He writes, 'We are a generation that has lost the capacity for outrage.'

"I have been troubled by the lack of religious and theological outrage against national and global poverty, white racism and supremacism, sexism, classicism, homophobia, bullying, building walls, 'alternative facts,' visa/immigration bans and xenophobia. Heschel reminds us that when we establish a way of life predicated upon a lie, 'the world can turn into a nightmare.' He makes it clear that the Holocaust did not emerge suddenly. 'it was in the making for several generations. It had its origin in a lie: that the Jew was responsible for all social ills, for all personal frustrations. Decimate the Jews and all problems would be solved.'

"Those signs are here, too. Jewish people I've met, whose parents escaped Hitler's tyranny, have shared with me their parents' sense of deep alarm under the Trump administration. 'Make America Great Again' is a call for law and order buttressed by a white nativist ideology. The lie upon which the Holocaust began is still with us.

"Anti-Semitism is on the rise. So is the belief that Black pathology is eroding America from within. Black people are told that we live in poverty. That our schools are no good. And we have no jobs. In addition, if we just build a wall, so this divisive logic goes, more of our problems will dissipate. After all, it is Mexicans, we are told, who are bringing drugs, crime and rapists.

"'Any god who is mine and not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol,' Heschel writes. Think of segregated white churches during Jim Crow, or the many churches today, in our 'post-racial' moment, that continue to be de facto segregated every Sunday morning. Think, too, of the blood that has been spilled in the name of the God we claim as our own. You have all heard the underpinnings of this idolatry: 'God Bless America,' which I see as the words of a bankrupt neoliberal theology. In fact, there is something profane in that statement, which worships and calls upon a God that blesses America only.

"If there are any blessings to be had, the request, surely, mustn't be partisan. At least in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, it is believed that human beings were created in the image of God. Not just the faithful of these religions, but all humans: Syrian refugees, whom our current administration have deemed threats, were created in the image of God. Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, members of the Ku Klux Klan and Bashar al-Assad all were created in the image of God. So even as we as God to bless America, surely we must ask God to bless those whom we have deemed threats or enemies. Our blessings must be scattered across the entire world, inclusive of all humanity.

"Recently, Trump speaking at Liberty University, said t a graduating class of future evangelical leaders, 'In America, we don't worship government, we worship God.' The students applauded and cheered. If what Trump said was true, then why didn't the students turn their backs to him, to protest the contradiction between the poisonous effects of his white nativism, extreme divisiveness and his 'theology'? Unless, of course, Liberty University's God is clad in a profane theological whiteness.

"When they were applauding Trump, the students were not applauding a prophetic visionary but someone with a dangerous Pharaonic mentality, one who is intemperate, self-indulgent, power hungry, unpredictable and narcissistic. Remember that the applause was for someone who refuses to take the nuclear option off the table, who said that global warming was a hoax and has not pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, who said of ISIS that he would 'bomb the shit out of 'em.'

"The graduating students at Liberty University should have been told, as Heschel wrote, that 'the age of moral mediocrity and complacency has run out. This is a time for radical commitment, for radical action.'

"Heschel, in a speech on religion and race, reminded us of the persistence of autocratic power when he stated that 'Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began but it is far from having been completed.' That exodus, originating with Moses and the emancipation of the Jews, as Heschel suggests, is eternal, and signifies the march toward not just an outward physical emancipation but a spiritual one--one that demands fierce self-reflection. I take it that for Heschel, all of the oppressed of the world are in need of an exodus. In another work Heschel later wrote, 'One's integrity must constantly be examined.' Bob Marley, in his song 'Exodus,' says, 'Open your eyes and look with in. Are you satisfied with the life you're living?' Some voices refuse to let us rest. King had such a voice, and so did Socrates.

"And what have we seen? I am pretty sure that no contemporary Christians have seen God, no contemporary religious Jews have seen Yahweh and no contemporary Muslims have seen Allah--certainly not face to face. Yet all of us have seen the aftermath of murdered children from war torn countries, their fragile bodies covered with blood. I am haunted by the little body of a 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi who lay dead and face down in 2015 on a Turkish beach after his family fled violence in Syria. I continue to be haunted by the murder of an unarmed Trayvon Martin in 2012. Hundreds of thousands of children around the world are suffering. We all have known about the cruel and despicable violence towards transgender individuals. We know about the magnitude of human trafficking, the magnitude of poverty, and the sickness of hatred.

"Vasco writes, 'Trough lamentation, voice is given to pain.' Yet our lamenting, our mourning for those who suffer, is far too short-lived. And our charity to those who wail in the night only temporarily eases their pain. According to Heschel, 'one may be decent and sinister, pious and sinful.' We easily forget the weight of human suffering, the agony. Heschel asks, 'If all agony were kept alive in memory, if all turmoil were told, who could endure tranquillity?' Heschel and Vasco help to remind us that we ought to be suspicious of our tranquillity.

"In fact, I would ask, what if that tranquillity, that peace of mind, rests on the rotting corpses beneath our feet? What if as we pray and rejoice in our churches, synagogues and mosques, we are throwing handfuls of dirt on God's casket? After all, prayer and rejoicing can also function as forms of narcissism, as ways to drown out the screams of the poor, the oppressed. In a story shared by Heschel's daughter, Susannah, she writes that he found praying during the Vietnam War impossible, but necessary to demonstrate. 'Whenever I open my prayer book,' he told a journalist, 'I see before me the images of children burning from napalm.'

"Heschel writes, 'The prophet's word is a scream in the night.' I wait to be awakened by that scream. I have not yet heard it. It is that scream, that deep existential lament, that will awaken us to the way we are guilty of claiming to 'love God' while forgetting the poor, refusing the refugee, building walls, banning the stranger, and praying and worshiping in insular and segregated 'sacred' spaces filled with racism, sexism, patriarchy, xenophobia, homophobia and indifference.

"We have failed to deepen our collective responsibility. Some of us will never do so. What would the world look like if believers from every major religion in every country, state, city and village, shut down the entire world for just a day? What would America look like, on that day, if we who call ourselves believers, decide to weep together, hold hands together, commit together to eradicate injustice? We might then permanently unlock our sacred doors, take a real step beyond our sanctimoniousness, and see one another face to face.

"I await the day, perhaps soon, when those who believe in the 'God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob' will lock arms and march on Washington, refusing yo live any longer under the weight of so much inhumanity. Perhaps it is time for a collective demonstration of the faithful to delay going to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, to leave the pews in churches and pray one fewer time a day. None of us is innocent. 'Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people,' Heschel reminds us. 'Few are guilty, but all are responsible.'

"In 1968, in conversation with King, Heschel asked, 'Where does God dwell in America today?' I ask myself this question today. But I do not find the answer. Heschel also asks, 'Where does moral religious leadership in American come from today?' I look, but I have not seen it. Perhaps, like Diogenes the Cynic, you'll find me carrying a lamp in the daytime. But instead of looking for an honest man, I will be looking through the catacombs of your own making, asking, 'Is your God dead?'

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Perhaps Everyone Really Is a Little Bit Jewish??!!

Many years ago a French novel titled simply "The Jews" claimed that everyone has Jewish ancestry. It satirically claimed there were Kennedy Jews and Johnson Jews. You just had to go far enough back. I thought of this when I read on a JTA News Alert about the Jewish "connection" of Otto Wambier, the young man returned home from North Korea in a coma.

It's a particularly tragic and sad story. We hope and pray for the remote possibility of a full recovery.



"Otto Wambier, American Student Released from North Korea Was Active in Hillel"


"Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student imprisoned by North Korea who remains in a coma since his release this week, was active at the campus Hillel and cared deeply about the Jewish community, it's rabbi recalls.

"Warmbier, 22, a Cincinnati native, was traveling on a student tour of North Korea last year when he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for stealing a propaganda poster.

"After international outrage and over a year of imprisonment, North Korea released him this week, saying his health had deteriorated severely. Warmbier''s doctors say he is unresponsive and has suffered extensive brain damage.

"Rabbi Jake Rubin, the University of Virginia''s Hillel director, told JTA in an email that it was another overseas trip that sealed Warmbier''s connection to the Jewish community.

"A 2014 Birthright mission to Israel, where Warmbier received a Hebrew name during a hike to Massada, left a strong impression on the young man. Following the trip he became involved with the Jewish community on campus.

"Birthright offers free trips to individuals who identify as Jewish, have at least one Jewish birth parent or have completed Jewish conversion. Rubin did not answer a question about Warmbier''s Jewish background.

"The rabbi described Warmbier as 'a beloved member of our Hillel community.'

"'He was a regular at Bagels on Lawn, celebrated Shabbat and holidays at Hillel, and even led a seder for other students that focused on issues of environmentalism and sustainability,' Rubin wrote.

"During that seder, Warmbier and another student used the Passover ritual as a way to introduce issues related to climate change.

"'What are the ten plagues of climate change? How can washing our hands remind us of the importance of water conservation? Throughout the seder we asked participants to reflect on how the story of the Exodus and the seder traditions relate to environmental challenges,' Lia Cattaneo, who led the seder with Warmbier, wrote in a 2015 blog on the Hillel website.

"Rubin recalled the joy that infused Warmbier''s day to day life.

"'In the simplest interactions Otto always found something of interest and would make you smile,' he wrote. 'At every stop on Birthright he would try some kind of new food, strike up a conversation with someone new, or find some unique thing to bargain for. He loved life and it was infectious.'

"Beyond Hillel, Warmbier was a leader on the University of Virginia campus, Rubin said. Warmbier served on the student council''s sustainability committee and spoke with a Tel Aviv councilman, Etai Pikas, about environmentalism in Israel.

"'The opportunity to hear from a man voted one of Israel''s 100 Most Influential People on his work and passion was truly remarkable,' Warmbier wrote of the meeting for Hillel published in 2015.

"Rubin described Warmbier as a person who 'was always full of life, intellectually curious, and cared deeply for his friends and community.'

"'He was always interested in learning more about the world and the people around him. He put everyone at ease with his humor and genuine interest in others,' the rabbi added. 'Otto was a leader at UVA and we are fortunate that he is a member of our community.'



Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Controversial Tiny Opening to Homosexuals in Sephardi Orthodox Community

The transformation in attitudes toward homosexuality in general society is nothing short of miraculous. And in many ways the Jewish community has been in the forefront of welcoming this change. It has not occurred without significant resistance however. When the Rabbinical Assembly published its Teshuvah some dozen years ago, I established opportunities for text study and we engaged in serious conversation. Today we take this acceptance largely for granted. I have officiated at my share of same sex weddings and openly gay couples participate fully in our congregation. Several have children in our religious school.

Some headway has even been made in parts of the Orthodox community. The powerful film "Trembling before God" focuses on the pain of rejection of young gay Orthodox Jews and the challenge this presents to some of the most sensitive Orthodox rabbis. Rabbi Steven Greenberg, graduate of the rabbinical program at Yeshivah University, published a self-revelatory book, exploring traditional sources alluding to homosexuality throughout history, titled "Wrestling with God and with Man". It's an exceptional read.

But the following, published recently in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, demonstrates how even the smallest opening to gay men is condemned by virtually all authorities. Those who may be sympathetic are cowed into silence. Here's the story of a courageous exception, even if his opening is a tiny light in the tunnel.



The article "London Rabbi Preaches Inclusivity Toward Gay People and Sets Off an Uproar" written by Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt



"In a packed auditorium in the Ner Israel synagogue in Hendon, northwest of London, a young, polished Rabbi Joseph Dweck stood up. His usual eloquence gave way to a long introduction, betraying a certain trepidation.

"He knew he was wading in dangerous waters. 'This is not an easy shiur to give,' he began, referring to the sermon.

"'Chances are, I will upset everybody in this room tonight. I am going to say something that will strike an uncomfortable chord. I knew that would be the reality when I decided to give this lecture, and I decided to do it anyway. Nobody is talking about it,' he said.

"'In the Orthodox world, very few people are talking about it. I don't claim to have all the answers...I may say things you may be quite upset at me for saying. All of that risk I am taking tonight, and I am being extremely vulnerable in front of you, in the recording, and whoever else is going to hear me. And I am sure that people will hear this lecture.'

A brief pause.

"'I have spent time, years and years, thinking about this issue, researching this. Our sexuality is the foundation of our identity' it is so powerful a force within us that we are afraid of it. I say this with trepidation, because we are dealing with serious stuff.'

"The next hour was devoted to exploring the ancient history of homosexuality and the relevant Torah and Talmudic texts. Dweck probably had no idea what a backlash his lecture would unfurl.

"The senior rabbi of London's S&P Sephardi Community, Dweck received his rabbinic ordination from Ovadia Yosef, an Israeli Sephardi chief rabbi who died in 2013. And Dweck is married to Margalit, the granddaughter of Rabbi Yosef.

"'He is dedicated first and foremost to Torah, and his teachings are always in line with traditional Sephardi halakha,'
one community member said, referring to Jewish law. 'A man of integrity, he is always looking to learn from others and the world round him.'

"Dweck's lecture emphasized that homosexual acts themselves are forbidden by Torah--and that this won't change. But it questioned society attitudes toward gay community members, condemning those who question whether to allow openly gay men to receive usual Torah honors.

"'Should we put them (gay people) up to the Torah? What kind of a stupid question? You know how many people we should not put up to the Torah if we start that kind of scrutiny? You won't be able to fill a minyan, you won't be able to fill the synagogue, you won't be able to read the Torah if that's the kind of scrutiny you'll start making,' he said.

"'Should we start asking whose wife goes to mikvah? When and how? And what their sexual history is? Should we start doing a witch hunt like that? There are plenty of skeletons in everybody's closet. Let's not sit on a high horse,' he added his voice rising.

"'The entire revolution of feminism and homosexuality in our society is a fantastic development for humanity. The world is moving towards love. And if you're not on the bandwagon, well then fine, you can stay back.'

..."In the past two weeks since the lecture hit YouTube, Dweck has been condemned by numerous leaders in the Haredi, or--from the hard line ultra-Orthodox, Sephardi community---from the hard line Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi, taking to his YouTube pulpit, to Rabbi Aharon Bassous of London's Golders Green community requesting that the London rabbinical court investigate Dweck. The controversy went all the way up to Israel's Chief Rabbinate.

"Rabbi Eli Monsour, a popular Syrian rabbi in Brooklyn, encouraged Israel's Sephardi chief rabbi, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, to involve himself in Brooklyn politics and write a letter against Dweck.

"Dweck, affiliated with the Sepharic Community Alliance, was set to spend the summer lecturing in Deal, New Jersey--but that is now up in the air, with Monsour trying to block it 'Dweck is his own thinker, he is tremendously popular, and he draws hundreds to his classes,' One community member said. 'The right sees him as a threat.'

"Under pressure from Monsour, Yosef the chief Sephardi rabbi denounced the general issue of homosexuality, as 'nonsense and heresy that were uttered in opposition to the foundations of our faith in the holy Torah.

"Yet his brother, Rabbi David Yosef of Har Nof in Jerusalem, a frequent fundraiser in Monsour's community, felt the chief
rabbi's letter wasn't harsh enough. So, he took to his pen too, writing in Hebrew: 'Do whatever you can to prevent him from entering your holy camp, and without question he cannot be allowed to serve in any communal capacity'.

"Some rabbis have stood up to defend Dweck from the onslaught. 'If a mistake does appear in a rabbi's words, one must find the appropriate way to react, in the way of peace,not in the way of a burning strong fire, even if it is well-intentioned', wrote Rabbi Sammy Kassin of the Shehebar Sephardic Center.

"But most leaders, community members say, have been deafeningly silent, too afraid to comment.

..."'No surprise about the tempest this maverick 'rabbi' has stirred up,' one Syrian community member posted on Facebook. 'Just this summation of his positions leaves me shaking my head in disgust. He has zero respect for other rabbis and holds his personal opinions and interpretations as a way out for the homosexual community. Let him find a reform or conservative congregation that will lap his views up. He has no place in an Orthodox rabbinical setting.'

..."The infighting surges in matters of gender, too. In one Brooklyn synagogue this past Simchat Torah women were permitted to have their own hakafot (dancing--albeit without Torah scrolls). It caused a scandal in the community.

"'The black hats were infuriated', one woman present said. 'We come from Middle Eastern values-women just don't get involved in ritualistic practices.'"



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Friday, June 9, 2017

Is the Exodus Story the Unifying American Story?

I often have the opportunity to be a guest lecturer in university World Religion classes. My role as a Jewish leader/authority is to provide insight into Jewish thought, practices and values to young people who have no other experience. Each time I devote several minutes to introduce the concept of a Master Story.

Every nationality, every religion, every organization has a distinctive master story, usually an origin narrative that contains several of the central motivating values of the group. The Christian master story is centered on the life of Jesus, with particular emphasis on Jesus's death and resurrection. Some might see the American master story as a people who fought for independence against tyranny. From this origin emerges an uniquely American skepticism on governmental power. Others might claim the American master story to be that other than native Americans, we are all immigrants from some place else leading to a powerful value that no religion, race or nationality can claim it is authentically American to the exclusion of everyone else.

I then claim that the Jewish master story is that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. God heard our cry and with the assistance of Moses led the slaves to freedom. God brought them to Mt. Sinai where they received a revelation and continued on to the Promised Land wandering for 40 years through the desert. Thus liberation from oppression is central to an understanding of a Jewish Weltanshauung, a powerful Jewish world view.

Shortly before Passover New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks bemoaned that as Americans we have lost our moorings, i.e. became disconnected from our master story. What is the American story according to Brooks? He claims that it is the same Exodus Story. We spent some time at our Passover Seder this year considering Brooks' assertion. For the most part we rejected this notion.

P.S. Underlying Brooks' recent Op-Ed pieces is his personal struggle as a dedicated conservative whose Republican party and conservative leaders have abandoned his view of direction. The election of Donald Trump goes against everything Brooks stands for.

Brooks has returned to the Exodus narrative in columns on April 3 and May 26,




"The Unifying American Story" by David Brooks, published in the New York Times, March 21, 2017


"One of the things we've lost in this country is our story. It is the narrative that unites us around a common multigenerational project, that gives an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to our history.

"For most of the past 400 years, Americans did have an overarching story. It was the Exodus story. The Puritans came to this continent and felt they were escaping the bondage of their Egypt and building a new Jerusalem.

"The Exodus story has six acts: first, a life of slavery and oppression, then the revolt against tyranny, then the difficult flight through the howling wilderness, then the infighting and misbehavior amid the stresses of that ordeal, then the handing down of a new covenant, a new law, and then finally the arrival into a new promised land and the project of building a new Jerusalem.

"The Puritans could survive hardship because they knew what kind of cosmic drama they were involved in. Being a chosen people with a sacred mission didn't make them arrogant, it gave their task dignity and consequence. It made them self-critical. When John Winthrop used the phrase 'city upon a hill' he didn't mean it as self-congratulation. He meant that the whole world was watching and by their selfishness and failings the colonists were screwing it up.

"As Philip Gorski writes in his new book, 'American Covenant,' which is essential reading for this moment, the Puritans understood they were part of one covenant and had ferocious debates about what the covenant meant.

"During the revolution, the founding fathers had that fierce urgency too and drew just as heavily on the Exodus story. Some wanted to depict Moses on the Great Seal of the United States. Like Moses, America too was rebinding itself with a new covenant and a new law.

"Frederick Douglass embraced the Exodus too. African-Americans, he pointed out, have been part of this journey too. 'We came when it was a wilderness...We leveled your forests; our hands removed the stumps from the field...We have been with you...in adversity, and by the help of God will be with you in prosperity.'

"The successive immigrant groups saw themselves performing an exodus to a promised land. The waves of mobility--from east to west, from south to north--were also seen as Exodus journeys. These people could endure every hardship because they were serving in a spiritual drama and not just a financial one.

"In the 20th century, Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders drew on Exodus more than any other source. Our 20th century presidents, made the story global. American would lead a global exodus toward democracy--God was a God of all peoples. Reinhold Niebuhr applied Puritan thinking to America's mission and warned of the tint of national pride.

"The Exodus story has many virtues as an organizing national myth. It welcomes in each new group and gives it a template for how it fits into the common move from oppression to dignity. The Book of Exodus is full of social justice--care for the vulnerable, the equality of all souls. It emphasizes that the moral and material journeys are intertwined and that for a nation to succeed materially, there has to be an invisible moral constitution and a fervent effort toward character education.

"It suggests that history is in the shape of an upward spiral. People who see their lives defined by Exodus move, innovate and organize their lives around a common eschatological destiny.

..."The Exodus narrative has pretty much been dropped from our civic culture. Schools cast off the Puritans as a bunch of religious fundamentalists. Gorski shows how a social-science, technocratic mind-set has triumphed, treating politics as just a competition of self-interested utilitarians.

"Today students get steeped in American tales of genocide, slavery, oppression and segregation. American history is taught less as a progressively realized grand narrative and more as a series of power conflicts between oppressor and oppressed.

"The academic left pushed this reinterpretation, but as usual the extreme right ended up claiming the spoils. The people Gorski calls radical secularists expunged Biblical categories and patriotic celebrations from schools. The voters revolted and elected the people Gorski calls the religious nationalists to the White House--the jingoistic chauvinists who measure Americanness by blood and want to create a Fortress America keeping the enemy out.

"We have a lot of crises in this country, but maybe the foundational one is the Telos Crisis, a crisis of purpose. Many people don't know what this country is here for, and what we are here for. If you don't know what your goal is, then every setback sends you into cynicism and selfishness.

"It should be possible to revive the Exodus template, to see Americans as a single people trekking through a landscape of broken institutions. What's needed is an act of imagination, somebody who can tell us what our goal is, and offer an ideal vision of what the country and the world should be."