Friday, July 31, 2015

The Torah Drug (thoughts after violence at Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade and arson/murder in Nablus)

How do we make sense of two terrible acts of violence in Israel yesterday, perpetrated by murderous Jewish extremists in Jerusalem and Nablus?

The Talmud interprets a verse from this week's Torah portion of Va'ethanan - a well-known verse that is recited every time the torah is lifted: 'Ve-zot ha-torah asher sam moshe lifnei b'nei yisrael.'
אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי מאי דכתיב (דברים ד, מד) וזאת התורה אשר שם משה זכה נעשית לו סם חיים לא זכה נעשית לו סם מיתה (יומא דף עב עמוד ב)
"Rabbi Joshua ben Levi taught: what is the meaning of the verse, 'This is the Torah that Moses placed [before the people of Israel]'?
[The Hebrew word 'sam,' meaning 'placed,' can also mean 'drug.'] For one who has merit, the Torah becomes a drug that sustains life. For one who does not have merit, the Torah becomes a drug that brings death.' (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Yoma 72b)
The rabbis knew that a powerful drug can bring healing when used as directed, but that same drug can wreak terrible havoc on someone's life and even kill when used irresponsibly. The Torah is such a powerful drug. The same Torah that most of us try to use as a positive force in the world is wielded by others as an instrument of violence, repression, and even murder. (And such is true about the teachings of many other religions, that sustain life or hasten death depending on who is wielding them.) For those of us who love the Torah, it is painful to be reminded that the Torah has such a value-neutral quality. But when we forget that the Torah can be used to promote evil, we cease to be appropriately vigilant against the evildoers in our midst.
Today we pray for healing and comfort for innocents injured and bereaved by Jews using the Torah as a dangerous drug of death, in Jerusalem and Nablus. And we unite with what we pray is the overwhelming majority of Jews in committing ourselves to the use of the Torah only as a substance that promotes life, health and peace.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

thoughts on the Iran nuclear agreement

My letter to members of my congregation regarding the Iran deal:

Dear friends,

Maybe like many of you, I have spent the last week consumed by news of the Iran nuclear deal.  It is an issue about which I have many passionate feelings, for many reasons including my strong commitment to Israel, my hope that my children and grandchildren will inherit a safer world, and my Jewishly-reinforced desire to promote values of peace and justice in the world.

What follows is adapted from my comments to the congregation from this past shabbat. As usual, I expect that whatever your perspective, you will find something in what I have written with which you will disagree -- and you will also find something with which you will agree.

I have no special expertise in global affairs or the science and politics of nuclear arms negotiations.  If I can claim any special expertise that has bearing on this global situation, it is in the variety of distinctive ways that Jews approach the world.

Israelis and Americans sometimes don’t see eye to eye, to put it mildly.  Some of the reasons for this phenomenon are observable in my own family.  I grew up in the United States, and I have cousins who grew up in Israel.  And who grew up where was largely the result of some decisions that were made in the lifetime of my great-grandparents in Eastern Europe a little over one hundred years ago.  Some family members came to the United States; some family members went to Palestine,  the land of Israel, to pursue the dream of rebuilding the Jewish homeland there.  Some family members stayed in Eastern Europe.  Of those who stayed, most were murdered.  And of those who survived, most ended up as refugees and went to the new State of Israel which was one of the only places to take them in.  So when I contemplate what the world looks like through eyes of Israelis, I know that the roles very easily could have been reversed.  It could have been my great-grandfather who had gone to Palestine instead of New York.  Or it could have been my great-grandmother who stayed in Ukraine, who had a child who survived the war and then made it to Israel.   All families’ stories are different, but my family’s stories are quite similar to the stories of most American Jews of Eastern European origin. Seeing the world through the eyes of Israelis is not only something I do out of ideological and historical commitment. It’s something I do out of an understanding that we are, in a very literal sense, part of the same family.

Clearly, the world looks different when you look at it from Israel’s perspective.  The civil war in Syria, perhaps the bloodiest war in the world at the moment, is  right over the hills.  Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon are right across the border. The radical and authoritarian Hamas stronghold in Gaza is just a few miles away. ISIS, the most bloodthirstily terrifying fighting force of the moment, controls territory that is as close to Israel as New York is to Philadelphia. And other even larger threatening powers are not far away, like Iran.  When a Middle East issue comes up, it might feel different when it’s discussed in Washington and when it’s discussed in Jerusalem.  Understanding this may help us to see not only why people who are passionately connected to Israel might be more likely to hold particular views on the Iran deal, but also to see why the deal may have a particular emotional resonance for people who are passionately connected to Israel.

In my comments on Shabbat, I gave a quick summary of what appear to be the best arguments in favor of and against the deal.  Rather than reproduce those here, I encourage you to read, especially if you feel you have not encountered a serious presentation of the range of perspectives about this deal.  This Atlantic debate between Peter Beinart (on the left), David Frum (on the right), and Jeffrey Goldberg (in the center) is a respectful presentation of some of the best arguments in favor of the deal and against it, and a model of how to conduct a discussion on a contentious topic.  I am posting additional links to thoughtful comments on this issue on my Facebook page.

Some are regarding this deal as President Obama’s very greatest foreign policy triumph, and some understand it as a tragic mistake - even as the biggest disaster in American diplomacy.  One commentator even suggested it will be regarded as the biggest disaster in world diplomacy.  My own understanding of this deal is a more nuanced perspective. I had the opportunity to be on a conference call for rabbis last week with Robert Satloff, the Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an authority on Middle East Affairs.  While he  expressed some strong reservations about elements of the deal, he also implored us to have serious conversations about it in our communities.  This deal includes benefits, which are significant, as well as costs and risks, which are also significant.  A serious investigation involves weighing these benefits against the costs and risks.  The non-serious investigations either focus entirely on the benefits, or entirely on the costs and risks, depending on the prior position of the speaker.  According to Satloff, it is not a slam dunk either way.  (Satloff wrote an op-ed in the New York Post that was titled “What’s wrong with the Iran nuclear deal,” but it includes the line, “Perhaps, even with all these problems, the deal will achieve what the Obama administration promised it would achieve — to block Iran’s multiple pathways to the bomb for at least the next decade. And perhaps achieving that goal is worth the many sacrifices and concessions Washington made along the way.”)

It does appear to me, though, that there are some matters of consensus among both serious supporters and serious opponents of the deal.

It appears to me that even supporters of the agreement concede that this deal absolutely would make life in Israel much more difficult in the short term.  The agreement says nothing about Iran’s sponsorship of terrorist organizations.  Once Iran’s assets are unfrozen, it should not be surprising if Iran uses some of these funds to which it newly has access - over $100 billion - to further support terrorist organizations.  Eventually, when conventional weapons sale bans are lifted in about five years, it should not be surprising if Iran would purchase more advanced weapons to give to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.  This is why the entirety of the Israeli political spectrum has spoken out against this deal, and why opposition leader Isaac Herzog of Israel’s left-of-center Labor Party is coming to the United States to speak with lawmakers about his concerns about the deal.  At the risk of stating the obvious, please note that Iran's belligerence towards Israel is not a result of policy disagreements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The current government of Iran simply does not believe that there should be Jewish dominion over any piece of real estate anywhere in the Middle East.  There is NO policy about the Palestinians that Israel could pursue that would be acceptable to the current Iranian government.  And living with a strengthened Hamas and Hizbollah on your doorstep is truly very difficult.  Those who give full-throated support to this agreement, I think, have to come to terms with this likely result for Israel.  

It also appears to me that both serious supporters and opponents of the deal agree that the question “what is the alternative?” is a question that needs to be confronted.  Especially at this stage, the question remains: what is the most likely next step if the deal were to be voted down?  What would happen next?  Many of those scenarios may actually be more scary than the scenarios with the deal in place.  Without an agreement, Iran was just a couple of months away from having a bomb.  There are indications that the international sanctions regime was likely to collapse anyway.   Even the most optimistic estimates of the effect of American or Israeli military responses are that they would set back Iran’s nuclear program by only a few years.  The burden is on those who would oppose this agreement to lay out a scenario - not in the ideal world, and not in a hypothetical alternative history, but in the actual world - that would make the world safer.

The Talmud instructs, 'Teach your tongue to say the words, 'I don't know.' " (Berakhot 4a).  This doesn't mean that we should say "I don't know" all the time, but it does mean that we should develop a realistic understanding of what we know and what we could not possibly know.   A third matter of consensus is that there are plenty of people seeking to exploit this situation for political aims -- whether in support of the agreement or against it, whether in the United States or in Israel or elsewhere in the world.  (Of course, this is true about everything that happens in the political sphere, but the more passionately that we feel about an issue, the less we may realize it is happening.)  Was this the best of all possible deals?  Would a different foreign policy strategy have yielded a significantly better result?  Would different negotiators have achieved better results? It's fine to theorize, but clearly there is no one who can know the answers to these questions conclusively.  And some of those who claim that the answers are obvious -- whether they are coming from the right or the left -- are exploiting the situation, rather than contributing seriously to the conversation.

Making the world safer is both a matter of prudent self-interest and one of the most important imperatives of Jewish values.  Protecting the world and the Middle East from Iran is key to creating a safer world, as well as a safer future for the Jewish people.  May we make wise decisions to promote the safety of our people and our world.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Seder Trivia Game - 2015/5775 edition

At our synagogue's congregational seders for the last few years, we have played the following game:  I have collected unusual Pesach stories, and shared three such stories with the community:  two true stories, and one fictional story.  Participants then have to guess which two stories are true and which one is false.   (If you listen to Wait, wait, don't tell me, you get the idea, except that only one story is false.)

You can find previous years' stories here, here, here and here.

The stories from our 2014/5774 seder are below.  Three unusual Pesach stories..... 2 are true, and one is fictional.  Can you figure out which story is not true?   (The answer is at the bottom.)

One of the most notorious Jewish gangsters was Meyer Lansky.  Born in Russia in 1903, Lansky immigrated to New York as a boy and had become a crime boss by the time he was a teenager - engaging in bootlegging, gambling, theft and extortion, and the occasional murder.  Lansky was portrayed by Ben Kingsley in the 1991 film Bugsy, and he was the inspiration for the character of Hyman Roth in the film The Godfather Part II.

The biographer Robert Lacey interviewed Lansky’s cousin, Izzy Lansky, to gain some insights into Lansky’s Lower East Side childhood and when his criminal tendencies first surfaced.  Izzy said, “Actually, my first memory of my cousin was an incident of extortion, that happened at a Passover seder when I was about seven years old.  Meyer had found the afikoman, and everyone knew that the going rate for an afikoman in those days was about 25 cents.   But when my uncle went to hand him a quarter, Meyer threatened to smash the afikoman unless he got a full dollar - and a dollar he got.  I never saw anything like it before.”

That’s a nice afikoman you got there.  It would be a shame if anything ….happened to it.

Last March, a prominent Egyptian journalist and columnist wrote that Egypt should file suit against Israel - for damage suffered during the Ten Plagues.

Ahmad Al Gamal, writing in the Egyptian newspaper Al Masri Al Yawm, wrote: “We want compensation for the Ten Plagues that were inflicted upon us as a result of the curses that the Jews' ancient forefathers cast upon our ancient forefathers, who did not deserve to pay for the mistake that Egypt's ruler at the time, Pharaoh as the Torah calls him, committed.” was Pharaoh who oppressed the Children of Israel, rather than the Egyptian people,” Al Gamal stresses.

Al Gamal added, “We want compensation for the gold, silver, copper, precious stones, fabrics, hides and lumber, and for all animal meat, hair, hides and wool….All these are materials that the Jews used in their rituals. These are resources that cannot be found among desert wanderers unless they took them before their departure.”

Interestingly enough, Ahmad Al Gamal was not the first contemporary Egyptian to demand compensation from the Jewish people for Exodus-related expenses.   In 2003, the newspaper Al Ahram Al Arabi reported that Dr. Nabil Hilmi, Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Al Zaqaziq, attempted to prepare a lawsuit against Israel and world Jewry for the jewels that the ancient Israelites took with them during their exodus out of Egypt.

What’s also amazing is that the Talmud includes a story remarkably similar to this.  The Jews’ response was to countersue the Egyptians for back wages for 600,000 people over the course of 400 years of slavery - plus accumulated interest.  I think the case will be dismissed.

Every year the number of products that you can find that are certified kosher for Passover keeps on increasing.  Wasabi.  Panko crumbs. Habanero pepper sauce.
But one of the newest kosher for passover items, spotted at the Saks Fifth Avenue in Paramus NJ, is - Kosher for Passover men’s suits.
The store has a rack that is labeled ‘Kosher for Passover’ - and on the rack are Italian and French suits that cost upwards of $1000, each one of which is marked “Kosher for Passover.”

Why? - theories abound, and people who work in the store didn’t necessarily know.  Cereal fibers in the lining?  Oatmeal rinses to keep the wool looking young and vibrant?
It appears that the real answer is that first of all, these suits do not violate the laws against mixtures of wool and linen; and second, the pockets have already been checked to ensure they have no hametz (leavened products) in them so the new buyer can buy the suit and wear it on Pesach without worrying about checking the pockets for Hametz.

Then again, even if the suits were edible, they probably would not taste much worse than Shmurah Matzah.  And pound for pound, they’re probably cheaper than Shmurah Matzah.


(ANSWER: B and C are true. (For B, see, though the original piece may have been intended as satire. RE C, I saw it myself.) A is false.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Thoughts about Paris, violence, heroism, and peace

Many of us continue to be troubled and inspired by events in Paris this past week:  troubled by terrible acts of murder and violence, and inspired by great acts of kindness and self-sacrifice.

I wanted to share some of the thoughts that I shared with the community last shabbat, together with some more thoughts as the situation continues to unfold.

Paris may be far away from Hoboken, but this is an event that affects many people in our congregational family directly.This week I have spoken with many members of our community who are from Paris, or who have relatives in Paris, including many who have shopped at the Hyper Cacher supermarket and/or participated in the solidarity march on Sunday.  The terrible events in Paris this week could very easily have affected someone with close ties to our congregation.
The Charlie Hebdo murders were not random. The perpetrators were Muslim extremists who attacked those who were asserting their right to free speech, equal-opportunity lampooners who made fun of Christianity and Judaism and every other religion and ideology just as fiercely as they made fun of Islam.  And similarly, the kosher supermarket murders were also not random.  That same strain of Muslim extremism that cannot countenance anything they see as an attack on their religion is also viciously and murderously anti-Jewish. That anti-Jewish sentiment is not about Israel; it is about Jews.  This was one of numerous terrorist attacks against Jews in France this year; it has simply attracted more attention than the other incidents because of its connection to the murder of public figures.  We should be alarmed, but not at all surprised, that extremists make connections between Jews and everything they dislike about their society.  I am grateful that the French government is making it a special priority this week to step up its protection Jewish schools and communal institutions, as we pray for their safety and security.

At the beginning of the book of Exodus (Parashat Shemot), many Israelite slaves may have been inclined to assume the worst about every Egyptian, to regard each of them as an oppressor. So the Torah gives us the example of Pharaoh's daughter, and Shifra and Puah (according to those commentators who understand המילדות העבריות to mean 'midwives to the Hebrews' rather than 'Hebrew midwives'), to remind us that righteous people can be found in every people, every society and every culture, lest entire nations and peoples and groups be painted with the same brush. Were it not for 24-year-old Lassana Bathily, Muslim employee of Hypercacher market who helped more than a dozen hostages hide in the freezer on Friday, the carnage at the market would have been that much worse. He is a modern day analogue to Pharaoh's daughter and Shifra and Puah. (And because the police assumed the worst about him, he spent more than an hour in handcuffs on Friday until it was revealed that he was a life-saving hero.) I have faith that the world, and the Muslim world, have many many more Lassana Bathilys than murderous jihadists.  And it is terribly disheartening to read about random acts of violence against Muslims in France this week.  As we pray for comfort for the families of Yohan Cohen (age 22), Yoav Hattab (age 21), Philippe Braham (40s), and François-Michel Saada (age 55), who were buried yesterday in Israel, may we also pray for wisdom and discernment - to be vigilant, while also treating each person as an individual created in God's image.

This is one of those weeks when we are face to face with the world’s brokenness - seen in the murders in France, and also against the backdrop of horrific massacres of hundreds of civilians in Nigeria by Boko Haram; dozens murdered in terrorist bombings in Yemen, Pakistan, and Lebanon; ongoing violence in Syria; together with any number of tragedies in the United States and every country.  The Talmud teaches that each and every innocent life destroyed is equivalent to the destruction of the entire world (M. Sanhedrin 4:5). Building a world of peace has proven to be extraordinarily difficult in practice though it seems simple in theory.

But Jewish tradition recognizes that part of the key to peace is enabling disparate elements to coexist.  This is the meaning of the frequent refrain in our prayers:  “Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu.’  “May the One who establishes peace in the heavens, grant peace to us.”  But what peace exists “in the heavens”?  The eminent French Torah commentator Rashi remarks on these words in their original context in the Book of Job (25:2): The sky appears to us as if it were a pool of blue water, and the sun appears to us as if it were a ball of hot fire in the midst of that water.  What appear to be opposite substances do not neutralize each other or eliminate each other, but rather they co-exist.  Other religions may have visions of peace in which everyone is the same, or in which all blasphemers or enemies are neutralized.  But the Jewish vision of peace is different.  It’s a vision in which forces that appear to be opposed actually figure out how to live together.  This does NOT mean that we should capitulate to the demands of aggressors.  But it means that we should not be threatened by difference.  It means that we recognize that God’s plan for the world includes diversity within unity, and unity within diversity.  And whether we get closer to achieving such a world, or further away from it, is not only up to God:  it is up to every world leader, and it is up to every individual.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of....

Little known Hanukkah fact: In the original Yiddish version of the dreidel song, the dreidel is not made of clay, but of 'blai,' which is lead. Lead used to be the most popular material for making dreidels, before it was known how terribly toxic such dreidels would be. From an old guide to Hanukkah crafts, here are instructions for making a dreidel out of molten lead. But if you love your family, please make your dreidel out of clay or wood or plastic and not out of lead!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Thousands of years of long-lasting oil

Everyone knows the Hanukkah story about a little bit of oil lasting for eight days.  But not everyone realizes that this was not actually the first story in Jewish tradition about miraculously long-lasting oil.

Earlier this fall, we and communities around the world read a passage from the book of Kings, the Haftarah for Parashat Vayera, which is about miracles performed by the Prophet Elisha, the protege of Elijah the Prophet.

One of these stories (2 Kings 4) describes a woman who approaches Elisha and tells him:  I am in dire financial straits; my husband is dead and we are in terrible debt; our creditors now want to seize my two children as slaves.

Elisha asks her: “What do you have at home?”  She responds:  “We have nothing at all at home, except for a jar of oil.”  Elisha tells her to borrow jugs and vessels from all her neighbors and then to pour oil out of this jar that she has, into the borrowed vessels.  Miraculously, this jar of oil keeps on pouring.  It fills up all the jars that anyone has in the entire neighborhood.  She then sells the oil, pays off her creditors and is able to live in more comfortable circumstances.

There are some scholars who believe that this story was an inspiration for the story of the Miracle of the Oil that we read about on Hanukkah.  (The Hanukkah miracle of the oil is not mentioned in the Books of Maccabees or other earlier sources for the Hanukkah story; it is first mentioned in the Talmud, from several hundred years later.)

Take a moment to recall the first time you heard about the miracle of the oil on Hanukkah. Technically speaking, how did it happen?  I had always imagined that they poured whatever oil they had into the cups of the menorah, and that the flames just continued to burn.  But interestingly, the passage in the Talmud that tells us about the miracle of the oil (Shabbat 21b) does not say this explicitly.  Rather, it says: The Greeks had defiled all the oil they could find in the Temple.  After the victory of the Hasmoeans (the Maccabees), “they found only one jar of oil with the seal of the High Priest [indicating that the oil was still pure and had not been defiled], and it had only enough oil to light for one day.  Na’asah bo nes ve-hidliku mimenu shmonah yamim.  A miracle happened with it, and they lit from it for 8 days.”   This sounds like this is not the miracle of long-burning oil, but the miracle of an apparently bottomless jar of oil, similar to what we read about in the book of Kings.  It sounds like every day they took the jar and poured oil from it into the cups of the menorah, and the oil burned at normal speed, but there was just much more of it because they were able to continually pour oil out from it.

This image of a bottomless jar of oil can be a poignant symbol for us today.  A few years ago, we invited Jewish environmental leader Nigel Savage, founder of the Jewish environmental organization Hazon (, to speak at our synagogue.  He noted that it is not surprising that Jews are at the forefront of the contemporary environmental movement, because so many Jewish symbols are connected to the notion of sustainability.  God appears to Moses in the book of Exodus as a ‘bush that was not consumed’ - the ever-renewable resource.  And the miracle of Hanukkah is a miracle of oil that lasts for eight times as long as expected.  Many of us, for most of our lifetimes, have lived as if the quantity of oil in our world is unlimited, and our capacity to burn is also essentially unlimited.  But more recently, we have come to truly understand that the quantity of fossil fuel is less than we had thought - and of more immediate concern, that the capacity of the environment to bear our use of it is also less than we had thought.

We sometimes think of environmental awareness as something that emerged in the modern era, something of which our ancestors were unaware.  But there are plenty of passages in the Talmud and other early Jewish literature about the importance of conserving our resources.  For example,  a passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 67b) tells us that one who covers an oil lamp, or uncovers a naphta lamp -- in either case, causing the fuel to be burned up more quickly and being less energy-efficient - has violated the laws forbidding causeless destruction.

Sometimes scarcity is what causes us to be most creative in the use of the resources we have. It is no wonder that Israel, with relatively little fossil fuel, has become an international leader in the use of solar energy, the ultimate renewable resource.

This year, our congregation has demonstrated our commitment to environmental awareness and environmental responsibility by being part of the Greenfaith Certification Program, a program for congregations of diverse faiths that seek to express a commitment to the protection of our environment. Our congregation strives to incorporate environmental consciousness in all of our activities and decisions, from our decisions about school and office supplies, to our building maintenance and renovation decisions, to our use of energy and natural resources.  We look forward to being ever more thoughtful about our community’s environmental impact and the messages we transmit about the environment to children and adults.  And this Hanukkah, we hope to get in touch with the stories of our ancestors as we seek to get maximum use out of our every drop of precious oil.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Shammai and Hillel fight it out: How should we light the Hanukkah candles?

How was it decided that we should light one candle on the first night of Hanukkah? In this audio message, join me in going back in history to listen to the debate between the ancient rabbis Hillel and Shammai about how best to mark the Hanukkah miracle, and how best to face the challenges of the future.  Chag Urim Sameach - best wishes for a happy Hanukkah holiday!