Thursday, August 17, 2017

Confederate Idols

In Deuteronomy 12, the Torah’s zero-tolerance policy regarding idolatry is revealed.
  וְנִתַּצְתֶּם אֶת-מִזְבְּחֹתָם, וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם אֶת-מַצֵּבֹתָם, וַאֲשֵׁרֵיהֶם תִּשְׂרְפוּן בָּאֵשׁ, וּפְסִילֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶם תְּגַדֵּעוּן; וְאִבַּדְתֶּם אֶת-שְׁמָם, מִן-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא.
And ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods; and ye shall destroy their name out of that place.  Deuteronomy 12:3
For the Deuteronomist and his ilk, the concern was that a divided kingdom had forged a distorted culture, one that strayed from the old, unifying stories and practices.  Deuteronomy reflects the thinking of King Josiah of Judah, who wanted to strengthen Jerusalem’s position as the capital, so that the temple would be unquestioned in its supremacy over other so-called sacred places.  
During the period when the nation was divided, which began after the death of King Solomon, there were two capitals, Samaria in the north and Jerusalem in the south.  They were geographically close together, like Washington and Richmond, but culturally worlds apart. The tribal nations of Judah and Israel each had their own heroes, cultural touchstones and religious practices. 
Although the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 BCE and its ten tribes dispersed forever, old customs died hard – in fact, they spread southward.  So when Josiah took over Judah half a century later, his country was not fully unified.  The remnants of Israelite worship remained, as was the temptation to decentralize worship, moving it away from the temple and Jerusalem.  The reforms of Josiah, as made clear in these verses, changed everything. 
It’s time for a similar reform here in America.  It’s time for the idols of the Confederacy to come down.
I always found the nostalgia for the Confederacy amusing, if misplaced.  But I was never a descendant of slaves having to look at a symbol of my great grandparents'  oppression while heading to work every day.  The Confederate flag was somewhat troubling to me, but no more than the bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup I gleefully poured onto my pancakes in the morning. Little did I know that the good auntie is actually a racist icon, simultaneously nostalgic and sinister. 
Maybe, I thought, it’s not so bad to allow defeated populaces to maintain a little of their heritage so that they might also hold on to a modicum of pride.  Let those southerners rail about the damn Yankees and gain some vicarious revenge in the annual Blue-Gray Football Classic (which disbanded in 2002).  And, OK, let them have a few statues too.
As Jews, we know all about the need for any group to be allowed the pride of maintaining peculiar customs and celebrating heroes.  We also know how offensive it is when your neighbor’s heroes are, for you, terrorists.  We feel the pain that many African Americans feel regarding the Confederacy when we see Palestinians naming city streets for terrorists who have caused us so much pain. I’m sure others feel the same way about the glorification of former Irgun and Stern Gang members in Israel cities.
But time can heal lots of wounds. There was a time when David Ben Gurion so hated Menachem Begin that he refused to call him by name. But now the two exist on maps, side by side - we can take the Begin Expressway on our way to Ben Gurion Airport.  And American tourists can walk down a Jerusalem street named for former arch enemy King George (who calls out to us as we exit the city, ”You’ll be Back!”).  Hey, there’s even a statue to Benedict Arnold in Saratoga – sort of.  When it comes to municipal memorials, the general rule seems to be, “forgive and forget.”
One could easily fall into Donald Trump’s slippery-slope line of thinking.  Yes, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and did some repugnant things.  Yes, political correctness run amok could poke holes in many of our myths.  So let’s just chill and not be so sensitive about Jefferson Davis and General Lee.  As the satirist Tom Lehrer used to say,  
When correctly viewed
Everything is lewd
(I could tell you things about Peter Pan
And the Wizard of Oz, there's a dirty old man!)
The distinction between heroes and villains can be dulled by nostalgia, sweetened by sentiment and blurred by the passage of time.  It all can get so confusing and complicated.
Which is exactly what feeds the narrative of the extremists. They rely on our equivocating, our hemming and hawing, to build up their idols, fortify their symbols and corrode our culture.
Despite all the pain they cause, perhaps the statues of Confederate leaders could have remained in place, like those statues of a discredited Napoleon in Paris.  But that became impossible the moment that the Alt Right draped itself around the stars and bars as the "true defenders" of the Confederacy.  When that happened, at that very instant, this thing was no longer about nostalgia, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, Rhett Butler, Auntie Mame and the Little Rascals.  It was no longer cute and sentimental.  It was about potent, living imagery, symbols not of lovely old Dixie, but of whips, hate, murder and a racist ideology that still thrives in very dark places.  
Whatever they were before David Duke embraced them, these cultural symbols are now dangerous idols that threaten the unity and moral fiber of the American Dream.
There is no more banjo on my knee.  It's more like an infection.
Josiah had it right.  Even though the Israelite north had been destroyed many years before, its subversive legacy needed to be crushed completely.  And in America, where racist hate refuses to die and is currently, shamefully being nurtured at the highest levels, the same now goes for the symbols of the Confederacy.  General Lee might have been an honorable gentleman in his day, but he and his flag are now a wholly owned subsidiary of the KKK.
Sorry, southerners.  I really am.  But your symbols have been stolen by the Nazis.  They were always subversive, but now they've been stained irreparably.    
The graven images need to come down, now.

Statement read at vigil rally against hate, Aug 17

Remarks Delivered at Prayer Vigil / Rally Against Hate

Scenes from Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery,
taken during my visit in July. Click to enlarge

One month ago, I stood in the gas chambers of Auschwitz with a group from Beth El, and we redoubled our resolve to fight evil wherever it may appear.  The experience left an indelible impression. Two weeks later, I stood on the shores of Omaha Beach, where the forces of Nazisim were heroically overcome by courageous soldiers.  I was there, in the American Cemetery, perhaps the most tranquil place on earth – but today, the nearly ten thousand Americans resting there are not resting at peace.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said in his famous speech on racism in 1963 -  "There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted."

When we equivocate about evil we are enabling evil.  When we equivocate on hate we are enabling the haters.  A decision to remain silent because it is "political" is itself a political decision - and it is a moral decision.  And we will not remain silent.

Heschel also wrote, “Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal and evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.”  

The maximum of cruelty with a minimum of thinking.

Only a bare minimum of thought needs to go into calling out the racist agitators and domestic terrorists of Charlottesville.  Their anti-Semitic and racist chants cannot be ignored and can never be tolerated.  The murder of innocents cannot be forgotten.


For our beloved nation, we pray that an end to this agitation and hatred will be soon at hand - and for our community, I pray that everyone, from all backgrounds and all points of view, will stand together in common cause, that we will never succumb to indifference and not thereby desecrate the graves of Auschwitz and Omaha Beach.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Dispatches from Europe: July, 2017

TBE Jewish Heritage Tour Day 1  July 2, 2017

Israeli soldiers at Warsaw Ghetto Memorial

Ghetto Fighters Memorial, Warsaw

Greetings from Warsaw!

When time and exhaustion allow, I will be sending dispatches from our TBE Jewish Heritage Trip. I am very grateful to the twenty who have chosen to give up a little beach time to accompany Mara and myself on a journey that is the farthest thing from an R & R vacation imaginable – yet infinitely more meaningful.

Following exhausting travels and some delayed flights, there was no rest for the weary as our tour began right away with a stop at the Umschlagplatz, on the northern boundary of the Warsaw Ghetto, from where hundreds of thousands were sent to their deaths in Treblinka. The ghetto was completely destroyed in 1943, but memorials and markers can be found everywhere, including one just across from our hotel.

From there we went to the new museum dedicated to the long and complicated history of Polish Jewry. It is called the Po-Lin museum because, as legend goes, medieval Jews migrating east from various calamities and expulsions found solace in this place, where destiny called out to them to settle – in Hebrew, “reside here” translates to “Po-Lin,” which is the Hebrew name for Poland.

Before entering the museum, we stopped out front at the breathtaking Monument to Ghetto Heroes, which on one side depicts the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and on the other, the victims of the deportations. As luck would have it, we came just in time to view a group of Israeli soldiers posing on the side depicting the heroes. The monument will be familiar to anyone who has seen the replica at Yad Vashem.

In the museum, the complex relationship of Jews and Poland was laid out in all of its complexity. Some in the group were concerned that the museum has a not-so-hidden agenda of portraying the Poles as fellow sufferers rather than the raging anti-semites that so many think they were. Many historians see that as accounting for the fact that the Nazis chose to build their industrial complex of killing right here. Some 3 million Jews died here during the Holocaust, a million at Auschwitz alone, and another 900,000 in Treblinka.

The group has not yet had time to process and discuss what we saw today – we’ll have plenty of opportunity to do that on the bus this week. But from my perspective, the museum was not a whitewash at all. Among the photos I’ve included in our Heritage Tour album (link below) is one that speaks very frankly about the apathy of many Poles to the killings and deportations that they saw happening in front of them, plus some of the killings perpetrated by Poles themselves. Still, one unanswered question is whether Polish schoolchildren are taught to take some responsibility for what happened here.

The museum shares some basic facts that cannot be shoved aside even in light of what happened in 1939-1945.

1) Jews did thrive here as almost nowhere else in our history. Before the war, Warsaw was the second largest Jewish city in the world, trailing only New York, and the intellectual and cultural life here was unrivaled. Even now, it is impossible to find a place on the planet that teems with vibrant ideological debate and artistic creativity as the Poland of the pre-war period. This vibrancy also characterized early eras. Poland is where the early Hasidim found their roots, along with their ideological, rationalist opposites, the “Mitnagdim.” We saw the centerpiece of the museum, a breathtaking replica of a 17th century wooden synagogue from a shtetl called Gwozdziec – I was able to point out to the group where on the ceiling it instructs worshippers not to talk during the Torah reading.

2) Horrible things happened here to the Jews, but they happened to the Poles too, and the most vehement anti-Semitic episodes were not perpetrated by Poles. The 1648 massacre was Cossack driven and of course the Holocaust was in plan and execution entirely a Nazi production. The Poles in fact have much in common with the Jews. This land has been sliced and diced more than just about any other – other than perhaps the land of Israel. With empiric Russia on one side and aggressive Germany on the other, and throw in the Hapsburg empire for good measure, I’m not sure we give Poland its due for standing up to oppression as often as it has. One can make a solid claim that the two biggest root causes of the downfall of the Soviet Union were the worldwide Soviet Jewry movement on the one hand (and the accompanying US moves) and the Polish Solidarity movement, led by Lech Walesa, on the other. So I think it’s important to rethink this relationship. Before today, I never made the connection between the term “Slav” and slave, and in fact, more than once the Slavs have been treated as an inferior race by their neighbors.

3) There are countries that we'll visit on this trip where Jews have returned in significant numbers. Poland is not one of them. So a city that was overwhelmingly Jewish now barely has any. That overwhelming fact will color this part of the trip. This entire country is a mass Jewish graveyard. So one purpose of our visit is to listen to the voices of those who lived here, created here, and who showed such courage. Many of those heroes have come to life again through this museum. Their quotes and poetry are inscribed on the museum's walls. Theirs is a legacy that will not die.

After the museum, we went in various directions for dinner, several of us enjoying the festive Sunday evening in the Old Town. A nice way to end a long, long day. If you are ever in Warsaw, plan to spend at LEAST three hours at this museum - and then have a bite at the cafe that I hear serves the best hummus in town.

Happy Fourth of July to everyone back home (or where ever you are!)

Anti-semitic figurines are ubiquitous in Poland


Maidanek, on the outskirts of Lublin

Gas Chambers at Maidanek

Bullying at Maidanek

Tuesday July 4 - Welcome from Krakow.

We arrived here this evening after a long drive from Warsaw, by way of Maidanek and Lublin. We had decided at the last minute to add Maidanek to our itinerary because it provides both a smaller-scale prelude for and a contrast to Auschwitz, where we will be later this week. Maidanek was liberated by the Russians with little warning, so unlike other death camps, it has been preserved in much the same form in which it was used. For the first time on this trip, our group stood in a place of unspeakable horror, the gas chambers and crematoria of a death camp.

Our photo album brings home just how close Maidanek is – and was - to the surrounding neighborhood, which brings up a major theme of our trip thus far. We have challenged our guides (who have been very good) on the topic of the guilt or innocence of the Polish people. Tomorrow we will have the chance to meet with a righteous gentile who hid Jews. Poland has more righteous gentiles at Yad Vashem than any other country – a future that is both laudatory and misleading, since the number of Jews who lived and died here dwarfs the other nations of this continent – fully half of the six million were killed here. One guide said that six million POLES died, of three million were Jews. It’s nice to hear the Jews spoken of as fully accepted Polish citizens, but we know that through the centuries, this has not always been Mister Rogers’ neighborhood for Jews.

Yesterday we had a lovely tour of Warsaw – we drove past the famous Warsaw Zoo and visited the museum of the Polish Uprising in 1944. We also saw the site of Mila 18, headquarters for the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. A highlight came early in the day with a visit to the orphanage of Janus Korczak, one of the great heroes of the Holocaust. The orphanage amazingly still stands and is still in use. Korczak is mistakenly assumed not to have been Jewish, since he was given the chance to escape the fate determined for his orphans. In fact he was Jewish - he had changed his name years before. His special treatment was due to his inordinate fame among the Polish people as an intellectual (a psychologist and foremost expert on parenting). But Korczak, when the time came to decide, chose to cast his lot not only with “his” children, but with his people. I found that an interesting response to those who claim that Jews who “make it” through assimilation are hopelessly lost to the Jewish world.

Korczac's orphanage

The admiration for Korczak’s work is a key differentiator between Polish culture and that of other nations. The Nazis burned books, but here in Warsaw, writers, musicians and artists are national icons. Last evening some of us went to a Chopin recital in Warsaw’s brimming-with-life Old Town (see my slice of life photos from there). There were actually competing Chopin recitals, in fact, and ticket sellers were vying for our attention and hawking tix – to a PIANO recital – as if they were standing outside Madison Square Garden a half hour before a Knicks game. I was so happy that the concert we attended concluded with Chopin’s “Promenade,” something my mom has played quite often and which I’ve also played for her more recently at the nursing home.

We also walked past some of Warsaw’s stately national shrines and idyllic public parks – keeping in mind that this was a city nearly totally destroyed 70 years ago. The Old Town looks old, but it's actually a replica. Still, lots of fun.

That’s all for today – and for all those who know people in our group, I can assure you that everyone is eating well!

Happy 4th!



Our group visited Auschwitz today, capping what has been an emotional week.  Then, following a long ride though the Slovakian countryside, we arrived in Budapest this evening, where we will be spending Shabbat.  The trip is nearly halfway through.  See the entire photo album at

July 8

This anti Soros billboard was the VERY FIRST THING I saw as our tour bus crossed over into Hungary on Thursday.  It is everywhere. Our group spent Shabbat in Budapest, which included an unforgettable encounter with a local congregation that I cannot wait to tell folks back home more about - as well as a sobering assessment of the current situation here by a freelance journalist.

I was shaken more by what I learned here in Budapest this Shabbat than I was when visiting Auschwitz the day before.  The community here is genuinely concerned - though they put on a brave face. But in a Jewish community where everyone has a thousand yahrzeits every week, yet one that has done incredible things despite that, I could sense the fear.

The far right wing government has consolidated power by following a familiar playbook: demonize the  press, co-opt the judiciary and direct the anger toward familiar scapegoats - hence the none-too-subtle anti-Semitic overtones of this massive campaign against Soros (and many of these billboards have been touched up with blatantly anti Semitic graffiti).

All of these things are happening here, as well as dramatic changes in their constitution and - naturally -  cozying up to Russia.  And did I mention the delegitimization of human rights NGOs?  It's happening here, most recently  with the shutting down of the Aurora cafe, a local hangout for young Jews and others. Oh, and the intimidation and silencing of religious leaders.  That's the formula for threatening the underpinnings of a democracy.  Shake and stir.

Not everything happening here is applicable to America - or Israel, for that matter - but there is enough to be concerned about. I'm glad that after an embarrassing silence, Israeli authorities have returned to their sacred mission to defend Jews in distress, even those ruled by governments led by authoritarian strongmen.

I cannot emphasize enough the danger of what is happening here. I am encouraged by the courage of my rabbinic colleagues in the US to stand up against the cynical demolition of democratic institutions - particularly the intimidation of a free press - wherever it is found. I for one will be carrying that banner over the coming weeks.  I will not let down the Jews of Hungary or the values embedded in the faith I am duty-bound to protect.  Given what we have been seeing recently all around the world, an emboldened American Jewish leadership might just be a key to preserving the values we hold so dear.

I came here to help people back home remember the last Holocaust,  and I leave Hungary more determined than ever to prevent the next one.

Doheney Synagogue in Budapest

Shabbat dinner in Budapest at a Matzah-themed restaurant

Synagogue in Bratislava in Cubist style

Dispatch from Berlin

Changing of the guard in Prague: 
At TBE, we march to a different drummer!

Old-New Shul in Prague

Secret Prayer Room in Terezin

Secret Prayer Room in Terezin

July 16

Our group's journey ended a couple of days ago, and still we are all only beginning to digest what we encountered. Below are just a few initial impressions...

By design, this trip began in the Jewish graveyard that is Poland, where few Jews live and where three million died, where the Polish population has tried, at times valiantly and at times insufficiently, to come to grips with their past. The journey took us through various iterations of Jewish destruction and revival, but in Warsaw, what we faced most of all was evidence of the former. In Krakow, Budapest, Bratislava, Prague and Dresden, there was a mix of despair and hopefulness, punctuated by bleak landscapes of death and fear mixed with oases of promise.

By design, we ended at the "beginning," in Berlin, the place where the Nazi ideology was allowed to incubate within a devastating economy and a zeitgeist of anarchy and despair, until it was able to slowly swallow up a country and a continent. Berlin is also a beginning in another sense, as we witnessed - at long last - a country willing to fully embrace its responsibility, not only learning lessons of the past, but intent on teaching them. We saw school children in one neighborhood take on the identities of young Jews who had once walked those same streets before being deported and killed. We saw a city and country that has - despite enormous pressures - chosen to embrace refugees, not because the Germans were once "strangers in the land of Egypt," as we were, but because they were Egypt itself. No other country on our itinerary has owned the Holocaust as the Germans have. They've turned entire neighborhoods into living memorials. Reminders are everywhere.

I've stayed in Berlin after the departure of the group - still here - and now I can understand more fully why so many Jews are moving here, especially Russians and Israelis, and why Germany has become the de facto moral leader of the free world, holding America's place until sanity returns to Washington. What an amazing irony it is that Jews are returning here, even moving en masse from England to retain EU citizenship, under a recent "law of return"- style edict that offers easy citizenship to those with German ancestry, the very ones whom the Germans once chased out and murdered. Germans have learned so much from their past that they are teaching the world how to embrace the same Syrian refugees America is now rejecting. And far right, xenophobic, Russia-supporting parties that could have ridden the refugee issue to victory in the upcoming German elections have been hemorrhaging support in the polls (especially since January, for some reason). The people are refusing to buy into the hate that has infected so many in our world. Germany has become the champion of tolerance.

This weekend, 350,000 supporters of the LGBT community descended on Berlin, the world's third largest LGBT city, for a mass celebration. This weekend there is also a large interfaith music festival here and Berlin is building the world's first house of prayer for three religions, containing a synagogue, a mosque and a church. It will be called the "House of One."  I'll bet a Conservative Rabbi might even be able to perform a wedding here and have it be recognized by the government! Berlin has truly become a house of peace. I can't bring myself to love the city. There's simply too much water under the bridge. But I've no choice but to admire it.

The world's turned upside down!

So our trip ended at the beginning. And along the way, we witnessed lots of walls and borders, good walls and bad walls, going up and coming down, amidst the continuous shape shifting of nations. We saw remnants of the Berlin Wall and explored that wall's meaning for our times. We saw the remains of the ghetto wall in Warsaw. We saw fences that protect synagogues, including one shul in Budapest built with an entire neighborhood surrounding it for protection. We saw the loving bricks of the children at that Berlin school as they endeavored to rebuild a synagogue that once stood where their school now stands, and we saw "Wailing Walls" in cemeteries in Krakow and Prague, constructed of dislodged and desecrated Jewish gravestones. We experienced the borderless EU nations and contrasted that free flow to the shifting, confusing national and ethnic boundaries of these nations, and the sharp lines of hate and suspicion they have for former occupiers, for Germans and Russians especially. And amidst all of this, the Jewish story played out, as we wandered from country to country, seeing how our wandering ancestors accomplishing so much and changed the world for the better in so many ways.

Dennis, our fantastic Berlin guide, reminded us at Olympic Stadium how the Nazis got Darwin all wrong. The survival of the fittest did not mean the survival of the STRONGEST. Darwinian theory is all about the survival of those species who ADAPT the best to changing conditions, not those who try to overwhelm obstacles with power alone. Darwin could well have gotten along with the prophet Zachariah, who said "Not by might, not by power but by My spirit, says the Lord of hosts."

One lesson we most definitely learned is that this Jewish struggle is not one that we have to fight alone - even in our darkest hours, there were others willing to fight with us. We met one of them, a woman who sheltered a Jewish girl escaping the destruction of the Krakow ghetto.

So what we gained on this trip was ultimately a very positive message. And our group, ever inquisitive, was able to refine that message with each stop. Jewish survival is an art that has been honed by centuries of displacement, and the more we've wandered, the better we've gotten at surviving each challenge. We even survived the greatest crime ever committed, and we are here to tell the next generation about it. We have now become experts in the art of telling both parts of the Jewish story: the tale of Night and the tale of Light. We have seen it all.

The Jewish community of Budapest will transcend its challenges, and the rebirth of Jewish life here in Berlin is just the latest example of how Hitler has been denied the last laugh. We shed lots of tears - some that were very personal and a few that wee very unexpected. But as they say, what happens on the bus, stays on the bus.

Photo link is below for the complete photo album of the 2017 TBE Jewish Heritage Tour. In this album you'll see photos from many of the events and places described above. Enjoy!!

Shalom from Berlin!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

German child dedicating a brick in memory of Jewish child who was killed. 
Bavarian Quarter, site of destroyed synagogue

Memorial at the site of book burnings, Berlin

A view through a crack in the Berlin Wall

Brandenburg Gate

Berlin Olympic Stadium

Click on photos to enlarge.  See the full photo album  and find our videos at our trip's YouTube site.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Shabbat O Gram for June 23

This has been an interesting time for the Conservative Movement in dealing with the issue of intermarriage.  After decades of unquestioned resistance, the Rabbinical Assembly has seen a marked upsurge among rabbis pressing for change.

There was this Washington Post article in April, written by a rabbi who performed an intermarriage and then got expelled from the RA (which is automatic when that happens).  There was this independent survey, indicating that 40 percent of Rabbinical Assembly members would perform intermarriages, given their druthers.  There have been calls to redefine Jewish peoplehood, including this piece by the former director of Interfaith, claiming that non Jews need to be welcomed with no strings attached - as well as my own column published by JTA, which only spoke tangentially about marriage ceremonies but made the point that we need to redefine Jewish identity in a manner that would expand the boundaries outward.

Now, this month, two bombshells by independent but Conservative-connected Manhattan congregations. 

Amichai Lau-Levi, the founder of Storahtelling (which we brought here a number of times) and LabShul, was ordained at JTS just a year ago. He spent the better part of this year analyzing this issue and just released his conclusions.  You can see the fruits of his labors, a pamphlet, entitled Joy: A Proposal.  Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

This proposal is the product of my year-long research into possible solutions, initiated in June 2016 by assembling a research team, along with rabbinic and academic advisors. The research focused on the exploration of historical and halachic models that point at a more fluid approach to Jewish identity and affiliation, with possible applications and halachic relevance to our time.

While the numbers of Jews who choose gentile partners is without historical precedent, the tendency is neither new nor unique. Likewise, previous generations have sought solutions to address the practical realities that emerge when Jews include people of other backgrounds in their families. Numerous religious leaders and scholars have offered more nuanced approaches to defining Jewish communal boundaries that are grounded in biblical, rabbinic, historical and sociological sources.

One approach, raised in recent years by various rabbis and scholars, stands out as particularly pertinent. Based on the rabbinic category of ger toshav, or ‘resident alien’ and the historical model of Yirei HaShem or ‘the pious ones’, as well as other examples of fluid identities in the Jewish communities throughout history, this approach suggests exploring revisions of this model for our times. These categories were created by the early rabbis and adapted by later generations of leaders in response to evolving societal conditions, but have been largely forgotten and disregarded in recent centuries. The sources studied, including classical and contemporary halachic writings as well as sociological and historical scholarship, present positions that grapple with the option of these categories, and seek to retain and honor the exclusivity of traditional Jewish obligation, while also addressing the necessity of greater inclusivity. Traditional Jewish sources clearly do not condone intermarriage, but they leave the conversation more varied and open to nuance than contemporary communal discourse might lead one to believe.

One passage from the Babylonian Talmud describes the rabbinic response to specific challenging cultural boundaries. The Talmudic dictum (p. 40) resonates for us as it has for previous generations struggling with gaps between halachic aspirations and societal norms: “We make no decree upon the community unless the majority are able to abide by it.” Today’s categorical prohibition on intermarriage with no nuanced way to distinguish between varying degrees of affiliation with the Jewish community is seen increasingly as an unsustainable and unrealistic decree for the majority of liberal American Jews.

An additional source cited in the proposal is the 2006 Responsum written by Rabbi Gordon Tucker on Homosexuality and Halacha, in which he argues for “a different overall halakhic methodology” that will better serve, at times, our evolving realities. Tucker suggests that some cases will call on rabbinic leaders not to offer “a reprise of past decisions and interpretations, but rather an enterprise, at least on occasions that call for it, in improvising on established themes.”

Citing several arguments, and motivated by halachic approaches such as the one suggested by Tucker, this proposal calls for the restoration of the ger toshav category, with necessary revisions, for the American Jewish community of the 21st Century. Not without considerable challenges and application issues both theoretical and practical, the recognition of a renewed ger toshav category may enable clergy to welcome gentile partners who do not, or do not yet, formally convert but are members of the community, and to officiate at their weddings with a Jewish partner. Such steps will have implications for the evolving Jewish community that far exceed the roles of rabbis at weddings and at other lifecycle milestones.

The honorific ‘Joy’ is proposed as one possible way to name the modern ger toshav.
The proposal outlines the possible ramifications of activating this category and concludes with my recommendation to do so. While I am not a posek, jurist, or halachic expert, I am convinced the proposal I offer is the right one for my community, and my rabbinate at this time. I hope it will interest and benefit others.

In order to further explore the practical aspects of this proposal and honestly evaluate its implications, this research will continue for the next five years (2017-2022) and will include continued learning, sociological research, and communal conversations.

Though there are implications to my decision that involve some affiliations, I trust that in the spirit of debate for the sake of the sacred שמים לשם מחלוקת ,continued friendships and collaborations will deepen and flourish.

If the choice of love over tribe is the source of our anxiety as we grapple with this issue, it will be the choice of addressing our concerns with more love, and less fear, that will help us overcome these challenges and flourish as a community.

The Torah reminds us, again and again, to love. We are taught to love God, to love each other, to love the other within our gates. The Torah passage we recite each day and nail to our doorpost include the words ‘And you shall love ואהבת ‘.That extra vav, this ‘and’ calls on us, to expand our doorways, and expand our love to all those we love, who love us back, and are part of our evolving story.

The collective wisdom that has enabled Judaism to flourish, transform and persist through the ages will continue doing so, deeply attuned to the truths and changing needs of each generation. Judaism, in many forms for many different people, continues to offer an extraordinary set of values, practices, tales, and tools that bring more meaning to our private lives and connect us to each other, to a community that binds us, and to a world that needs our caring, courage, love, and joy
Almost simultaneously, the rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun in New York, a maverick, independent synagogue that has always had ties to the Conservative movement, announced that they too will be performing interfaith wedding ceremonies.  In this week’s Forward, they wrote “Why We Decided to Perform Interfaith Weddings.”  An excerpt:

The 21st-century American Jewish experience may be unprecedented, but Jews have always negotiated the borders of belonging, creating porousness and making room for those who wish to live with us.

“Open the gates, and let the righteous nation (goy tzaddik) enter,” says the prophet Isaiah. Midrash Sifra interprets, “‘Open the gates and let Priests, Levites and Israelites enter,’ it does not say, rather ‘and let a righteous gentile who keeps the faith enter.’”
If we do not stretch the boundaries and make room for those who wish to join us, live with us and build a Jewish future with us, we will be called to account for having failed future generations of the Jewish people. Read More

On the other side of the debate, JTS itself released a statement, entitled On Marriage and Covenant: A Statement by JTS.  Here it is, in its entirety:

The Jewish Theological Seminary affirms that the study of Torah, the sacred wisdom of our people, and the performance of mitzvot, Judaism’s sanctified pattern of religious practice, stand at the very core of Jewish identity. Torah and mitzvot have always been the foundation of the Jewish people’s covenant with God, guiding and sustaining us for three millennia in nearly every corner of the globe. They remain so today. 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 to 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 is our own.
We understand the arguments made for our clergy to officiate at interfaith weddings, knowing that they come from a place of genuine concern for bringing near individuals and families who are or might be estranged from the community and tradition we love. However, 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 the Jewish family. This is also the path which Torah and tradition command. JTS will in coming months expand our efforts to welcome all families, including those that are interfaith, to explore Judaism together with us. We will do all we can-along with our partners in the Conservative movement-to make the process of joining our age-old covenant attractive, accessible, and compelling. 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. Let us join together in confidence about the wisdom of the path to which we are committed.
Meanwhile, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has moved incrementally in the direction of more inclusiveness, recently passing a proposal allowing non Jews to be members of Conservative synagogues; while I respect the need for deliberativeness in forging monumental changes, this resolution has the whiff of a horse that has already left the barn. I alluded to that precise point a few weeks ago in this space and elsewhere.

 I wrote:  Jews have reached the post “gevalt” stage of our assimilation into the American mainstream. Rather than moaning about what we are losing, we need to capitalize on the new energy that diversity is bringing into American Jewry. I see examples of that all the time. Rather than railing against windmills, we need to turn, spread our wings, and let these winds of change take us to new and higher places.

We are heading into a fascinating new phase of the American Jewish conversation, similar to the one that broke so many barriers for LGBTQ involvement in Jewish communal life.  We will celebrate that at our Pride Shabbat tonight, with TBE congregant Elise Feldman speaking about her experiences and special musical guest, the world-renowned Klezmer fiddler Alicia Svigals, commenting about hers.

As the Shabbat-O-Gram bids farewell for a summer hiatus (don’t worry, you’ll be hearing lots from me when our group is in Europe), I leave you with this topic to ponder.  Download and read Amichai Lau Levi’s treatise and the other materials here.  Read the resources on Keruv (outreach) from the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs that have helped to formulate our own expansive program of outreach to interfaith couples and families here.

And then, look at this material, “Sh’ma: A More Perfect Argument,” which guides us on how to discuss serious and potentially divisive issues in a respectful manner “for the sake of heaven.” It so happens that this is a major theme of this week’s portion of Korach - and we will be discussing that pamphlet tomorrow.

When the summer is over, maybe we can gather and have a conversation - or series of conversations - about this topic that has so shaken the Jewish world over recent weeks.
Shabbat Shalom - and have a restful and replenishing summer.

And PS - we are open 24/7/365 - join us for services every week - every day, in fact!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Jason Busch on Shelach Lecha

I’m sure most of you remember where you were on the night of Feb. 5.  That’s because over a hundred million Americans were watching the Super Bowl.  And at halftime, about 99 ½ million thought the Patriots were going to lose.  As a big Patriots fan, I have to admit that I was one of them.
After halftime, it was as if they were a different team.  But things didn’t get better right away.  First they gave up another touchdown to fall behind 28-3.  Twenty five points down!
But slowly they began to come back.  First they got a touchdown, but they missed the extra point.  Then they drove down again, but had to settle for a field goal.  Again, it would have been easy to give up.
You know the old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again?”  Well that’s what happened to the Patriots.  They scored the last 31 points of the game, including a touchdown in overtime, to win the Super Bowl.
But that expression could have been invented by Joshua.  In my haftarah, Joshua, the new leader, who had just taken over from Moses, sends two spies to scout out Jericho.  Forty years earlier, Moses had sent spies to check out the land.  That time, things didn’t turn out so well.  My portion of Shelach Lecha describes what happened.  Twelve spies were sent and, while they all thought the land was worth inhabiting, ten of them were terrified at the people who were living there.  They told the Israelites that they felt like grasshoppers in their eyes and that the people in the land looked like giants.
But this time, forty years later, the two spies who went to Jericho discovered that the inhabitants of the land were terrified of them.  
With that good news in hand, Joshua set out to conquer the city.  But the walls were huge!  (insert joke here J)
So God told Joshua to march around the city and complete one circuit, and repeat that for six days.  They did as God told them.  Then, the seventh time around, when they concluded the circuit, they blew the shofar and, as the song says, the walls came tumblin’ down. 
What’s the lesson here?  Why did they need to walk around it so many times?
I think it’s to prove this point – that nothing good in life comes easily, and when things don’t go right, keep on trying.  As Edwin Louis Cole said, “Winners are not people who never fail, but people who never quit.”
As I become bar mitzvah this morning, that’s an important lesson that will help me as I face the challenges in life.
For my mitzvah project, I am donating food and other items for people who are less fortunate to the Kosher food pantry of the Jewish Family Service.
Now its time for the thank yous

Friday, June 16, 2017

Shabbat-O-Gram for June 16

Shabbat shalom!
This Shabbat we celebrate with the family of Jason Busch, who becomes bar mitzvah.  Also, join us this evening as Meira Rosenberg, a longtime TBE member, will talk about her journey to authoring her new young adult novel, Indiana Bamboo.  Mazal tov to Jason and Meira (and you can read the d'var Torah of last week's bat mitzvah, Sarah Eisenstein, here).
This evening we'll also be featuring some fabulous new musicians, Vladimir Katz and Efrat Shapira(See Efrat on YouTube).  

Looking ahead to next week, on Pride Shabbat, we will feature Brian Gelfand and the long anticipated return of world famous violinist Alicia Svigals.

As we celebrate Pride Month at next week's service TBE member Elise Feldman will share some personal reflections about her journey.  Many of us have come to know Elise well through her involvement in our choir, Hevre young families group and her leadership in any number of areas.  We are grateful to have her here!
On a related topic...
Hiddush, a watchdog for religious freedom and equality in Israel, just released a fascinating new survey stating that support for same-sex marriage/civil unions in Israel has reached a - record high of 79% of the Jewish Israeli public. This reflects a consistent increase in public support for the official establishment of state recognized same-sex partnerships in Israel, which stood at 76% in 2016 and in previous years ranged from 60-65%. These findings arose from a Hiddush-commissioned survey conducted by the Rafi Smith Polling Institute.  And as you can see below, this support runs pretty much across the political spectrum, except among the Ultra Orthodox.

That's the good news.  The rest of the story, as Hiddush reports, is not so good:
Israel not only denies same-sex couples the right to marry, against the clear public will, but also denies hundreds of thousands of heterosexual couples the right to family because it granted exclusive monopoly over Jewish marriages to the Orthodox Rabbinate. This political reality also forces more than a million and a half additional citizens to marry in ceremonies that do not befit their beliefs and lifestyles. The data prove that the establishment of legal marriage for same-sex couples and religious freedom in general have practically become the public consensus of the Israeli Jewish population. The public's will has never been translated into legislation because all successive Israeli Governments, from both the left and the right, have instead traded away the public's freedom of marriage and divorce to the Orthodox parties in exchange for their political support.
Israel remains the only Western democracy in the world, which severely restricts the freedom of marriage. In fact, nearly ten percent of the population cannot marry at all. 42 countries now allow for marriage or legal registration of same-sex couples. In other words, the gap between Israel and the rest of the enlightened world in the arena of LGBTQ rights is only increasing. 
The gap between the Israeli public and Israeli government on the issue of civil marriage and religious freedom is growing.  Last month Hiddush released a survey showing that well over half of Jewish Israelis would prefer that the Chief Rabbinate not have a monopoly on performing weddings.

And that, in my mind, is further good news, for although this unfair situation has been around since the beginnings of the state, the public push for change is eventually going to force that change to happen, as it did here in the US with interracial and gay marriage.  Marital freedom in Israel is something that American Jews need to see as our issue too, since questions of personal status speak to our legitimacy as Jews and the core values of the Judaism we espouse.  And the fact that Haredi Jews, who represent only ten percent of the population, can impose their will on everyone else, is very troubling and inherently undemocratic.
These issues should matter to those who really care about the future of Israel. That's why I've invited Rabbi Uri Regev, executive director of Hiddush, to speak here this coming fall.

A Trip of Many Lifetimes

Exactly two weeks from now, Mara and I will lead a group of 22 from our TBE family in TBE's first-ever Jewish Heritage Tour of Central Europe.
Some aspire to take the "trip of a lifetime," but the significance of this one will span hundreds of lifetimes, as we look back upon central events of Jewish history, bearing witness to some of our greatest triumphs along with undoubtedly the greatest tragedy the world has ever seen.  
Elie Wiesel believed that when we hear the story of a witness, we too become witnesses, and through us the story lives on; a living scroll ever unfolding.  "Because I remember, I despair," Wiesel said. "Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair." 
As I remarked on Yom KippurWiesel's death last year was the end of an era - he was our Survivor in Chief, representing all the witnesses.  He was our prophet, and the prophet's voice has now been silenced. But he charged us with the responsibility of being witnesses in his stead.  That is why this congregational trip is so important.  This is not merely a tour of places like Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Prague and Berlin - although we'll have lots of opportunity to enjoy these glorious cities.  Make no mistake, this is a pilgrimage, to places where Jewish civilization thrived for a thousand years, and to Auschwitz, where human civilization nearly died in a thousand days.
Auschwitz was the epicenter of it all.  It is a place where all civilized human beings must go, to remember, and pray, and to take upon ourselves the mantle of witness, to pick up the gauntlet from Wiesel.  It is not a burden, but an honor to respond to that sacred calling.
Ultimately, this "trip of many lifetimes"will direct our attention less to the past than to the future. 
The Jew has an obligation to remember, but then to shed the shell of victim, the confining shell of resentment and anger and despair, and to transform the disaster into an embrace of life and a relentless pursuit of justice and dignity for every human being.  For a Jew is responsible not merely to be a witness, but to dream, to imagine a better future, despite the darkness that surrounds us.  Shimon Peres, who also died last year, said we should use our imagination more than our memory.  "Optimists and pessimists die the exact same death," he said, "but they live very different lives!"
The message of this trip is this: To be a Jew is to live acutely, relentlessly and compassionately, and to be moving forward while always glancing over our be a witness to the past and a beacon toward the future.  To cling to life and purpose with all our might.   And all the while to be totally and unabashedly human.
This trip will hardly be a downer: Along the way our group will encounter some true heroes to inspire us - like Mordechai Anielevicz and Janusz Korczak in Warsaw, Rabbi Moshe Isserles and Oscar Schindler in Krakow, along with TBE's own Eric Strom, Hannah Senesh and Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest,  the Maharal of Prague and the beautiful children of Terezin - and then, in the supreme irony, we will go to Berlin, where the destruction began but where an incomprehensible Jewish renaissance is taking place, and where a new spirit of reconciliation is taking root.
Oh and we're going to have lots of fun. Still, as witnesses, we'll represent this community, and one of our missions will be to bring the rest of you along with us through what we send back to you in real time.  So in early July look out for photos, videos and words from me and the others, testimony that will go far beyond a few random Trip Advisor ratings, as we embark on this trip of many lifetimes.

So much of our purpose in taking this journey is embedded in Emil Fackenheim's idea of a 614th commandment (quoted below), never to forget the Holocaust and to prevent Hitler from gaining a posthumous victory.  We have many reasons to bear witness, ranging from the particularistic (preserving the Jewish people) to the universal (to prevent genocide from happening anywhere).  No doubt, though, that Auschwitz has become sacred ground - a holy place that every Jew - and every civilized person - should visit.

What does the Voice of Auschwitz command?
Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories. They are commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. They are commanded to remember the victims of Auschwitz lest their memory perish. They are forbidden to despair of man and his world, and to escape into either cynicism or otherworldliness, lest they cooperate in delivering the world over to the forces of Auschwitz. Finally, they are forbidden to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish. A secularist Jew cannot make himself believe by a mere act of will, nor can he be commanded to do so....And a religious Jew who has stayed with his God may be forced into new, possibly revolutionary relationships with Him. One possibility, however, is wholly unthinkable. A Jew may not respond to Hitler's attempt to destroy Judaism by himself cooperating in its destruction. In ancient times, the unthinkable Jewish sin was idolatry. Today, it is to respond to Hitler by doing his work.
          For a Jew hearing the commanding Voice of Auschwitz the duty to remember and to tell the tale is not negotiable. It is holy. The religious Jew still possesses this word. The secularist Jew is commanded to restore it. A secular holiness, as it were, has forced itself into his vocabulary...
          Jews after Auschwitz represent all humanity when they affirm their Jewishness and deny the Nazi denial... The commanding Voice of Auschwitz singles Jews out; Jewish survival is a commandment which brooks no compromise. It was this Voice which was heard by the Jews of Israel in May and June 1967 when they refused to lie down and be slaughtered...
          For after Auschwitz, Jewish life is more sacred than Jewish death, were it even for the sanctification of the divine Name. The left-wing secularist Israeli journalist Amos Kenan writes: "After the death camps, we are left only one supreme value: existence."
Five Rabbinic Suggestions for Father's Day
My father, Cantor Michal Hammerman, on the right, 
with his two cantorial brothers, Saul and Herman, 1971

While Jewish mothers usually get all the attention, this is the weekend to celebrate Jewish fathers.
1) A child should not stand or sit in a place where his father is accustomed to standing or sitting (Kiddishin 31b).  Some call this the "Archie Bunker Law."
 2) A child should not support his father's opponents in a scholarly dispute. In other words, they forbade "Patrilinial Dissent." (Sorry for that groan-inducing pun)
 3) The rabbis praised Duma, a heathen who refused to awaken his father, although he needed a key lying under his father's pillow in order to conclude a transaction that would have netted him a profit of 600,000 gold coins. One can imagine how proud Dama's father was of his son when he woke up...
4) The rabbis state firmly that a child is obligated to attend to the material needs of his parents while they are alive and to mourn for them properly when they die.
 5) One more suggestion not mentioned in the Talmud: on Father's Day, let your dad sleep nice and late!
-          Also, read how Jewish fathers are the opposite of TV dads.
-          Check out this historical survey of Jewish fathers.
-          Two favorite articles I've written about fatherhood, following the births of my two sons: "Birth Rite" and "Fathers and Sons"
-          The Forward asked for Six Word Memoirs about Jewish fathers. Here are a few of them:
Actor, scrap man, embellisher of of stories.
Ilene Stein, 64, Riverside, Calif., about Max M. Fields
He lives generously. That's my inheritance.
Paula Chaiken, 42, Kingston, Pa., about Gene Chaiken
Dad's matzo balls? Hard. Heart? Soft.
Cheryl Levine, 48, Yellow Springs, Ohio, about Barry Levine
Dad, homework done, healthy. Don't worry!
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, 46, congresswoman, Weston, Fla., about Larry Wasserman
Always making puns, always causing groans.   (See "Patrilineal Dissent," above)
Julie Grossman, 26, North Bethesda, Md., about Garry Grossman
Sense of humor, debt-free educations.
Alexandra Schmidt, 44, Niskayuna, N.Y. about John Lutch
Eating ice cream in underwear. 5 a.m.
Rich Cohen, 45, author of "Israel is Real," Ridgefield, Conn., about Herb Cohen
Zayde shined my shoes and heart.
Donna Erbs, 52, Portland, Ore., about Max Joffee
Waiter, I ordered the kosher lobster.
Shira Kaiserman, 28, New York, about Ronald Kaiserman
Clean linen handkerchiefs comfort me still.
Roberta Rosenberg, 58, Clarksville, Md., about Harry Rosenberg
Brimming bookshelves - bent, leant and shmoozed.
Wayne Firestone, 49, president of the Genesis Prize Foundation, Rockville, Md., about Bruce Firestone
Mel Brooks movie marathon: perfect Shabbos.
Casey Stein, 25, New York, about Alan Stein
Dude dug prunes, melbas and mama.
Henry Greenspan, 65, Ann Arbor, Mich., about Albert Lewis Greenspan
Theirs - writer, scholar, lecturer. Mine - Aba. 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Father's Day!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman