Sunday, June 26, 2011

Another triumph for Israeli wine | culture

Thanks to Assad's ruthlessness, effectively ending any chances of a negotiated agreement with Israel, it looks like the Golan Heights wine industry will have plenty of time to ferment. Another triumph for Israeli wine culture

Friday, June 24, 2011

Shots on Shabbat: Hammerman on Ethics

Q - My daughter, a freshman on a large college campus, was invited to the home of a local rabbi for Friday night dinner. The rabbi is not affiliated with Hillel or any synagogue, but has gotten deeply involved in college life and invites groups of students to his home nearly every week. The kids seem to really enjoy it. Last weekend I found out one reason. The liquid refreshment flows freely, and I'm not just talking about Kiddush wine. On the one hand I'm glad my kid is doing something Jewish, but serving liquor to minors scares me. My child tells me to "chill," but I am thinking of reporting this to the authorities.

Should I?

A – First, I would confront the rabbi directly. If the practice persists, then go to the police.

Serving alcohol to underage students is a criminal offense. More to the point, it’s dangerous, especially when those students then have to take an inebriated late night trek back to campus. Recently, attention has been drawn to alleged Chabad involvement in this practice, on Shabbat and especially on Purim. But it is not exclusive to Chabad. In an obsessive desire to attract young Jews to their programs by appearing “cool,” organizations resort to the allure of drinking. Even when the practice is legal and the targets are all over 21, it’s a cheap and self destructive path that subverts what might be an otherwise worthy goal.

True, Judaism and alcohol go way back together, especially when it comes to the production and consumption of wine. The Talmud exemplifies a sort of love-hate relationship, with dueling aphorisms like “Avoid wine, avoid sin” (Berakhot 29a) and “The Levites only sing when wine is poured” (Berahhot 35b). The same rabbis who state plainly that one cannot experience true joy on festivals without wine (Pesachim 109a) also state that nothing brings lamentation to the human race like wine (Brachot 40a). Add to this a widespread association of alcohol with spiritual highs, plus the connections to Jewish ritual, and one could see how rabbis might justify offering students a little sip from time to time. But there’s a big difference between a little syrupy Kiddush wine and offering shots. The commandment to sanctify the Sabbath can just as easily be fulfilled with grape juice.

Plus, Jewish law states clearly that Jewish law must comply with the law of the land. So tell your kid to let the rabbi know that he is disobeying Jewish law by serving alcohol to minors.

The facts tell us that binge drinking is up on college campuses. More than 25,000 lives have been saved in the U.S. thanks to the 21 Minimum Drinking Age.

There are better ways to attract Jewish youth to the beauties of our tradition than by lowering ourselves to the mentality of a Bud Light commercial. Given the dangers, it is time to blow the whistle on whetting the whistle of underage students.


Thursday, June 23, 2011

7th grade graduation yearbook

Click below to see the booklet produced for our recent 7th grade graduation. This class belies the canard that kids hate Hebrew School and that in fact, being rotifer at Hebrew School is a veritable rite of passage for American Jews. Well, I hate to burst that bubble, but our 7th grade students did not want to leave. In fact, they came back for a party at my house THE VERY NEXT DAY!

"Who is A Jew??" AGAIN! Coping With the Shifting Nature of Jewish Identity

This week's CHUTZPAH Award goes to Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who is trying to restore the "Jewish" label to Israel identity cards, thereby dredging up the old "Who is a Jew" controversy. Read about that, see the tie to this week's portion and read a new responsum just passed by the Law Committee (Conservative Judaism's halachic arbiter) on whether congregations should take people at their word when they identify themselves as being Jewish.

We'll be talking about all of these at services this Shabbat. See the discussion materials by clicking here.

Whining and Wine-ing - Parsha Packet for Shelach

Here's the source material on last week's discussion for parashat Shelach, where we discussed the significance of wine and Jewish (and Israeli) culture. See it here.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Hammerman on Ethics: Is Test Tube Meat Kosher?

Q - I recently heard reports about the creation of artificial meat, using with animal stem cells. To this point, it exists only in a Petri dish, but it's time to start asking the tough questions. As one who keeps kosher and who is a vegetarian, would this kind of meat would be kosher - and would that be true even for pork? And since no killing would be involved, could a vegetarian eat this meat with a clear conscience?

A- As they say at Citi Field, it’s time to “Meet the Meats.”

As a “Glatt” vegetarian (no fish or chicken), I’m torn. I even avoid many of the meat substitutes on the market because they have become so life like. But Soya is still Soya and this will be real meat, only grown and harvested from animal stem cells rather than being killed. The current discussion was prompted by a recent New Yorker article by Michael Specter, “Test Tube Burgers” and the author’s subsequent interview on public radio. I’ve collected dozens of links to recent articles on the topic for those who are interested.

It doesn’t take a vegan to see the strong moral argument for fake meat. As Specter writes, "There is something inherently creepy about [growing meat in labs], But there is something more inherently creepy about the way we deal with the animals that we eat. ... They live a horrible life, and they often die quite cruelly. So the idea of being able to eliminate some of that is extremely exciting for a lot of people." Add to that the serious overcrowding of the planet, leading to environmental concerns like global warming and reduced arable land, this seems like a winning proposition.

But is it a kosher one?

Kashrut teaches us to respect all life and to be sensitive to suffering. An animal needs to be killed painlessly in order to be kosher. This process will be as painless as your basic biopsy, so it would seem as kosher as kosher can be. Not even PETA could complain if, say, fur coats were harvested this way. Some speak of having “free range” Petri dishes, but these are the people who believe a carrot screams when you pick it from the ground.

What about pork? While the fact that the pork stem cells would have to come from a pig, an argument could be made that the process of converting those cells into meat would be so complex, and the transformation from the original so complete, that it would be OK (much as Conservative rabbis have ruled for cheeses ). I disagree with that.

Kashrut is not simply about sensitizing ourselves to pain. It is also about living a life of discipline and holiness. Some foods are designated unkosher for what seem like purely arbitrary reasons. Part of being more humane – and more human – comes from pausing before we select and eat our food, to look at the label and know that not every creature is available to us to use for our instant gratification.
The same goes for sex partners, incidentally, which is why sexuality is covered in the same “holiness” section of Leviticus as kashrut. We can’t just shack up with anyone we see - unless you are governor of California, of course. Standards of who is an acceptable sex partner may change (as has happened in the liberal movements with homosexuality and long ago with bigamy), but the principle of setting boundaries remains, and will continue to even when we begin to grow entire human beings in a test tube.

Oh….we already do? Forgot.

There’s one other factor to consider. The rabbis called it Mar’it Ayin . There is a prohibition against doing things that look like they are prohibited. So eating a cheeseburger made out of Petri dish meat, or even Soya, could possibly fall under this category (though veggie burgers are now so prevalent they shouldn’t cause a problem).

Simple answer? It ‘aint so simple. Fortunately, we’ll have time to figure it out before this stuff hits the market. 06_17_11.pdf

Saturday, June 11, 2011

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Sean Rose on Beha'alotcha

Shabbat Shalom

I am a big fan of Jewish holidays; I love them so much that I actually have three favorites: Hanukkah, Passover and Purim.

Of those three, two have a connection to my portion…sort of.

My haftarah is the same one recited on the Shabbat of Hanukkah, because it deals with the symbol of the menorah, something also found at the beginning of my Torah portion. At the end of the haftarah, we find that famous line “Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”

In Judaism, the focus is always on spiritual strength, rather than physical power. So what is it that makes you strong? The answer is: discipline and self control.
So why is Passover one of my favorite holidays? Because it’s the only time my mom will let junk food in the house. It’s ironic that Passover is meant to be a time when we use self discipline to avoid foods that we like, like bread. But for me, Passover is my reward for the discipline I show all year long.

My portion speaks about that too. No, not about junk food, but about cravings. The people were sick and tired of just eating mannah all the time and they complained. They even talked about wanting to go back to Egypt. They wanted meat!
So God provided quail. Lots of quail. And they ate and ate and ate until they weren’t sick-and-tired any more – just plain sick! They were hit by a plague and because of that, the place was named “The Graves of Craving.”

After that, my portion contains another case where the lack of discipline ended up being costly. Miriam and Aaron gossiped about Moses, and Miriam came down with leprosy as a result.

The lesson is that we need to be very careful to control our cravings, or they will take control of us.

How do I control my desires and impulses?

Sometimes when I’m in a candy store, I have a yen to spend all my money on Gummy Bears. The way I stop myself is by imagining how sick I would get if I ate too many.
The key here is not just to live in the moment, but to be able to look ahead at the consequences of everything you do.

Of course, you can also look ahead to the good consequences of things you do. For my mitzvah project, for the past 3 months I’ve been collecting comforters, blankets and food for cats and dogs. If you are still interested in donating, you can still contribute. The information is in my booklet. I’m doing this because I love animals so much. I know that the things I do now will benefit them down the road.
The moral of the story – don’t eat too much quail, or too much of anything. Everything should be done in moderation. Control your desires and look to the future. That’s what it means to be a Jew and that’s also what it means to be a Bar Mitzvah.

Friday, June 10, 2011

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Ilana Olin on Naso

Let me tell you about a typical day in the life of Ilana Olin.

Mom wakes me at 7:00

. Mom wakes me at 7:05. Mom screams at me and I get out of bed at 7:15, get dressed, eat breakfast, pack all my stuff, and I’m out the door at 7:42. I arrive at school at 8:02, go through my school day and then take the bus home. I get home at 3:20 and then, on a Hebrew School day, leave the house at 3:35 to arrive by 4:00

. I leave just as we start tefillah, eat dinner in the car on the way to the gym, and then practice with my gymnastics team until 9:00. Then, I eat dinner again on the way home, get home around 9:30, do homework, shower and go to sleep.

Aside from the Hebrew school part, I do this three times a week, which includes about 12 hours at the gym. Oh, and did I mention bat mitzvah lessons and practice? Throw in another half hour each day of that, plus lessons. You might say that I’m pretty busy.

And, yes, I am driven. I have high expectations of myself and work very hard to live up to them. In a particular event or exercise, I won’t stop for the day until I can do everything perfectly three times. For me, this means no wobbles. This hard work has paid off to get me to where I am in gymnastics today. And my hard work in studying for my bat mitzvah has also paid off, because here I am!

By now you should be able to tell a few key things about me: 1) that I love gymnastics, and have since my first “Mommy and Me” class when I was 18 months old, and 2) that I’m a perfectionist.

You might be relieved to know that I am not completely insane. I do have my limits. Perfectionism is only a good thing to a degree. It has its limits.
I’ve discovered that perfectionism is for the imperfect. I believe in doing everything to the best of my ability, no matter what it takes – but then being able to know my limitations and to accept them.

My Torah portion begins with the word “NaSO” – which literally means “lift up.” That makes sense to me as a gymnast, because we do a lot of heavy lifting. The burden is very physical - I need to lift myself up onto the bar or the beam, and sometimes off the floor.

But it’s also psychological burden – to lift yourself up to higher and higher levels. It takes an incredible amount of focus and determination. And even more, you have to control your fear. It takes courage to try something new, something you’ve never done before, especially if you are doing it on a beam that’s only a few inches wide.

And you also need self discipline. My portion gives the example of the Nazerite, and my haftarah details the birth of the most famous Nazerite, Samson. A Nazerite was someone who took a special vow to lead a very disciplined life, never drinking wine or cutting their hair.

But it’s important to note that very few people took those vows and there are no Nazerites anymore. Jews have always struggled with perfectionism. We are always looking for role models who go above and beyond, but the Jewish message is that we should also do things in moderation. It’s OK to make mistakes, as long we always try to improve. That’s why we have the High Holidays, a time when Jews get it right on the balance beam, making up for the times when we fall. Too bad we don’t get a High Holidays at our meets!

Self discipline is important to me, like it was for the Nazerites. I only watch a couple of programs on TV a week: “Glee” and “Modern Family.” That’s it.
The most important thing for a perfectionist is to know your strengths and weaknesses. I’ve learned to recognize them and improve myself based upon them. As a person I’ve changed as I’ve grown. I have learned that one mistake won’t change my whole life. I’ve learned to go with the flow, too. There have certainly been times when I’ve made a mistake in a routine, but then collected myself and done my personal best for the rest of the routine.

Now that I’m a bat mitzvah, I’ve learned to never give up, that practice makes perfect… or almost perfect – because perfectionism itself is imperfect!
For my mitzvah project, I raised awareness about heart disease and collected money to donate to the American Heart Association. Remember, 1 in 3 women will die of heart disease. Thanks to the support of everyone here, I have already raised over $1,500 for this cause.

Jewish Ethics and Anthony Weiner's Very Bad Week: Hammerman on Ethics

Jewish Ethics and Anthony Weiner's Very Bad Week

Q - Does Rep. Weiner's admitted act of sending out explicit photos of himself disqualify him from public office? Is this a new form of adultery? Given the fact that "sexting" is so common these days among young people, will it become a political albatross comparable to pot smoking for aspiring pols who came of age in the '60s? After all, isn't this just a byproduct of the Internet revolution in the way that drug use was the byproduct of the counter culture? Eventually, won't the culture simply catch up to these new freedoms and no one will care that he did this?

A - I see what you are getting it. "I took the photo but did not send it" comes perilously close to "I didn't inhale." And now, having inhaled pot in one's youth does not even raise an eyebrow, much less disqualify one from office, as President Obama has proven. So will the same be said for "sexting" a few years from now?

I doubt it, at least in the case of Rep. Wiener. Politicians may get a pass for other recklessness, but our tolerance for sexual indiscretion while in office has been decreasing with each shocking new revelation (see my recent diatribe on "Men Behaving Badly") .

The analogy to Clinton that works best here is less his alleged use of marijuana and more his exploitation of Monica Lewinsky. The use of an illegal drug potentially harms only the individual using it, but the exploiting of another human being as an object for instant sexual gratification harms at least three parties: the user, the sex object and the user's betrayed family.

If Weiner were not married, the act of sexting probably would not disqualify him permanently from public trust, just as, in a more quaint age, he wouldn't have been eternally scarred for passing around issues of "Playboy" or contraband copies of "Lady Chatterly." I'm not thrilled that sexting, which had become shockingly common among teens over the past few years, has now spread to adults. But while the scale has increased exponentially, titillation is still titillation, the human body is still the human body and boys will be boys. We're not going to stop it, so it's best to focus on those cases where there are clear victims.

There are all types of infidelity, and as President Clinton discovered, many transcend the narrow definitions of sexual contact. Even physical proximity is not a prerequisite. Close office friendships involving the exchange of intimate marital details could be considered "emotional infidelity." Lawyers consider sexting to be a form of infidelity but not grounds for divorce, because, as one lawyer said to Fox news, "In this day and age, cheating is as prevalent as breathing."

I would have trouble trusting the type of person who can't keep his privates private, whether in person or on camera. Personally, I prefer self portraits to be above the waist. Weiner can repair the damage, though, by following the path of teshuvah (repentance) laid out in Jewish tradition, by relinquishing the sin, confessing with a broken heart, and demonstrating sincere remorse. And it wouldn't hurt if he began by telling the truth.

Eventually we'll figure out how to rein in these new freedoms, much as happened with the Pill. After unleashing a national orgy that lasted well into the '70s, we began to figure out how to use this new freedom responsibly. That is beginning to happen right now with social networking, and the Weiner case, for all its humorous overtones, is sending a key message to all those young and married Beltway wannabees considering zapping lewd photos of their private parts:

Keep your zip drive zipped.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read more Hammerman on Ethics here. Read his blog here

Friday, June 3, 2011

Hammerman on Ethics: Living in a Flood Zone

Q –In reading about the recent Mississippi River floods, it was shocking to see how spillways were opened in less populated areas, in effect deliberately flooding out thousands of homes in order to save more populated areas downstream. How can anyone justify wiping out entire communities like that? And conversely, is it right for people to deliberately move into areas that are known “spill zones,” where flooding is known to occur.

A – If a person knowingly moves his family into the path of a designated spillway, a town directly downstream from a dam or levee designated for the controlled release of water when a river is at flood stage, the government cannot be held responsible. The National Flood Insurance Program provides detailed maps, available to all who are considering purchasing a home. It’s the risk you take in living there. Similarly, you are also completely responsible if you choose to live directly on an earthquake fault line or in a house filled with asbestos or lead paint. The responsibility gets murkier when you are talking about living near nuclear reactors, oil rigs, or disputed borders, or in places frequented by tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, mudslides, blizzards or floods.

Come to think of it, that’s just about everywhere, though New Orleans seems to have taken on more than its fair share of the risk. Maybe we would all be better off relocating to the moon, or in a glass bubble.

Your question hits on an age-old ethical quandary: Does the government (or anyone) have the right to sacrifice a few in order to save many? It’s a variant of the old “Trolley Problem,” suggested first by a granddaughter of President Grover Cleveland. A trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track by a mad philosopher. But by flipping a switch, the trolley would be redirected down a different track. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied to that one. Should you flip the switch or do nothing? Do we sacrifice one life in order to save five? Either way, the evil philosopher is the one with blood on his hands, but that makes it no easier to pull the switch.

Fortunately, In this case, we are talking about property rather than human lives. And there was ample warning to evacuate, as there usually is before a flood, hurricane or wildfire hits, less so for tornadoes. So, as long as warnings were provided, the government can’t be held responsible.

But with global warming a likely contributor to the extreme weather we’ve been seeing, there is a broader ethical concern. During the Mississippi River flooding last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carré Spillway, 30 miles north of New Orleans, for the 10th time since 1932. Three of those openings came before 1973; seven since. A clear pattern is emerging. We’re also seeing more tornadoes than ever, even in places that rarely saw them in the past, like here in the New York area and New England.

Climate change is a political and ethical hot potato. Ethics involves relationships, usually among humans, or between humans and animals. But how we relate to our planet now has enormous implications for future generations. The Torah teaches (Deut 22:8) that we should build a parapet on the roof to protect people from falling, and the rabbis expanded that to include not keeping a rickety ladder or vicious dog in the house (Ketubot 41b). We all have an obligation to keep our homes safe.

The earth is our home. The governments of the world are its owners and we are all its custodians. At this rate it won’t be long before the entire planet becomes one enormous spill zone. So in that sense, yes, the government can be held responsible. And that means all of us.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Israel Programs

People often ask me about Israel programs for teens and young adults. Here is a good resource of links and addresses, from mercaz usa.

Conservative Movement Programs to Israel

United Synagogue Youth (USY):
Summer: USY Israel Pilgrimage
School Year: USY High
Yearlong: NATIV

Camp Ramah Programs:
Summer: Ramah Seminar
School Year: Jerusalem High School - TRY (Tichon Ramah Yerushalayim)
Yearlong: Lilmod UleLamed

Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center for Conservative Judaism:
Conservative Yeshiva
Project Oded & Continuing Education Programs

"Discover Jerusalem" Semester Abroad:

KOACH Birthright Trips:

General Programs to Israel

Israel Program Center:

Magen David Adom Volunteers
Professional Internships
Project Otzma
WUJS Institute
Kibbutz Ulpan
Elite Academy High School
Study at Israeli Universities:

Volunteering in Israel:

Other Short-Term Programs in Israel:

Other Long-Term Programs in Israel:

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Sarah Goldberg on Bamidbar

It is Memorial Day weekend, the start of summer and nature is in full bloom. In fact, my Torah portion and haftarah both center around nature. My portion’s name, Bamidbar, means wilderness and in my Haftorah, the prophet Hosea, talks about the sand of the sea. As Jacob mentioned, just as you can’t count grains of sand, it’s also true that you can’t assign a number to the people of Israel.

But enough about counting – that was HIS topic. Mine is nature. The sand may be plentiful, but water is another story. In the desert, the Israelites had so little water, and they valued it to be very precious.

I am an advocate for the environment, especially when it comes to water – (PAUSE) you can ask my parents, I am like the water-police. I keep a close eye on members of my family when they turn on the water to brush their teeth; even when it’s just a little drip in the faucet, I’ll let them know.

Did you know that when you leave the water dripping for about five seconds, that’s about a gallon of water wasted around the world? So every time you keep that faucet running for just a few seconds, a poor little girl in Africa will have that much less to drink!

You can see why they call me the water police!

I love pretty much everything nature has to offer. There is a rose outside my house that blossoms every year, and every day I would check with my Dad to see how many petals bloomed.

I also enjoy hiking up mountains and climbing high up in trees (like at the temple, although the rabbi didn’t know that). I will never forget climbing Talcott Mountain with my Papa or climbing Stowe Pinnacle in Vermont with my cousins. I find climbing to be really peaceful (PAUSE) except for those times when I’m gasping for air!
Sometimes I think of nature when I play the trumpet. When I’m doing that, I feel like I’m filling all of the empty spaces of the room with the sound of music. Once the sound is out, I can’t take it back in. I feel like I am laying a whole blanket of music over the world, creating something wonderful. This is similar to how G-d fills every bit of space with nature. The fresh bloom of flowers in the spring, and the first sign of the falling of snow are just few of the wonderful features of nature. Once the flowers bloom, they fill the world with beauty the way my music fills the room.

Aside from nature, another one of my many loves is reading books. Reading takes you into a magical world where you can express your own thoughts and no one can say you’re wrong. Since today I read from the Book of Numbers, for my mitzvah project, I’ve collected a number of books! Also, I’ve been reading to children at JCC Kindercare program, so that they will have the chance to love reading like I do.
And now, I’d like to bring back my brother, Jacob, to help me with the fun part

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary; Jacob Goldberg on Bamidbar

Shabbat Shalom!

We were trying to figure out which one of us would give the first speech and we decided, AGE before beauty.

In terms of my family, there is no question that I am the oldest child, which is why I am going first. So in that sense I’m the number one child, or as my parents sometimes say, “The Gem.” But there’s a lot more to who I am than a simple number.

This topic is important since today we are beginning the book of Numbers, and today’s portion includes a census of the people of Israel. The Torah seems to be showing us that numbers are important. But Jews have always been wary of counting people. We don’t want to turn people into numbers. In my Haftorah, the prophet Hoshea seems to be sending that message, when he states that the number of the people in Israel cannot be counted, much like grains of sand near the sea.

As one who loves sports, I often follow statistics. A player’s stats can be impressive, but they never tell the whole story. If someone’s averaging 20 points a game in basketball, we don’t know whether the guy he is guarding is also scoring 20, or whether he is able to box out on rebounds or set a pick for his teammates or make a perfect pass. Court vision cannot be measured.

Lebron James scores lots of points, but what makes him great is that he gets the whole team involved. He’s a great passer and always knows where the open man is. You can’t really appreciate him by statistics alone – except for one very important statistic: his birthday, which is the same as mine! And my cousin Josh’s.

And Tiger Woods, but he’s a topic for another Torah portion.

One reason Jews are wary of turning people into numbers is because that is exactly what the Nazis did to us. They burned numbers onto the arms of their victims and they became known by their numbers more than their names.

But for Jews, numbers do still play an important role. Right now we are counting the days between Passover and Shavuot. Today is the 39th day of that counting period, known as the Omer.

Also, every Hebrew letter has a numeric value. So Alef is one and bet is two. And by adding up the numbers in a person’s name, we can sometimes learn something about that person. For instance, my name, Yaakov, has a numeric value of 182, which is the same total as in the word that means enthusiastic. When it comes to sports, at least, I’m very enthusiastic.

This is Memorial Day weekend, a time for us also to count, as we mourn the approximately 1 million 346 thousand Americans who have died fighting for our freedom since the Revolutionary War. This number reminds us to count our blessings too, and remember all that we have to be thankful for.

That’s something I’m doing through my mitzvah project, as I have been helping with the kids at the JCC Tennis program, and donating some tennis rackets to those who might otherwise not be able to play at the Boys and Girls Club of Stamford.

I’ll be back in a few minutes to thank some people, but right now I would like to hand it over to my sister Sarah, the “beauty” in this equation of our Torah portion!

The Year Of Thinking Biblically (Jewish Week)

The Year Of Thinking Biblically

A plea for adaptability and openness in a world increasingly colored, as in the Bible, in stark black and white.

Joshua Hammerman
Special To The Jewish Week
Wednesday, June 1, 2011

How can we not rejoice at what we saw in Tahrir Square, the author writes. getty imagesWhen Christian fundamentalists predicted that May 21 would mark the end of the world, Jews laughed. We know that the end of the world won’t happen until September, when the Palestinians bring their declaration of the statehood to the UN General Assembly. Or when the Iranians get the Bomb. Or whenever President Obama utters the word “1967” and is not referring to Haight-Ashbury or Carl Yastrzemski.

If the Jews are a stiff-necked people, it’s because we never stop tossing and turning, especially since Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself aflame on Jan. 4 and all heck broke loose in the Middle East. Try as we might to be thrilled at a region basking in democratic possibilities, the chain reaction of events spinning out of control has left us gasping, to the point where (for once) Jews on the left and right actually agree on something. That’s the good news. The bad news is that what we agree on is that Israel faces mortal peril.

Google “existential threat” and then add “Israel” and you get 149,000 results (by contrast, add “climate change” and you get only 144,000). The word “existential” has been bandied about so often lately that I half expected Prime Minister Netanyahu to meander into the House chamber wearing a beret and lugging a tattered copy of “No Exit.”

Unfortunately, for the peace process, there seems to be No Entrance.

With the Arab Spring now turning to summer, all the craziness needn’t herald an Israeli fall. For ages, people have characterized Israel’s neighborhood as dangerous. Now that neighborhood looks like it could be going upscale, like Brooklyn. For decades, Israel was the only democracy in the Middle East. Now, everywhere, the voices of long-suppressed people are being heard. Prime Minister Netanyahu said last week at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), “Israel is not what’s wrong with the Middle East. Israel is what’s right with the Middle East,” and indeed, anti-Zionism has not been the driving force of the uprisings.

To quote a recent article in the Kuwaiti Times, “The Arab spring has broken some famous myths about the Arab people — being indifferent, immune to change, cherishing authoritarian rule, little appreciation for democracy and human rights. ... The Arab spring has proven that Arab concerns are real human concerns.” When the dust settles, there is reason to hope that Israel could potentially be seen as a model for democracy rather than as an alien interloper in the region.

How can we not rejoice at what we saw in Tahrir Square? How can we not be in awe of the courage of the people of Homs, Dara’a and Banias? We who stood up to the Syrian tyrant Antiochus and who more recently have seen Bashar Assad harbor Hamas and funnel weapons to Hezbollah, how could we not be encouraged at the prospect of a liberated Syria? And we who outlasted the Pharaohs need to remember that Mubarak’s Egypt, recalled so nostalgically by some, was a hotbed of anti-Semitic incitement, where TV programs regularly spread myths of blood libels and the “Elders of Zion.”

But we are the people who can’t take “Yes” for an answer. So we worry.

The left fears that once a Palestinian state is endorsed at the UN, the two-state solution will be history and Israel will lose legitimacy, forced to confront a worldwide boycott. Its sovereignty will be challenged by hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians marching back across its borders to their “homes” in Israel. This non-violent mass movement, modeled on the Arab Spring, would garner international backing — a mortal threat to Israel.

Right-wingers, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, feel that Israel needs to hold firm on refusing to negotiate with the Palestinians as long as Hamas is part of a governing coalition. They hope to deny the Palestinians unilateral recognition without being cornered into giving up strategic territorial assets that leave Israel with indefensible borders — another mortal threat.

And there is the prospect of a nuclear Iran, which all agree is an additional mortal threat.

In the face of these dangers, rabbis are being called upon by all sides to rally the troops, an awkward calling, because we’re uncomfortable in foxholes, trained less to fight for power than to speak truth to it. Great rabbis have defended the Jewish people in times of trouble before, but our effectiveness depends on our speaking from a place of moral authority. We are natural educators more than advocates, pursuers of peace rather than partisanship. We are trained to be self-critical. While we all fear for Israel’s survival, we also reserve the right to challenge Israel’s policies, especially if we see them as self-destructive. And things are happening so darned quickly.

With massive floods, earthquakes and tornadoes becoming a regular occurrence, not to mention nuclear meltdowns and a daily dose of regime change, we are living in times that could only be described as “biblical.” But rabbis are trained to think rabbinically. There is a huge difference between the worldviews of the Bible and the Talmud. Rabbinic Jews inhabit a world of nuance and dialogue. Rabbis are skilled at the art of the adaptable, a survival technique designed for an era of powerlessness. The magic we do comes from our words and our wits. We live in the shades of gray.

The biblical world, by contrast, is sharply drawn in black and white. The Bible is a complicated book, no doubt, but its culture is characterized by bold action; it lacks subtlety. The God of the Bible speaks in direct commands, whereas the God of the Talmud is filtered through echoes of human imagination and sacred text. It is no coincidence that rabbis assumed Jewish leadership only after the Second Temple was destroyed and the biblical age complete.

Because we specialize in adaptability, rabbis have skills that could be valuable in navigating through these turbulent times. The problem is that because history is moving so fast, people aren’t listening to nuance. In fact, they aren’t listening at all. Each day brings about new fears and uncertainties. Rabbis need to teach people how to listen, to imagine the worldview of the Other, to hear the different narratives. Israel’s story is powerful and true; it can withstand the comparison to contrasting chronicles. But there are truths in the Palestinian narrative too, and theirs is a history that needs to be heard.

What rabbis do best is pique the conscience and expand the mind. Other Jews need to appreciate that role rather than question rabbis’ loyalty, as has happened too often lately, most notably when newly nominated Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs’ pro-Israel credentials were challenged by biblically minded mercenaries. His only “sin” has been to act rabbinically in a year of living biblically, and it is not a sin at all. It’s why we’re here.

The Arab Spring is many things, but it has evolved into the ultimate showdown between America and the Iranian mullahs. This clash of civilizations is biblical, an ideological fight to the finish, a war that must be won. The stakes have not been higher since D-Day.

But once you take Iran and its proxies out of it, Israel vs. Palestine is not a biblical clash, at least not for those who are reasonable and sane, which I believe to be the majority of both populations. In this contest, the only route to victory is for both sides to win, or at least call it a draw, as so often happens in the Talmud.

When my car veers off the planned route, the GPS frantically flashes “recalculating,” and then offers an alternate route. Pols and pundits tend to respond to biblical upheavals by regurgitating rather than recalculating, trying to shoehorn new events into their tired old theories, which is like trying to fight World War II from behind the Maginot Line.

Memo to the experts: There are no experts. None of us has any idea where this will all end up.

Rabbis have been skilled at recalculating since long before the invention of the GPS. We’ve been trained to understand that each new event requires that we instantly challenge all prior assumptions, something that happens on just about every page of the Talmud.

Recalculating requires an ability to listen and an openness to changing our positions. But it need not lead to paralysis.

The unfolding big picture presents enormous opportunities for Israel, despite the known risks. At the very least, the current modes of acceptable protest in the Middle East no longer involve guns and suicide belts. I’ll take 10,000 peaceful marchers in Majdal Shams any day, over tanks, missiles and bombs. The Arab Spring teaches us that if Israelis can appeal directly to the people of Cairo, Ramallah and Damascus the way Anwar Sadat once appealed directly to them, the neighborhood could suddenly become much less dangerous. If Damascus falls and Hamas is forced to reform, Iran will suddenly become the shakiest of dominoes.

But if not...


Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn. He writes a regular column for the paper, and his “Hammerman on Ethics” column appears on The Jewish Week’s website.

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