Friday, April 5, 2013

Shabbat-O-Gram, TBE Teens Gone Wild (in a good way), History Channel's Brutal, Bloody "Bible," Yom Hashoah, Shmini and Gun Violence

Shabbat Shalom
Teens Gone Wild (In a Good Way)

This Shabbat morning lots will be happening all over the building.  Our successful experiment of holding some Hebrew School sessions on Shabbat will continue this week, with some classes focusing on themes related to Yom Hashoah.   Our main service will have a real youthful flavor, with the baby naming of Vivian Mila Kaplan, daughter of Eric and Katie Kaplan, plus the involvement of several TBE teens in the service.  Our torah readers will include Ari Singer-Freeman, Richie Greenbaum and Sarah Druckman and I've invited several others to speak about their recent travels, including BCDS teens who just returned from Israel (as of this moment, Benjy Robinov, Rebecca Gatz, Rachel Fein and Jessica Rubin), others who went to AIPAC's policy conference, plus Elana Leichter, who just spent a few months in Israel and Poland with Schechter H.S., and Simone Teich, who just spent a week in Jinotega, Nicaragua (a village 3 hours north of Managua) building cinder block homes and living among the villagers.  Beth El teens are doing good all over the world!

And join us this evening too, as Katie Kaplan will be assisting Cantor Mordecai and me in leading the service.

Congregant Notes

Barbara and Marvin Gold have informed me about a new film produced by their son and TBE's own Joe Gold - "Desperate Acts of Magic."  This groundbreaking movie written about magic features professional magicians performing real magic without camera tricks or special effects. Buy your tickets now for screenings at the Quad Cinemas in NYC, May 3-9. 

This month features important fundraisers in memory of two young adults whose memories we cherish, a walkathon in memory of Stephanie Becker (see flyer below and the website here, and this past Wednesday, a dance fundraiser in memory of Dana Kraus (see the fund's website here).  May their memory be for a blessing.

Yom Hashoah, Parashat Shmini and Gun Violence

Yom Hashoah takes place on Sunday evening and Monday.  Our community's commemoration will be held here at Beth El, beginning at 7 PM, with featured speakerThomas Buergenthal of the International Court of Justice.  As darkness rises and the lit memorial candles reflect in our sanctuary windows, the effect is similar to that of the Children's Pavilion at Yad Vashem.  A few flickering dots of light suddenly look like millions of candles. It is an astonishing sight.

A major theme of Yom Hashoah commemorations this year will be the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which occurred 70 years ago this month.  The last surviving major participant in the uprising, Marek Edelman, died four years ago.  This highlights the urgency for all of us to take on the role of living witness.  So I've uploaded, for your convenience,  aHolocaust timeline and detailed responses to five major claims of Holocaust deniers.

This  week's Torah portion contains the shattering story of Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who died suddenly, tragically and inexplicably in a flash fire, while attempting to make an unauthorized offering. (The Nadav and Avihu incident has been an obsession of mine since my rebellious teenage years). They were literally playing with fire, and as a result they went up in smoke, a scenario not that different from many situations where young people play with their parents' firearms and tragedy ensues.  The Torah tells us that Aaron was in total shock.  Moses speaks to Aaron immediately after the accident and tells him, essentially, that it was no accident, that God had wanted it that way, and that the kids had died for a higher cause (or a punishment).  I think Moses was trying to be comforting, but, as happens with so many of us when we fumble for words at a time like this, it doesn't come out so comforting.  And Aaron's response?  Complete silence.

The text of chapter 10, verse 3, says, "Vayidom Aharon."   "Silence" really doesn't cut it. The Torah doesn't use the word we typically use for silence, shaket ("sheket be'vakasha, hey"). Rambam says that it connotes an abrupt cessation of weeping.  Aaron had been crying uncontrollably but when Moses consoled him, he stopped.  Rashi goes on to say that God rewarded Aaron for his silence by proceeding to address Aaron exclusively and directly in verse 8 - something that is very rarely found in the Torah.  Aaron's silence is seen as a good thing.

That silence has often been compared to the silence of the Jewish people for decades following the Holocaust.  The shock was too great.  Paralysis set in.  We weren't sure whether it was possible to go on.  In some ways, this silence was good and necessary.  No Moses among us would dare attempt to explain the tragedy on theological terms.  No one dared to blame the victim.  It was more than a decade later that the term "Holocaust" even came into existence referencing this genocide.  But now that silence has ended.

When Elie Wiesel wrote his classic book "Night," only then was the silence broken. He wrote it in French in 1958, and then it came out in English first in 1960.   That's fifteen years.  Aaron stayed dumbstruck for only a chapter.  And because Wielsel's book was the first, his book might be the most moving of the many books written about those dark years.  He wrote:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames, which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Wiesel has often spoken about the power of silence - but he was in fact the one who broke the silence. 

Ultimately, silence is not the best response.  Positive, constructive action is.  That's why it is so incredible that the parents of Newtown and Aurora victims have found their voice so soon after those tragedies of fire.  Unlike Aaron, they have spoken swiftly and powerfully.  And the result is that Colorado and Connecticut have adapted strong and sensible new gun laws, on a bipartisan basis. But this is no time to rest on laurels.

We pray that Washington will adopt similar common sense laws.  No...prayer is not enough.  We will act until it happens, so that lives will be saved.  Next week, as the senate reconvenes, a prayer vigil will take place involving clergy from across the country.  Over 4,000 clergy have signed on to a letter calling for meaningful legislation to reduce gun violence.  A group of rabbis (myself included) have produced a book, Peace in our Cities: Rabbis Against Gun Violence, which will be widely distributed to our representatives in Washington next week.

Let us hope that in the future there will be no more Aarons, and no reason for any parent to be struck dumb because of unfathomable - and preventable - grief and loss.

A Review of the History Channel's "The Bible" Miniseries

Last month, I taught an introductory session for adults on the biblical book of Joshua.  I informed the class about two things that they needed to know from the outset:  First, that this is probably the most important book in the entire Bible for understanding the landscape of religious extremism.

And second, that almost none of the events described in the book actually happened.

The next day, one of the students in the class came up to me and thanked me.
"I was so worried that the stories described there were true," she confessed, "and I'm so glad that they're not."

I cautioned her that biblical critics and archaeologists are far from unanimous on the subject, but that evidence points to a far less brutal conquest, if there was any conquest at all.  That relieved her, because, truth be told, the faith-driven carnage described in Joshua compares distressingly to the most virulent jihadist or white supremacist scenarios.  And the ethnic cleansing showcased in the book has been used as proof text by radical Israeli rabbis anxious to prove God's militaristic intent and stymie hopes for a two-state solution.

The book of Joshua is, hands down, the most brutal book in the Hebrew Bible, in contrast, say, to the books of Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job, parts of Genesis (the Joseph story), and a whole bunch of prophets, including Jonah.

Which is, in a nutshell, what bothers me about the highly praised, carnage-filled, ten hour, five-part mini-series, "The Bible," whose heavenly ratings bested the major networks and rivaled even those of the hit series, "The Walking Dead."

Here's my gripe: Joshua and Samson are in "The Bible."  Ruth and Deborah are not.

There is much to praise about the series (and I emphasize that I feel qualified only to evaluate the segments relating to what Christians call the "Old Testament," which Jews call the Tanakh).   The cinematography is gorgeous, especially in High Definition.  Some scenes are truer to the original text than prior cinematic versions.  The Red Sea crossing, for instance, is twenty thousand leagues above Cecil B. DeMille's, not only because of improved technology, but because, in this version, the Israelites actually get wet.  Exodus 14 speaks of them crossing  on land "in the midst of the sea," and nowhere does the text state that there wasn't at least some mist or mud involved.  So in "The Bible" they are walking through a driving rainstorm, while, in the less accurate "Ten Commandments," they don't even need windshield wipers.

But otherwise, this "Bible" is quite DeMillian, right down to its 1950's "Mad Men" ethos, reflecting a time when men were men and women were walking blow up dolls, whose sole job was to tempt men into sin; this was an era when God sat high in the saddle and chose sides in every battle.  Nowhere in "The Bible" do we find God depicted as the still small voice that summoned Elijah, the nurturing gardener of Genesis chapter two, the lover of Song of Songs or the replenishing well of Miriam.

Where are real women, like Rebecca and Rachel - the ones who don't bathe naked on the rooftop, offer poisoned apples to their mate or give unsolicited haircuts in bed?  Real women are nowhere to be found.  Not in this macho movie.

I can only assume that the filmmakers chose Old Testament stories based on their Christological significance (Daniel being a prime example, and Joshua too), rather than out of any desire to showcase the dazzling landscape of ancient Israelite experience and theological reflection.  But does that mean that the entire series had to send us back to Pleasantville?

(For the record, and in memory of Roger Ebert, I give this series two thumbs down.)

For the rest of my review in the "Times of Israel," click here.  

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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