Thursday, October 10, 2013

Shabbat-O-Gram for October 12

Mazal tov to Matthew Greenbaum and family on his becoming Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat morning.  On this Columbus Day weekend (or, as my politically correct Alma Mater proudly calls it, "Fall Weekend,") if you are wondering whether Columbus was Jewish, check out my response here.

There continues to be much discussion of the Pew Report this week. I encourage you to read it in full.  You may also want to check the survey's key findings and my glass-half-full commentary at the "Times of Israel" site, plus a follow-up column I wrote, also featured on the site, "Can Jews Take Yes for an Answer?"

Oh yes, and one more thing.  I've now decided that Craig_Breslow, the stellar Red Sox reliever by way of B'nai Israel in Bridgeport and Yale, who struck out four Rays in a row on Tuesday, is the best Jewish player in the majors since Sandy Koufax and Kevin Whatshisname.  I'm wracking my brain trying to figure out what to get him for Hanukkah.  OK, so he once pitched on Yom Kippur...but he still fasted! Go Sox!

THE LARGEST FUNERAL EVER (But should we lionize Ovadia Yosef?) 

This week the people of Israel mourned the passing of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, a sage who was revered by millions.  His funeral has been called the largest in Israel's history, with an an estimated 800,000 people filling the streets of Jerusalem, some literally throwing themselves on the hearse as the rabbi's body was carried to its final resting place.

His accomplishments were many and his influence was enormous on Israeli politics, as his Shas party gained prominence and leverage under his spiritual guidance.  Israelis united this week in praising his many feats.  Those who knew him best wept openly at this loss.  So many people gained inspiration and hope from him, so many were brought closer to Torah. 

But there is a problem in lionizing him to the degree he has been lionized.   While the week of someone's funeral is not necessarily the time to bring up their failings, any portrait of Ovadia Yosef has to include his more controversial side.  The Times of Israel gave us a fuller picture this week, noting his five most significant halachic rulings, including the decision to recognize Ethiopian Jews as legitimate Jews, sanction the trading of land for peace, and freeing "chained" widows (agunot).  But alongside, the Times also noted five of his most controversial statements

Let's just say that he wasn't the most politically correct person on the planet, and during his Saturday night, post Shabbat sermons, he was fond of stating things, on tape, that would have made Archie Bunker cringe.  We can chalk it up to age and say he's like that proverbial lovable, bigoted uncle, but I don't think religious leaders have the luxury of being embarrassing uncles (see under: Wright, Rev. Jeremiah).  Everyone slips up from time to time and quotes can be taken out of context.  But Yosef was known for these views and he stood by them.  He was no friend of the Conservative movement, needless to say, but his statements went far beyond a repudiation of pluralism.

He said Hurricane Katrina was a punishment for the Americans' support of the Gaza withdrawal.  He stated that the six million Jewish Holocaust victims were reincarnations of the souls of sinners.  He said, "Goyim were only born to serve us." He said of Muslims, "They're stupid.  Their religion is as ugly as they are," and of Arabs, "How do you make peace with a snake?"

Every Israeli is aware of statements like these. Yet, respectfully, and in my mind correctly, they are not dwelling on the negative this week.

What we must wonder, though, is how a person so medieval in his views could be adored so unquestioningly and become the most beloved rabbi in all Israel.  What does that say about Israel, about rabbis, about Judaism itself, and about our need to adore our leaders?  There is no shortage of great, open minded rabbis in Israel, who could serve far better as the face of the Torah - Rabbi Michael Melchior comes to mind.  But even they should not be placed on pedestals too high.

As if to prove the point that we should not place rabbis on pedestals, we read in this week's Jewish Week an expose of a New Jersey man who used his rabbinic persona to prey on women who put their faith in him.  Yet another despicable case of abuse.  To be clear, there is a huge difference between that crime and my concerns about Ovadia Yosef.

As I wrote a while back, there is a clear danger in our being so eager to place rabbis on pedestals: we rabbis begin to believe all our press clippings and forget the reasons we got into the rabbinate in the first place. And when we fail, our followers often blindly defend us because they still need to revere us, and we begin to believe that an admission of fallibility will compromise our ability to lead.

It's time to smash the pedestal rabbinate like so many of Terach's idols.   If we are re-establish the rightful place of the rabbi in Jewish life, we have to both safeguard the integrity of the role and reaffirm the frailty of the human being who fills it. And that begins when the rabbi steps down from pulpit of the soul and laughs, cries, errs and does teshuvah together with the rest of us.

So as we give Ovadia Yosef due respect, let's not whitewash the record entirely.  He's just been lowered into the ground, a steep descent from any pedestal,  the same place where all great rabbis go - along with the rest of us..

Looking at the Torah and Judaism with liberated eyes #1

WHO WAS ABRAHAM'S MOTHER? And what does she have to do with Job, Dina, Haman... and Zeus?

If you are looking for a great resource for Torah study, I highly recommend the new website "," whose mission is to energize the Jewish people by integrating the study of Torah with the disciplines and findings of academic biblical scholarship.   As of now, there is no other Jewish website or organization dedicated to modern biblical scholarship and there are there few divrei torah that incorporate critical scholarship in a constructive, religiously meaningful way. This is the kind of website that could easily have been created by the Conservative movement and that would, until recently, have been considered heretical by the Orthodox.  But some branches of modern Orthodoxy have edged closer to accepting biblical criticism, even as the more extreme groups still contend that the Bible is meant to be taken literally. 

For this week's portion of Lech Lecha, an essay focuses on the curious case of Abraham's mother, whose name is not mentioned in the Torah itself - no surprise there, as very few women's names are mentioned. But what is fascinating is how Talmudic authorities felt compelled to fill in this gap in patriarchal history (after all, we do know the names of Isaac and Jacob's mothers) because of challenges from unnamed heretics.

The essay addresses some of the issues raised by this passage; in particular, what is the significance of the name Amatlai.  For those of us who love to trace cross cultural influences, the response is fascinating:

Looking at the Torah and Judaism with liberated eyes #2
"How I met Abraham's mother"

This month marks the publication of a superb new collection of essays on the weeky portion, called "Unscrolled."  A project of that fabulous incubator of Jewish startups called Reboot (which brought us creative ventures like "Storahtelling" and "Hazon," "Unscrolled" brings together 54 young Jewish artists, writers, screenwriters, actors, to take a fresh look at our ancient texts.  I'm really impressed with what I've seen thus far, including the entry for the portion describing Creation from two weeks ago, written by Josh Radnor of "How I Met Your Mother" TV fame.  You can find it here.

It's called "Revision," and just as with the essay midrash on Abraham's mom, it brings in far flung ideas from other cultures.  Not Greek myths, in this case, but the Hindu sacred text known as the Upanishads, and lots more.  I studied the Upanishads in college and could instinctively see the connection he is drawing.  He is reminding us that all faith traditions are seeking the same God, each looking through a slightly different prism.  If we are truly to embark on a quest of discerning the presence of the Sacred in our universe and our lives, which is the main purpose of reading and rereading the Torah in the first place, then we need to go beyond the wisdom of our own tradition and incorporate what is wise in the others.

As we learn from the midrashic material about Abraham's mother, Judaism has been doing this forever - even to the point of mining Greek mythology for stories of Zeus.

We shouldn't be threatened by this.  We should be enthralled.  That's why our music is so eclectic.  That's why we explore authentically Jewish forms of Yoga here.  That's why you hired a religious studies major who enjoys the Upanishads to be your rabbi.  This ever shrinking world is moving in the direction of "Unscrolled."  We're already there.

If you are interested in forming a reading group to discuss the essays in "Unscrolled," let me know!

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