Wednesday, September 12, 2001

First Response:
September 12, 2001

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, Maryland
We are all still in an almost surreal state of suspended animation.

Our hearts go out, our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, the slaughtered and the sundered, their families, friends and loved ones, the wounded who will recover, and those who were not scratched whose wounds will never heal. All this, a communal condolence, while not even knowing if we are to be counted among the group in personal mourning. For we do not know the final numbers, and the names we wait to hear. Even if I had not just moved back to the Washington area, all of us, do we not, know someone who
might have been in the Pentagon or, perhaps much more likely, someone who worked in or near, or had reason to stop in the Twin Towers? With profound apologies to the West Coast, I simply assume everyone has personal connections to Washington and New York. If they are not the center of the universe (a claim also made by the book stand in the center of Harvard Yard), the are the center of the American world. Or at least, of my American world.

How to respond? How to begin? Where to start? An emptiness opens in the pit of our stomach, a wordless agony which seeks expression. The spontaneous outburst of prayer, in churches and synagogues and, yes, in mosques as well, is a gathering of the spirit, a turning to face the depth of nameless emotions in a time of crisis. Our synagogue will be holding such services tonight and tomorrow night. It is not just that there are no atheists in a foxhole. Here, the foxhole is the whole world. And now, we feel a need to simply... huddle together. (And every rabbi in America who had already completed Rosh Hashanah sermons is tossing them out, and starting from scratch.)

A few scattered thoughts, to be developed more fully, and more expertly, I am sure, by others in the days and weeks to come.

The first is that we are all on the front line. It is a feeling Jews have had for centuries, intensified since the Shoah and the birth and struggles of the state of Israel, muted by the false sense of security in this country, shared, this day and for all our tomorrows, by every American.

The second thought is the inevitable reaction, a reminder of the fragility of life. A plane missed, a wrong turn on a street, a chance encounter which threw us from our daily routine -- it can save our life. Or it can cost our life. And we can never, never tell in advance which it will be.

The third thought is a plea, to avoid finger pointing, to keep alive the humanity in ourselves, and in the way we look at others. I have said some things in the last 24-hours in anger which I do not believe have come out of my mouth -- referring to entire groups in terms that are not human, expressing hopes for revenge and destruction on a scale which will satisfy a blood-lust of emotion, but which are... well... wrong. We need to know the difference in ourselves, between the heat of anger, and effective, appropriate and just response. We need to discover the difference between vengeance... and justice.

Finally, there is anger. But it is not just anger at the perpetrators. I must confess to anger at the Bush administration -- for its previous criticisms of Israeli responses to terror. Let's just watch over the course of the next few weeks, to see how completely hypocritical those criticisms turn out to be. Criticizing the Israeli policy of assasinating terrorists? Do you think someone is going to tap Bin Ladin on the shoulder and politely arrest him, to bring him to trial? I think not. I have long said that if a single mortar were, God forbid, fired over the border from Mexico onto a Texas village, the American response would be immediate, swift, disproportionate, and not dependant on world opinion. That Israel's responses would appear positively restrained by comparision.

Now the unthinkable has happened. This is much more than a mortar shell. Almost any American response will be justified. And will have the support of the American people. Including mine. It will be justified.

Let's just see how hypocritical it will be.

Or perhaps... perhaps... perhaps... now "we" (Americans) will understand, what "we" (Jews -- most particularly the Israelis, but I mean the entire Jewish people as well) have been going through.

But this is not the way I would have wanted to earn the sympathy and understanding of America.

We mourn. We cry. We yearn.

We stand together, at this time of crisis.

As one colleague wrote (my friend Sara Perman), connecting the events of yesterday, with the Torah portion of the week: Atem Nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheichem; You are standing this day before the Lord your God... all of you... all of us... those who were there, those who were near, and those who stood bound to and by the images broadcast around the world.

Only the ones touched by fire were burned on the outside. But in another sense, all of us were there. We are all burned on the inside. We have all been attacked. This day, this month, this time, we are all among the injured.

Let us pray. And let us be there for each other.

Wednesday, August 15, 2001

Boxes and Mirrors:
The Refraction of Difference Through the Lens of Similarity

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Jerry Seinfeld once observed that when you're moving, all of life becomes a search for boxes. See a store: hey, got any boxes? See a friend: hey, how are you for boxes?

A box was found far away the other day. A box was found, and a moving story revealed, and the earth underneath our theological feet quivers, even if it does not shake.

The box was found in Israel, and it was a tomb. On the tomb were the astonishing words: "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

Now, who is James, and why is this important?

The inscription of a sibling on a tombstone is not unheard of -- if the sibling was sufficiently prominent. James, of course, was recorded in other places as the brother of Jesus. The question is: what does "brother" mean? The issue here relates to a debate between Protestants and Catholics regarding Mary, and her ongoing -- how shall I put this -- "status." Protestants solved the issue by viewing James as simply the younger brother. Catholic tradition had taught that Joseph and Mary continued to have (again, how to phrase this?) a somewhat unusual marital arrangement. And therefore Catholic tradition has read "brother" as "close relative," perhaps "cousin."

Well, this is obviously an internal Christian debate. So they found a coffin of Jesus' kin. What does this have to teach us about ourselves? In other words, as we perennially seem to be asking ourselves: is it good for the Jews?

Let us imagine, for a moment, that you are a high school English teacher at the very beginning of a school year. You want to get to know your students as quickly as you can. The curriculum calls for a book report as an early assignment. You have two options. You can send everyone to the library, and ask them to pick out their own books. Or you could assign everyone the same thing, and then read the reports.

Which one lets you learn about your students more quickly? Some would say it is by letting the students pick their own books, that in freedom their choices will reveal their interests, and their passions. But then what do you do with the different results? You can learn about their choices, but cannot be sure if their comments are reflections of themselves, or something in the book they chose. No, ironically, I think it is through the template of similarity that differences are more rapidly revealed. In reacting to the same thing, different results are real reflections of differences in the students themselves.

So, to, in the study of religion. We often learn more about ourselves through an encounter with similarity, then we do when we start from wildly different situations.

This year, in December, three great traditions celebrate three very different holidays. The end of Ramadan coincides with the beginning of Chanukah. And Christmas comes at the end of month (a pointed reminder to retailers who insist that it begins the day after Halloween). For now, though, it is the three traditions that I want to focus on, not the holidays themselves.

"James, brother of Jesus." This reminds me of something I noticed a long time ago.

Each one of the three great monotheistic traditions of the West began with a founding figure. In Judaism, although the first Jew was Abraham, the founding figure is really Moses. In Christianity a similar role was played by Jesus, and Islam, of course, was founded by Muhammed.

With the "death" (the quotation marks are in deference to the Christian theological tradition at the moment) of the founding figure, all three religions faced the same question: who will lead us now? And all three traditions had the same internal dynamic. Does the mantle stay "in the family," or does it pass to a "spiritual" disciple? In all three religions, we have an echo to this day of that initial question of succession.

In Judaism, the echo is felt in the remnant of the role of the Cohanim, the priests, in traditional circles. Political leadership passed from Moses to his disciple Joshua, it is true. But a large role was left for the priests, descendants of Aaron... brother of Moses.

In Islam, following the death of the Prophet, one group followed the leadership of the consensus choice for the Caliphate, the unrelated (although in Islam every Muslim is considered "related") spiritual heirs of Muhammed. This group is called the Sunnis. And another group followed the leadership of Ali, nephew of Muhammed. This group is called the Shi'ites.

(A similar dynamic played itself out in later Jewish history. A story is told regarding the death-bed remarks of the founder of Chasidism, the great Israrel Baal Shem Tov. He pulled his son, Abraham, known as Abraham the Angel, close to him, and said: "My son, you will be revered throughout your life. But you will not lead." The leadership of the Chasidic movement passed not from father to son, but to a disciple, the Dubner, the Maggid of Mezerich.)

What can we learn, from the confluence of such a tension, from the presence, in each of these traditions, of this "competition" between family and follower? Think, for a moment, of the divisions of our lives. Of the impact we have in our work, and the impact we have at home. Are the legacies distinct? Or are they intertwined. For those of us whose work is home, is there a feeling of integration, of meaning, in the lives we lead, the lessons we teach. For those whose time is split between different places: are the values we live at work, and the lessons we teach at home, compatible?

And one more thing. From the echoes of the past, from the idealized camaraderie of all Muslims, from the use of family titles for Catholic clergy, from the fact that the words recited by the Kohanim (the priests) over the congregation are the same one as those recited by parents for their children at dinner on Friday nights ("Yiverechecha Adonai v'yishmerecha; May God bless you and keep you..."): perhaps the intertwining of our family and our teachers gives us one more lesson as well. That the goal of a spiritual community is to learn of love in the midst of our family. And then, gradually, gingerly, graciously... to extend that love: from kin, to clan, from parents to pedagogs, and beyond... eventually, to all the family of humankind. We begin with blood. But in the end we learn: our fate and our faith are bound up together with that... of every human being.

At this season of the spirit, my best wishes to you... and to us all.

Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Lo Nafsik Lirkod
We Will Not Stop Dancing

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

Here we go, jumping in to the fractious fray, where everyone is shouting at the top of their lungs with utter certainty that they are right, and no one is listening to each other. And the media... Well, the media conform sink to the lowest common denominator, reporting every conflict as if it is a scorecard of opposition between two sides, not an anguished act of conscience torn between two compelling sides who are probably both right.

Reporters focus on the contest, and ignore the content.

I am writing about the excruciatingly painful decision of the leadership of the American Reform movement, announced two weeks ago by the President of the UAHC (Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the national Reform movement) Rabbi Eric Yoffie, to cancel its teen tours and trips to Israel for this coming summer. But before I dig myself into any kind of deeper hole than I am already in, let me come clean.

The NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) Summer Israel experience changed my life. I am a rabbi because of it. Far more importantly, I am a committed Jew and a passionate Zionist because of that trip I took, for eight weeks, between my 11th and 12th grades, oh, 24 years ago. So I am biased. The NFTY trips to Israel are the biggest in terms of attendance... and among the best in terms of quality... of any way for an American teen to experience Israel. They were three decades ago.

They remain so today.

So I am an advocate of these trips. I believe in their importance.

For American youth. And for Israel and Israelis. I believe in their power.

And I believe in their safety. Time and again I have told my congregation here in Buffalo that I believe that travel to Israel is far safer then, well, then driving around Buffalo in the winter. Now? Yes, now. Even now.

(Especially now? Do YOU own Firestone tires??)

We need Israel. Israel needs us. I am a Zionist.

And I am a hypocrite.

Since last October I have itched, I have yearned to get on a plane. To do what? To just go. To leave home, to go home, to show the world what home means.

And I have not done so. First there were interviews. Then there were expenses. Then we were expecting. (Well, we still are. Although by the time you read these words...???) Now we are packing. Every moment offers its own excuse: a new baby, a new city, a new job. Life gets in the way.

I feel the bitter taste of an old joke gone sour in my mouth. How many Zionists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Five, four to go out and find a fifth person to do it for them.

So how can I even open up my mouth, and wade into the fray of the current argument over whether these trips should have been canceled? I am hardly the one. But in the midst of hysteria and hypocrisy, unfortunately, I cannot keep silent.

First of all, I think there is an awful lot of griping and grousing in the world. Rabbi Eric Yoffie made a very difficult decision, and whether we agree with it or not (one day I feel one way, another the other), it's a whole lot easier to react to it than it was to take this action in the first place. Criticism has been ubiquitous and deafening...and really tiresome (with apologies to Firestone once again). This one did not like how this sentence sounded, this one didn't like the way the press release looked, this one agreed with the decision but thought it should have been announced differently, this one didn't like the city the speech was made in. I am exaggerating, but the point is that when you get this kind of reaction, what is really going on is that everyone is in agony, and no one has the right answer. And sometimes everyone acts as if they do.

The mayor of Jerusalem was particularly pugnacious. Ehud Olmert announced that he was cutting off all ties with the Reform movement. Right.

As if he really had any to begin with.

There's two things I want to say about this whole horrible mess. The first is that things are not as simple as they seem. And the second is that sometimes they are as simple as they seem. (Sorry. You expected coherence? On this topic?)

Here's the first point. I know someone whose son was in Israel on an American-run semester-long program recently. They were told that they were to stay put in the location of their program, that there were to be no optional activities, that security concerns trumped the normal secondary benefit of these trips -- exploring a new world, in a safe but partly unstructured fashion. All instructions which were safe, and sound, and reasonable... and ridiculous.

Because here's the thing. These kids are... ON A TRIP. They are not sitting on their hands in their own homes, in their own neighborhoods, in their own familiar world. The analogy with American kids visiting Israel, and the Israeli kids who grow up there DOES NOT HOLD. All the arguments and accusations against American parents who "think there children's lives are more important" than the lives of Israeli children (according to the accusers) miss the point.

Oh, I'm sure it was bad PR to cancel the trips publicly. It came at a bad time. It wasn't handled perfectly (and what ever is?) But at least part of me thinks (I can't believe I am writing this) that Rabbi Yoffie was right.

The thing about kid's trips to Israel is that kids are... well, KIDS. They NEED that aspect of the trip that involves the unfettered exploration. The part that is the first to be lost in the face of this level of security concerns.

This accounts for why the Birthright trips of college students are down less than the high school programs. Birthright is shorter, the participants are older, they ALREADY by-and-large live away from home and for both of those reasons the participants can handle these particular changed circumstances better than tenth-graders away from home for up to two months.

And adults, by this logic, SHOULD be going to Israel now... in droves. I hope the newly announced Reform movement ADULT solidarity mission to Israel at the end of July brings more adults to Israel than the canceled youth missions ever would have. It's the only way to respond to this difficult choice. It's the only answer. Even if I will not be on that trip myself.

The difference between the cancellation of many of the NFTY-kids and the continuation by the Birthright programs is NOT, and should not be reported to be, a difference in a level of Zionist commitment. For God's sake, no offense to Birthright, but it's actually almost the opposite -- Birthright is a free program -- and a wonderful one -- for college students who HAVE NEVER BEEN ON AN ORGANIZED TRIP to Israel before. Those who signed up for these NFTY trips are HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS motivated to go on an expensive trip at an earlier age. So the difference here is not one of Zionist fervor. It is one of social circumstance. And sorry, media-folk, but I haven't seen anyone reporting the story that way. Maybe it's too complex a reality to report. Maybe all this name-calling makes for better headlines. You can't boil a complex subject down to just a few words.

Well. But, then again. Maybe you can.

As much as I understand my movement's decision, and as much as I don't like seeing us take it on the chin for a hard choice, one counter image comes to mind. I have heard that there is a sign hanging up now, for all to see, at the entrance to the Dolphinarium Discotheque in Tel Aviv, sight of the horrendous suicide attack that led Yassir Arafat to eventually attempt to pretend to act like a civilized human being for an hour or two.

The sign has three Hebrew words on it. They are words which hit me at the core of who I am. Or at least who I claim to be. They are perhaps the most inspiring three words I have ever heard.

What are the words.

The sign says, I am told, just this: "Lo Nafsik Lirkod. "We will not stop dancing."

I don't know what to say, exactly, about the details and politics of particular trips. All I know is that these three words give me a lot to think about. As an American. And as a Jew.

Take them with you for a while. Bring them in to your own soul. Chew on them, and ponder them, and figure out for yourself what it means to you.

Lo Nafsik Lirkod.

We Will Not Stop Dancing.

Saturday, March 10, 2001

First written in 2001;
chilling to think that in March of 2001, I wrote something eerily prophetic,
when I said: "This Yom Kippur, think about the Taliban."  Little did I know...

To Look Away From Evil:
Afghanistan's War Against Civilization

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Beth Am
Williamsville, New York

This Yom Kippur, take a moment, and think about the Taliban.

Why Yom Kippur?  There is that moment, in the middle of the afternoon service when we (Reform Jews, or those using the Reform High Holy Day Machzor called Gates of Repentance) read the following words: "What pains were taken to save cathedrals, museums, monuments from destruction. Treasures of art must be preserved -- they are the song of the human soul!  And in the camps and streets of Europe mother and father and child lay dying, and many looked away.  To look away from evil: Is this not the sin of all 'good' people?"

The world is united now.  We are united in disgust and revulsion and horror as we watch, helpless, a group of thugs and barbarians destroy priceless ancient statues, huge images of Buddha carved into sandstone
cliffs between the third and fifth centuries CE.  Wanton attacks on masterpieces of the spirit, ordered by the most extreme Muslims in the world, out of some warped sense of needing to destroy all traces of idolatry around them.

How extreme are they?  They are opposed as too extreme by... Iran!  Only three countries in the world recognize the legitimacy of their government -- Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates  -- and all three have condemned this narrow and overly literal interpretation of Islam.

I am glad that the Taliban stand alone in this act of madness.  I am glad the whole rest of the world comes together in condemnation.  I share the sense of anger and loss, and the understanding that these magnificent
statues represent a soaring height of accomplishment, that they are, well, art, and that art is indeed, as the prayerbook asserts, the song of the human soul.

To attack art is to tread on something sacred and precious, an assault on our basic sense of human decency.

Any yet... two things trouble me.  The first is that this interpretation of smashing idols sounds...awfully familiar.  To the dismay of museum curators and antiquities dealers around the world, the book of Deuteronomy clearly calls for the same kind of action on encountering statutory worship symbols of other religions.  It is a matter of historic debate amongst scholars as to whether such measures were ever actually
carried out (I prefer the argument that they were not, but have no proof); nevertheless the act that so disgusts the world is right there in our own tradition.  "On the books," as it were.

And secondly: this assault on human decency and dignity...pales in my mind, in comparision to what else the Taliban are doing... to human beings.

This is the group of fanatical hate-mongers who are making it a crime for the women and girls of Afghanistan ... to learn how to read!  The statues have symbolic value and power, to be sure.  But in the course of life, what's the crumbling of an ancient statue, in comparison with the closing of a precious mind?  Where was the world --where is the world? - in reaction to how the Taliban treat their own people?

It is an age old question: when you see something wrong, what do you do?  What can we do?  A parent hitting a child in a supermarket.  A teenager lighting up a cigarette for the first time.  It's their business.  It's
their life.  We'll get in trouble for saying something.  It's not our place.

 How would we like someone snooping in our own closet of values? Are not some of the things we ourselves take for granted morally suspect in the eyes of others.

This is not an easy discussion. Are we to be the world's morality police?

But where is the line?  It is uncomfortable to tell someone else that what they are doing is wrong.  It is even dangerous.  Take it a step further: what you are doing is wrong, and we will not let it stand. Should the
United States not have gone to war against Nazi Germany... earlier than it did, and for different reasons? Would we have invaded Cambodia to stop the slaughter... had we not just left Vietnam with our tails tucked behind us (or whatever the proper expression might be for beating a hasty retreat)?

When do we say something?  When do we do something?  How can we?

But.  How can we not?  And I don't mean the statues.  I mean the people.

It is ethnocentric, it is biased, it is chauvinistic, it is imperialistic to say what I am about to say.  But I am going to say it anyway.  The Taliban are evil.  I don't know what can be done about them.  I'm not at all certain. But we should all start talking about it. At the very least, to put what they are doing to their society front and center in the radar screen of our own sensibilities. To not avert our eyes, but tostare the hard questions in the face, and see what answers may come.

For to look away from evil: is that not the sin of all 'good' people?