Friday, December 24, 2010

White Lies and Tall Tales in a WikiLeak World
Sermon delivered on Parashat Vayechi; December 17, 2010 

          Imagine the scene: Jacob dies, but even before the trip back to Long Island or New Jersey or Old Canaan to the designated family section of the cemetery, before the burial Joseph’s brothers huddle together to plot a strategy of their own.  Fearing wrathful retribution for childhood rivalries seemingly set aside, revenge held in abeyance while yet their father lived, Jacob’s other sons conspire in the arena of tall tales and white lies: they will tell Joseph, they decide, that their father had left word, a posthumous proscription, for Joseph to forgive the brothers.
          All is well in the tale we tell, but imagine a different twist.  An intrepid interloper, an ancient exposer of secrets with a fetish for freedom of information, snoops and tells.  Before the brothers even have a chance to present a case to their elevated sibling, leaked cables appear in the Goshen Gazette and the Cairo Daily News: “Foreign Infiltrators Conspire to Mislead Prime Minister,” the headlines scream.  “Leaked Cables Reveal Brothers’ Pitiful Plan.”  And instead of reconciliation and harmony, popular Egyptian outrage leads the politician Joseph to cut off family ties.  No solidarity, no moving forward with the family story, no Exodus, no parted sea, no Sinai, no Torah, no Judaism.

          Flash forward, to a scene in an American university, just a few years ago.  There, a course in Jewish mysticism is being offered, the esoteric tradition called Kabbalah, by a professor named Fox so seemingly pompous that his students refer to him affectionately as F-x.  Before the class begins the professor looks at the students, a mixture of male and female, graduate and undergraduate students, Jews and gentiles.  “I presume,” he intones, “that you are all male, married, over 40 years old, Orthodox in practice, and that you know the Torah and Talmud by heart!  Having said that,” and here, he pounds the table for emphasis, having just recited the traditional Jewish prerequisites for delving into this slippery and perspective-altering subject matter, “having said that, let’s begin.”
          Our tradition teaches that there are certain topics that require preparation, orientation, grounding in classic texts and communal connections before plunging in.  Our tradition teaches that in a complicated world, context counts.
          But the very concept that some people know some things that other do not, that there is any legitimacy to an overarching framework formulated by someone else into which facts can be fit, the notion that raw data needs time to grow, be sifted and sorted, thoughtfully and privately before being brought out in the light of day… that concept itself is apparently profoundly offensive to some people in our post-modern world.
          We live at a time when time does not stop:  24/7 news cycles mean information is always available, the page is always refreshed, the past is passed over in the blink of an eye.  We have grown accustomed to instant gratification, to phones that are smarter than we are – who hasn’t been at a perfectly pleasant dinner table when one person has mentioned a topic or expressed uncertainty about something, and someone else has whipped out their cell and called up Google fact check on the spot.  You’ve seen it.  I’ve done it.  The truth is out there. 
          I’ll never forget one of my first realizations of how much the world had changed because everyone has instant access to information, communication, and their own private arbiters of opinion.  It was a minor incident, but a striking one for me, and it took place on our Confirmation class trip to New York City in 2002.  The bus was heading into the city, but there was a lot of traffic, and while the driver, Andy, Scott and I are staring ahead of the bus, unbeknownst to us, a half dozen of the kids whipped out their cell phones and called home.  “Lincoln Tunnel blocked; what do we do?”  In came the answers – at least five contradictory and equally strongly argued parental opinions, in real time from 200 miles away.
          Let’s raise the stakes on a similar scenario.  I remember reports from our local Jewish Day School’s senior year semester in Israel, at the height of the second intifada.  Phone calls back and forth went like this: either kids called their folks to say they were okay in the face of something their parents had not and probably would not have heard about, or parents woke their kids up to ask if they were okay because they heard, here, about something their kids never noticed.  The communication took place in such real time that organizers of trips and programs had no time to put their heads together and give even a moment of thought to how they would present what had happened, how they would convey what they were doing to adjust their plans.
          And so questions.  Is “spin” automatically a four-letter word?  Do we have a right to borders and boundaries, to taking a breath, to having a place to process and sift and think through what we are going to do, without constant exposure?  Is there a value in trying out an idea, in exploring an opinion, or does everything have to be instantly ready for prime time?   What do we do, how do we evaluate the imagery of light?  Is the protective shield of privacy a shady respite from a too-glaring sun, or a looming menace, a heart of darkness?
          My friends, I believe that there is something wrong in a Wikileak World.  But it is hard to say exactly what is wrong, or how much, or where the line is.
There is, of course, another side to the story.  We have lived through governments that lie, and conspiracies to control public opinion, break into opponents’ offices, abuse power and manipulate the media.  Just today I heard word about government suppression of information regarding the hunt for former Nazis.  Sunshine laws are not just for prurient interest; they were passed for a reason, and to address real abuses. 
But like the sports commentator watching a play unfold and dramatically intoning that “he could go all the way,” how far do we want openness to go?  Is there not some limit to what we just have to know?  I am not a lawyer, or an expert on national security, so whether what is going on is illegal or rises to the level of treason is certainly beyond me. 
          What I do know, though, is that there is a difference between being smart and being wise.  Being smart may involve knowing things, being up to speed on what’s going on, finding all the facts and hoarding them like some obsessive collector.  But wisdom requires discretion, discernment, and distinction.  It involves knowing what to reveal, and when.  It involves an understanding… of context.
          We have just finished the celebration of a minor but well-known holiday.   Chanukah purports to be the celebration of a single jar of oil which lasted for eight days.  Historians, however, dispute the details; theologians claims there is more to it than this, and rabbis – or at least this one – insist on spoiling the story for adults and older students.
          Why the age distinction?  Because we know, or at least we believe…that there is such a thing as developmental stages of understanding, that there are age-appropriate images, and that a certain concrete expression of ideas is more suited to younger children. 
          But who are we to judge such a thing?  Isn’t that arrogant, to be arbiters of information?  Shouldn’t we just put it all out there, and not pre-judge who can handle which version of a story?
          In my ideal world, I see shades of grey, and nuance and shadow.  I believe it is appropriate to consider… what is considered appropriate.  I see a mixture of sun and shade, of openness and privacy.  And I believe that a certain kind of growth comes from exploration, from trying out ideas and opinions we are not yet sure of, of sharing that exploration with others in a context in which we feel safe and comfortable, before proclaiming everything in public.
          And I also believe that people are… well, human.  That for all of us there are outbursts of emotion which we would not want to “own” in public. 
          The best example I can think of in this regard is my own reaction to a heinous crime, or a terrorist attack.  The very first thoughts in my head – which do occasionally make it into words which come out of my mouth – are not necessarily in full accordance with judicial procedures or political realities or contextual restraints I actually want to see upheld.  I wouldn’t want – I wouldn’t dare, and I wouldn’t endorse – a public pronouncement… of some of those instantaneous emotional gut reactions.
          Maybe if you remember the Woody Allen line about peering into the soul of the student sitting next to him…  many people do want to see that inner instinct, that first emotional reaction, to judge the fullness of a person. 
Do you remember the presidential debate between Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush?  Do you remember that awful question asked at the outset?  “If your wife, Kitty, were raped and murdered…”    I actually believe that Michael Dukakis may have lost the election solely on the basis of the flat, robot-like response he gave… to that emotional opening
          Here is how I would have answered. “Bernie, what a horrible question.  I understand you want to get at whether our high talk stands up when things get personal, but let’s leave our families out of this. If you want to know how I would react as a man, I would react as any husband would: I would want to find and hurt the person who did this with my own hands.  In the long run, though, though, how we treat criminals is about our values as a society, and it is a better thing for everyone that we live in a world of law and not frontier justice and emotionally charged matters like personal revenge….”  And then I would have given the content of the answer he gave.
          I know showing instant emotion would have served Dukakis better at that moment.  So I get it, that people want to know… what is going on, inside the people who are vying to be our leaders.  And I get it, that unchecked privacy leads to abuse.
          What I don’t get, and I don’t want, is a world in which there is no privacy at all.
          Or, let’s put it this way: how come so many of the people who are exposing all these secrets… get to be anonymous themselves?  Is this tangle really about principle, or about power?
          Maybe Wikileaks is really a stand in… for a new brand of theology.  Maybe all they want us all to remember… is that even when we think we are alone… there is always someone watching.  With words from the morning liturgy, “l’olam y’hei adam y’rai shamayim baseiter u’va’galu’i; at all times let us revere God inwardly, as well as outwardly.” 
          But when only God is watching, really, that’s between us and God.  And frankly, given the secrets God keeps… I think even God understands a little bit about shadow and shade, the meeting place of darkness and light.

At the beginning of this parasha, this week’s Torah portion, unique among the portions of the entire Torah… there is no space.  There is no gap.  The rabbis called this, then, a “closed” portion; they make a great deal – really, through quite a stretch – of the fact that our eyes are therefore “closed” during what is happening in this portion.
          But there is a gap after the portion.  It is a large gap, the end of the book of Bereishit, of Genesis, before the beginning of Shemot, of Exodus.  And in this whole question of space, its absence at the outset, its abundance at the end, I am reminded that to tell a tale is not just about what happens on stage.  It is also about what goes on off stage, the implied, the hidden, the out-of-sight.  A story is not just about what unfolds explicitly; it is also about the assumptions we bring, and the changes that go on over the course of the story.  It is about what is said with words, and about what is in between the lines.
Not everything can be told.  Growth takes place in the gaps.  And it is the written word together with the hidden hand, the darkness dancing with the light, both, together, that bring us the full story.  In the wholeness of who you are, there is a place for sharing, and there is a place for secrets.  The dark truth and, yes, perhaps, occasionally, even the white lie. Elu v’elu, these and these…  We need both.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Facing West: Spirit and Service on the Beach in Tel Aviv

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, MD

So maybe it's "the next big thing." Or maybe it's a passing fad. I don't know which it is. What I do know was that something new is happening here, that I never saw coming.

I first heard about Beit Tefilah Yisraeli (Israeli House of Prayer) in early July, when I first arrived to study at the Hartman Institute. I heard about it in the context of something very... ususual, I thought. All these Reform and Conservative rabbis who were talking about leaving Jerusalem and... going to Tel Aviv for Shabbat.

Now Tel Aviv has many things to recommend it. It is clearly the cultural and commercial capital of the country; it has the best restaurants; it has the most jobs; half the population lives in the Tel Aviv Metropolitan area.

But to leave Jerusalem, and go... to Tel Aviv. For Shabbat? (No offense to our many colleagues in the area; the Reform synagogues in the region - from Beit Daniel to the congregations in Ra'anana, Ramat Aviv, and Ramat HaSharon -- are doing wonderful work.) It just seemed... odd.

And then, on July 30, we found out why people were going... to Tel Aviv for Shabbat.

The service takes place at the revitalized Tel Aviv port (section 14); it is outdoors, it faces the crashing waves of the ocean right on a pier, right in the midst of the crowded port scene: bustling night-clubs and swank restaurants and bikini-clad passersby titling their heads in curiosity and coming up to see what all these plastic chairs and odd-sounding music and hundreds of people gathered together was all about.

This was a deep, moving and profoundly spiritual experience.

It is hard to convey just how exciting this development is to those unfamiliar with historical perceptions about the Jewish religion on the part of most Israelis. In general, non-Orthodox Israelis have tended to view “Judaism” as “Orthodoxy,” concluded that it was “not for them,” and then defined themselves as “secular.” It is an odd term in many ways, since many Israelis engage in activity which American Jews would define as “religious.” Some “secular” Israelis light candles on Friday night, even more avoid shrimp and pork -- despite the increasing availability of treif-options in non-kosher restaurants around the country, and in one way or another almost all Israelis observe the general flow of the Jewish calendar. But to non-Orthodox Israelis this is simply “cultural” or even “national” behavior. The fledgling Reform and Conservative movements, growing in presence and impact, are still seen by many Israelis as American imports. Indeed, even in services conducted entirely in Hebrew, some Reform congregations in Israel feel as if they are 90% filled with native speakers of English.

But not this service.

It was filled with people of all ages, but a preponderance of young, native-born Israelis. The service mingled traditional prayers with recent poetry, and some of the “liturgy” included modern Israeli rock/pop music. Julie noted, on looking at the siddur (the prayerbook), that the traditional prayers were printed with vowels, but the paragraphs of modern Hebrew and explanations and poetry and music were not… an indication, perhaps, that the parts which were the most familiar to us… were the least familiar to these mostly secular Israelis.

The service was facilitated by a hipster-looking “reader,” (not a rabbi), who directed the seven or so instruments around him (flute, oboe, guitar, bass, violin and others), called out page numbers in the mostly sung service. As if in confirmation of Julie’s sense of what was new and what was unfamiliar, Israelis sung with gusto and enthusiasm the modern songs, and dealt with the traditional words with a varying degree of comfort.

And then we came to the central part of the service, the Amidah.

Here is where Jews around the world rise, and – wherever we are – face towards Jerusalem. In the West Jews face East. In Moscow, we face south. In South Africa we face north. That is the way it has been. That is the way it is, except in some Reform synagogues which were deliberately trying to make a different kind of statement.

What does it mean, then, that at this service on the beach in Tel Aviv, we remained “oriented” in a different direction. We rose and… faced the waves. Was it the sand and the sea? Or was it more than that, a statement of spiritual influence, coming somehow… from the West. Was it turning one’s back on Jerusalem as an accident, or – in a country in which the disputed capitol stands, in many minds, for intransigent ultra-Orthodoxy and an unswerving commitment to the ways of the past – was it a statement of intent?

One other thing I learned. The spiritual creativity of this almost spontaneous community is not confined to Friday nights at the beach.

Memorial Day – Yom HaZikaron – is one of the saddest days on the Israeli calendar. There are moments of complete silence, the sounding of a siren throughout the country… and in a nation in which no family has not lost someone close to them in its wars for survival and existence, it is not likely to give way to barbeques and commercial sales any time soon.

Yom HaZikaron takes place… the day before Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. Now that is a day for celebration, for joy, for exuberance.

But how do you get from one to the other? It is an awkward transition, a moment in which those who start to party slightly too soon as scathingly chastised by their still mourning neighbors.

I learned this summer that the people who put together this Erev Shabbat service in Tel Aviv have also written… a Havdalah ceremony. Havdalah (“separation”) is, of course, usually associated with the transition time in between the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the week. There is also a Havdalah at the end of major festivals, although that is far less widely known.

But now… now there is an hour-long ceremony of distinction and separation, easing the transition from loss to gain, from memory to celebration. One woman, having attended this creative service, remarked that it was the first time in the 25-years since she had lost her son that she was actually able to appreciate Yom HaAtzma’ut.

What does the future hold? Will there be more of this infusion of home-grown, creative Jewish religious content into non-Orthodox Israeli life? In some ways this is something that we might have expected to see decades ago, but only starting to take hold now.

What we are witnessing now is nothing less than a new chapter in the most important Jewish book still being written: what does it mean to be Jewish in a Jewish state?

The Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox have always had their own answers to that question. Reform and Conservative Jews, in much smaller numbers, have tried to get on the page as well.

This is a new entry in an ongoing story. May it grow, and take hold, and take its place proudly, with all the other ways of answering ancient questions about meaning, and memory, and Jewish life.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A View from the North

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, MD

Yesterday was an important reminder...
When you are in Jerusalem, and the golden light surrounds you, and the ancient stones beckon, and you run into half of the people you've ever met...  Jerusalem is more than a feeling of home.  It feels like a pre-Copernican experience.  The world revolves around it.  It feels like the center of the universe.

Except, of course... that it is not the beginning and end of everything.
It is not even... all of Israel.

How many times I have travelled the country?  (This is my 9th trip here, but two of them were for entire years.)  And yet there is power in every tree for me, every barren and dusty hill.

I have been in a bus, or even on foot.  Rarely have I had a car, and driven the roads myself.  (That is a good thing, given the fact that Israeli drivers make the agressive drivers of Washington look polite, but that is another matter.)  It does give it a new feel...

The choice we faced yesterday, in heading north, was quite clear.  Through the heart of Israel, every traffic light and falafel stand and bus route and busy modern intersection?  (Actually I am exaggerating, and the new highways even take some of the local flavor away.)  Or: through the territories, through the West Bank; save an hour or more and travel right along the Jordanian border.

Our guide was direct and clear.  We'd be crazy to go through the center of the country.
So off we went, through the (new) tunnel leaving Mt. Scopus, past the machson (checkpoint), whizzing by Ma'ale Adumim (sitting atop a hillside of suburban Jerusalem, it is by far the largest of the "settlements" -- and also widely expected to remain in Israeli hands after any potential peace deal with the Palestinians), winding our way down towards the Dead Sea (a brief glimpse in a dusty distance), passing by the camels and cows and goat herders and pottery stands... veering away from the Allenby Bridge into Jordan, turning left to head north, fifty miles of Judea and Samaria... Palestinian towns, settler farmland... and not a blink of an instant of a problem.  (Not that we went into Ramallah, nor into the winding hill country of Samaria...  We just stuck with the flat, relatively straight highway. The most activity we saw on the way were in the towns and cities of Jordan we glimpsed in the distance.)

And then the north.  Beit She'an, Belvoir (a Crusader castle on top of a hill which I had onced hiked up and which Daniel wanted us to divert to)... and Kinneret.  The Sea of Galilee.

We stopped for lunch at Degania Aleph, the first ever kibbutz, the place where the sucessful communal enterprise was born and given to the world.  They have rennovated parts of the kibbutz, and are gearing up for their centennial celebration this coming October.  Lunch was terrific in a small cafe with no English speakers.  Really, a feeling of being "in Israel."  (Jerusalem is more other-worldly than the rest of Israel, it is true... but it is at the same time more American.  En route yesterday, though, even the few McDonald's signs were written in Hebrew instead of English.)  And then...

Well, one of our colleagues told us about it, and we have a personal connection there anyway (because 30 years ago Julie was a volunteer there)... Then we went to Degania Bet.  Where after a second trip in we found what we had heard about -- a chocolate factory with an experiential component... a chance for the kids to make their own chocolate (after an educational film about the entire process, from seed to tree to bean to bar.)  Best chocolate she ever had, Julie said on tasting it.  (Or among the best: my theory is that she believes that chocolate is like a camera -- the best one is the one you have with you when you want it!)  She noted that the cows looked the same as they did 30 years ago.  But the chocolate experience did not.  (How new is it?  Not sure.  I come to Israel every two years now, and am still seeing new things every time I come.)

Traffic jam in Tiberius (where are all these people from, after the solitude of the rest of the trip, and where are they going), passing by (not stopping) Decks (one of the best restaurants in Israel), and Nof Ginnosar (where we will be staying with the group next week)... then winding our way up into the mountains, great views of the lake from the switchback trails, towars S'fat but veering north.  We are staying in kayak country, at Kibbutz HaGoshrim... tucked just near the Lebanese border to the north and Golan Heights to the east... planning on spending a few days hiking, swimming, exploring...  (Overnight scare of missing iPhone successfully resolved!)

Jerusalem is... well... home.  But this is a different kind of home.  It is "real" Israel.  Even Golan.  So very hard to imagine how it can ever be given back... you have to see it to know how much of a gut feeling that is... but even setting politics aside it is so wonderful.  I know it will have to go, someday, but today is today.  And we are here.  And it is real.  And I am happy.
Return Again:
Endings and Beginnings

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, MD

There are two words written on the bottom of the final page of every masechet (tractate) of the Talmud.  The words are in Aramaic, but they mean, roughly: "return to you."  "We're not done with you."  "God is not done with us."  "We haven't gotten everything there is out of this yet." "We will return."

Everyone knows the joy of going over something familiar, and finding a fresh insight in it, something you had never thought of before.  Everyone knows the power -- sometimes joyous, sometimes poignant -- of coming back to a once familiar place, and seeing it through new eyes, or in a new way.

Al echad kama v'kama... how much the more so for me this summer...

I think the only thing that made the end of my stay at the Shalom Hartman Institute for the summer, and my family's departure from Jerusalem yesterday bearable... was those two Aramaic words, with their ancient promise... "We will return to this place."  Literally, for us, in just two weeks with the Temple trip.  But also, for me, to the learning, and the learners, of this summer... which will continue, winter and summer, for the next three years.

How can I describe the Hartman Institution, and this program, without sounding like I have, to use what I have always found a puzzling phrase, "drunk the Kool-Aide?"  What made this so special, I believe, was the content, the context and the colleagues.

The content.  What we learned was simply the highest quality educational experience of my career -- on the most urgent and pressing questions of our time.  A small sample: Moshe Halbertal, one of the co-authors of the code of ethics for the Israeli military, teaching us not only his theory of the Rambam (Maimonides), but also reviewing with us -- and having us study it as if it were an ancient text, with careful parsing of each word -- that very code of ethics itself.  Rani Jaeger, founder of a new Tel Aviv based spiritual community which draws hundreds of secular Israelis to servies on a beach with drums and guitars every Friday night -- speaking on the new Israeli spirituality, and the deep, almost unconscious Jewish content lurking behind the cultural and everyday experiences of life in the Jewish state.  (Not just obvious things, like the fact that reading a map with street names in any Israeli city introduces you to the entire world of Jewish and Israeli history in ways which are hard to describe -- he didn't even mention this aspect of life here, but it is hard for an American to miss.  Street names that ask questions, like 29 November Street, or a street pronounced by Israelis as Avraham Linkolin -- which is actually Abraham Lincoln street, but Hebrew can't quite handle an unpronounced consonant.)  Discussions and panels and peer study on questions such as the meaning of Judaism after the Jewish state.  Or questioning who defines "the good."  Or asking what is an ethical approach to the use of power based on Jewish sources?  Or dealing with the complex and existentially central question of the meaning of peoplehood in a world of individuality, autonomy and choice. 

And Rambam.  Rambam, Rambam, Rambam!  I don't think I fully realized the degree, before I came to Hartman  (fully locution, that... people talk about "doing Hartman" the way they do about "doing Chautauqua," and the pluralistic approach to Jewish life and sources is referred to as the "Hartman Torah"), the degree to which Rabbi David Hartman, his son Rabbi Donniel Hartman, and many of the scholars assembled here... focus on the work of Moshe Maimonides -- nor was I prepared for an in-depth introduction to the Rambam as a classical philosopher, political thinker, social strategist, community organizer, legal theorist, God-seeker, intellectual rationalist, scientist and mystic!  (All this in one man!  Yes, and this, by the way, is why there is a saying "from Moses to Moses [Maimonides], there was never anyone like Moses.") 

For a quarter of the content alone, a tenth of it even, dayyeinu!  It would have been enough!

But then the context.
To study these things here, in Jerusaelm... steps from where the events we study took place, and in the light of the world we live in... wow!  Questions of Jewish sovereignty are no longer theoretical.  For two thousand years we wrote about what we thought God wanted of us and what we should expect of each other, with absolutely no realistic opportunity to implement our vision, our values, to test our ideals against the anvil of everyday life.  And now?  Now we are called into reality, to see where we stand, and what we are made of not just in powerlessness, but power.  There are Jewish discussions that are only words in the air, even in an open society such as the United States, but which here... here those words are life and death decisions with real world implications, every day, and for everyone.  Here the cab drivers run the Knesset in their own minds, and the postal delivery routes take in this dream-like, sun-drenched intoxicating mixture of yesterday, today and tomorrow just in the course of their daily rounds.  To study about Jewish ethics and the use of power and who determines what is good in a place where these things matter... for that, too, dayyeinu.

But the most valuable piece... the teachers... and my fellow learners.  The colleagues who are travelling this path with me.  To study together with colleagues from all streams of Judaism... that alone gives a wider vision of Jewish life and possiblity than I had before coming, or have had in quite some time.  Too many Boards of Rabbis are so divided that communities (such as ours, in Washington D.C.), have two such organizations -- one Orthodox, and the other everyone else.  What a mechayah (wonderful experience) to study together, to come together (although the Orthodox colleagues who come here have their own interesting sets of issues with the... very pluralistic approach... of the originally Orthodox founders of this place, and they have to be open enough to deal with or at least live with the issues this raises for them).  But this... 

We have members of our congregation travelling next month to New Orleans, in a continuing and ongoing effort to rebuild parts of the city.  The first thing I thought of after just a short period of my cohort being together?  Oh, these congregants have to contact this colleague of mine who is there, when they get to New Orleans.  Never mind that he heads a community it would not even have dawned on me to think of, just a few weeks ago.

If any of my colleagues, those in my "cohort" of fellow learners read these words... thank you, for the gift of your presence, and your company on this journey.  May we continue to learn from each other, and share the energy and enthusiasm we find here with those we teach and pray with back in our own "everyday" worlds.

Content, context and colleagues.  Hadaran!  We're not done with each other yet.
Just as, after so many years in exile: we shall come back to this place.  We will return.
Destruction and Renewal
(Slow Prayers on a Fast Day)
Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, Maryland

What a powerful and odd feeling, to be in Jerusalem for Tisha B'Av.

For those who are not familiar with it, Tisha B'Av -- the 9th day of the Hebrew month Av -- is, traditinally, the saddest day of the Hebrew calendar.  It is the date on which the first Temple was destroyed (because, in a retroactive act of theological meaning making in which all causes were presupposed to be internal and in our own hands, of avodah zarah -- idolatry).  It is the same date, we are told (or perhaps a day or two off) on which the Second Temple was destroyed (this time, we are told, because of sinat chinam -- baseless hatred amongst factions of Jews  - a claim perhaps closer to historical truth given how divided the community was, and absent actual rebellion against Rome who knows what might or might not have happened.)  Known ever after as a day of mouring and fasting -- a full, Yom Kippur like fast -- the enemies of our people have deliberately chosen this date to pile additional misery upon us.  Thus, then, it was the date on which the Jews of Spain were expelled -- and the fact that Columbus sailed the day before the edict went into effect in 1492 had led to scholarly speculation about whether he was, himself, a hidden Jew (as, it is certain, were some of the members of his crew).

But Tisha B'Av, outside of Jewish camps, is little known among liberal Jews.  This is partly for practical reasons, because it inconveniently falls too far away from the time when religious schools are in session, so it is often ignored in the curriculum.  But, more significantly, there were ideological reasons for downplaying the day.  The early Reform movement was eager to emphasize how possible it was to feel fully at home in the lands of our dispersion, and so dispensed with this day of wailing and weeping for a sovereignty lost, and a Temple destroyed whose literal cult practices and attendant animal sacrifices we were less than eager to see restored.  One eary and radical Reform rabbi went so far as to see Tisha B'Av as a cause for celebration, a feast and not a fast, for thus and thereby were we spread among the nations -- thus giving us the opportunity to live in and influence the entire world, fulfilling what he perceived as our highest calling and ultimate mission as a "light unto the nations."

But of such destructive flames more heat and hurt come than light.  And to cut ourselves off from the pain our people went through on this day is... well, to cut ourselves off from our history and our people itself, to deny the communal past and assert a kind of Judaism which consists primarily of individual cognitive affirmation.

The more pressing challenge to the observance of Tisha B'Av, I believe... is how to integrate the reality of renewal... the fact that this day of bewailing our exile comes to us at a time when we have planted new seeds and seen a rebirth of national sovereignty in the modern state of Israel.

My family chose to go to the wall.  But not the mobbed, barely conceivable seen of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men surging forward at the main section.  No, instead we went to Robinson's Arch, what one Conservative colleague calls "a wall of our own," the southern section of the Western Wall, part of an archeological site but available -- by order of the Israeli Supreme Court -- to Reform and Conservative Jews for separate religious observances.  The main part of the wall itself has become, essentially, a Charedi (ultra-Orthodox) synagogue, and I have deeply mixed feelings about it.

And there, sitting amidst hundreds of others at a service led by the Israeli Masorti (Conservative) movement, it was the most powerful -- but still odd -- Tisha B'Av of my life.  The haunting, plaintif (and slow!) chanting of the book of Eicha (Lamentations) wafted over the ancient stones... the very overturned stones the words were written about!  There we were, sitting... right there!  That's where it all happened!  This is where it was all about.  (Fortunately for my children, though it grew too dark to read and the service was 100% in Hebrew in any event... the Tanakh app on my iPhone had an English translation -- and the iPhone itself was backlit enough for them to see!)  (Israelis sitting next to us were duly impressed.)  (More about my possibly missing new iPhone in another post.)

And yet, we emerge from services into... into what?  A quiet street, with restaurants and cafes closed, yes.  But a living, vibrant... and real Israel.  Should we not... mark the change in some way?  How to acknowledge that the existential situation of the Jewish people is fundamentally different after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 than it was before?  What, are we to ignore the fact that the lost independance we are mourning... is now found again?

So my compromise has been this: I remember.  I recite some of the prayers of Tisha B'Av, for the pain is part of our collective history, and the victims of this day deserve their due.  I remember.  But I do not fast.  For we are here, and we are back... and sitting in the ruined shadow of ancient stones, I know that this is a time of memory, and mourning... and gratitude and quiet satisfaction as well.

Am Yisrael Chai.  Sitting in our land, surrounded by the signs of our national rebirth, fragile as it sometimes seems -- we are here, the enemies have not defeated us.  And so while not a time for parties, and certainly appropriate for slow prayers, I do not fast on Tisha B'Av.

But what meaning... to be here!

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Letter from Jerusalem (Part One)

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, Maryland

Shabbat slips into the past, and the city awakens from its restful slumber. The rest of my family pokes out onto the increasingly busy streets, in search of ice cream and about to brush up against friends and strangers from all over the world. I am left with a moment of quiet, to reflect on what a profound two weeks it has been.

Great and monumental events happen around us, blocks away or even in front of our eyes, and at the same time I am so immersed in the most powerful experience of growth and learning that I have had in 20 years, and so it is hard to pick apart the strands, and weave my way between what you must be hearing back home, and what we are experiencing here.

What I want to share at the moment, however, are some reflections on the timely and important events which I assume you have heard something about over the past several days: the latest legislative initiative to codify conversion practices in Israel, and the arrest of Reform leader Anat Hoffman at the Western Wall.

Whenever it comes to Israel, at some point, it seems, someone inevitably sighs and says: “It’s complicated.” That has to do with issues of international relations, war and peace, negotiations and security… and it applies equally profoundly to the internal issues of Israeli society, such as navigating the path between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews (lumped together as all “secular” in common parlance here, but including, of course, those “religious” but non-Orthodox streams such as Reform and Conservative Judaism), immigrants and veterans, army life and societal norms.

Yes, you have heard (I assume) about the new conversion bill tabled in the Knesset, and how it will consolidate the power over conversion in Israel in the hands of the charedi (ultra-Orthodox)-controlled Chief Rabbinate. Yes, you may have heard about the Reform movement response to this mess (also visible at and But before we plunge into the conversations, a bit of background will help. The best explanation I have seen about the reason why such a bill came up in the first-place, before it was politically hijacked for other purposes, can be found in a recent editorial in the Jerusalem Post. In his well-written piece, “Don’t Fracture the Jewish People” (available online at, the Post’s editor David Horovitz explains why this bill was put forward by a Russian immigrant party called Yisrael Beiteinu, why it was meant to help 350,000 new Israelis from the former Soviet Union who are not considered Jewish by Jewish law – and why the bill won’t now achieve that purpose, if ever it would or could have. There is every reason to write Prime Minister Netanyahu with our thoughts and passionate opposition to this bill, with our plea that he makes sure it never becomes law. But it is also important to know the nuances and the history as well.

The other disturbing development in the past several days was the arrest, on Rosh Hodesh Av (the first day of the Hebrew month of Av), at the Western Wall, of Israeli Reform leader Anat Hoffman, complete with (You Tube accessible) video footage of the police practically ripping a Torah scroll out of her hands. Some of my colleagues here, some of the female Reform and Conservative rabbis I am studying with at the Shalom Hartman Institute, were at the monthly service of a group called Women of the Wall, and witnessed this atrocity first hand. The Wall is supposed to be a unifying symbol of the entire Jewish people – indeed, in these days leading up to Tisha B’Av (the ninth of Av, the somber fast-day which commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples) we are reminded that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred between and amongst different factions of our own people. The tragic reality is that the Wall has become – often with the assistance of the Israeli police – the private domain of the most sexist, fanatical, narrow-minded extremists of our people. The story of Women of the Wall, however – and our own synagogue’s coming attempt to have a service at or near the Wall on August 6 – represent the other side of the story, however – the commitment to an Israel of Jewish pride, pluralism and equal rights. If this is a story of extremism it is also one of heroism, and of a long struggle whose ultimate outcome will be decided not in the coming days or weeks but over the course of the coming years. I strongly urge you to read more about Women of the Wall at their own website ( In the midst of our anger at these crazy extremists, let us remember the courage and tenacity of those who fight to shape Israel into what she can and, we believe, should be.

This letter is already getting long, and I have not yet begun to share the blessing, and the amazing quality, of the experience of study I came here for in the first place. There are so many issues to share, beyond the topical ones of conversion and religious pluralism, and so much more at stake in what is going on in terms of engaging Israel. Indeed at some level these flash-point issues are things we catch-up on only in the morning or at the end of the day, when we have a chance to glance at the news. (One exception was when Natan Sharansky spoke at the Hartman Institute, days before the conversion bill was voted on in committee – and the Orthodox but pluralistically-inclined founder of the Institute, Rabbi David Hartman, publicly begged Sharansky to play whatever role he could in preventing this bill from passing, which, as the new chair of the Jewish Agency, Scharansky has now attempted to do.)

But few of you will read more and may not have made it this far, so I will close with an ongoing invitation to engagement, and a sense of gratitude to all of those who have supported my presence here… and who, I hope, will benefit from the learning, and the depth, of this experience.

Awaiting the arrival of the Temple Shalom trip (they depart from the States on August 2), and thinking of all of you…

With my love,

L’shalom (In Peace)…

Monday, July 05, 2010

Day One of the Rest of My Life:

Reflections on Travels and Study

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, MD

I think it is Carly Simon I have running through my head. "Anticipation..." When you have been looking forward to something for so long, sometimes, somehow, it just isn't what you pictured it to be. (The single best example I can think of where something I looked forward to so intensely really ran just the way I hoped and dreamed it would be was the day of Benjamin's Bar Mitzvah last October, one of the best days of my life.) As to this sabbatical, this time in Israel: I remember when the mental sand-dial turned over in my head... when I passed the half-way point between my last trip to Israel, and my current one. I have been counting down ever since.

And on this day, my heart is full, with so much to tell, and such gratitude about being here.

The trip was smooth: the long layover at Newark after being dropped off by my in-laws went comfortably and quickly, El Al security and check in was smooth, and the only glitch was an hour delay on the plane because the in-flight entertainment system was not working. (Glad they fixed it; watched two movies during the flight; would consider an Ambien the next time I take an 11:50pm flight.) My seat had a "wing view" so I missed that much anticipated customary first glance of land when traveling to Israel, but I've seen that before and I'll be coming back soon enough. But the feeling of standing on line at the Israeli passport control, of going to the "foreign passport" holders line, of looking around and feeling on the wrong line because it really feels like coming home... that was the same. The long walk from the plane to baggage claim went alright; the bags were there after not too long a wait. One of the ATM machines behind the bank tellers actually worked, and so I was in a cab with shekels in my pocket and listening to Moshe the taxi-driver from Ashkelon's life-story in record time; it might have been less than an hour from landing.

My pre-delivered cell phone actually had some charge left in it; I reached the landlady, and after some adventures in GPS-land, we found the apartment, in a maze of streets that look more like a warren than they did on Google Maps... The apartment is nice but a bit bare; Julie was right in guessing that "first floor" means the one 21 steps up, rather than ground level. There is an elevator that fits one person at a time -- and that's brand new, so the residents are celebrating it. I had to bring all my bags right through the middle of a shivah service; someone had passed away in the building, and the entire family clan was gathered together taking up the whole entranceway... stepping right into and through someone else's life-cycle event lent a typically intense/intimate Israeli tone to my arrival.

After a quick tour of the apartment (lots to remember: the stove works differently, some lights were out, the hot water heater is on a timer, the instructions on the washer are in Hebrew, which I can kind of handle, and the ones on the dryer are in German -- which is a bit more problematic), my cell phone rings. It is a young woman from our congregation who is finishing up a year in Israel dancing with a kibbutz-based dance company here, in Israel for only two more days and in Jerusalem for that evening. So off we went, along with a friend of hers, hitting the streets just an hour after my arrival. We discovered that the main thoroughfare of the German Colony, Emek Refaim, is just a minute from the apartment -- you have to cross what was once a train track called Derekh HaRakevet (Railroad Way), which is under current construction and transformation into a pedestrian walkway of some sort, so that was kind of torn up and unsightly. But there, steps beyond, were all the cafes, ice cream shops, hip stores, falafel joints and chocolate stores once could want. It was still lively at 10am on a Sunday night.

Whatever it took to get me out was worth it; it was wonderful to hear about my friend's year and see how at home she is here. The friend she brought with her is modern Orthodox; just as the well-known Orthodox boxer (Yuri Forman I think his name is) faces some issues in balancing his religious practice and his sport/profession, so, too, does this woman face some challenges -- complicated by expectations which apply only to women. Beyond just questions of tzni'ut (modesty) which she has somehow found a way through, other lifestyle issues came up. While the young woman from Washington was blown away that, at age 21, one of her friends is getting married, the unmarried modern Orthodox friend of the same age who was with her was describing the number of babies that her friends from home already have. All a matter of where you come from...

And then there was today.

Not sure how I managed to get up early, but I wandered out of the apartment at 7am heading towards the Hartman Institute, the site of my study program, which I had never been to before. I assume it takes around fifteen minutes walking from the apartment, but I have not done it in minimum time yet as I keep getting distracted and wandering off. This morning I found the street where we almost rented a (third floor!) apartment, and, just as described,, a bakery was right next to it. The owner waved me in, gave me hotter and fresher versions of the pastry I was pointing to, and I left tasting one item and saving the rest.

The Hartman Institute itself was... amazing. What a campus. There seems to be a high school on the grounds; today there was a confluence of at least five different programs: it was IDF day at Hartman. Apparently all high-level officers of the Israel Defense Forces now spend a day at Hartman, learning about issues of religious pluralism and democracy and tolerance and respect, from a Jewish-values based curriculum, in their service of the Jewish state. There were the 30-colleagues beginning my three-year program. There were the 30-or so colleagues finishing the last cycle of the previous program (they "graduate" tomorrow and are here for only two-weeks during their final summer). There were the rabbis who come to the open two-week program offered every summer, which also began today. And there were a group of lay leaders from North America, towards the end of their study time here, on a program of study I simply have to get some of our congregational leaders to participate in. (The lay leaders go home next week; I think a whole group of priests and ministers is replacing them; we break bread and share study time with those Christian clergy as part of our program one day down the road.)

Anyone who knows the feeling of seeing colleagues and friends come together after a long absence knows what the opening moment of greetings and surprise-encounters along with expected reunions is like. A friend and colleague from a previous region told me both about a previous mild-heart attack he had had... and how he feels as close to the people he studied with over the three years here as any other colleagues or friends.

The introductions alone of our cohort blew me away. We each were asked to speak for 5-7 minutes, which for some rabbis obviously means 10-12, but... wow. There was one man who was raised in Lakewood, NJ in a charedi (ultra-Orthodox world) and whose open exploration of pluralistic Orthodoxy is a defiant rebellion against his family. There was one woman who is called a "rosh kehillah" by her Orthodox community; the term does not translate as "rabbi" but as "head of the community," a position which she may uniquely hold in the Orthodox world. And that's just two of us...

We had three "content" based sessions today. The first was the introduction of an overarching "theme" for the summer, which will be shared in common by both the new and finishing three-year cohorts and the two-week folks (in other words, by all 150 or so rabbis who are here). That theme is Engaging Israel, and today's talk was led by Rabbi Donniel Hartman, the charismatic Orthodox son of the founder of the Hartman Institute, Rabbi David Hartman (who we heard from this evening.)

I have heard Donniel speak three times now; each occasion has been very powerful. (One such was the occasion on which he said that, were he a Reform rabbi in North America today, he probably would do interfaith marriages.) I wish I had the time to touch base on all of what he said, but, as briefly as I can: he said that they picked this theme (which you may think is an obvious one since we are here but which is unusual for the Hartman Institute to tackle) out of a sense of urgency, almost an emergency in what is going on in Diaspora-Israel relations. He spoke of the inadequacy of Israel advocacy, because it focused on facts, as if having just the right piece of data would allow someone to "win" an argument in a way to which the critics of Israel could not have a realistic response. He spoke about how all the basic stories, the narratives we tell about Israel,are problematic and even contradictory -- either Israel is here in case, God forbid, there should be another Holocaust (and, of course, you know its coming, don't you? Just wait, and then we can say we told you so!), or, that Israel is in danger, and needs support because Jews have to support each other. In the first place the argument is a solution to a problem most Diaspora Jews -- who feel totally and fully at home in their countries -- do not have, and in the second case few people see Israel on the verge of destruction. Five years of Kassam rockets, Donniel said, killed fewer people than in the first five seconds of Operation Cast Led. That does not mean the Kassam rockets did not need a military response, only that Israel's response was that of a country in a position of strength, not weakness. We are telling the wrong stories, and substituting facts for feelings and we wonder why there is a disconnect.

Can we not, Hartman asked, develop a new language, a Jewish-values based language for what Israel means and why it is important? (And he says this knowing, of course, the limits to how broad an appeal Jewish values-language will have to a North American Jewish community that in its majority unaffiliated lifestyle has often evinced little evidence of taking Judaism seriously.) (He managed to state this in a descriptive way; putting people down for what they do not do was not his main point and seems antithetical to his overall approach). He stated the need for a Jewish and democratic state -- clearly commenting that if we can't have both "I'm outta here" -- and the importance for viewing this young country as a work in progress. The five essential issues we will be tackling in the days to come are: 1) the question of peoplehood, because if the concept of Jewish peoplehood exits the value-system of Jews -- and it might in a North American its-all-about-what-works-for-me individualistic environment this could happen -- then Israel is irrelevant. Here the challenge is, frankly, most pointed for Reform Jews, who once stated -- wrongly, I believe, and since corrected -- that Judaism was a faith but not a folk. If Judaism becomes a private experience only, however, any special relationship with Israel becomes essentially meaningless. 2) the question of sovereignty, 3) the challenge of power -- what is a Jewish Torah of power, what does it mean to use power in a Jewish way. 4) the challenge to power (the concept, coming from Europe but spreading beyond it, that the use of power is inherently evil, and when one returns to powerlessness -- and only then -- will one have returned to the domain of morality, and 5) since Zionism was, at its core, an ideology -- what are some of the " big ideas" that Jews can bring to our enterprise of sovereignty.

Then we had lunch. By the time our cohort got there the soldiers were finishing up, but earlier groups got to interact with the IDF officers.

This afternoon we had the first of four sessions in the Zohar, the central work of Jewish mysticism, about which I know... very little, frankly. It was fascinating, even if the opening passage did focus on a poetic call to wake up, out of the slumber of ordinary thinking. This was either a brilliant or unfortunate choice for a group of jet-lagged students.

Finally this evening we heard from the founder of the Hartman Institute, Rabbi David Hartman. We studied a Talmudic argument regarding bringing about redemption between one view which says redemption requires repentance and good deeds, and the other that it means just surviving, and watched that argument play out throughout Jewish history. Israel is, Hartman the elder said, an essential act of belief in the idea that things can change, that redemption is about attitude and action, that the concept of Israel, the reality of it, is an affirmation of the category of the possible, the idea that tomorrow really can be different from today.

Taking all this in clearly called for ice cream. And we're back at it tomorrow morning, in a traditional form of "paired" learning called "chevruta study."

If you made it through this far, I hope you have enjoyed this "taste" of my time here, and I hope to have the koach (the energy) to do this again tomorrow night. I called Arie, our tour-guide for the Temple trip, and at 9pm tomorrow he is free; apparently we will be watching a soccer game tomorrow at a downtown bar. Well-earned drink after all these high ideas and ideals, I would say.

My thanks to all of you -- all of you -- who have any part in my being here...

With my best,
From Jerusalem,

Michael Feshbach

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Big Story:
Preview of an Apolitical Movie

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, MD

There's not that much apolitical material coming out of the Middle East these days.  Or, more to the point, there' plenty of apolitical space in the daily lives and cultural experience of those who live there -- but when those of us from "outside" Israel think of the place, it is usually, first and foremost, in terms of conflict or religion or in a big picture kind of way.

But I just saw a press screening preview of a new Israeli movie which may not have mentioned the conflict with the Palestinians or religious-secular tension even once.  And I didn't miss it.

Instead, the "politics" of this film were about body-image, self-esteem, and finding your place in the world.

If I have any quarrel with the film it is a quibble kind of quarrel: I am not thrilled with the translation of the title.  The film is called Sippur Gadol in Hebrew...I would have translated that as "A Big Story."  Instead, the film is called, in English, "A Matter of Size."  But that's a little thing, I suppose, in the light of a wonderful hour and a half.

So here's the story: the film begins in a diet club in the Israeli town of Ramla, where everyone weighs in but -- unlike Weight Watchers here in the States, and in typically Israeli communal fashion -- your weight is shouted out loud at the weigh-in, along with either encouragement or insults.

One man, Herzl, simply can't seem to lose weight.  There is no evidence that he is cheating on the diet, he just isn't built to lose weight.  Understanding is not one of the nuanced strengths of this club, however, and so he is unceremoniously kicked out.  He also loses his job because of his overall appearance, and finds new work cleaning dishes at a Japanesse restaurant.  And it is here that things get interesting, as he first encounters Japanese traditions, cultures, and a certain highly specialized form of the martial arts.  And so, soon enough, Herzl and his friends form Israel's first ever sumo wrestling team.

The film opens here in Washington at the Avaolon Theater of Friday, July 2.

A version of it apparently played earlier in this area, at the Washignton Jewish Film Festival, but I missed it there; it is well worth the hassle of finding parking near the Avalon (although I suppose that walking an extra block or two to see a movie about training to get in shape won't hurt)(and I wonder about sales at the concession stands for such a film!).   I am attempting to attach a link from a different review( but in my own comments I would say: this film was light (pun intended), deep without being obvious about it, and it shows a whole different side to Israeli life than we are used to seeing or thinking about.

And the challenging question I would pose to myself or others is this: which comes first -- physical health, or acceptance of oneself?  How do we reward ourselves?  And what are the greatest rewards of all?

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Faces in the Mirror

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach,
Temple Shalom
Chevy Chase, Maryland

[This was the introduction to my column for America OnLine from 1997-2002;
I will rewrite it shortly, but the reasons why I am writing, and what it says about my perspective, still applies.]

A distinguished teacher and leader of our movement, a brilliant writer and an inspiration to me, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who was in Sudbury, Massachusetts for many years, tells the following story:

One of a rabbi's happier jobs is making guest appearances in thecongregation's pre school. A few years ago...their teacher asked if I wouldgive the children a tour of the prayer hall. I decided to save the contentsof the ark...for last. But I lost track of time, and suddenly spied theteacher discreetly signalling from the back of the room that school wasalmost over.  Not wanting to rush through the sacred contents of the ark, I decided to savethem for a special session. I promised the children that the next time wemet I would open the curtains and together we would see what was inside. The teacher later informed me that such a hasty conclusion had generated a heateddiscussion among the little people as to what exactly was in the ark "behind the curtains."  One kid, doubtless a budding nihilist, thought it was empty. Another,apparently a devotee of American television consumer culture, opined thatbehind the curtain was "a brand new car." Another correctly guessed that itheld the scrolls of the Torah. But one kid, the teacher insists, said "You'reall wrong. When the rabbi opens that curtain next week, there will just be a big mirror."
                                                 (excerpted from God was in This Place and I, i did not Know)

A big mirror. In a sense, that Sudbury child's answer is one of the most profound comments about the Torah that I have ever heard. For truly, what we see when we open the ark, when we read the ancient words and gaze at the parchment scroll...are our own faces, our own issues and concerns and feelings.

With any book we read, any movie we see...and, especially with the Torah...we bring ourselves to the reading, the seeing, the understanding. Without us, it is not there. And that, for Jews as well as for those of other faiths, is precisely the power of the Bible.

It has always been so. We are soon to celebrate the cycle of Torah, the end and beginning, the completion and the commencement of the longest running syndicated re run in world history (only with this show, the rights to it are there for any takers.)

Simchat Torah leads us to ask a simple question. Why the Jews? Why were we chosen to receive the Torah?

In one place in our tradition, we read a story of how God offered the Torah first to all the other nations, but they asked what was in it, and when God said: "Do not kill," the Ishmaelites said, uh, sorry God, but we live by the sword, maybe next time, okay?  And when God told the Moabites, "Do not commit adultery," they respectfully replied that they, too, were not interested. Only when God approached the Jews did we reply without even asking about the contents "Everything that God has said, we will do and we will hearken."

Why the Jews? Why did we receive the Torah? Because everyone else had their chance, and they blew it.

But in answer to the very same question, there is yet another story. There is a different tradition that tells us how, at Mt. Sinai, God lifted the mountain up out of the ground, held it above the people who were trembling
below, and simply said: "If you accept my Torah, it will go well for you, but if you do not, this will be your burial place." To which the wise Israelites replied: "Everything that God has said, we will do and we will hearken."

Both of these stories answer the same question. Both are reactions to a question the comes from reading in between the lines of the Torah.

But with both stories, we learn as much about the writers of the story as we do about the Bible. The first was a chauvinist, or, at the very least, lived at a time when the non Jews around him (I assume it was a man) were behaving with violence and sexual immorality.

By the time the second story was written, however, the writer assumed that there were no inherent differences between Jews and non Jews; we happened to be the ones God chose to receive the Torah, but not by any inherent qualification on our part.

Another classical example. "And God built Eve from the rib of the man." Why the rib? To teach (as with one interpretation) that women are like bone, hard and inflexible? Or to show that a woman is from the side of a man not the head to rule above him, nor the foot to serve below him, but the side, to walk together, hand in hand and side by side, equal in every way.

In these different reactions to the very same verse, we can guess the gender, the inclinations and the general time period (ancient vs. quite modern) of the person doing the reacting.

In studying the Torah, we do not learn one single truth. We bring ourselves to the text, and we see ourselves reflected in it. It is not just talking to us. It is talking about us, and through us.

In studying the Torah, we discover ourselves.

That is precisely the goal of Jewish study. It is something that the synagogues in our community offer in a high quality way: the opportunity to peer into the past and discover the concerns of the present, to look at our
ancestors and see...that they are us and we are them on down through an endless chain that links and binds the generations together.

It is why our tradition teaches that "talmud torah k'neged kulam; studying Judaism is equal to all of the other commandments and customs of our tradition combined...because it will lead to them all."

The opportunities are there. The windows into the past and into our own souls are open for us. In each Bet Midrash, in each house of study, in a path that leads through the classrooms and the chapels, the libraries and social halls there waits for you...the Mirror in the Ark. And we...we who bring ourselves to study, we who see our own souls in the spaces between the words, we are, indeed, the Faces in the Mirror.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

"Dinosaurs Outside Ice-skating"

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
 One day when he was around two-and-a-half years old, when we were living in Buffalo, New York, my son Daniel looked up from something he was doing and announced with great enthusiasm: "Dinosaurs Outside Ice-skating!"

 I have no earthly idea what prompted this definitive pronouncement. All I know is that he must have been, at that moment, looking at the world a very different way than I was. And that it was going to take an awful lot of effort on my part to figure out -- if I could do so at all -- what it was that was going through his head.

I thought of this lesson shortly after hearing his comment, in the middle of a meeting in which it seemed like the different groups speaking were from different planets altogether.

The general subject was Church-State separation; the particular topic was an upcoming "National Day of Prayer" which had been planned for the City of Buffalo Common Council Chambers, in which groups were
called upon to come together for four hours, to put aside differences and share our common bond "in the body of Jesus."

Our "official" Jewish community was united in its response. Both the Jewish Federation and the American Jewish Committee representatives saw two problems from our point of view: first, the exclusive nature of the
gathering, since not all of us "true-blue" "real" Americans of us share a "common bond" in the "body of Jesus," and second, in the location of the gathering, four hours of time in the Common Council Chambers themselves. To our local representatives, and to the national contacts that these groups consulted, all of this seemed to be a pretty clear violation of the separation of church and state.

Now, I must say that many, many mainstream Protestant and Catholic organizations agreed with our objections, as did, of course, representatives of the Muslim and Hindu communities. At least one of the two issues had wide sympathy in these circles: such a gathering, held under the guise of a "National" Day of Prayer, should be inclusive, rather than exclusive. There was much less, although still significant, support for the notion that such a gathering, whose primary purpose was religious in nature, had no business
being held on government property. Individual, spontaneous and internal private prayer has never been disallowed in such settings; organized, public and communal worship in governmental settings has been much more problematic. (The gathering was, to much relief, but also some anger, moved out of the chambers and onto much more appropriate property at the last minute.)

What took me by surprise, I must confess, was the reaction of some segments of the African American community. While there were certainly those who had some sense of where the "other than" Christian community was coming from in our feelings, still there was a widespread sentiment that nobody
should be barred from any form of worship in any setting whatsoever. While I expected such an attitude from the something like the Christian Coalition, one of whose stated goals is to proclaim America a "Christian" country, the response from a community with whom we still very often find ourselves allied caught me by surprise. In our language, in our outlook, in our concerns, it was as if we were coming from two different worlds. And it looked like it was going to be pretty hard for each of us to really comprehend where the
other one was coming from.

But in inter-group relations, where we seem the most "alien" and "other," where we let our differences really come out, with love but honesty, with candor but calm, time, and work, talking, and trying, may yield good results in the end. Not agreement. But understanding of an other. Even, perhaps, appreciation of where someone very different from us is coming from.

I now know what I should have realized, perhaps, before. We look at the world in very different ways. For Jews, the separation from state-sanctioned prayer has been the deepest and most abiding basis of our freedom in this country. For African Americans in this country, for a very long time, prayer was the only freedom they had. Of course our attitudes towards the role of prayer in public life will differ. Even if we agree about many other areas of public policy.

Comprehension of a similar sort came to me several years earlier, before this incident, on the related topic of vouchers from private schools. After a direct conflict with some Roman Catholic officials on this issue in a previous community it which I lived, I sensed that we were ships passing in the night, that each one of
us was talking past the other, not really grasping the depth of the places which were the source of our positions. I appealed to a name I knew, a national Catholic expert on Jewish-Catholic dialog. He opened up a new world for me when he helped me look at the United States, for just a moment, through Catholic eyes.

It seems that one of the only actual pogroms in this country was, well, against Catholics. And the issue was over education. The place was Philadelphia, and the time was the middle of the nineteenth century. The
trigger event was a dispute over which version of the Bible would be used in a public school, a Catholic version or a Protestant version. And the anti-Catholic rhetoric grew so strong that, for the first and only occasion of which I am aware, a local Catholic bishop banned people from coming to services the following Sunday, in fear for their safety.

Just like the recent issue in Buffalo, the particulars of the incident are less important in the long run than what they reveal about the underlying experience of the group. It seems to me, as I look at the situation now,
that Jews and Catholics encountered an identical problem -- Protestant influence in the public schools -- and reacted in quite different ways. We Jews went to court, to create a neutral ground, an appropriately level
playing field for all American citizens in the schools which we "own" in common. The Catholic Church, as an institution, went out and created an entire and separate school system, in which Catholic values could flourish
untrammeled by the dominance of others. A similar problem, with two distinctly different solutions. No wonder Jews and Catholics, by and large, strongly disagree on the issue of using public money for parochial education.

I remain a strong opponent of vouchers for private schools. But I have a deeper, gut-level feeling for why this is such an important issue for some people than I ever did before. I am grateful to a patient and wise Catholic
teacher, who opened my eyes to his world.

When we try to look at the world through the eyes of another, we never know what we are going to find. That is because people who are different from us are, well, different. But it is a journey of discovery that is
almost always worth the effort. Not because we are going to agree on what should be done. But because we will come to know each other better. And in the process, without a doubt, we will learn more about ourselves.

I still don't know what my son meant when he said "Dinosaurs Outside Ice-skating." But I tried, for a moment, to see the world through his eyes. I discovered not agreement, but excitement and wonder and delight.

And Daniel. Somehow Daniel saw something of the world through my eyes as well.

He still shares this delicious sentence from time to time. But then he will pause, giggle, and add two more words. "That's silly!" he says. And somehow, despite not knowing all of what is going on in each other's heads, we have found a way to bridge a gap. Somehow, we understand a little bit about each other, and ourselves.