Friday, June 30, 2017

Working the System - Reflections on Parshat Chukat 5777

Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, you will not lead this assembly into the Land that I have promised them. - Bamidbar (Numbers) 20:12
As the revelations of a widening circle of public assistance fraud in Lakewood made national headlines this week, many people have written to me, confused, hurt and angry. 

People are trying to make sense of how ostensibly observant, charedi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews could bilk the Federal Government for millions of dollars in welfare fraud. Some of the sentiments I have seen include the following:
"What a desecration of Gcd's Holy Name (chilul Hashem)!"
"They don't represent us."
"I don't know how to respond." 
As a native son of Lakewood, and as the Rabbi of the last remaining non-Chasidic synagogue in Williamsburg, NY, I may have a unique perspective on the subject.

First of all, the Lakewood that I grew up in doesn't exist any more. When my grandparents moved to Lakewood in 1940, there was no Bais Medrash Gevoha (BMG), the principal yeshivah in Lakewood. Back then, Lakewood was just a quaint, small New Jersey town, a stone's throw from the Jersey Shore, with only one synagogue, Congregation Sons of Israel on East 4th Street. Rabbi Levovitz came to Lakewood in 1944, fresh out of the yeshivah (seminary), and would remain as the leader of that community for the next 54 years.

Lakewood was a winter resort destination, with dozens of large and small hotels. The great and mighty took the train from New York or Philadelphia to vacation in Lakewood. The John J. Gould estate became Georgian Court College. The Rockefeller estate became Ocean County Park. My grandparents bought the house in which the caretaker of the Rockefeller estate once resided.

I came of age at the tail end of that era. Laurel-in-the-Pines was long gone, but there were still a few small hotels - the Fox-Lieberman, the Irvington - hanging on for dear life. We would run up and down the empty halls of the Fairmont, play in the arcade and the empty fitness center. (They had these crazy machines with a wide belt that went around your backside, and when you turned it on, it jiggled your tush, I guess to reduce its size? But boy were they fun to play with.)

I still remember the horse-drawn carriages that would stand on the corner of Clifton and Main Streets, waiting to take people for rides around Lake Carasaljo. It had all the appeal and innocence of every small town everywhere - no one locked doors or cars; I'd disappear on a summer's day on my bike for hours, and as long as I was home for supper no one worried. It was the Mayberry of central New Jersey.

Baruch Dayan Emet, Rest in Peace, the Lakewood of my youth.

BMG swept all that away. When I was a kid, Lakewood was a town of perhaps 20,000 people. Today, it is a small city of 120,000, with the non-charedi having moved away years ago to Brick Township, Toms River or farther afield.

What was intended to be the Harvard of American Yeshivahs morphed into the community college of the charedi world. A public assistance mill sprouted up, allowing young single and married men to study Torah full time, supported completely by public assistance. The charedi world became adept at manipulating a social welfare system intended for the truly indigent to benefit the tens of thousands of yeshivah students that flooded into Lakewood. Politicians were paid to look the other way, and the Lakewood that we know today came into being. 

And if you applied and received public housing, food stamps, and other public benefits, while your in-laws were also sending you $3000 in cash a month to help support the grandkids, who was the wiser? The most important thing was the prestige of marrying a Torah scholar. 

As for the ethical imperative of self-reliance, of making a respectable living - that was for someone else. If the goyim are stupid enough to give us free money, why not take it?

From that mindset, it's not hard to extrapolate to public assistance fraud on a massive scale.

In Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood where real estate costs $700/square foot, public assistance is fact of life for most people. Manipulating the welfare system is taken for granted in the charedi world, because life in these dense Jewish ghettos would be financially impossible without it. Unfortunately, the competition for limited rent-controlled housing has pitched the charedi world against other needy ethnic groups, and the results are not pretty. 

And in a sea of Satmar Chasidim, I am the only openly and unapologetically Religious-Zionist, modern Orthodox Rabbi. I preach, among other things, the dignity of combining Torah study with a respectable occupation (Paint a target on my back...)

In my shul, about a third of the attendees are active shul members, supporting the shul with their time and money. Another third are spiritual seekers, hipsters and others looking for answers to the great questions of life. And the last third are chasidim, outsiders in their world, who (for a variety of reasons) feel more comfortable in my shul than in the 150 or so chasidic shuls or shtibalach in Williamsburg. 

We talk. I listen and I learn. 

In Williamsburg, people talk about being "in the System" or "out of the System." If you're in the System, the social contract demands rigid conformity in dress, thought, language, education, and social interactions. The reward for this abnegation of your personal autonomy is social acceptance and a presumption of a wholesome and unquestioned piety.

And while the System works for many, it is also undeniable that many scam artists, grifters and sex offenders use this presumption of holiness as a fig leaf to cover their misdeeds. 

If you're outside the System, you are, at best, irrelevant, or at worst, a threat to the System, because there is no Judaism outside the System.

One of the most important things I have learned in my short tenure as rabbi at Beth Jacob Ohev Sholom is that the Satmar world is by no means monolithic.

If you had asked me, a year ago, if I would have much in common with a Satmar Chasid, other than a vague common belief in the one true Gcd, I would have said 'no.' 

Yet I have met a select few chasidim that are genuinely pious; that learn Torah, that do great (and largely unpublicized) acts of kindness and charity, and are paragons of the spiritual life. Amazing, remarkable, inspirational people and true Tzaddikim.

I have also met many chasidim who wear the garb on the outside, but are thoroughly corrupt on the inside; chasing the almighty dollar by any means, legal or illegal, total phony baloney.

And I have met a small but growing third group: Satmar Chasidim who are true spiritual seekers; people who have one foot in the System and one foot out. Shtreimel wearing, payess wearing chassidim, secretly reading Ayn Rand and psychology texts and George Orwell and Rav Kook, all strictly forbidden inside the System. Secretly, privately, they question the Satmar Rebbe's position on the State of Israel (and other things), open to the idea that maybe, just maybe, they are on the wrong side of Jewish history. As one Satmar Chasid said to me: " I am a proud Satmar Chasid! but I also have a mind." 

The point here is that the external trappings of piety are no longer any indication of the heart and mind of the individual - if they ever were. 

So in a narrow sense, these individuals who have stolen millions in public funds do not represent mainstream Torah Judaism. No matter how long their beard is, rebbes who touch little boys do not represent mainstream Torah Judaism. No matter how learned they are, rabbis who secretly photograph women in the mikveh, and the scumbag rabbis who supply their mikvehs with unsuspecting young women, do not represent mainstream Torah Judaism.

But the landscape is, of course, more complicated than that. Because in the broader sense, we have a concept in Judaism of Arvut - that every Jew is responsible for one another. In the same way that Jews of great prestige and accomplishment bring great praise to the Jewish People and the Gcd of the Israel, whether we like it or not, Jews who act scandalously heap scorn on us all and on the Gcd we represent. Like Bernie Madoff or Jack Abromowitz or Barry Freundel or Daniel Greer. We are all tarred by their misdeeds.

At the end of this week's parsha, the Jewish People stand at Arvot Moav, the Plains of Moab, on the eastern shore of the Jordan River, opposite Jericho. But the word "Plains", Arvot, can also be read Arvut, mutual responsibility.

We are supposed to hold ourselves to a much higher standard of ethical behavior, to the 613 and not merely the 7. And we all must work constantly and consciously on improving ourselves, our service to Gcd above and our service to our fellow man. 

But rabbis and other communal leaders must also take a stand to change a social ethos which encourages heavy reliance on public support, and create a culture of self-reliance combined with a zero tolerance policy for this kind of malfeasance.

Shabbat Shalom from Williamsburg.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Cheat Day - Reflections on Parashat Balak 5776

(Numbers 22:2-25:9)

If Bilaam the Sorcerer ever wrote a memoir, it might have been entitled Mass Murder for Fun & Profit

He claimed to be a prophet of the One True Gcd, yet his dearest ambition was genocide, the destruction of the Jewish People. His strategy was pretty darn clever; he understood that if he could drive a wedge between the Jews and their Divine Benefactor, their destruction was all but assured.

The jury's out on whether this guy had legit supernatural powers, or whether he was just a third-rate con artist and a first-rate self-promoter. I'm inclined to the latter. He reminds me of a much less benign version of Whoopi Goldberg's character in the movie Ghost. In the film, Oda Mae Brown is a fortune-telling hustler who (as much to her surprise as anyone else's) has a most unexpected and very authentic supernatural experience.

So in one of the most delicious ironies in all of Scripture, the A-lmighty uses the mouth of the evil Bilaam, not to curse the Jews as was his dearest intent, but to compel him to utter four mellifluous, poetic blessings in praise of the Jews.

In the second of these, Bilaam says:
He can see no iniquity in Jacob, nor perversity in Israel; the Lord his Gcd is with him, and he enjoys the friendship of the King. - Numbers 23:21
Wait just a minute. No sin in Jacob? No perversity in Israel? Did we not just read four of the most difficult Torah readings (BeHa'alotecha, Shelach, Korach, Chukat) which are object lessons in sin and rebellion against Gcd? Gcd Himself says we tested His patience ten times in the desert. How do we square up our serial misbehavior with what Gcd is channeling through the recalcitrant tongue of Bilaam?

True story: earlier this week, one of my co-workers created a particularly delicious new flavor of smoothie, and offered me a taste. I declined, of course, because it wasn't kosher (derp). She thought about that for a split second and said, "Oh, come on, it's just a sip. Don't you ever get a cheat day?"

From the perspective of a total outsider, one who doesn't understand the arcane rules I live by, the question might seem natural enough. But to myself I thought, what a curious (and curiously non-Jewish) question!

Although I smiled and simply responded "No," at that moment I had a blinding flash of insight to our question.

To have a "cheat day" from keeping the mitzvot would be like taking a day off from breathing. Belief in Gcd and the willing, obedient performance of His mitzvot goes to the core of our personal, communal and national identity. The notion that rules are meant to be occasionally bent or broken is utterly foreign to us. The idea that you only really begin to live by breaking rules may be the stuff of folk songs, but it is not our reality. 

To the contrary, the mitzvot aren't a burden, they are the very definition of who we are. Ki Hem Chayeinu, the mitzvot are our very lives.

By integrating the mitzvot into our understanding of Self, by having sworn Na'aseh V'Nishmah as we did at Sinai, and by committing to do and hear these mitzvot anew in each generation, we place ourselves in a different league than other peoples, a people impervious to indelible sin.

The Or HaChaim says on this verse that, because of the sin of Adam and Eve, evil (rule-breaking) became ingrained in humanity. Not so the Jews, not so those who enter the Covenant of Sinai. When we sin, it is a superficial stain, damaging but not permanent. This is a qualitative difference between the Jews and the other nations.

So yes, we Jews are a stiff-necked people, and we do mess up, and sometimes quite spectacularly. No human is perfect. But what makes the Jews so precious in the Eyes of Gcd is that we have adopted His rules as our own, and when we falter, we quickly get back up and resume our service to Gcd. Keeping the mitzvot saves our hides every time. That is why, despite our failings, Gcd perceives no indelible sin in Jacob.

Bilaam was neither the first nor the last who thought he could sever the bond between the Jews and Gcd. He thought he had a shot because he didn't understand the nature of the mitzvah-bond between Gcd and the Jews. He just assumed that the Jews, like everyone else, must surely have the occasional Cheat Day.

In the end, Bilaam got his licks in; he may have won a battle, but he failed in the larger campaign to destroy us. And until the Messiah arrives, the Bilaams of the world will continue to take their shots, but they will always fail. So take heart! The bond between the Jews and Gcd is unbreakable. As the verse states:
But despite [the punishment and exile I will visit upon them for their sins] I will never completely reject them and obliterate them - for I am Hashem, their Gcd. - Leviticus 26:44
Shabbat Shalom.

To see an earlier blog on Parashat Balak, click HERE.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Connecting the Dots - Reflections on Parashat Chukat 5776

(Numbers 19:1-22:1)

Here we go again.

The Torah relates that, during the long march from the outskirts of Edom-Land towards the eastern approaches of Israel, the Jewish People got a little cranky, and started to complain against Gcd and His faithful servant Moses.

Again [sigh].

They dragged out the same tired canards they raised every time something went even the slightest bit wrong: Why did you ever lead us out of Egypt? Why must we die in this barren place? Blah. Blah. Blah.

To shake the Jews out of their torpor, the A-lmighty unleashes an attack of asps, serpents with a fiery - and deadly - bite. 

We know that Divine Punishment is always precisely measured to befit the crime, so why poison snakes anyway? Some commentators believe that the snake is a reference to The Snake, the instigator of Adam and Eve's sin, and how he slandered Gcd to convince Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Others suggest that the fiery sting of the snake bite exactly mimics the pain and injury of Lashon Harah, the slanders they were hurling against Moses and even Gcd Himself. 

In fact, in dream symbolism, snake bites can represent harmful remarks by you or others. (Therapist: Interesting...Talk about snakes...)

Anyway, back to the narrative. The people beg Moses to intercede with Gcd to stop the deadly snake attacks. And then this amazing interchange occurs:
And Gcd said to Moses: make for yourself a fiery [serpent] and put it atop a pole [Nes]; and thus it shall be that any bitten person that looks upon it shall live. And Moshe made a copper serpent [Nachash Nechoshet] and placed it upon the pole [Nes]; and so it was that anyone bitten by the snake and gazed upon the Nachash Nechoshet lived (i.e., did not die from the snake bite). - Numbers 21:8,9
What kind of strange voodoo is this? What did Moses create here? The Talmud (Avodah Zara 44A) relates that this mystical Nachash Nechoshet existed for hundreds of years, and could actually heal any kind of bite - dog, snake, deer tick. (During his reign, the righteous King Hezekiah had it destroyed, because, as is so often the case, awe became veneration became idol worship.) 

Remember that the snake symbolizes Lashon Harah? The Kli Yakar seizes upon this and says that the copper serpent served as a point of recognition and focus. Since a snake bite caused their pain and snakes are a symbol of Lashon Harah, the afflicted person could connect the dots between their present distress with the injury they inflicted through their rash speech. This dawning recognition, this admission of guilt, is the first necessary step in the process of spiritual healing, of Teshuvah.

Let's develop this idea even further.

I suggest that not only did the Jews not connect the dots between their affliction and their slander, they failed to connect the dots on two other critical occasions.

We are told in our parasha that Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, died in the first month of the last year in the desert. Immediately thereafter, the Torah describes a crisis in the water supply. Out there in the high desert, their water supply vanishes, and a life-threatening crisis erupts.

In the fifth month of the last year, we are told of the death of Aaron atop Mount Hor. Immediately thereafter, the Torah describes the attack of the serpents. Another life-threatening crisis.

Number One: the people failed to recognize that it was through the merit of the righteous Miriam that the Jews had been supplied with water in the desert for forty years. And that well - Miriam's well - was miraculous in nature, so when Miriam died, poof! went the well. 

Number Two: the people failed to recognize that it was through the merit of the righteous Aaron that the Jews had been protected by the Ananei HaKavod - the Clouds of Glory, a sort of climate-controlled Divine bubble that protected them from the hazards of the desert for forty years. So when Aaron died, poof! went the Ananei HaKavod. Exit the Divine bubble, enter the poison snakes.

Instead of connecting those dots, instead of reflecting inward, the Jewish People reflexively lashed out against their leaders with gratuitous complaints. So what does Moses do in response? He constructs a copper serpent. Now in English, "copper" and "serpent" are utterly unrelated words. But in Hebrew, they are almost identical: N-H-Sh and N-H-Sh-T. No Hebrew speaker could fail to see the word connection.

Next, Moses puts the Nachash Nechoshet on a Nes, which usually means a miracle, but in this context means a pole. The symbolism is clear: Nachash Nechoshet - focus on the [word] connection, to Nes, to the miracle that you are missing. 

Moses is telling the people: your distress is because you took the miraculous for granted. You assumed the water and Divine protection would be there forever. Sad to say, you took Miriam and Aaron for granted. That was the sin of the Jewish People.

There was no voodoo here; Moses was guiding people to the path of healing. Once we cultivate a sensitivity to the miracles that surround us, that sense of awe and gratitude will lead to healing, to recovery, to Teshuvah. That was the lesson Moses was conveying in the Nachash Nechoshet.

One of the most uplifting books I have ever read is called Small Miracles, by Judy Leventhal and Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum. It describes true stories of extraordinary coincidences in everyday lives that, if viewed in the proper perspective, are nothing less than miraculous. It is a mini-documentary of the presence of the A-lmighty in our lives. I urge you to read these vignettes aloud at your Shabbat table.

Put on your miracle specs and start recognizing the abundant miracles, blessings and gifts that envelop us like the Ananei HaKavod; that nourish and water our very lives, like Miriam's Well; that indeed sustain each and every one of us. Recognize that every good thing in your life is a wondrous gift from Gcd Himself, specially selected for you. 

Be the person in your world that connects the dots. 

Shabbat Shalom.

[For earlier blog posts on Parashat Chukat, click HERE and HERE.]

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Up - Reflections on Parashat Shelach 5776

Note: Just hours after I uploaded this blog post, news reached us of Hallel Ariel, a 13 year-old girl murdered in her bed in Kiryat Arba as she slept, Daniella Shefi style. I dedicate this blog post to her memory. השם יקום דמה

(Numbers 13:1-15:41)

Our parasha this week deals in large part with the treachery of the infamous spies whom Moshe dispatched to scout out the Land of Israel. 

Their mission was to collect military intelligence prior to the Israelite conquest of [what was then known as] Canaan. Instead, they twisted every good thing they saw into something negative. They talked trash about the Land of Israel. They wildly overestimated the strength and fortifications of the enemy. They talked smack about Moshe's leadership. And for the coup de grace, they had the temerity to question Gcd's judgement in urging a conquest that was [in their grasshopper-ish eyes] clearly doomed to failure.

By the time they were done proffering their august opinions, the Jewish People were in a lather, wailing and moaning about how Gcd had led them into a death trap. With murder on their mind, they resolved to appoint a Quisling or a Petain  - a new, more suggestible leader that would lead them back to Egypt to resume their lives as slaves, with heads bowed and hands held high in submission and surrender.

We know the rest of the story - instead of a speedy and miraculous conquest of the Holy Land, the Jews are condemned to wander in the desert for forty years, until every Crabby Appleton who had mouthed off to Gcd and his servant Moshe had died in the desert.

The laundry list of what the spies did wrong, and the broader lessons of Parashat Shelach, are so transparent to even the casual reader that they require no elaboration by Your Humble Servant. 

I will only mention one teeny tiny point which must be made. It must be made by someone like me because you probably won't hear this from your local congregational rabbi...because synagogue boards don't take kindly to rabbis who encourage members to leave town. 

I am referring to the "A" word - aliyah, variously translated as moving to Israel/elevating one's spiritual status/going up. 

If you love Israel and are a passionate Zionist, the single most important thing you can do for Israel is to relocate and transplant your life there. 

Today, in fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy and Divine Promise, Gcd has restored Jewish sovereignty to the Land of Israel. Ponder the historical, theological and philosophical implications of that reality for a minute.

As foretold by the prophets of Israel, the ingathering of the exiles from the corners of the world is underway. Any Jew who does not understand the mystical symbiosis between the People of Israel, the Torah of Israel and the Land of Israel has a deeply flawed conception of Judaism.
V’Ata Kadosh, Yoshev Tehilot Yisrael./And You are Holy, enthroned upon the praises of Israel. - Psalms 22:4
Yoshev - Yishuv Eretz Yisrael, residing in the Land of Israel
Tehilot - Torah
Yisrael - the People of Israel

The living interconnection between the Land, the Torah and the People is the great end game of human history, for it is through Geulat Yisrael, the redemption of Israel, that the redemption of the entire world will occur, bringing peace and blessing to all mankind.

They are the tripod of Gcd’s throne, as it were, and a stool with only two legs is no stool at all. American Jewry is self-destructing because we have attempted to base Jewish identity on any two, or sometimes only one of them. 

Our liberal Jewish brethren who have discarded both Torah and the Land find it difficult to understand why their adherents can’t find much use for the People, either. Our Haredi brethren emphasize Torah and Klal (peoplehood), but attach almost no significance to Yishuv Eretz Yisrael. And our secular Zionist brethren have demonstrated the abject failure of the People and the Land without Torah; their children opt out, winding up in New York or L.A. or South Florida.

We point to our impressive institutions, our Federations and JCCs and synagogues, built out of necessity, with such painstaking effort and at such staggering cost; and they are indeed impressive. But we are like the proverbial castaway who, when offered the chance of rescue, is reluctant to return to civilization; reluctant to leave the crude instruments of survival he engineered and so lovingly built with almost superhuman effort. We are reluctant to abandon our desert island for a life in Israel where being Jewish is normative, where Jewish continuity is taken for granted, where the ground, the air, the water is suffused with the Spirit of Gcd.

What does it mean to purposely stay behind in North America, to not make aliyah? It is as if Gcd Himself threw a party for you and you didn't show up. Ouch.

As events on the world stage spiral out of control, towards ever-increasing instability, we can scant afford to ignore the historical imperatives that drive us towards our destiny: the People of Israel, loyal to Gcd and His Torah, living on the Land forsworn to our ancestors, fulfilling the mission of bringing Gcd’s holiness to a weary world in desperate need of it. The nations of the world are waiting for us to ACT. What are we waiting for?

This is the enduring lesson of the failure of the spies, ten tayarim/tourists, who made a pilot trip to Israel but preferred their life in chutz l’aretz/the diaspora. 

Make aliyah and ensure the Jewish future of your family. Get excited about moving to Israel. The future of our People is not being decided in Monsey or Borough Park or Lakewood - it's being decided in Hevron and peaks of Judea and the rolling hills and valleys of Samaria. 

If you truly want to put an end to terrorism and radical Islam, make aliyah. The most eloquent answer to the BDS movement is to make aliyah. The authentic Jewish answer to these problems is to build - build another house, another neighborhood. 

Make aliyah. The Ingathering of Exiles is at hand. Take a stand and live where being Jewish matters. Rectify the sin of the spies. Go up to the Land.
Alo Na'aleh v'yirashnu oto/Let us ascend to the Land of Israel and take possession of it. - Numbers 13:30
Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Wedding Vows - Reflections on Shavuot 5776

Bea & Sam Gisser, August 1985
On their fiftieth wedding anniversary, our Bubbe and Zayde renewed their wedding vows under a stunning gold lame chuppah, and then, in their inimitable style, threw a party to end all parties. Every family member and friend they could think of was invited. People dressed to the nines (fahrpitzed in Yiddish), the five-star food rocked, Ruby Melnick's orchestra wailed, and the wine flowed. And people talked about that party for years.

Zayde always said: make the effort to attend the simchahs (celebrations), because on the sad occasions you have to go.

What ingredients go into a successful marriage, one that makes it to the 50 year milestone and beyond? 

First are the open and effusive expressions of love between the partners; second are the daily acts, little and large, that demonstrate that love, nurture it and keep it alive; and third is the inherent good character and trustworthiness of the partners themselves. 

With those three ingredients, any marriage will go the distance. Two out of three and the marriage will endure for a while; but with only one out of the three, the prospects for long-term success are not brilliant.

This weekend, Jews have a simchah to attend. Sunday (and Monday in the Diaspora) are Shavuot, the annual holiday when we renew our wedding vows with the A-lmighty. For Shavuot is the anniversary of receiving the Torah - our ketubah (marriage contract) - at Mount Sinai, a mere 3,328 years ago. (My! How the time flies.)

Like Bubbe's and Zayde's marriage, the marriage between the Jewish People and Gcd rests on the same three pillars: our expressions of faith in the One True Gcd; our performance of His mitzvot that demonstrate that love, nurture it and keep it alive; and finally, our inherent good character as embodied in our Jewish lineage, as descendants of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of old.

Pop quiz: which of those three components is the most important: Jewish pedigree, keeping the mitzvot, or belief in Gcd?

Most people would probably answer Jewish pedigree, because almost everyone knows Jews who are non-observant. Also, most people are familiar with the Halachah (Jewish law) that if a Jewish woman "marries out", i.e., to a non-Jew, her children will still be considered Jewish in the eyes of Jewish Law.

And yet they would be very wrong. [Your surprised face here.]

That rule was a concession to the fact that in olden days, it was not uncommon for young Jewish women to be taken captive by foreigners, conquerors and rapists. (In fact, in Israel today it is estimated that over 3,000 Jewish women have been seduced or kidnapped and are held against their will by abusive Moslem husbands in Arab villages, which, thanks to the Oslo Accords, are out of the reach of Israeli authorities.) The Sages of Israel, understanding the holy nature of Jewish women, assumed that such women would inculcate Jewish values and a sense of Jewish identity in their children, even in situations of extreme abuse and duress. 

And those who understand this Halachah as giving license to marry out are probably not aware that after four successive generations of intermarriage, the children are no longer considered Jewish. (Sad to say, we bear witness in our times that it doesn't usually take that long.)

The correct answer, at least according to the Rambam and other prominent authorities, is belief in the One True Gcd. Why? Because from our clear understanding of the Ikarei HaDat, the Fundamentals of the Jewish Faith, everything else follows. People who understand the Unity and Indivisibility of Gcd; who understand that Gcd actively runs the Universe and and takes a personal interest in the minutest details of every human life; people who acknowledge the authority of Torah - Gcd's Law - in their life; such people will perform the mitzvot enthusiastically, and convey that enthusiasm to their children, continuing the 4,000 year chain of pedigree which we can trace back to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.

And what of converts, you may ask? After all, they lack that chain of pedigree. If, as I argue, to be Jewish is to possess not just one or two, but fully all three of these ingredients, how can converts ever be truly Jewish?

This not a question, because sincere converts have a better pedigree than natural-born Jews. 

People who grew up working on the Sabbath, and who grew up eating cheeseburgers, who grew up with the norms of a secular or idolatrous society; such people, who abandon everything they recognize as normal and familiar, to attach themselves to the destiny of the Jewish People and follow the path of Judaism, most especially including the specifics of Jewish Law, are considered to be the direct, first generation descendants of the Patriarchs Abraham and Sarah themselves:
Take yourselves from everything that is familiar to you - your land, your culture, your father's house, to the unknown land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)
And thus will the generations that follow the righteous convert merit to have all three components.
Where you go I will go, and where you live I will live. Your people will be my people and your God my God. (Ruth 1:16)
To be a Jew is to embody all three components, for a three stranded rope does not easily break (Ecclesiastes 4:12). Until the Enlightenment, such a statement would hardly have merited comment. However today, broad swaths of Jews no longer recognize the authority of Torah Law in their lives, and the liberal streams of Judaism give religious sanction to agnosticism in the name of intellectual integrity.

Because we are no longer a community bound together by a set of common axioms and postulates, all that remains to unite the Jewish world is our common ancestry. We are no longer a faith community, rather we are most tenuously connected one to another by our lowest common denominator. And that, in my humble opinion, is a tremendous poverty. Because when one's Jewish identity is based upon ethnicity alone, it speaks more to who your grandparents were than to who your grandchildren will be. 

And this sad state of affairs is the precipitating cause of the modern crises of who is defined as a Jew and whose conversions are to be considered valid.

Somehow, we must once again become a community united by a common faith and a shared belief system. 

So my challenge to you this Shavuot is to renew your wedding vows with the A-lmighty. Take a few minutes to reflect on the basics of your relationship with Gcd. 

Here's your homework:

1.) Curl up in a comfy chair.
2.) Pour yourself a glass of wine or a mug of soothing jasmine tea.
3.) Read through and reflect upon each one of Rambam's Thirteen Principles of Faith, which can be found in any reputable prayer book. 
4.) After the holiday, hit me up with your questions.

May Gcd bless the Jewish People with Unity rooted in Belief, Unity rooted in Torah, and lastly, with the bonds of Brotherhood and Family.

Chag Sameach.

(To read an earlier post on the holiday of Shavuot, please click HERE.)

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Economics of Human Dignity - Reflections on Parashat Behar 5776

(Leviticus 25:1 - 26:2)

If you want to construct a utopian economic order, put down Das Kapital and pick up Parashat Behar.

Parashat Behar deals in large measure with the laws of Shemitah, the sabbatical year. Here's the basic 411: for six years, landowners work their fields, plant their seeds, reap their harvests, pay their taxes. But in the seventh year, everyone's land lies fallow; ownerless, as it were. The rich and poor alike are free to glean from whatever perennial fruits, vegetables and grains that grow wild. Hoarding is strictly forbidden. Fences come down, and domesticated livestock and even wild animals are free to trample in the fields and eat their share unmolested.

Because in the seventh year, the land reverts to its true owner, the A-lmighty Gcd who created the heavens and the earth.

Furthermore, all personal debts are forgiven in the seventh year, and indentured servants are released.

After seven shemitah cycles, that is, 49 years, the fiftieth year is the Jubilee year. Three amazing things happened in the Jubilee year: (1) Jewish servants who (for whatever reason) refused to leave their masters earlier, were forcibly emancipated; (2) the Jubilee year was an additional sabbatical year in which everyone's fields lied fallow for a second consecutive year, and (3) all real estate transactions became null and void, with the land reverting to the original seller, the owner of the ancestral plot.

The grand, overarching theme of these rules is the preservation of human dignity. While rewarding innovation and hard work, the Torah describes an economic system that establishes human dignity as its core value, far above the profit principle.

How so?  Every area of human economic endeavor ultimately derives from the earth. From the food we eat, to the steel, glass and rubber that we use to build our automobiles, to the silicon that makes the chips for our devices, to the trees and concrete we use to build our homes, to the energy we utilize to make it all run - all of it comes from the earth. 

By observing the sabbatical year on the Land, we acknowledge that whatever measure of financial success we enjoy is dependent upon the earth, which in turn is wholly due to Gcd's beneficence. Shemitah shatters the myth of the self-made man who answers to no one but himself (and of course worships his creator); of the notion that there is no limit on the accumulation of wealth; of the notion that we are free to spend the fruits of our labors according to our fickle whims and peccadilloes.

Rather, Shemitah drives home the idea that we are mere stewards of everything that we possess, and that we have an attendant responsibility to manage those gifts wisely.

Once we recognize our indebtedness to Gcd for our own successes, we are prepared to advance to the next step and recognize that our fellow is co-equal to us as a servant of Gcd, also created in His Image and equally important and valuable in His eyes. His right to be treated fairly in the deal is no less important than our own. 
Whether you are a seller or a buyer, don't take advantage of your fellow in the deal. (25:14)
That fact will guide the conduct of our financial transactions with others, and the sum of those human-dignity-based transactions create the Torah's utopian economy.

Rule: Indentured servants should go free after no more than six years - laden with gifts, and ready, eager and retrained in their new trade to make a respectable living as freemen. 

Rule: No servant of Gcd can have two masters forever, and must be freed in the Jubilee.

Rule: If a person is reduced to working for an hourly wage, treat him as an artisan at his job and do not humiliate him through demeaning work.

Rule: If a person should sell their ancestral plot out of dire necessity, the obligation falls to his immediate relatives to redeem his land for him that he may once again live with dignity. If he or his family cannot raise the funds to bail him out any sooner, it perforce reverts to him in the Jubilee year.

Rule: Personal loans are forgiven in the Shemitah year to allow the destitute a chance for a fresh start, for hope and for dignity.

Rule: The reversion of land to its ancestral owners in the Jubilee year prevents the concentration of disproportionate amounts of wealth in the hands of the very few.  It was an economic "reset," the original anti-trust legislation.

Here in the United States, we are suffering through a season of political astonishment: liberals are astonished that a brash demagogue like Donald Trump could be the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, while conservatives are astonished that Bernie Sanders, an unapologetic socialist, can garner 40% of the Democratic vote.

But the United States is also a place where the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen; where the dream of home ownership as the primary path to personal wealth is evaporating; where taxes, already punitive and confiscatory, continue to rise, in order to feed an intrusive and metastasizing government and service an out-of-control sovereign debt; where labor is treated as disposable, to be spent, exploited and discarded when no longer of use. 

Both Trump's and Sanders' approaches are deeply, deeply flawed. Unfettered, rapacious, slash-and-burn capitalism is fundamentally unethical. And socialism has failed in every setting it has been attempted, because it punishes, rather than rewards, the natural human impulse to build, create and innovate. 

Parashat Behar shows us the middle path: a benign capitalism that puts people before profit. It provides capitalist financial incentives for innovation, criminalizes exploitation of labor, and provides mechanisms for the economic protections for all citizens of the Jewish society.

Because the underpinning of a dignified, meaningful Torah life is the ability to make a respectable living. 

Maybe this parasha should have been called The Heart of the Deal.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Karate Kid Kedushah - Reflections on Parashat Kedoshim 5776

(Leviticus 19:1-20:27)

Someday, in the very distant future, when I approach the podium to - reluctantly - accept the Nobel Prize for Thought-Provoking Torah Blogs Presented Through the Medium of Trombone, I will have many people to thank: my wife, my kids, my parents, the Academy...

This week, though, I must give a nod to three great people: Rashi, Rav Kook and Pat Morita.

First the Rashi: This week's Torah portion begins with the general exhortation to be holy, and then continues with a list of 51 specific mitzvot/commandments, understood to be the means for achieving a holy life. 

In verses 19:11,12 we read:
Don't steal, and don't deny the truth, and don't tell lies to one another. And don't swear to a lie by My Name, that you should desecrate the Name of Gcd, I am Gcd.
Pretty solid advice. However Rashi sees these commandments, not as separate injunctions, but as being connected to one another: "If you steal, you will deny it, leading you to tell an outright lie to cover it, ultimately leading you to take a false oath in Gcd's Name." 

Rashi's brilliant insight got me to thinking about the idea of connectedness in all the mitzvot in Parashat Kedoshim.

If you go back and study the structure of the narrative, you will detect an interesting pattern: the mitzvot (or cluster of interrelated mitzvot) are presented in couplets, punctuated by the statement Ani Hashem/I am Gcd.

A man should fear his mother and father
And My Sabbaths you should observe
I am Gcd.

Do not turn to false deities
And do not make for yourselves physical representations of Gcd
I am Gcd.

[The laws of the peace offering]
[Set-asides for the indigent and the dispossessed]
I am Gcd. 

(I could go on, but if you check it out for yourself, you'll see that the structure holds.)

In each case, beyond the simple meaning of each mitzvah, the structure of the coupled mitzvot teach a meta-lesson. 

Take the first couplet: the underlying rationale for respecting one's parents is the same for observing the Shabbat and holidays. The respect accorded to our parents - as those who created us, gave us life and nourished us - is the same respect we accord to Gcd as our Creator, Who has given us life and has nourished us. And observing the Shabbat bears eloquent witness that Gcd created the entire universe, including us.

Or the last example: don't think that you can get right with Gcd by bringing a peace offering with great fanfare in public, while stealing from the poor in private. (Bam! You now understand the Book of Isaiah.)

All well and good. But why couplets? Why not triplets or quatrains?

The Torah is teaching us something very profound about what it means to be holy. The parasha opens with "Kedoshim Ti'hiyu," you should be holy because I, The Lcrd Your Gcd, am Holy. The couplets speak both to a perfected world that will be, and to the imperfect world that we currently inhabit. 

One the one hand, the parasha outlines a perfected, messianic society; a model in which the poor are provided for, where there is no cheating or stealing or lying or narcissism. A society in which we love one another as we love ourselves, without deceit and subterfuge. A world united in the common recognition that every good thing emanates from the Source of All Goodness. Perhaps that is why the exhortation of Kedoshim Ti'hiyu is phrased in the future tense, not in the present tense.

One of my favorite scenes in the original Karate Kid (1984) is when, early in the movie, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) teaches Daniel-san how to trim a bonsai:

I view the bonsai as a metaphor for the work of tikkun olam/perfecting the world to the Gcdly ideal.

As Kedoshim, holy ones, our task is to focus single-mindedly on that idealized society, without distraction, seeing nothing but the bonsai; taking the world that is handed to us and transforming it into the picture of that perfected, messianic society that the Torah describes and which we envision in our mind's eye. For the seventy generations since the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem we have been hard at it, and with each passing generation, through the performance of these mitzvot, we draw ever closer to that ideal. 

But how do Kedoshim deal with the imperfections of the world along the way? What of the evil-doers, idolaters and oppressors of the poor? That is the other part of the couplet, of dealing with the world the way it is.

In this, we are guided by luminaries such as Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook. Although we of course never met (he passed over to the World of Truth in 1935), his teachings resonate in my soul so deeply that I, like many others, consider myself to be an intellectual heir, a disciple of his.

In his day, Rav Kook had many detractors, particularly in the Old Yishuv of Jerusalem. They set about publishing and distributing many scurrilous pamphlets and posters, shamelessly excoriating him personally and lampooning his magnum opus, Orot.

And yet, as an exemplar of holy behavior, he never took the bait. He never struck back, replied, or even attempted to defend himself against the scathing criticism of his accusers. He held his tongue and absorbed the abuse without complaint; to the contrary, he dealt with his accusers kindly, never withholding alms even for those of the other camp who knocked on his door in desperate need. 

That is the mark of a holy person. The true litmus test of Kedoshim is how they deal with the darkness they encounter along the way. To aspire to holiness is to never lose sight of the big picture. The bad guys may have the momentary upper hand, but they never prevail. This, too, is the lesson of the couplets in our parashah.

Every Othello has his Iago. As many readers of this blog are already aware, my family and I have been harassed by an irksome madman who has spread monstrous rumors about us to anyone gullible enough to listen. It's also no secret that his whispering campaign has cost me several rabbinic positions. 

In his boundless arrogance, he considers himself Gcd's gift to the Jewish people, but he is much less like the messiah, and much more like Daniel Greer; and Benny Minster and Toviah Singer and his other felonious cronies.

Guided by the example of Rav Kook, we have done our best to ignore him and his wild lies, and we will not dignify his sordid accusations with a public response.

To the contrary: the talmud in Tracate Kiddushin 32 states that a true talmid chacham/student of Torah overlooks insults to his reputation and doesn't chase honor. So people are free to say whatever they want about us, it is of no concern. The A-lmighty above knows the whole truth, and that truth has a funny way of revealing itself in the end.

There is a very moving meditation that is said right before going to sleep for the night: 
Master of the Universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or has sinned against me either personally, or financially, or against my reputation; whether he did so accidentally, intentionally, carelessly or purposely; whether in speech, deed, thought or idea...may no person be punished on my account.
And of course there is the thrice daily meditation at the end of the amidah: "Give me the fortitude to let my soul be silent in the face of those who accuse me falsely."

I hope and pray that this "Iago" receives the spiritual and psychological counseling he so desperately needs. As for me, I entrust myself to those who know me best: first and foremost my precious family; and my rabbanim, my colleagues, my students and my true friends.

The key is not to be distracted by the maligners. We must not get caught up in the nonsense; rather, we must keep working towards creating the perfected society portrayed in Parashat Kedoshim. That was the path of Rav Kook.

For my part, I will continue to teach Torah undeterred, in order to bring Gcd's People closer to His service; and in so doing, hope to make a small contribution to the collective endeavor of our National Bonsai.

Shabbat Shalom.