Thursday, June 9, 2022

The Queen, the Rabbi, and Making You Matter


Don't worry, the post isn't missing, it's just someplace else.  Please read it at my Times of Israel blog here:  TOI Blog

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Acharei Mot: We Need the Absurd


"In Emperor Julian's mind the myths that shock the vulgar are noble allegories to the wise and reverent. Purge religion from dross if you like; but remember that you do so at your peril. One false step, one self-confident rejection of a thing which is merely too high for you to grasp, and you are darkening the Sun, casting God out of the world.” - Five Stages of Greek Religion, Gilbert Murray

The quotation could apply to nearly any aspect of religious life and certainly to many things in Judaism.  The idea that during Sukkot would be a bad time to bring a friend to synagogue, it being hard to explain the meaning behind a bunch of people wrapped in leather straps and capes, holding leaves and a lemon, marching in a circle and mumbling, is just one example. 

The lesson of Murray’s analysis of the Apostate’s thinking is of course that there is value in a ritual like hakkafot.  And that carelessly dispensing with anything in religion because it might seem absurd is a great sin.  We don’t complain about our food for not being magnetic, and we shouldn’t complain about religious practices for being illogical. 

In our parshah, the example on which I’d like to focus is that of the scapegoat, the goral echad l’Azazel.  The High Priest conducts a ritual with two goats.  One to be offered to God and the other sent to Azazel.  This goat would carry with it the sins of all the people freeing them in a tangible and dramatic way and finalizing their efforts to atone. 

It's weird, there are no two ways about it.  Hertz in his commentary derides those who would say Azazel is a demon, noting that in the next chapter we are commanded, v’lo yizb’chu od et zivcheihem l’si’irim, as Hertz translates, “no more sacrifice their sacrifices to satyrs.” He quotes Gesenius in saying Azazel can only mean “dismissal.”

Even with all that, Hertz doesn’t make it any less weird.  Okay, so it’s not an appeal to a demon, it’s still kind of crazy.

That, though, is the point.  Our ancestors took sin seriously.  It was a real thing.  It was a palpable thing.  No doubt some were themselves led astray by believing the ritual alone, and no change in behavior, would suffice to make atonement.  But for many, it must have been a great relief to know that in addition to their sacrifices and their fasting and all other efforts to atone, that their sins had been carried away to not tempt them again, had to have provided a strong sense that life could start anew, that a new path could be taken to quite literally, go forward. 

Would that we took sin so seriously.  For us, I think the ritual is as preposterous because it requires us to “believe” in sin as much as it requires us to accept Azazel as whatever person, place or thing it might be.  

We just don’t believe in sin.  And not just sin.  We don’t want to have anything to do with sin, suffering, sickness, catastrophe, evil, any of it. 

And when you seek to live life avoiding all those things, what does it do for you?  Nothing good.  Just to focus on one example, the pandemic.  As if the dangers of illness, hospitalization, and death, weren’t bad enough, at least with those there was some idea of how we might help people.  But the greater host of dangers – of isolation, of meaninglessness, of sorrow, depression, and anxiety, those our society is woefully ill-equipped to address.  People just don’t know what the remedy is for those sorts of things.  They don’t know because even on a “good day” people don’t understand.  If a thing doesn’t have a financial value that can be measured, or it isn’t a medical condition that can be seen and touched, people lack even a vocabulary for describing such things.  They’ve forgotten the value of community, of not just the one or two good friends, but a larger network of people who care about each other.  They don’t know about having a purpose in life beyond finding pleasure and fulfilling one’s basic needs.  And despite how widespread such things are, mental and emotional conditions all too often are enigmas society would rather hide away than meet with love and a desire to understand.

That is because the ineffable, the poetic, the spiritual, even the absurd, these things lack in all value.  And hence the parts of human life they are precisely meant to address become terrible problems.  How do you deal with sin and guilt?  You have to change, atone, forgive… and you have to put your sins on a goat.

You have to have stories and songs and dances and foods and clothes that bind you to others and that in sharing with them you find meaning and purpose.  You can express joy and process pain – because there are huge parts of being human that are ridiculous, are absurd. 

So, tie on the red string and head into the wilderness.  Leave the metal with its imperfections.   Shake the palm branch in all directions.  Let the Sun’s light shine forth and even burn.  We need all that.  Being alive requires it.  And if you have it, if you find it here and in other parts of your life, cherish and nurture it so others may find the same blessings, too. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Defending Putin


Putin Isn’t Amalek

I want to defend Vladimir Putin.  We just read Parshat Zachor this past Shabbat.  It describes how a wicked villain, Amalek, the ancestor of Haman, attacked innocent and defenseless people in an unprovoked way and how we must always remember to fight against and utterly defeat Amalek because of this.

Sounds just like Putin, I can hear you saying.  Nope, sorry, but it’s just not fair to say Putin is Amalek.

The passage we read, from Deuteronomy, says “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, upon your departure from Egypt’… ‘You shall erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens, you shall not forget.”

The mitzvah is to remember, erase, and not forget, and is fulfilled in the following manner:

1.  “Remember,” we read this passage on Shabbat Zachor, right before Purim, to fulfill the mitzvah, not just when it shows up in context in Ki Tetsei.

2.    “You shall not forget,” in your heart, we must also reflect on it ourselves.

3.    “You shall erase” - the mitzvah is in force until the day comes when Amalek is totally destroyed from the world.

4.    Additionally, others would say fighting and killing Amalekites, is required as well.

Still sounds like it could apply to Putin, so consider definitions offered in our tradition regarding just who Amalek is: 

Okay so why not? We need to look at who Amalek is or is today:

1.    Rabbi J. D. Soloveitchik says, “anyone who hates the Jewish people is from the seed of Amalek. “

2.    Some rabbis think Amalek doesn’t exist anymore and that we are only required to remember what happened, but not to act against anyone.

3.    Amalek is allegorical. The Zohar says he represents the forces of demons in the world and many Hasidic interpretations say he is the Yetzer Ra, the Evil Inclination.

None of them have Putin on that list.  His actions against Ukraine aren’t aimed at Jews (remember he’s “denazifying” Ukraine, after all) and so in that regard the appellation, “Amalek” doesn’t fit. 

Certainly, if Amalek doesn’t exist, or is Satan, or the Evil Inclination, then the title cannot apply to Putin either.  

But – just because Putin isn’t Amalek doesn’t make Putin not evil.  He, his world outlook, and his crimes in Ukraine and his disregard for his own people are all evil. 

Evil abounds in the world. And we are called upon to fight it.  The Psalms tell us, “Lovers of God hate evil.” 

The potential for evil is nearer at hand to each of us than we’d like to admit.  We learned a few weeks ago in the Daf Yomi, the daily Talmud study, that the Evil Inclination can be an untrustworthy companion who can lead a person astray, “for the heart of the human being is evil.”

No, no, no. If anything, Putin not being Amalek, the points to how seriously we must take evil.  It dims and dulls our concern for it if we lump all evil and evildoers together.  Who we must rescue, who we must defend, and who we must defeat all change depending on the threat evil offers and we need to name the evil plainly.  

Furthermore, associating Putin with the mitzvah about Amalek may lull us into thinking simply reading the passage in the Torah discharges us from the duty to do more against him. 

Can one really believe that would do anything to combat Putin? To help Ukrainians, or Russians, for that matter? 

Non-Jews, America, our Allies, must help Ukrainians now! We must help regular Russians now! We must do whatever will stop Putin’s aggression even including stopping Putin himself if it comes to that.

That is a very different Mitzvah. Many in fact. To help those in need. To be concerned with the suffering of the world because we Jews have to show we aren’t just about ourselves. To not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor. To not allow murder.

God’s world is a complicated place. We must take seriously each and every wicked and evil person or deed, so we know how to overcome them.  So we can restore God’s peace and God’s safety to those who need it and make this a world in which God’s justice prevails. 



Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Commanded to Love? A Schmooze, Pray, Learn Lesson

 Commanded to Love?

You can't legislate morality, can you?  Would you want to marry someone first and then fall in love with them?

The Shema prayer is, as we will discuss at this Friday's Schmooze, Pray, Learn Shabbat, not only central to our Friday evening service, it is at the very heart of Judaism.  The Jew is to recite it morning and evening, on going to bed, even as one is about to pass on from this world.  

And after proclaiming, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One," we proceed to the V'ahavta, "and you shall love the Lord thy God..."

This line seems to be saying that as a result of acknowledging God's sovereignty, you are then compelled to love God.

But love can't be commanded, can it?  I would say no, it cannot be.  Elsewhere in Judaism we find this to be implied.  For example, it doesn't matter nearly as much the motivation or emotion behind your doing a mitzvah, as your actually doing it.  

Love can't be commanded.  It is greater than a commandment.  The commentator Sforno explains it best, "you shall rejoice to do what is good in God's eyes once you discern there is no nobler goal than this."

Until one falls in love the experience can't truly be explained.  Until you have that grandchild, you can't imagine loving someone so much (or so I am told).

This doesn't mean no work is required.  The love a couple might feel after years of marriage will be greater than that first "stomach butterflies" love, but only because of the commitment and responsibility the years have brought to strengthen it.

So to with God.  The V'ahavta is encouraging us to believe.  To believe that accepting a life in which God plays a role, guides us and teaches us and even obligates us, will ultimately be realized as a life of love.  Love for the Creator of All, who gave us the blessing to experience love as the trait which ennobles our lives and relationships, our choices and duties, giving them the greatest purpose and meaning.  

If you can join us this Friday evening, we'll learn some more about the Shema.  In the meantime, think of those things and people you love deeply and truly.  And then see if you can't begin to bring some of that emotion into the other parts of your life.

With love,

Rabbi Benson

Monday, February 28, 2022

Remarks on Ukraine from 2/25/22 & Ways to Help


My Remarks on Ukraine from Friday, February 25th:

“If you see your enemy’s ass sagging under its burden, you shall not pass by. You shall surely release it with him.” Exodus 23:5

In World War II, 250,000 Ukrainians served Nazi Germany; SS employed Ukrainians at a rate of 16 to 1 with Germans in the East. 

The Ukrainian Auxiliary Police, U People’s Militia, U National Army all served to persecute Jews and served in the massacre at Babi Yar and in many other parts of the country.

And while Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the U President is Jewish, his popularity before the invasion was on the decline. Now, of course, he is seen, rightly, as a hero, not just in Ukraine but around the world.

The Jewish community in Ukraine numbers around 40,000 “active” members of Jewish communities with as many as 200,000 people with “Jewish roots.” By and large, Jews are Russian speaking even in Western Ukrainian cities such as Kiev and Lvov (Kyiv and Lviv) where you have more Ukrainian speakers and ethnic Ukrainians than in the east where there are more Russian speaking, ethnic Russian Ukrainians. 

My fears as this conflict unfolds and escalates, as we see the brutal images and reports of the Russian assault –  are that even while Jews in the country are defending their homeland and suffering and dying with their fellow citizens, the risks that both an occupying Russian army might single out Jews as “conspirators” and that similarly Ukrainians could well do the same, seeing Jews as a “fifth column” and giving vent to historical tendencies of antisemitism - neither are fanciful possibilities.

Yet - when we see the bravery of the Ukrainians, when we see their recent history since the fall of the Soviet Union and their acts of civil unrest to bring democratic government prevail, when they have chosen the West over Russia in numerous ways these last thirty years, even as other former Soviet states have gone with Putin – see Byelorussia as just one example – then we must rethink our preconceived opinions. Or at least I must. 

The current situation arises out of several sources. Putin’s megalomania and desire to recreate a Russian Empire, another USSR. Out of the fact that Ukraine, the name of the country meaning “border,” would serve as a buffer state between Russian and the West. Ukraine’s sea ports and rich agriculture. And the fact that there are historical ties between the two countries. Russia’s origins were in Kiev with the state of Kievan Rus. 
Yet none of that excuses the current Russian aggression. Nor does any of that, nor even a past containing the antisemitism that Ukraine’s has, mean we should want to see Ukraine destroyed as is now the case. 

In fact, if anything, we Jews should be the ones who can most sympathize with the history and the current plight of Ukraine.

Going back to our opening verse. The Targum, the Aramaic translation and commentary on the Torah, interprets that famous verse as, “You shall surely let go of the hate you have in your heart towards him.”

And as Maimonides further explains:
You shall blot [any offences against you] out of your mind and not bear a grudge. For as long as one nurses a grievance and keeps it in mind, one may come to take vengeance. The Torah therefore emphatically warns us not to bear a grudge, so that the impression of the wrong should be completely obliterated and no longer remembered. This is the right principle. It alone makes civilized life and social interaction possible. Hilchot Deot 7:8

We as Jews cannot be imprisoned by our past, even as we are commanded to learn from it. 

We must help our brothers and sister in danger, we must help the innocent, AND we must even help those who would not help us! 

We must stand up against violence and intolerance and murder and hate because we know all too well what these things are. We must show ourselves ready, more than ready but willing and able to help those in need whoever they are. 

And even if in doing so NOBODY changes their opinions about Jews. Even if people still hate us. 

If nothing else, God has not made it our fate to win many beauty or popularity contests. That is precisely the point. We do what is right even if it means scorn and cynicism. 

Because right is right. And because we never give up hope that just possibly, as the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote: 
The Hebrew Bible is not a code for Utopia. That is a prophetic dream, not a present-tense reality. In the here-and-now, however, the Torah tells us something not without its moral grandeur, namely that small gestures of mutual assistance can in the long run transform the human situation. At the heart of the law of the overladen ass is one of Judaism’s most beautiful axioms (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, 23): ‘Who is a hero? One who turns an enemy into a friend.’

If want a world of peace and understanding, even if we want a world only slightly better than it is at present, then someone, somewhere, must be the first to step forward and do what is right and help those in need. Perhaps to make them friends and even if they remain our enemies, because it is the Godly thing to do. 
And why shouldn’t we Jews be the ones in this situation and all others, to lead the way?

Right now, your gift will help enable UJA to support the critical work that we and our partners on the ground are doing to meet the urgent and mounting humanitarian needs in all of Ukraine – including food, shelter, transport, and emergency medical units for all citizens.

As conflict erupts across the country, Ukraine’s most vulnerable Jews are in distress and JDC has launched an emergency campaign to meet their spiking humanitarian needs.
In more than 1,000 locations across Ukraine, JDC provides a lifeline for an estimated 40,000 Jewish elderly and 2,500 poor Jewish children and their families through its network of care services, Jewish community programs, and Jewish leaders — and today, they need our help.
The international community of Conservative Judaism calls upon all of our friends and supporters worldwide to give generously to our emergency campaign for the Masorti/Conservative communities in Ukraine. We are in close contact with our communities in Kyiv, Chernivtsi, Odessa, Kharkov and Dnipro who report that they are currently safe and at home but are worried about the future and are in a state of uncertainty, not sure when an invasion could occur or how it would play out. They have conveyed to us their current fears and needs, and we have created this campaign, calling on the assistance of our supporters around the world, to help them.