“We Will Be Okay”: An Open Letter to Fellow Rabbis and Faith Leaders

Will we be okay? What do I tell my kids?

These are two questions that have been asked since the nation elected Donald Trump as president of the United States. The answer to the first question is yes. And we will tell our children the following: On November 8, our country elected Mr. Trump to be our next president. For many of us, he was not the person we wanted, but our nation has spoken in a way that makes this country extraordinary. We voted and we decided. Our process worked. Despite our deep disagreements, we all have a president-elect.

usflagNow it is time to find a way to move forward. We will pray our new president embraces the ideal that he is the president of all people of the United States and that the United States has unique responsibilities because it holds a unique role in the world. Whether we agree with Mr. Trump’s personal or political views, we hope for his success as the leader of our nation. At the same time, we need to embrace our important place to fight for what we believe to be right, especially given the circumstances that brought us to this place.

We have long relied on government intervention to address issues and solve problems. However, for many in America, that did not work. They felt abandoned, if not betrayed, with promises of protection broken, and a system unresponsive to their needs.

And for many others of us, we have been lulled into complacency and a false sense of security. This election is a harsh wake-up call and rouses us to action, not against the government, but aware of governments’ limitations to help the governed. It is up to us to create the change we seek, now more than ever. Voting is only the first step in a process of engagement. Showing up at local meetings, petitioning Congress and holding the new president — and every part of government — accountable must ensue. Community organizing is vital. Our aspirations and goals are in our hands. We cannot relegate them to another’s care, certainly not now. Our community groups, both religious and civic, can use this moment in our history to reinvigorate and rededicate themselves, advancing important values of dignity, equality and justice.

Yes, we will be all right. The United States of America is strong, and we, her people, are resilient. But the future is in our hands. It is our work as rabbis and other faith leaders to help guide and support the people as teachers, chaplains and champions of social justice and the values we hold dear. There is much to do, and our work has never been more important.

The National Anthem Meets Colin Kaepernick

KaepernickColin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, created an uproar by remaining seated for the national anthem before a football game.

Many people have jumped to judgment. He is right, he is wrong; he is either validating something we feel, or he is being disrespectful to something we treasure. Right or wrong, his actions were thoughtful and deliberate and deserve consideration rather than a reflexive reaction. Kaepernick used his position and visibility to express his views about the state of affairs in our country.

America is not perfect. We are engaged in the ongoing process of creating “a more perfect Union.” We are building on our principles and ever aspiring to do better for everyone in our country. We have come a long way, but there remains a long way to go.

Jews have long participated in this process and historically struggled with this issue. In our tradition, we have argued for centuries to discern what we should do and when. Arguments to advance our understanding are elevated to “Arguments for the sake of Heaven.” In the same Talmud, we also learn that the law and the application of law exist in our world for us to interpret and implement. Were it otherwise, we would simply be blaspheming.

Kaepernick’s stand (or lack thereof) might be seen as the cynical protest, perhaps biting the hand that feeds him. However, as I have learned, Kaepernick is active in trying to make our country a better place through his work supporting Camp Taylor, a camp for children battling heart disease. From personal tragedy, Colin Kaepernick has tried to make meaning and help others using his position and wealth to promote Camp Taylor.

Social justice and civil rights issues also have clearly touched a nerve in Kaepernick. On his social media pages, he began posting months ago about what he saw and what angered him. The sitting down during the anthem was yet one more step on a path he had already begun to travel, including sitting out the anthem earlier in the preseason, although he was not suited for play during those games. This particular act of protest, however, did garner attention. Through this act of sitting down, he raises awareness and becomes a part of making social change by keeping the active conversation alive.

Whether or not one agrees with his actions, Colin Kaepernick should be respected for what he did. He is “walking the walk.”

Elul and Mercury in Retrograde: What Happens When Astrology and Judaism Collide?

Astrological table showing the retrograde of Mercury along with the alignments of the other bodies.

Astrological table showing the retrograde of Mercury along with the alignments of the other bodies.

Mercury has been in retrograde. From August 30 through September 22, Mercury was moving backwards in the sky from our perspective. This was the third of four such occurrences this year according to the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Astrologers say this event is supposed to mark a time for reflection rather than new action. This is not a time for decision-making. Instead, we are to assess priorities and plan to move forward by reviewing projects and determining where to appropriately focus energy.

Elul is the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. It is our Jewish time for deep reflection and repentance as we prepare for the High Holidays. For many of us, this is our period of teshuva, the “return to God” that requires seeking and granting forgiveness as we strive to understand where we went astray and how we can get back on the path of living a meaningful righteous life. [Read more…]

Shabbat of Shalom and Reflection

shabbat_candle_lightingOn  Shabbat, I want to offer a moment to reflect on the recent tragedies and acts of horrible violence we have experienced.

The words Shamor v’Zachor (Keep and Remember) will dance in my mind as the light from the flickering flames of the Shabbat candles fill the room. It will not be a joyful beautiful dance. I will somberly reflect on what it means to remember and preserve Shabbat. So much violence, so many lives needlessly taken by fear and violence. How will I react?

I hope to rise above my own anger and frustration. Instead of hate, I want to resolve to be part of something better. I will look to my community and join with them as my community joins with others. I hope to become part of something greater that aligns with the message of hope instead of despair, of love instead of hate, of joy instead of pain. [Read more…]

Happy Independence Day

July 4thWe celebrate Independence Day because we are blessed to live in a land where liberty and equality are the founding principles. As a Jew, I am profoundly grateful to be a citizen of a country where I am free and safe from the hatred that has sadly been a part of Jewish history. As Americans, we need to remain vigilant, protecting and expanding the rights of all citizens. We need to understand that our greatness comes from all of our people and from our core beliefs.
[Read more…]

Hallel Yaffe Ariel Murdered as She Slept

Hallel Yaffe Ariel, 13 years old, murdered by terrorist.

Hillel Yaffe Ariel, 13 years old, murdered by terrorist.

We mourn the loss of Hallel Yaffe Ariel, brutally murdered while asleep in her bed. Hatred, violence, and murder of children do nothing to further the cause for peace or coexistence. Indeed it often hardens hearts making the future for two peoples even more difficult.

Let us take this time to grieve for this innocent child and refuse to let anger and hatred consume us.

May her memory be a blessing.

What Parshat Shlach Asks us of Ourselves

shlach chabadThere is a TV commercial that distinguishes between simply monitoring and actively preventing fraud and identity theft. A bank robbery is in progress with guns blazing. The monitor surveys the situation as the customers fall to the floor imploring this uniformed man to take action. He responds that he is merely a monitor; taking action is not his job. And yes indeed, there is a bank robbery underway.

The story of the spies in Parshat Shlach (Send) seems similar. Twelve men were selected and sent out to survey the land of Canaan and report back. They did what was asked and reported what they believed they saw. An insightful rabbi taught me that the answer to a question depends on the question you ask. It also depends on the nature of the respondent.

Parasha Shlach 12 Princes (spies)

Twelve Princes.

These were twelve men, “one man each from his father’s tribe; each one shall be a chieftain in their midst” (Num. 13:2). They were leaders within their respective clans, but were they capable as conquerors? The Hebrew word is Nasi, or Prince. They were princes of the individual tribes but not necessarily the top dog, or the General of the Army to use a military term. So were these spies conquerors or bureaucrats, men of action or fearful men of complacency and conservatism?

Had the idea of freedom and freedom’s responsibilities permeated this new Israelite society? It seems not. Only two spies, Caleb and Joshua, believed they could actually overcome their foes and possess the land. It is possible that a deliberate selection of strategists and warriors to be the twelve spies would have yielded a unanimous joining of Caleb’s assessment that they could vanquish the Canaanites. However, the fearful spies’ ability to sway the people indicated that the Israelites were not yet ready to enter the Land and receive the promise and responsibilities that went with it.

We also, both individually and collectively, need to ask ourselves: Which are we? Are we agents of change like Caleb and Joshua, or agents of the status quo? Are we willing to find ways to achieve lofty goals or fearful of the risks and unwilling to reach for more, hoping to preserve what we have?

Often, trying to maintain the status quo is riskier than taking the chance to make something better. Although we should always be grateful for what we have, when it comes to values such as human rights, peace, justice, equality, and security, we can always aspire to something greater.

The question remains: Are we willing to take the risk?

Prayers for the Victims of Orlando

candleAll of us at the Philadelphia Jewish Voice share the sorrow over the tragic and senseless murder and mayhem in Orlando. The shocking act of hatred has left everyone in our country grieving.

We offer our deepest condolences to the families of all the victims.
HaMakom yinachem Etchem b’toch sha’ar avelei Tziyon vi’Yerushalayim.

(May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.)

Reward and Punishment: Making Sense of Parashah Bechukotai

Blessings and Curses- Israel at Mts. Gerizim and Ebal

Blessings and Curses- Israel at Mts. Gerizim and Ebal

Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, ends with Parashah Bechukotai (follow my Laws), a long and detailed listing of divine rewards and punishments. The people of Israel are warned in advance that while prosperity and blessing will result if they are loyal to the covenant with God, misfortune and disaster will follow if they are not.

At first glimpse, this seems easy to swallow. If “measure for measure” is an accepted and regulating principle in life, why not believe in divine retribution?

The biblical doctrine of reward and punishment, however, goes beyond a mathematical formula of cause and effect. It forms part of a complex network of ideas linking human understanding of God with concepts such as good and evil.

The Levitical understanding of justice, reward, and punishment, however, does not hold in face of experience. Prophets such as Jeremiah and Ezekiel, for instance, early argued against the doctrine of collective responsibility set forth by the priests of Leviticus, a doctrine that included punishment of children for the sins of the fathers.

Rabbi Eugene Borowitz, one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of this generation, has convincingly argued that with God’s justice premised on human freedom, a world in which every good act would be rewarded and every evil act punished, freedom would quickly give way to conditioning.

“That would produce the behavior God seeks,” Rabbi Borowitz said, “but only at the price of dissolving the free exercise of the will into behavioristic automatism. If God wishes people to be meaningfully free and achieve righteousness by the proper use of their unique freedom, God’s reward and punishment cannot be mechanical.”

Frederick S. Plotkin, the late director of the Humanities Division at Yeshiva University, states this same idea from a different perspective. Human beings cannot control God by being good. He says, “God is not required to come at the snap of the good man’s moral fingers.”

If 21st-century humanity cannot take literally some of the biblical doctrines of reward and punishment, such as the one exposed in Chapter 26 of the Book of Leviticus, it doesn’t mean that this is a false and useless principle.

All in all the TaNaKh aims at conveying the message that human actions have their repercussions for the agent built into them. In the words of Bible scholar Klaus Koch, emeritus professor at the University of Hamburg, Germany:

There is no gap between act and consequence into which a wedge of divine retribution can be inserted. God’s role is simply to oil the works and check the switches; he never needs to interfere to keep the machine going, and he would never dream of throwing a spanner in the works.

The concept of reward and punishment means that in the long run, good deeds produce good results, and evil deeds lead to a world of evil.