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.

How Do I Tell Dad That Mom Has Died?

oldyoung handsThis challenging question confronted a friend of mine this past week: Her mother recently passed away after a protracted decline. Sadly, her dad is suffering from dementia. My friend and her siblings struggled with whether they should tell him that his wife, their mom, had just passed away.

Would he find the loss overwhelming?

Would he even comprehend the sad news?

He has a right to know and grieve the loss of his wife. But if the news is too much for him to handle, should they wait until there is a better time to inform him?

Further complicating things, he was physically unable to attend the funeral.

Both options, to tell him or not, are based in compassion for Dad. But which one is right for him? Compassion is such a difficult practice. It is often very challenging to know what is the right thing to do for another person.

My friend reached out to me for counsel. My first suggestion was to consult her dad’s doctor, someone who knows him and is skilled in these medical issues. The doctor can help ascertain how aware her dad is of his surroundings. The children, all adults, can also shed some light on their dad’s cognitive abilities, but they are emotionally very close to the situation and may not clearly assess how well he will process the news. It is all but impossible to appreciate how much their dad truly understands.

We cannot know how people will react to this kind of news, even without the complications of these circumstances. Maybe my friend’s dad will have only a moment of clarity or possibly the news will stay with him. He may work through his grief or become overwhelmed by it.

I have learned along my journey that we actually only have moments together. Sometimes these moments last and create enduring memories. Sometimes they fade away. The best we can do is to be fully present in each moment together and hope that it endures. The struggle that this family confronts is a struggle we will all face, for each of us will experience loss and then try to reconcile with it in the aftermath. We can try to anticipate how people will respond, but we need to be careful in presuming too much, acting for them instead of allowing them the dignity of exercising their own agency.

The Talmud teaches that we treat parents with honor and respect. Might the ways we do that include withholding speech or information that would be hurtful? If my friend’s dad still has some comprehension, won’t he feel the sadness in those surrounding him and wonder why his wife no longer visits? Further, how will he react if he learns of his wife’s passing long after the fact without the chance to mourn her loss? Arguably, we honor our parents when we include them in even the most difficult situations, rather than attempting to protect them. Each of us will be called upon to grapple with a similar situation. We must take the utmost care to ensure that our motives are true and that we act in the best interests of our parents, rather than in the fulfillment of own needs disguised as compassion. My friend’s struggle resulted from the fact that she loves her father and wants what is best for him.

Zichronah Livrachah. May the memory of my friend’s mother be a blessing for the family. May her father be given the opportunity to know that too.

The Rabbi walked out on the Shiva

The Minyan by Nancy Schon

“The Minyan” by sculptor Nancy Schon

I recently went to pay a Shiva call. Among the small group was an orthodox rabbi. We chatted and waited for a minyan to arrive. We made a couple of phone calls as the minyan was not materializing. To the surprise of some people in the room, the rabbi announced he was leaving.

Someone demanded to know how that rabbi could do something so outrageous; so disrespectful. Just who does he think he is anyway?

On the contrary, I answered. The rabbi is acting with respect for the mourners. How can you say that? Because I continued, the rabbi cannot share certain prayers absent a minyan and he cannot be counted in a minyan unless it includes only men. We will only have a minyan if we count the women, so the rabbi did the only thing he thought he could do under the circumstances, he left and essentially gave us permission to proceed. It might seem strange to some, but he was being respectful of his beliefs and the beliefs of those who were in mourning. In that moment, he found a way to uphold both.

minyanThere is room here to reflect on whether the decision was the correct one. Could not the rabbi have permitted himself to be counted for our purposes, never considering for himself that he has fulfilled his obligation? Wouldn’t the comfort of his presence as a close family friend override his interpretation of his obligation to his particular personal practice?

The important point is he found a workaround that in his mind upheld his competing duties as he understood them. Then it was up to me to be respectful of the decision whether I agreed or not. Here was a moment that could have created separation as easily as it could create community. It required both “sides” of the conversation to decide which one it was.

A Seat too Far

seating chart

Wedding Seating

The current seating spat aboard El Al planes reminds me of seating elsewhere in the Jewish world. When planning a wedding, the seating chart seems to rank as important as the Chuppah. Aunt Sophie won’t sit with Uncle Benny, who would be upset if he didn’t sit next to cousin Terri, who is rooming with Sophie’s daughter. The brouhaha about certain men refusing to travel on a plane next to a female, other than his wife, seems easy enough to overcome long before there is a confrontation on the airplane. The old expression that EL AL was an acronym for “Every Leaving Always Late” seems to hold true.

This is an issue for the men in question, not the rest of the passengers. The easiest solution is for men who have this need to be required to buy the seat(s) adjacent, if other such observant men do not also book seats. Preflight booking can ask if this seating issue exists. If the yes box is checked, then a new level of scrutiny is developed. If the box is not checked, there is not consideration. The seating chart can be developed using computer algorithms. Alternatively, sections can be set aside for the observant. If seats are not available, the section can be expanded or the plane listed as sold-out for these men. Maybe business class could be reserved for all women who find they are bearing the brunt of this bad treatment! Maybe we do a first come first served approach. The balagan that is the El Al boarding process would look much the same as it does now!

jet-seating-400-108There seems to be a multiplicity of solutions available long before boarding takes place. For a land touted as among the technology centers, this problem seems far from daunting. To create an argument on the plane, or make some passengers feel unwelcome, seems to be the worst possible alternative. My guess if that if the airline were held accountable, a workable solution would be quickly found. Maybe the pending lawsuit is the needed catalyst.
Nisiyah Tovah!

Update: Another Proposoal

Personal Mechitza


According to The Muqata Blog there is another solution: It has been in the news that male Ultra-Orthodox Hareidi passengers do not want to sit next to women on plane flights. However, not being exposed to in-flight movies is even more important to them than avoiding “immodestly” dressed women. These Ultra-Orthodox do not own TVs and do not watch movies. On most planes, almost every seat has a good view of the inflight movie. Unlike non-Orthodox passengers who may be bored by a movie they have already seen, it is hard for these men to avert their eyes the whole time.

According to The Jerusalem Post, the Rabbinical Council for Public Transportation has approved a portable mehitza (curtain):

The new mehitzas, made of white nylon, stick onto the fabric of the airplane chair using Velcro and can be arranged to make a protective “shield.” The mehitza goes around the head and is mostly in front of the passenger’s face …

The inventor prefers not to be named and won’t release any photos. However, the Photoshop artist at The Muqata Blog has come up with an illustration of what an El Al advertising poster might look like featuring the personal mehitzah.

The Kotel Compromise- A win or pyrrhic victory?

kotel-black-and-white-0The Kotel is a special place. As a remnant of the Temple, we have gravitated to it to feel a special closeness to our history, to a Divine place, the home for the Almighty that we built. We feel a deep emotional and often mystical connection that draws us into the space. Otherwise it is nothing more than a large brick wall.

I recall arriving in Jerusalem for my first year of rabbinical school in Israel. I got off the plane, hopped into the sherut to Jerusalem dropped off the bags and then headed to the Wall. It was late. I had traveled for what seemed like days and although exhausted, I was compelled to go to the Wall. The emotions welled up from deep inside. I stood in the plaza gazing upon this place. With the kind of intense reverence and awe that happens rarely, I slowly approached the Wall. It was powerful. The thing that happened to me was an extraordinary moment, an encounter between my history, my people, my God and me. But the Kotel is not the sole place of my Judaism. The Makom or place of my Judaism extends beyond time and space and includes the idea of a Jewish people. This vision of Judaism however is compromised by the very compromise announced to create separate spaces for different kinds of Jews to pray.solitary wall prayer

The arrangement for the space at the Wall has in many ways undermined what the space itself means for Judaism. Each denomination of Judaism now has a place it can call its own. The Wall of the Temple has been segregated, sliced and diced so each sect has an area where it can feel comfortable. The gain of a place for egalitarian Jews at the wall however is also the loss of the symbol of the Wall for us all as a place of unity; for these partitions are along the fault lines of Ashkenazic observances segregating us from each other instead creating a place accessible to everyone. The remnant of where God dwelled amidst the Jewish people has become a place of division and discord within God’s people.

1891amonthinpalestineandsyria We have all seen the photographs of the wall at the turn of the century. Men and women were there together. The Wall was a private space to connect individually in a public place. How you practiced or the community with which you identified did not matter. In the early post-1967 days that sense of Klal Yisrael permitted a similar experience. It was fleeting, and sadly, it has devolved into staking territory in a turf war. Although liberal Judaism may have won something important in getting a place at the wall to pray, we must regretfully acknowledge that in this agreement something else important continues to elude us, namely the unity of the Jewish people.

Perhaps we should re-focus the issue as one regarding the kind of ceremony and ritual that are generally permitted in this public private space. The kinds of rituals that permit us to be together could be more important in the grand scheme of things than the particular observances that create schisms among us. In my experience I was solitary but in communion with Am Yisrael. Under our current circumstances an experience at the Wall might require we visit both areas, one to be among those who share our beliefs and practice and the other to be with another part of our people, to taste their experience and ponder the ideas of the Judaism values that guides us all and strive to create a Judaism that connects us all.

Are Diaspora Jews Their Brothers’ Keepers?

connectionWhen God asked Cain of Abel’s whereabouts, his haunting response was the rhetorical question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain and God both knew what had become of Abel and Cain’s response has been read as a guilt-ridden deflection from the true answer: Yes, we are all our brothers keepers.

As a Diaspora Jew, so too, I am responsible to my Israeli brothers and sisters. The understanding of our relationship as family contextualizes the obligation. I cannot force my sibling to act, but I am certainly invested in her welfare. I do not walk in my sibling’s shoes, but if I see him appear to go astray I am duty-bound to voice my concern. Whether my perspective is accepted or rejected, I am compelled to share my thoughts because I care. This is harder to do however when I feel my voice is rebuffed or my views disrespected, when it feels as though my sibling acts with the arrogance of the prodigal son. But my love for my brothers and sisters obliges me to speak nonetheless.

It is in that tension that we find ourselves now. Chemi Shalev, the eminent Israeli journalist, is right to express his concern that we in the United States are not speaking up forcefully enough. But an Israeli prime minister that foments the political divide among American Jews and a chief rabbinate that expressly refuses to acknowledge my practice of Judaism are but two ways my voice is repressed. And yet I must speak.

I care deeply about Israel, both the state and the aspirations it represents. Israel is a homeland to my people. It is deeply rooted in my narrative creating profound meaning. Israel is also a refuge for my people from a hostile world. Equally important, Israel is also a place where Jewish values might live and thrive. These values include belief in the sanctity of human life and a system of laws that guide just behavior. These principles guide a place where they can be lived and realized, no longer the province of a powerless people. Rather than a nation like all other nations, Israel is a light unto the nations.

PeoplewithJoinedRaisedJoinedHandsIsrael can be a beacon of hope, striving to better herself through the proper treatment of her citizens and the protection of the weak. She is to be a nation of laws equally applied, a country striving towards the highest moral standards internally and externally in her treatment of friend and foe alike.

Sometimes Israel falls short. It is our responsibility to lovingly speak out when she does, based on our deep caring for Israel and what Israel means to us and to the world. And we must continue to speak up undeterred by those who might find us an annoyance or at odds with their particular worldview.

For me, I support the Israel Religious Action Center, Hiddush, the New Israel Fund, the Hand In Hand School and the Galilee Circus, all designed to support cooperation and a shared society. I visit as frequently as I can. I speak out both in support of things I believe are right and critically of things that are not. I am my brother’s keeper.

One Small But Significant Step Forward Against Gun Violence

Rabbi Tarfon taught: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either” (Pirkei Avot 2:16).


The Executive Order signed by President Obama is such an example of Rabbi Tarfon’s teaching. We cannot eliminate all acts of gun violence, but we must do what we can to advance the cause. Regardless of one’s stance on the Second Amendment or the effectiveness of these Executive Orders, we cannot turn a blind eye to the horrifying levels of violence and death that occur in our country. These limited executive actions seek to better enforce existing laws. The idea that criminals and emotionally disturbed people will find it harder to gain access to weapons of death is a good one.

I wish we could do more, but that is not a reason to do nothing. Progress comes in small steps, an incremental march toward what should be from what is. We measure a great civilization not by its great monuments but by its ability to protect the weak within its society. The victims of mass shootings, the victims of urban gun violence, the victims of suicide are all testimony to how much more we have to do to protect ourselves and lift everyone to a better place.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” says the Chinese philosopher Laozi (Tao Te Ching). We have a long way to go before the work is complete, but at least we are started on the path.

Our Jewish Values Unite Us Against Hate

Letter from Rabbis Maderer and Alpert of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.

Letter from Rabbis Maderer and Alpert of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.

Fortunately there is pushback.

The rise of Islamophobia in our country is deeply troubling. All people who embrace American ideals should be troubled, speaking out and pushing back against this racism. Only those overwhelmed by fear or hatred can find the anti-Islamic message comforting. We Jews find this particularly problematic because our history is rife with persecution of the most horrific kinds.

The Jewish community, Klal Yisrael, is speaking out. All our denominations, all of our respected institutions are renouncing acts of hatred and its perpetrators. Whether it is the desecration of a mosque in Philadelphia or the vitriol of hate mongers, Jewish values do not abide the despicable acts that are eerily similar to those historically experienced by our people.

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, The Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbinical Reconstructionist College, Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbinical Council of America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Aleph (The Alliance for Jewish Renewal), just to name a few, have spoken against xenophobia and hatred.   Our own Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia and our Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Jewish Community Relations Council under the leadership of Adam Kessler have also expressed support of the Moslem community in response to the mosque desecration in Philadelphia.

I am heartened as an American, as a Jew and as a Rabbi that we reaffirm our Jewish values at this time. Regardless of how we practice, our Judaism commands us to take this principled stand. Although Chanukah has concluded, the miracle of light continues to shine for all of us.

1000 Rabbis Sign Letter In Support of Welcoming Refugees

1000_rabbis_500x500The following letter, signed by more than 1000 American Rabbis, was delivered by HIAS to all members of Congress on December 2, 2015. I am proud to count myself among the Rabbis who are taking this stand against xenophobia.

We, Rabbis from across the country, call on our elected officials to exercise moral leadership for the protection of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

Since its founding, the United States has offered refuge and protection to the world’s most vulnerable. Time and time again, those refugees were Jews. Whether they were fleeing pogroms in Tzarist Russia, the horrors of the Holocaust or persecution in Soviet Russia or Iran, our relatives and friends found safety on these shores.

We are therefore alarmed to see so many politicians declaring their opposition to welcoming refugees.

Last month’s heartbreaking attacks in Paris and Beirut are being cited as reasons to deny entry to people who are themselves victims of terror. And in those comments, we, as Jewish leaders, see one of the darker moments of our history repeating itself.

In 1939, the United States refused to let the S.S. St. Louis dock in our country, sending over 900 Jewish refugees back to Europe, where many died in concentration camps. That moment was a stain on the history of our country – a tragic decision made in a political climate of deep fear, suspicion and antisemitism. The Washington Post released public opinion polling from the early 1940’s, showing that the majority of U.S. citizens did not want to welcome Jewish refugees to this country in those years.

In 1939, our country could not tell the difference between an actual enemy and the victims of an enemy. In 2015, let us not make the same mistake.

We therefore urge our elected officials to support refugee resettlement and to oppose any measures that would actually or effectively halt resettlement or prohibit or restrict funding for any groups of refugees.

As Rabbis, we take seriously the biblical mandate to “welcome the stranger.” We call on our elected officials to uphold the great legacy of a country that welcomes refugees.

[Read more…]

The Greatest Nation on Earth is greater than its Fears

Lady-Liberty-at-duskI keep repeating that thought as I hear Americans clamoring to shut the doors to Syrian refugees.  It is about fear of terrorists infiltrators I have been told.  I am fearful too, but I am fearful that we risk losing our way and that our fear for our security are making us xenophobic and racist in ways not seen since the Japanese were interred in American Concentration camps and Jews were returned to Germany for extermination.  I am fearful that we risk losing the moral bearings that have been our guiding star.  I am fearful that the principles upon which our country was founded are becoming empty words of a time gone by.

We cannot let fear overwhelm us.  We claim the words of Emma Lazarus, immortalized at the Statue of Liberty. We welcome the tired and poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free.  The Syrian refugees certainly fit that description and so did we.  We were once considered the refuse of the world, each of us with an ancestor who came here for the chance at a better life. When lives are hanging in the balance, how can we turn our backs?  The US has a very robust process in place to screen immigrants and the total number of people who endure this almost two-year procedure is small.  We are more than able to absorb these people.  We can save their lives.lazarus1

There is a war underway.  And war is a frightening prospect.  There are extremists who view us as an enemy to be destroyed.  Our defenders have done an amazing job protecting us thus far.  There will be attempted attacks on our soil, and some may be successful.  We need to be cautious and alert in defending ourselves. They can hurt us, however they cannot defeat us.  Only we can do that.  If we turn our backs on our own core principles, these extremists win an important victory.  If we no longer believe in what makes us great, then we are great no longer.  I fear that more than anything else. 

I urge everyone who believes in our nation to write both Congressperson, Senator and Governor and urge them to defeat measures that close us off from helping refugees.  Support a robust vetting process that is already in place and support groups like HIAS who are dedicated to helping refugees get started here in America.  Then we can still hold our heads up high and ask that God Bless America.