Torah, World Politics and Iran

5438[1]How does our Jewish community make a decision on the crucial issue of making sure that Iran is not able to produce nuclear weapons?

One classically Jewish approach: We could draw on the deep, ancient, and evolving wisdom of Torah, reading it anew in the light of the circumstances in which we find ourselves today.

The passage of Torah that leaps out as most relevant is Deuteronomy 20:10-11. It teaches that if we besiege a city (which is what the sanctions against Iran have been), we must proclaim Shalom to it. If it then agrees to decent terms that meet our conditions and fulfill our crucial needs, we must make sure it adheres to them and we must end the siege.

That is what the proposed agreement with Iran does. It does this by requiring Iran to abandon all the physical objects and scientific processes that could lead to nuclear weapons, and to subject itself to unprecedented intrusive inspections to make sure it is adhering to that regimen. It makes sure that if Iran’s government were to change its mind, decide to go nuclear, and expel inspectors, the world would have at least a year to take action before Iran could make even one nuclear weapon.

Yet we must test the Torah teaching against our present situation. In this case, what is an alternative approach that would make sure Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons?

Yet we must test the Torah teaching against our present situation. In this case, what is an alternative approach that would make sure Iran cannot develop nuclear weapons?

The same Torah passage that counsels proclaiming Shalom to a besieged city and bending it to our own will sees that the alternative to agreement would be an utterly destructive war.

And in our present situation, that expectation seems correct. If the Congress were to torpedo this agreement, the world-wide regimen of sanctions against Iran would almost certainly unravel and we would be left with no agreement, no inspections, no restrictions, and no sanctions. At that point, there would be intense pressures for war, on the grounds that there would then be no other way to ensure that Iran could not change its mind and proceed to acquire nuclear weapons.

War would begin with what its proponents would advertise as a one-shot military attack on Iran.Such an attack might well win a momentary victory, though Iran could respond in low-level ways that would have huge effects – like disrupting oil traffic in the Straits of Hormuz. But even an immediate military victory would not end there, any more than did the initial victorious invasion of Iraq.

Far likelier that any surviving Iranian government would then with absolute determination seek nuclear weaponry, in order to deter future attacks. To prevent that effort from succeeding, the attacking government would find itself hooked into a continuing, probably permanent, occupation. Its forces would be constantly harassed by guerrilla warfare from a furious and united Iranian people.

Such a war would be far worse for the US, Israel, and the whole Middle East than the Iraq War was. Worse in dead bodies, failure to meet urgent civilian needs, collapse of US influence abroad.

But what about the hostility that the Prime Minister of Israel has vehemently expressed to the proposed nuclear-control agreement?

Two factors are at work: Much of the Israeli Jewish community and predominant Israeli Jewish culture, feel the Holocaust as a constant nightmare in the constant present, stoking fear that any agreement with a hostile power will endanger the Jewish people — which their fear still defines as a powerless victim.

Yet the military/ security leadership in Israel has over and over spoken out in opposition to Mr. Netanyahu’s go-for-broke insistence on continuing the siege of Iran — refusing any agreement.

Why is the Prime Minister rejecting the advice of the security leadership? It is all too possible that an increasingly right-wing government is appealing to this ever-present subterranean fear in order to increase its own power — just as Prime Minister Netanyahu did just before the election.

It is the task of the American Jewish community to make up our own minds about this decision, drawing on our own Jewish values and our understanding of the broader consequences of the two choices, both in America and in the Middle East.

Here too we must take seriously the Torah’s teachings. The Torah counsels respect but not automatic obeisance to rulers. Instead it places strong limits on the power of kings – including the kings of ancient Israel. The passage (Deuteronomy 17:16) especially warns against the frequent inclination of many kings to pursue military power, as in “multiplying horses” for a horse-chariot army when cavalry was the aggressive weaponry of an imperious pharaoh.

That injunction applies to any secret nuclear-weaponry ambitions of Iran; to unwarranted militarism of any Israeli government; and to those in the US who thirst for military adventures now as they did twelve years ago when they targeted Iraq.

It will do Israel no good to curdle our love for it into idolatry toward some of its leaders. It will do America great harm for us to pursue war with Iran instead of a vigorously safeguarded shalom. For as our scriptures also teach (Psalms 115 and 135), those who erect dead objects and deadly ideas into their gods will become like their idols — dead. It is celebration of the ever-changing, ever-growing Breath of Life that gives life to ourselves and all our neighbors.

Massive Layoffs at Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent

unnamed%20(1)_2[1]I am horrified to read that the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has dismissed the entire editorial staff of the Jewish Exponent, including its editor Lisa Hostein, in order to “save money” by turning editorial management over to a non-Philadelphia corporate media-management outfit.

Ms. Hostein has for the last six years transformed the paper from a blind-eyed screed for a small segment of the Philadelphia Jewish community to a much juicier (and Jewcier) expression of and stimulant to Jewish creativity. Her institution of the weekly column Rabbis Uncensored, written by a wide variety of Philadelphia-area rabbis, has been one example of a ruach chadashah — a new breath, a new wind, a new spirit of grass-roots Jewish energy.

The Federation claims that its agreement with the Media corporation requires it to surrender appointment and control of its editorial staff (and therefore policy). A new managing editor is to be hired. How does that save money? Could not the Federation have insisted that the new deal include continuing the award-winning tenure of Ms. Hostein?

This decision is especially sad, given the recent advent of a new Federation CEO who herself has seemed to be open to a much deeper vision of the Federation and the Jewish community that it tries to serve. I hope that deeper vision can survive this blow.

Netanyahu Demands U.S. Congress Pass Carbon Tax (Parody)

Parody courtesy of Disassociated Press

(Disassociated Press — Washington DC, March 3, 2015) Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel today startled the U.S. Congress by demanding that it pass a strong carbon tax to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions that lead to global scorching.

Biden (left) and Boehner (right) look on as Netanyahu speaks before Congress.

Biden (left) and Boehner (right) look on as Netanyahu speaks before Congress.

The State of Israel faces an extreme threat to its existence much more dangerous to us than Iran or the Palestinians. And only the United States can prevent this disaster.

Our best scientists have told me that if the world continues with business as usual in pouring CO2 into our air, the added heat will expand the size of the Negev Desert so that it will swallow up most of Israel. And sea levels of the Mediterranean will rise to put much of Tel Aviv under water.

I am sad to say that much of the present CO2 comes from unchecked fossil-fuel burning by American companies. Only a strong US carbon tax can end this. On behalf of the people of Israel and of the entire Jewish people, I implore you — I urge you — even I would say I demand of you — that you take this step as soon as possible.

Senators and Members of the House of Representatives were thrown into a buzzing uproar by Mr. Netanyahu’s speech. Speaker Boehner was seen to hit his hand against his head three times in what looked like frustration.

Until Mr. Netanyahu began to speak, it was widely expected he would call for Congress to impose even more draconian sanctions against Iran than now exist.

There were sharp divisions in American politics over having the speech at all.

On the one hand, the House Republican leadership had arranged it without informing the President or the Democratic Congressional leadership — an unheard-of procedure for inviting a foreign leader. The Republican leadership also invited several major supporters and donors to sit in seats of honor in the gallery.

Sheldon Adelson

Sheldon Adelson

One of these was Sheldon Adelson, multibillionaire head of a casino empire who has been one of Mr. Netanyahu’s strongest political supporters and donors in Israeli politics, and who has also been a major contributor to Republican candidates for President.

From his seat, as the speech took its unexpected turn, he began shouting, “No, No, No.” When forced to leave by the Capitol police, he came down outside the Capitol, roaring, “For this I paid the whole cost of the newspaper I invented to support him? What will I say to my friends Charles and David Koch? Did some Greenpeacer poison his coffee this morning?”

On the other hand, the White House had sharply criticized the invitation, and many critics had gathered outside the Capitol to protest what they had expected Mr. Netanyahu to say. They had argued that his policy would undermine President Obama’s diplomatic work to pull Iran away from nuclear weapons, would instead push Iran toward making them, and thus would likely lead to a disastrous war.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow (front right) and other protesters.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow (front right) and other protesters.

One of the protesters, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Center, is also a leader in urging the American Jewish community to work against the fossil-fuel burning that brings on climate chaos. Our reporter asked Rabbi Waskow what he thought of the speech.

I am astounded. A reminder that even bellicose, short-sighted politicians can still open themselves to the deepest truth, and amaze everyone — maybe even themselves.In Jewish spiritual life we call it tshuvah — literally, turning in a new direction, toward the God Who breathes all life. We pray, “You Who are the Breath of Life, May Your sacred winds of change turn us in a new direction – and then we will turn!”

All I can say this afternoon is, Amen to that!

Jews, Muslims Fast Together for Peace

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Jews and Muslims will fast together, July 15, in a one-day Fast for Peace timed to correlate with the traditional fast days in both the Jewish and Muslim communities.

The American Muslim magazine has joined with The Philadelphia-based Shalom Center headed by Rabbi Arthur Waskow in widely publicizing the call, urging Muslims and Jews to join in “serious and sorrowful conversations,” and for an iftar meal, breaking of the fast of Ramadan which will also conclude the Fast for Peace.

In Philadelphia, the annual Interfaith Walk for Peace and Reconciliation group will also be hosting a gathering of dialogue on July 15th, at 7:30 p.m. at the Al Aqsa Mosque, at 1501 Germantown Avenue, followed by an iftar. [Read more…]

Book Review: Jewish Men at the Crossroads

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Jewish Men at the Crossroads takes a dip into the section of the gender pool some now call “masculism,” or “masculinism.”

A publication of the Conservative Movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, the volume is a collection of essays by Jewish men offering intimate sharing from issues of their current lives. The intent is to stimulate men into returning to synagogue life through participation in male support groups.

The book has its problems, such as the absence of talk about the range of masculinities within gender, as in GBTQIA and a stunning absence of essays relating to maleness and social justice.

That said, many essays do reflect a poignant honesty about these Jewish mens’ encounters with life’s inevitable challenges.

More after the jump.
Those among who have been caregivers will surely empathize with the following story, for example:

The last five years of Freyda’s life… the last five years of our marriage were difficult, to say the least.

I loved caring for Freyda. It was a burden of love.

However, our life dramatically changed. Our travel was limited. We could no longer do many of the activities we had grown to love together. Our intimacy was limited to hugging, holding hands, snuggling in bed… but I loved it, I truly loved it….

The situation at times was intolerable. I was often fatigued, but I could not sleep. I was frequently depressed. I was often angry and would get upset… yelling at Freyda… an innocent being, my love/my soul mate… this was most disturbing to me… — Arnold Miller

In another essay, a man with autism brings us into his Jewish life, in a way that clearly illustrates the need for heightened understanding of diversity in our population, and strategies for changing the social climate of congregations:

I had been praying for God to cure my autism and wondering why God didn’t answer my prayer. I realized at that point that I had been praying for the wrong reason.

I started to pray for the strength to accept autism and live with joy, laughter and connection. My prayers were answered more richly than I ever imagined. Sometimes I still hate autism, but now I love life more than I hate autism…

After ten years, we finally left our synagogue and joined a new one where people smile at me even if I am sometimes too loud or excited and no one stares at me like I am a piece of trash….

My favorite Jewish holiday is Passover because it is the story of our people’s journey from degradation to liberation… — Jacob Artson

The reality of intermarriage is frankly acknowledged. Strong feelings and approaches uncharacteristic of the Conservative movement’s platforms and positions are included:

I am distraught that many synagogues still will not let the non-Jewish parent participate on the bimah for a baby naming or a bris. — Joshua Kohn

Mazel tov… is he Jewish?…

I do understand that for some people, if their child dates a non-Jew, it is a “big deal.” But , for me, is that paramount to my daughter’s happiness? Or even my happiness? Doesn’t a father give up some of his happiness for his children?…

Yes, my children — I consider Josh my son — [they] were married by a rabbi and a minister.

No, my granddaughter is not having a naming, though her parents just recently had a ceremony in my home to give her a Hebrew name. And, yes, they are going to be doing a similar type of ceremony in his church.

Yes, my granddaughter is going to be raised in both religions… Would I love him more if he was Jewish? No. He is the son I never had. I love him for who and what he is. Plain and simple. — Dave Julis

Unfortunately, the book also contains unchallenged stereotypes and assumptions:

[G]irls’ learning styles… focus on attentiveness, persistence, orderliness, and sedentary work, while boys thrive when they can be physically active and have time to be rowdy…

Boys… respond to hands-on activity, competition, challenge, and incentives. — David Weiser

If we are to maintain the religious affiliation of American Jewish men, then we have to preach and teach Jewish men to see introspection, empathy, kindness, noble character, humility and gratitude as male ideals. — Ed Feld

The most telling barrier [to engaging me in synagogue life] is that most men are simply uncomfortable praying. — Jack Chomsky

Jewish Men at the Crossroads is about the happenings in the lives and minds of Conservative men. Among the topics addressed are retirement, becoming a caregiver for a declining, beloved spouse, becoming an in-law to someone who is not Jewish, observing yartzeit for one’s child, recognizing that raising children requires role-modeling and a serious investment of time from both parents, age-related loss of libido, health issues, and having a child in the Israeli army, and a good deal more.

Some sapping does rise during essays reflecting on the stereotypes that “manhood is about strength, courage, willpower” and that “traditional… male values [are] honesty, courage, decisiveness, responsibility and resilience,” when, for Jews, “success is measured by being a mensch and helping make this world a better place.”

But where is rebellion against the oppression of the workforce, and the military use of men, and now women, as cannon fodder? Where are strategies for rising up and recalibrating society? These are not to be found as much as several essays that indicate a desire for a better balance of work and family.

Fire in the belly is patently lacking. These are essentially really nice men, coping with life’s dealt hand more than taking up the mantle of justice being called for by our ancient and contemporary prophetic voices.

Also missing in the book is any tipping of the hat to the Jewish men’s movement retreats that have been happening for decades, led by Yosaif August, Shawn Zevit, and colleagues at what is now called the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, in Connecticut. There are many seminal publications these “Hearing Men’s Voices” groups might seek out for discussion:

Also, the developers at Moving Traditions created a substantial developmental program for Jewish boys called The Brotherhood. Their research and development sheds a great deal of light on what it can mean to be a Jewish male in the 21st Century.  

Reflection upon the forces that have influenced many of the contributing authors of the book, is perhaps their own next step. We hear little to nothing about domestic violence, or other violence, such as life as WWII vets; or the role of subsequent wars on their masculinity; or the unisex/”free love” of the 1960s; or male or boyhood survival in the wake of the soul-searing emasculation of the Holocaust.

And what of the roles and masculinities of men who bring us glory and/or shame in societies — Madoff? Doctorow? Wiesel? Mamet? Dayan? Spitzer? Gehry? Adelman? Shamgar ben Anat? (See Judges 3:31) And infinitely many more.

Bar Mitzvah essentially goes missing — perhaps a statement of its own about this increasingly problemmatic ritual. The stories within our very tradition, as at least one author points out, point men toward revisiting what they have drawn from their “fathers’ wells” — at home, and in the stories about men and masculinity within Jewish tradition and contemporary culture. Perhaps some of this will emerge in a second volume, as the program advances.

The last sentence of the introduction by Bob Braitman, past president of FJMC asks: “What is a Jewish man?” It is a bit disingenuously stated that the problem seems to be that “men have somehow become less visible in both the leadership in many professions and in the volunteer world.”

Presumably this refers to the arrival of women rabbis, cantors and the preponderance of women who now attend services and serve on boards and committees in the liberal Jewish movements. Though some hold leadership and research positions, the men writing these essays do not appear eager to reclaim an increased position in any of these roles.

In many ways Jewish Men at the Crossroads is about a new wave of Jewish men seeking healing, who are not at the innovative fringe but rather becoming newly receptive to its waves and practices. The work of supportive healing and growing at the level of spirit and awareness is crucial to Jewish and humane development.

Rabbi Simcha Weintraub appears as a contributing author in this volume. The founder of The National Center for Jewish Healing, Weintraub is a great man to have on board for this initiative. For while women are increasingly attaining equal votes and roles, and are being “allowed” to succeed, Jewish men still have the cultural burden of being expected to succeed.

Indeed, Rabbi Weintraub points out metaphorically that “Jewish men may have stopped breathing” from the stress, and the burden of traditional expectations about their potential to accomplish, innovate, earn and be honored. So, let us end by borrowing from the blessing Rabbi Weintraub offers for men:

Enjoy breathing with reflection; community with solitude; work with rest.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon — May this be God’s will; Amen.

Reform Movement Sets Sails for Fundamental Change

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram



A new Reform Judaism is rapidly emerging: inspiring, courageous, inclusive, radically hospitable, spiritual, and relevant.

In light of “doomsday statistics” about diminishing Jewish identification and affiliation, as given in the recent, much-publicized Pew study, how is this possible?

One should keep in mind that such studies only document what had been, and typically miss the exciting new approaches across the flow of Jewish history, that percolate in every age, and sometimes catch on big time.

One watershed moment was the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial, held in San Diego last month.

As announced in the Biennial, URJ membership is no longer required for attendance at its conferences, camps and youth groups. Many of the best innovations and innovators of our times, from within Reform, Jewish Renewal, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism, were in evidence.

Each attempted fusion worked elegantly and authentically, maintaining the heart and structure of Jewish prayer while riveting the 5,000 participants even during lengthy Shabbat services. Choreographer Liz Lerman led prayer through authentic movement, for example, and virtually everyone participated (see video).

More after the jump.
The URJ is going head to head with the orthodox movement, Chabad, in terms of embracing the core Jewish spiritual practices, the mitzvot, as the URJ president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, explained:



I met recently with Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a cherished member of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s inner circle, who now has the responsibility of overseeing Chabad’s worldwide activities.

Shortly after we sat down in his office at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, Rabbi Krinsky leaned forward and asked, “Rabbi Jacobs, can we be frank?”

I said “Yes,” not sure where he was going.

“Why are you so busy trying to get more people into your Reform Movement? After all, you don’t care about kashrut, you don’t care about Shabbat, and you don’t care about mitzvot, so what are you so busy doing?”

I responded, “Rabbi Krinsky, we care about kashrut. We care about Shabbat. We care about mitzvot. We just care differently.”

“My job,” I told him, “is exactly the same as yours: to try and bring more and more people close to the sacred core of Jewish life.”

I believe with the very fiber of my being that young Jews are hungry, but not for a Judaism frozen in a distant time, no matter how loving and warm the purveyors — including Chabad, in particular — might be.

Rabbi Jacobs himself, along with the music director for the conference — the soulful, deeply God-connected Josh Nelson — set a contemplative tone of meaningful rather than formulaic prayer.

This shift one of affect, away from services styled after the music of Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, that was often accompanied by rabbinic intoning of prayers.

It turns out that some of the senior URJ leadership has studied or been featured with Rabbi Rachel Cowan and her team at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS).


The Korean-born rabbi, Angela Buchdahl, has become a symbol of Reform inclusiveness.

The Importance of Inclusion

Another service co-leader was the new head rabbi at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, Angela Buchdahl, who is also listed as part of the non-denominational Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

Korean-born Rabbi Buchdahl has lived in the U.S. since the age of 4, and Rabbi Jacobs used her presence as a focal point to advocate for attention though kindness and inclusiveness throughout the movement, noting that people would often love her services when he and she shared a pulpit, and then ask him quietly, “Is she really Jewish?”

He later gave a shout-out to Congregation Or Ami in Clabasas, California which

 “identifies itself by saying: ‘We are also ‘Mosaic’ in that we connect back to Moses, a Hebrew child, raised by Egyptians, who married a non-Jewish woman of color and became the leader of his people.'”

Jacobs spoke further about every possible category of difference and the importance of inclusion:

When we open our doors — and more, our hearts and minds — and say, “Come in, we need you,” we will have new talent and energy beyond our wildest dreams.

Al tistakel b’kankan, warned our sages, “don’t look at the bottle,” ela b’mah sheyesh bo, “but at what is inside it.”

Inside those people whom we exclude is another great gift, another opportunity of a lifetime just waiting for us. As we learn from Abraham, we cannot wait for the seekers.

The Union plans outreach to every kind of public venue. Both year-round family camping and a fourteenth camp for “Jews who love science” will open this year.

Regarding intermarriage, Jacobs advocates doors open wide:

It is not just sociology that demands that we be serious about welcoming interfaith families. It is theology as well.

We have a sacred obligation to open our doors, to add to our ranks, and to make sure that Progressive Judaism has a growing, not a shrinking, voice in proclaiming what Torah must mean for our time and for our world.

It is a veritable gift of God to have the opportunity of a millennium: more non-Jews who want “in” than Jews who want “out.”

That has never happened before. We dare not squander this gift out of fear of what new voices may say and where new opinions may lead.

Heavily “strummed” services were mostly moved to smaller breakout service times, performance sessions and variegated welcomes (see video to the right).

Best of all the many abundant approaches to helping people feel welcomed was embodied by the phrase used by Rabbi Jacobs, “audacious hospitality.”

Heightened Spirituality Broadly Evident

Shifts toward soulful approaches in both music and liturgy were abundant. The movement’s new Mishkan T’Filah prayerbook worked beautifully in the mix.

In perhaps a related development, Neshama Carlebach, daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, announced at her late-night standing-room-only conference concert with Josh Nelson that her soul is “making aliyah to the Reform movement,” an announcement for which she received resounding applause.

And in an article published immediately after the conference ended, Carlebach termed the URJ Biennial “the largest spirituality-oriented gathering of Jews in North America”:

Reform synagogues have always been “the shuls I didn’t attend.” Simply put, I had no idea how extraordinary Reform Judaism was.

The tikkun olam (social justice) mandate is so strongly bound up with the movement, and in the most joyous of ways. I was overwhelmed by the music, by the davening (prayer) and yes, my Orthodox friends, by the ever-present light of Torah.

Some of the Biennial’s Influences:

The Underlying Forces

Rabbi Jacobs description of this new approach echoes almost the identical wording of the literature of Jewish Renewal.

The founder of Jewish Renewal, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (widely known as “Reb Zalman”), once told the author of this article, “It’s really we (the Renewal movement) who have accomplished what the Rebbe set out to do.”

It must have been a nachas (pleasure) for Reb Zalman to hear what took place at the Biennial, and to know that many Jewish Renewal teachers, students and principles were strong influences in the mix. (See sidebar)

As explained by the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Saperstein
, in a recent tribute to a Renewal social activist, Rabbi Arthur Waskow:

The Renewal movement has not only grown into a significant presence in its own right, but has had a profound impact on the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements.

It is time that this be acknowledged. The merging of aesthetics of new liturgies and rituals, the synergy of mystical prayer and meditation, passion for social justice rolled into an expression of Judaism has brought new light into so many Jewish lives.

These two tents within progressive Judaism — Reform and Renewal — have a great deal of synergy in place already.

The Reform Movement has the numbers and the strength to reach out to the majority of Jews whom Rabbi Jacobs termed “nones” — those having some Jewish interest, but no affiliations.

Jewish Renewal, in the words of a Renewal rabbi who attended the Biennial, Rabbi Diane Elliot “is well-positioned to provide ‘midwives'”: spiritual teachers specializing in one or more modalities (chant, movement, hiddur mitzvah, etc.), who are equipped to go out into Reform communities, and those of other denominations, to help implement this emerging, Renewal-infused agenda:

Midwives are patient. They understand the global trajectory of the birthing journey, and at the same time they know how to meet the birthing mother where she is (“ba-asher hu/hi sham,” Genesis 21:17), helping her to stay present and in contact with what is happening right now, opening bit by bit, not pushing too soon, but when they time comes, pushing hard.

Midwives are coaches. In the wake of the Biennial, I saw that Jewish Renewal clergy are well suited for the role of spiritual coaching among other denominations.

While I see us continuing to serve and create new enclaves of Jewish Renewal, it seems to me that the most effective way to spread the “good news” of what we offer is not to pour energy into trying to aggressively market ourselves as a movement, thus throwing ourselves into competition with other larger and much better funded streams of Jewish life, but rather to consciously offer ourselves in service of k’lal Yisra’el, “all Jews.”

True to the role modeling of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Rabbi Elliot proposes that Jewish Renewal continue “doing what we do best — opening hearts, minds and bodies to deeper and more comprehensive practice and experience, thoroughly grounded in Jewish textual, historical, and mystical traditions.”

To my mind, this kind of research and development can feel risky and even earth-shattering for some folks, given Jews’ communal trauma history, passed on unconsciously, cellularly, from generation to generation, through body language, thought patterns, and child-rearing practices, as well as through story, fiction, poetry, theater, visual art, and contemporary midrash.

So the deep work, integrating new modalities, is best done in small groups on retreat and in more intimate community settings, where trust can be built and healing manifest — for individual participants, for communities, and for Judaism itself.

Thanksgiving, Arlo Guthrie, & My Yarmulke

A Ritual of Joyful Resistance

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Just five minutes before noon today, I took part in a wonderful ritual. One of the members of a men’s group that began 30 years ago – Jeffrey Dekro, founder of the Isaiah Fund [see below for an explanation] —  called me and its other members to remind us to turn on our radios. He has been doing this, year after year on Thanksgiving Day, for almost all those thirty years.

Why?

Every year at noon on Thanksgiving, WXPN Radio in Philadelphia plays Arlo Guthrie’s  “Alice’s Restaurant,”  about a Thanksgiving dinner in Stockbridge Mass. in 1967; about obtuse cops; and about nonviolent resistance to a brutal war.

More after the jump.
And every year, this seemingly non-Jewish set of rituals stirs in me the memory of a moment long ago when my first puzzled, uncertain explorations of the “Jewish thing” took on new power for me.  And when I came to understand the power of a yarmulke.

In 1970, I was asked by the Chicago Eight to testify in their defense. They were leaders of the movement to oppose the Vietnam War, and they had been charged by  the Nixon Administration and Attorney-General John Mitchell (who turned out to be a  criminal himself – see under “Watergate”) with conspiracy to organize riot and destruction during the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 .

I had been an alternate delegate from the District of Columbia to the Convention – elected originally as part of an anti-war, anti-racist slate to support Robert Kennedy. After he was murdered, we decided to nominate and  support as our “favorite son” the chairperson of our delegation –  Rev. Channing Phillips (may the memory of this just and decent leader be a blessing), a Black minister in the Martin Luther King mold.  

Our delegation made him the first Black person ever nominated for President at a major-party convention.  The following spring, on the first anniversary of Dr. King’s murder, on the third night of Passover in 1969, his church hosted the first-ever Freedom Seder.

AND – besides being aan elected delegate, I had also spoken the first two nights of the Convention to the anti-war demonstrators at Grant Park, at their invitation, while the crowd was being menaced by Chicago police and the National Guard. The police – not the demonstrators – finally did explode in vicious violence on the third night of the Convention.

Although the main official investigation of Chicago described it as a “police riot,” the Nixon Administration decided to indict the anti-war leaders. So during the Conspiracy Trial in 1970,  Tom Hayden, David Dellinger, Abby Hoffman, and the other defendants figured I would be reasonably respectable (as a former  delegate) and therefore relatively convincing to the jury and the national public, in testifying that  the anti-war folks were not trying to organize violence but instead were the victims of police violence.

 As the trial went forward, it became clear that the judge – Julius Hoffman, a Jew  – was utterly subservient to the prosecution and wildly hostile to the defense.  (Some of us thought he had become possessed by the dybbuk of Torquemada, head of the Inquisition.  – How else could a Jew behave that way?  We tried to exorcise his dybbuk. It didn’t work.)

Judge Hoffman browbeat witnesses, ultimately literally gagging and binding Bobby Seale, the only Black defendant, for challenging his rulings – etc.  Dozens of his rulings against the Eight were later cited by the Court of Appeals as major legal errors, requiring reversal of all the convictions the prosecution had achieved in his court.

So when I arrived at the Federal court-house in Chicago, I was very nervous.  About the judge, much more than the prosecution or my own testimony.

The witness who was scheduled to testify right before me was Arlo Guthrie. He had sung “Alice’s Restaurant” to/ with the demonstrators at Grant Park,  and the defense wanted to show the jury that there was no incitement to violence in it.

So William Kunstler, z’l,  the lawyer for the defense, asked  Guthrie to sing “Alice’s Restaurant” so that the jury could get a direct sense of the event.

But Judge Hoffman stopped him: “You can’t sing in my courtroom!!”

“But,” said Kunstler, “it’s evidence of the intent of the organizers and the crowd!”

For minutes they snarled at each other. Finally, Judge Hoffman: “He can SAY what he told them, but NO SINGING.”

And then – Guthrie couldn’t do it. The song, which lasts 25 minutes, he knew by utter heart, having sung it probably more than a thousand times – but to say it without singing, he couldn’t. His memory was keyed to the melody. And maybe  Judge  Hoffman’s rage helped dis-assemble him.

So he came back to the witness room, crushed.

And I’m up next. I start trembling, trying to figure out how I can avoid falling apart.


It took me another year or so to start wearing some sort of hat all the time — a Tevye cap or a beret or a rainbow kippah or an amazing tall Tibetan hat with earflaps and wool trimming.

I decide that if I wear a yarmulke, that will  strengthen me to connect with a power Higher/Other than the United States and Judge Hoffman. (Up to that moment, I had never worn a yarmulke in a non-officially “religious” situation. I had written the Freedom Seder in 1969, but in 1970 I was still wrestling with the question of what this weird and powerful “Jewish thing” meant in my life.)

So I tell Kunstler I want to wear a yarmulke, and he says – “No problem.”  Somewhere I find a simple black unobtrusive skull-cap, and when I go to be sworn in, I put it on.

For the oath (which I did as an affirmation, as indicated by much of Jewish tradition), no problem.

Then Kunstler asks me the first question for the defense, and the Judge interrupts. “Take off your hat, sir,” he says.

Kunstler erupts. – “This man is an Orthodox Jew, and you want – etc etc  etc.” I am moaning to myself, “Please, Bill, one thing I know I’m not is an Orthodox Jew.”  But how can I undermine the defense attorney?  So I keep my mouth shut.

Judge Hoffman also erupts: “That hat shows disrespect for the United States and this Honorable Court!” he shouts.

“Yeah,” I think to myself, “that’s sort-of true. Disrespect for him, absolutely. For the United States, not disrespect exactly, but much more respect for Something Else. That’s the point!”

They keep yelling, and I start watching the prosecutor – and I realize that he is watching the jury.   There is one Jewish juror.  What is this juror thinking?

Finally, the prosecutor addresses the judge: “Your Honor, the United States certainly understands and agrees with your concern, but we also feel that in the interests of justice, it might be best simply for the trial to go forward.”

And the judge took orders!!  He shut up, and the rest of my testimony was quiet and orderly.

Almost 80, and Just as Feminist: Gloria Steinem Interview


Gloria Steinem at “This Is What 80 Looks Like.” Photo: Peter Handler.

— by Lisa Grunberger

I had the opportunity to interview feminist activist and writer Gloria Steinem, who co-founded Ms. Magazine.

Steinem has been one of the most prominent spokeswomen for the women’s liberation movement and has continued her activism until today. In 2005, she co-founded the Women’s Media Center, which advocates to expand women’s voices in the media, with feminist activist Robin Morgan and actress Jane Fonda.  

Last week Steinem was in Philadelphia, at The Shalom Center in Congregation Mishkan Shalom, to speak with Rabbi Arthur Waskow, who founded the Center, about social justice, equality and peace, at an event called “This Is What 80 Looks Like.”  

Full interview after the jump.
Q: Many feminists have rejected religion as hopelessly patriarchal. Others have found ways to live feminist lives as radical Christians, and feminist Jews and Muslims. Have you ever felt called to explore a Jewish text, or study, or Torah, or anything like that?

A: No, to be honest. The closest that I have come to it over time is that I have participated, for 25 years or more, in the “Feminist Seder,” with the author Esther Broner.

She rewrote the questions, together with another woman, to include women’s experience. For them, frequently, it was on the third night, instead of a traditional seder. It was in addition. And for me, of course, and others, it was the only seder.

We would all, and still do, gather and use these questions and answers. As you know, it is saying, “why were our foremothers sad on this night? Because they could not take part in the ceremony.”  

Then we say our names and our mothers’ names and our grandmothers’ names, as far back as we can go: “I am Gloria, daughter of Ruth, daughter of Marie…” which usually is not very far, and all the women who were sad because they had no names of their own. It is very moving. And there is always a topic of discussion.

Q: That is beautiful. It is a great ritual.

A: It really is. And it made me appreciate the fact that the seder is communal, a ceremony in which all voices are heard, unlike just one person talking and an audience.  

Q: The backstory for this Shalom Center event started when you participated on Oprah, as Oprah asked you to describe a transformative moment in your life. You shared a story from the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago:

I was giving out farm worker’s literature and I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And Arthur Waskow, a wonderful man, comes up to me and says [here you grasped Oprah’s hand], ‘It’s important, what you are doing. Everything is important!’ And I’ve never forgotten that.

Can you elaborate on this?

A: It was a complete accident. It proves that we are the most effective when we behave as if everything we do matters, because we have no idea which thing is going to matter.  

Because he said to me at a very crucial juncture, I never forgot it. I am not sure if we have seen each other even after that. When she asked me that question, it came into my mind. I do not know if he saw it or somebody told him about it, but anyway he got in touch with me.  


In the language of the Cherokee, there are no “he” and “she.” People are people. Painting by Henry Timberlake.

Q: Does it matter in a different way today? When you talk to young women, are you heartened? When you go to campuses, and still see the legacy that you are going to transmit, that you have transmitted, and actively transmit?

A: You know, nothing is ever enough. Nothing I do, anyone else does, is ever enough. But within that, I am very heartened when I talk to young women.  

First of all, if you just look at the public opinion poles, young women are much more likely to become feminist supporters of this issue than older women. The idea that the movement is over is part of the opposition to the movement.  

Stage one of the opposition is: “You can’t do that, it’s against nature, or something.” And stage two is: “Well, it used to be necessary, but it’s not anymore.” But, in fact, quite the opposite is the case.

Young women are much more alert to discrimination, aware of discrimination, much more rebellious against it, and much more full of dreams and ambitions, which is the whole idea.

The truth of the matter is, it is not going to really work until men raise children as much as women do. Women are now more equal outside the house, but men are not very equal in it. There are a lot of men who really are full parents; there has been progress, but it is still far from the norm.

Q: That is why feminism is about gender: It is about men and women’s relationships; you cannot change one without the other.

A: I agree. I would only add that there is no gender in real life. People are people.

The individual difference between two people, because each person is unique, is probably bigger than the generalized differences between genders. And if you look up the grid, beyond the lens of gender, it is very helpful, because it allows men to be individuals, too.  

In original cultures around the world, as far as I have been able to discover — the Cherokee, on this continent, for instance — languages did not even have “he” and “she,” people were people. They may have had different functions for the two genders, perhaps, but there were a lot of people who did not keep to that, and that was alright too.

Q: Much more freedom and fluidity.

A: Right. Because in the deep sense, the purpose of the invention of gender roles was to control reproduction. Men owned the means of reproduction — women — and that brought in the idea of male dominance and female submission. Which, if you look at 100,000 years of human history, is not that old.  

Q: You have said, “In later years, if I’m remembered at all it will be for inventing a phrase like ‘reproductive freedom.’ [It is] a phrase [that] includes the freedom to have children or not to. So it makes it possible for us to make a coalition.”  

Are not the new reproductive technologies, including in vitro fertilization and donor egg, providing women with similar choices to have children or not to, and to responsibly exercise their own reproductive freedoms?  

A: I did not predict technology. I think the addition of technology does not change the basic principle: That each women has the power to make decisions over her own body, without government interference, and without religious interference. That we have at least as much legal right over own physical selves as we do over our literal property.

Right now, assaults on bodies — rapes, domestic violence, and other forms of violence — are sometimes less punished than invasions of private property, trespassing, etc. We have a long way to go in terms of the law.

What enters into that is social pressure.

Q: To have a baby or not to have a baby.

A: Yes. So the idea that all women should have children, that one is somehow unnatural without children. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, the idea that someone is odd for having too many children. They are both present in our culture. So we have to continue to work to make it possible to make a decision, a free decision.


Alice Walker had paid a price for exposing violence against women within the black community.

Of course, there is an additional concern here, which is surrogate mothers. Women who have children, who become the biological parents for other people, is that free will or economic pressure?

Q: The late writer Christopher Hitchens wrote a provocative essay in Vanity Fair, years ago, stating that women are not funny. You wrote satire in your early career. How was humor a vehicle for, or maybe a counterpoint to, your own work?

A: Humor is very crucial, and a big indicator of whether we are free or not. Literally, laughter is the most free emotion. You can compel fear. You can even compel love: if people are kept isolated and dependent long enough, in order to survive they come to feel dependent upon, and even love, for their captors.  

Laughter cannot be compelled. It happens when you suddenly recognize something, or put two things together and they unexpectedly make a third. When you learn, when you see an irony. Real laughter cannot be compelled. And I think that is an indicator of how important it is as a measure of freedom.

Q: In your essay on Alice Walker, Do You Know This Woman? She Knows You, you wrote that she exposes, in The Third Life of Grange Copeland, violence against women, “years before most women had begun to tell the truth in public.”  

A: Yes, and she paid a price for it sometimes, because within the black community there was some understandable worry that somehow exposing faults within the community, violence in the community, would work against it. But, of course, it’s not true. Telling the truth usually works out the best. And I think many more people have come to agree with her now.

Q: What novelists and play writes do you read, who continue to inspire your vision? Are you fueled by the imagination and other writers?  

A: I confess that I have so many important and mind-blowing books and articles, that are not fiction, that I find that I just do not have the time that I would like to explore fiction.

Q: It is surprising, because your essays, especially the one on your mother Ruth, are quite literary.

A: If I had to pick a favorite form of writing, I think it would be the essay. What the essay allows you to do is start out in a personal place and come to a human, universal or larger point.

I think that is a very important form of writing because it allows us to use a narrative, and the human brain works on narratives. If you tell us a fact, we will try to make a story up as to why the fact is true. We need a narrative, and the essay allows you to do that, and also to illuminate reality that way.  

The funny thing was about that essay was that it was as if I had been waiting to write it, because I knew that I could not write it while she was alive, as it would make her sad.  

When I was writing it I thought, “everybody wants to write about their parents, this is not going to answer anyone but me.” Then, when I started to go around with the book in which it was, I discovered the responses were quite the opposite.  

Given the bias against women in the culture, a lot of people, men and women, had mothers who could not put their talents to use.

Q: At the 10th anniversary of Ms. Magazine, you were in Detroit, and a woman turned to you and said you were “the inside of me.”

A: I have never forgotten that.

Q: What is “the inside” of you?

A: The first thing I thought of when you said that are those nested Russian dolls, in which there are many selves. I think we are that: our child selves and our later selves are nested inside us.  

When we are born, there is a person in that baby, as anyone who has ever met a baby knows. The question is, will they be helped to become who they are, or will society or parents try to make them into something that they are not?  

I suppose, in one sense, it is my early child self still there, and sometimes more than others, because the hopes and fears and delights are so rooted there; there are so many layers that we may not realize it.  

In an ordinary moment, when I am walking in the street and the sun is out, it is just about a moment in which you feel a sense of well being, that you are somehow part of everything around you.

Q: Interconnected.

A: There is this sense of well-being; it does not last very long, but it is memorable. And if we can let those moments guide us, it will probably take us on the right path.

I do not mean to say that human beings are isolated in that moment. It is a feeling of connection that gives you the sense of well-being. It is a connection to the universe, to other people, to nature, to the ice-cream cone, to whatever is there.

Q: I think Freud called it the “oceanic moment,” this feeling of “oneness.”

A: Well, I am glad to know that he said something sensible; it is pretty rare.  

Yes YOU Can, Too: Footage of Clergy Visit to Congressional Offices

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Have you been wanting the courage to go down and visit congress to express your views? This video, taken yesterday of Philadelphia Rabbi Arthur Waskow leading the way, shows one clear and compelling way to do so. Filmed by an unnamed participant yesterday during a clergy visit to the office of House Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Rabbi Waskow is joined by Gerry Serota of New Jewish Agenda, and Rabbi David Shneyer of Am Kolel, a greater Washington area congregation.

Seventy colleagues from a wide array of religions joined the effort, part of a Capitol Hill Pilgrimage with locked-out federal workers. Their goal: To urge an immediate end to the government shutdown and urgent passage of laws to prevent a default on the US debt. While Cantor wasn’t in his office, interns and staff received what must surely have been an unforgettable delegation.  

Thinking Outside the Box About Syria


“One Strike” was a fantasy. People killed by a chemical attack in Ghouta, last month.

— by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Amir Shoam’s attack on my Drop Gas Masks, Not Bombs article, about U.S. policy toward Syria, ignores my saying that that phrase was a metaphor.

A metaphor for what? For breaking out of the official “box,” in which some officials of the U.S. government, some of the Israeli government, and some “official” institutions of American Jewish life, tried to assert there were only three choices about Syria: “Do nothing, one strike, or all-out war to topple the regime.” That metaphor and the article were a way to awaken deeper thought among American Jews. We pointed out that “One Strike” was a fantasy, ignoring the fog of war, the swamp of war, the possibility of unpredictable retaliation and re-retaliation.

More after the jump.
We also pointed out the despair that is seeping into American life, because we are wasting on self-destructive wars not only the lives, limbs, minds, and souls of our soldiers, but also the schools, renewable-energy sources, and new jobs we desperately need.

That awakening of deeper Jewish thought did happen. As a result, a much more nuanced statement was initiated by The Shalom Center, written and signed by rabbis and cantors — as of the afternoon before Yom Kippur, 64, of every stream, gender, and age.

In that Statement, the 64 rabbis and cantors proposed a serious approach to the Syrian regime’s allies — Russia and Iran — to get them to insist on its never using chem-war. When we wrote and first circulated the statement, some called that line “unrealistic.” But two days later, it became utterly “realistic” for the U.S., Russia, and the Syrian regime to be negotiating on it.

Never write off good sense; even self-absorbed and domineering leaders may decide good sense is realistic.

About Mr. Shoam’s other criticism of the original article: The real nub of them, as he said, is Iran. There I have a view very different from the Netanyahu/AIPAC view of how to deal with Iran, now that a new president has been elected. President Rouhani has put forth cautious, but important negotiating feelers. Indeed, the leading German newspaper, Der Spiegel, reports that Iran has offered to dismantle the Fordo nuclear facility — in exchange for ending the sanctions against Iran. Moreover, Ahmedinajad’s Holocaust-denial assertions have been publicly rejected. As a high official of the new government said, “Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone.”

The U.S. should be pursuing with great vigor the possibility of, by stages, making a profound change in our relationship with Iran. That does not mean encouraging an Iranian nuclear weapon, as Mr. Shoam twists my suggestion of negotiating with Iran to mean. It does mean working to bring Iran into a legitimate framework of peace with the U.S. and the world.

That will require addressing some deep wounds the U.S. has inflicted on Iran over the last 50 years:

  • By CIA intervention, overthrowing a democratically elected, New Dealish government in 1953;
  • By then, restoring the Shah, and for 26 years supporting his using of torture and murder on dissidents;
  • By protecting the Shah in 1979, when the Iranian people drove him from office and wanted to try him for his crimes; and
  • By supporting Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical war to kill 100,000 Iranians, during Iraq’s 1980-1988 wars against Iran.

Finally, Mr. Shoam assets that the present diplomatic possibility of eliminating Syrian chemical weapons rests on a military threat. That is probably partly true. But it also rests on the fact that the “No” from the UK Parliament, and the chorus of “No” from the American public, first forced the President to ask permission from Congress to go to war, and then to pursue diplomacy, when it became clear Congress was also poised to say “No.”

I am proud that The Shalom Center and the 64 rabbis we inspired, and millions of grass-roots American Jews, joined in that “No,” and helped us all move away from a disastrous war. I wish the official “leadership” of American Jewry, now totally out of touch with the real flesh-and-blood community, would learn the lesson.