Talmud this Shabbat: Tainted Money, Practical Good and Trying to be Pure in an Impure World

Let me pose an explosive hypothetical. I do so to try to think slowly and deliberately about an issue that, understandably, triggers a powerful, immediate and intuitive response.

Suppose that in his will, Jeffrey Epstein had left five million dollars for Temple Emanuel. No strings attached. No request to name anything. Just a gift of five million dollars for the shul to use as it sees fit. Let’s also assume that while what he did was unspeakably evil and monstrous, this money did not come from rape or from child abuse. This money came from his work as a financier—a financier who was also a serial rapist and a serial child abuser.

Or, a related hypo: Jeffrey Epstein had left 500 million dollars to CJP. No strings. No naming. Just spend it on some transformational idea as the leadership of CJP sees fit.

Should we take this gift?

Most of us would likely have a feeling of overwhelming nausea and revulsion at the very idea of taking the money. It evokes the observation of Jonathan Haidt that nobody would ever wear Hitler’s sweater.

On the one hand, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the problem with tainted money is that there taint enough of it.

What do our sources tell us about how to think about weighing tainted origins with the good that this money would do? What is off, morally and practically, with the argument that if this monster is dead, and his money could do good, why not take it and do good with it?

While this issue is strictly hypothetical for us, it is of real concern for many universities and other causes near and far to which Epstein contributed. Heads are rolling from how this issue was handled—or mishandled, depending on how you see it.

What does how you see this issue—incapable of nuance, this is Hitler’s sweater, or he is a monster, but I can disconnect his evil from the good his money could do—say about you?

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: What Messy Compromises Does Life Exact From You?

How should we think about messy compromises, the times we have to go along to get along, the times we have to look the other way, the times when we have to suppress our conscience for some greater good, the times when we are not proud of what we are doing, but we do it anyway. And we justify it to ourselves, sort of.

Our point of departure is Rebbi Yehuda Hanasi, about whom two things are true.

One, the Talmud twice points out (Gitten 59A and Sanhedrin 36A) that Yehuda Hanasi was the single greatest Jew since Moses in terms of combining Torah scholarship and political leadership. He knew the sources cold. (He was the editor of the Mishna, the very foundation of rabbinic Judaism.). And he was personally connected to the emperors of Rome. He was undeniably the leader of the Jewish community to the outside world.

Two, his connection to Roman emperors, according to the Talmud’s own testimony, undeniably corrupted him. On Shabbat we will encounter an artful story of the gradual descent of this great Rabbi and leader into more and more compromise, more and more corruption. He gets further and further away from who he wanted to be.

In All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren has his Huey Long protagonist, Willie Stark, a corrupt governor of a southern state, say: “You have to crack some eggs to make an omelet.” Was Yehuda Hanasi’s gradual and serious corruption just the cracking of eggs that allowed the omelet of the Jews to have a rabbi in a position of power?

What eggs do we crack to make what omelets? It’s Elul.

See you Shabbat morning at 8:30. So excited to be back learning together.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: Self-Care or Selfish?

As summer blooms, everyone is talking about plans. Plans for summer adventures. Vacations. Goals for self-care. Time for self-reflection.

And yet, as we go off to our vacations, there are so many in our community who are struggling. So many who wonder about where they will find their next meal. So many who worry about how they will pay their bills.

Are we responsible for the vulnerable in our midst? To what degree?

After surviving the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel had every reason to retreat to his own world. After so much suffering, he would have been within his rights to carve out his own pocket of happiness. To focus on self-care for the rest of his life.

But he did not. He spent his life’s energy going around the world to build compassion and uphold justice. Professor Wiesel taught his students to find their voice, to draw on the strength of history, and to use their hands to shape a better world.

How do we balance our need for rest and relaxation with the needs of the world around us?

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: Elie Wiesel’s Challenge for a World Gone Mad

When Rabbi Gardenswartz shared with me the book Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger, I was prepared for a book about the Holocaust. What I found is a book filled with deep insights not just about that dark time, but directly relevant to our own.

Elie Wiesel reflects in chapter 4, Madness and Rebellion, “It is illegal to shout ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater. But if there is a fire, it is immoral to remain silent… one must raise an alarm in such a moment, even though it will perceived as the act of a madman, even though it makes people uncomfortable.”

Our world is on fire. How do we walk the narrow bridge from madman to witness to agents of change?

See you tomorrow at 8:30am.

Shabbat Shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: The Heart of Faith is a Question

Elie Wiesel has a simple and beautiful d’var about faith. He points out that the Hebrew word for faith is sheilah, composed of four Hebrew letters: shin, alef, lamed, heh. The middle two letters, alef and lamed, are the name of God. His takeaway: “God is in the question.” Witness, p. 100.

In other words, our hardest questions-why did God let X happen-are not impediments to faith. They are how we get to faith.

Tomorrow morning we will see this principle play out not only in Elie Wiesel’s life, but in our own.

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,


Talmud this Shabbat: Are You a Champ or a Chump If You Really Listen

Imagine that somebody at Kiddush that you know vaguely in our community starts up a conversation with you, over a bagel and tuna fish, and says something not only that you disagree with, but that you hate. It offends you to your core.

I think BDS is really important. It is not anti-Semitism. It is not anti-Israel. To the contrary, it is motivated by the deepest Jewish values of seeing the oppressed, and it is going to save the Jewish soul of the Jewish state.

I am loving what the Alabama legislature is doing. It is high time that Roe v. Wade got overturned. It is high time that we realize that life begins at conception. Hopefully with Kavanaugh and Gorsuch, Alito, Thomas and Roberts, we will finally be able to protect the lives of the unborn. Thank God!

I just think our society is getting too permissive. Marriage is between one man and one woman. I am uncomfortable with this acceptance of all these alternative lifestyles. Guess who is winning the demographic race? The Orthodox. Their kids get married young, to somebody of the opposite gender, and they have big families. Lots of kids. Our “progressive values” are going to make us extinct.

In chapter 2 of Witness, Elie Wiesel observes: “It is the otherness of the other that fascinates me.” Wiesel’s move is: not to try to convert the other person. Not to try to find common ground with the other person. Not to write off or ignore the other person. But to listen to the other person with humility and curiosity.

Do you have to be Elie Wiesel to do that? Is there no line that cannot be crossed? If you are the only person doing this radical openness, are you being a chump?

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: In a World Gone Mad, Wisdom From Elie Wiesel

A prophet every inch the stature of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel lived in Boston, a few miles from Temple Emanuel. He built and rebuilt. He loved. He taught. He role modeled. He wrote books. He won a Nobel Prize. He died.

What happened in those classrooms? What wisdom did Elie Wiesel impart that might help us today?

The prophet Jeremiah had Baruch Ben Neriah, a scribe who recorded and preserved for posterity the prophet’s teachings. Elie Wiesel had Ariel Burger, a student and disciple, who has just published a book called Witness which won the Jewish book award. This is a beautiful book that we need now.

Elie Wiesel’s frame is that the world has gone mad. His question is how can we be of the world and not go mad along with it?

Tomorrow morning we will encounter three Hasidic parables that Wiesel taught in his classroom that challenge us to be of this world, without surrendering to its despairs, and ever working on making it a little better.

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: Nazi Cartoon, 2019 New York Times–What Do I Do Now?

On April 25, 2019, The New York Times International Edition published a cartoon of such profound Jew hatred that the word Nazi is fully deserved, in no way an exaggeration. The Nazis were defeated in 1945. A Nazi cartoon was published by the Times last Thursday.

To its credit, the Times published a withering critique by Times Columnist Bret Stephens entitled “A Despicable Cartoon in the Times.”

Subsequently, the Editorial Board apologized for the cartoon in an op ed entitled “A Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism.” Many leading Jewish thinkers refused to accept the Times’ apology.

All of this takes places against the backdrop not only of Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Yom Hashoah, but the recent ADL report that Massachusetts had the fourth-highest number (144) of anti-Semitic incidents in 2018.

How do we understand the Times’ grave sin here? Was publishing spine-tingling Jew hatred an aberration, a mistake, or does it confirm long-standing Jew hatred and Israel hatred? Should we accept the Times’ apology? These questions I leave up to each of you.

On Shabbat morning, I want to take this crucial conversation to a higher level and ask a personal question: what is our personal connection to this issue? How shall each of us, personally, respond to this issue? What does this unsettling and scary time demand of each of us? Are we being summoned now? Does history have its eye on you?

We are going to consider a gorgeous source from Lord Jonathan Sacks that will take your breath away and has the very real potential to change your life.


Talmud this Shabbat: Three Love Stories That Are Dark, True, and Ours

In a recent Talmud class, one of our learners observed that beer commercials always show people who are young, hip, fit, healthy, happy, and in love, living and loving life without a care in the world. They drink. They play. They laugh. They barbecue. They enjoy the beach. Happy and perfect.

Why is that not us?

Are we not the beer commercial because we carry the heaviness of Jewish history?

Or are we not the beer commercial because it is not the human condition? Life is not like that. Real people are not like that.

This question-from whence comes the complexity, the weight, the lack of ease-is reflected in a special reading associated with Pesach, day 8. We read the Song of Songs, which is supposed to be a love story, the canonical equivalent of the beer commercial, young lovers in love. But it is not. As we will see the lovers in the Song of Songs can never get it together. They yearn without fulfillment. They seek without finding. Their love is deeply felt and not consummated. The Song of Songs is the opposite of the beer commercial.

We are going to consider Song of Songs in the context of two other love stories, also dark, also true, and also ours– Abraham and Isaac, and Leonard Cohen’s final song, You Want it Darker, in which he says Kaddish for himself, written a few weeks before his death. This song is his midrash both on Song of Songs and on Abraham and Isaac. We will study his lyrics and hear him sing it.

We don’t do easy days at the beach. Because we are Jewish? Or because we are human? What do our love stories say about us?

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Shabbat Talmud Study: How Can Our Brokenness Make us Better and Stronger?

In his evocative column this week entitled “The Moral Peril of Meritocracy,” Times columnist David Brooks raises the question: when you are broken by life, what does that brokenness do to you?

Life had thrown them into the valley, as it throws most of us into the valley at one point or another. They were suffering and adrift.

Some people are broken by this kind of pain and grief. They seem to get smaller and more afraid, and never recover. They get angry, resentful and tribal.

But other people are broken open.

The foundation of our Exodus story is that we were broken. We were slaves. For 430 years.

Tomorrow morning, our last class before the first seder, we will see how the Haggadah provides us with a roadmap for how our brokenness can make us better and stronger. It is not easy. It is at least as likely that our brokenness makes us smaller. But it is possible. What do we need to think about, what do we need to be working on, so that we can will ourselves from our broken place to our better and stronger place?

Your Exodus is in your hands.

Shabbat shalom and chag kasher v’sameakh,