Shabbat Talmud Study: Intersectionality, Part 2: Israel at 70 and the Need to Reclaim Auschwitztionality

Shabbat morning, April 21, 8:30 – 9:30 am

As we celebrate Israel at 70, which voice best takes in your 20-something child or grandchild?

(A) What a miracle that I get to live in the era when the Jewish state was reborn. For 2,000 years our people were homeless. We wandered. We were subject to persecution, pogroms, expulsion, exile, death, culminating in the Holocaust. All the while we prayed that one day we would return to our homeland. Thank God that I get to live in the era of this miracle!

(B) Look, Israel is not perfect, like America is not perfect. Perfect is not on the menu of any country or even any person. But the good in Israel overwhelmingly outweighs the bad. And I have cast my lot with Israel, forever. I am absolutely committed to doing my small part to make Israel better today than it was yesterday. Israel will always be an important part of my life.

(C) To be honest, I am not that into Israel. I don’t like the racist government of Netanyahu, and that the Israeli people keep reelecting him. I don’t like settlers’ stealing Palestinians’ land. I don’t like the Israeli government’s actual support for this theft of Palestinian land. I don’t like how Arabs in Israel are treated. I am embarrassed that Israel wants to expel African refugees. My parents and grandparents are into Israel. But Israel is not my thing.

I am personally very concerned that too many of our children and grandchildren are voting for option C.

In our last class we talked about the problem of intersectionality: namely, all too often when our children and grandchildren support progressive causes (equal rights for LGBTQ, women, minorities, immigrants), that ends up with their feeling support for a Palestinian narrative, which creates a disconnect between the rising Jewish generation and our beloved Jewish state.

What to do? Tomorrow morning we are going to study a hugely important essay written by David Hartman in 1982 entitled “Auschwitz or Sinai?” The most important word in his title is “or.” He argued that instead of focusing on Jewish oppression, we need to focus on Jewish values, what a Jewish state could and should be, not the bloody Jewish history that led to the creation of a Jewish state.

I used to be a big believer in this essay. Many times over the years, when congregants would urge a congregational trip to the camps, I would always say: “Go if you want to go. But I am not going to the camps. I am going to Israel. Any day spent at Auschwitz is better spent in Jerusalem.” For that reason, for the first 56 years of my life, I studiously avoided ever entering any Eastern European place that murdered our people.

But that thinking no longer works.

This coming year, for the first time , we scrapped a plan to run a Family Trip to Israel. Instead, we are joining the March for the Living where our families go first to the camps, then to Israel. And. Not or.

Can we hold onto Auschwitz and Sinai? If we can’t, we will lose too many of our children as lovers of Israel because they never knew, or forgot, this fundamental truth: that the most oppressed people of all in the annals of human history is the Jewish people. Israel at 70 only means that that horrific reality ended 70 years ago.

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: Intersectionality

Shabbat morning, April 7, 8:30 – 9:30 am

Intersectionality is a big problem for American Jews. I experienced this quite personally and viscerally one Sunday in January when Shira and I were with our twenty-something children. They wanted to take us to what they called a progressive bookstore that offered learning about the urgent political and social issues of the day.

At first, I felt like I belonged. LGBTQ? Check. Women’s rights? Check. Equal rights for people of color? Check. Economic justice and equality of opportunity? Check.

Then I happened onto their aisle having to do with Israel, which it called Palestine. There I discovered book after book of Israel hatred and Jew hatred. Not one syllable of balance. Jews are white colonizers who are oppressing an indigenous people. Not one word about the Jewish people’s ancient and historic connection to the land of Israel. Not one word about our attempts to make peace. Not one word about Palestinian terrorism. Only Jewish oppression of Palestine. I felt physically nauseated and had to leave the book store.

Never going back.

Welcome to the complicated world of intersectionality where all too often advocating for causes that many American Jews support (women, minorities, LGBTQ, sensible gun control legislation) puts us in the company of people who hate Israel and are anti-Semitic.

This issue of intersectionality came to a head for many in the American Jewish community with the recent March for Our Lives, the student-inspired march for sensible gun legislation. What if those marching, or speaking, include those who hate Israel or are anti-Semitic? It’s complicated. On the one hand, if you believe that our country needs sensible gun control legislation, why not march and let our elected leaders know we have had enough? On the other hand, do Jews belong at a march where some of those marching or speaking don’t like Jews or Israel?

On Shabbat, we are going to consider a super evocative case study on intersectionality prepared by Rabbi Marc Baker, the headmaster of Gann and incoming President and CEO of CJP. We will then consider Jewish sources that give us some language, some categories, some levers as we think about making common cause with people, some of whose views are anathema to us.

Very hard issue. Very real. Very current. Try talking to your college-age child or grandchild about it.

See you on Shabbat at 8:30.

Chag Sameach,

Shabbat Talmud Study: For Your Seders, a Juicy Story with Four Reads

Shabbat morning, March 24, 8:30 – 9:30 am

One of the Talmud’s most evocative stories is a thought experiment. Imagine you go to sleep for 70 years. Meanwhile life moves on for everybody else. Your family, friends and loved ones are subject to the ravages of time. You are not. The 2 year old becomes 72. The 20 year old becomes 90. The 50 year old passes out of the universe.

Seventy years later you wake up and go back to your old house, your old shul, your old job. The buildings are the same. The people are different. It does not end well. What does that teach us?

In the spirit of the season, there are four very different readings of this one-page story, each of which intersects with your seder table.

Tomorrow is Shabbat Hagadol, when we are supposed to be thinking about the first seder next Friday night. This story will get your seder juices flowing.

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: The Greatest Jewish Leader You Have Never Heard Of

Shabbat morning, March 10, 8:30 – 9:30 am

On Shabbat morning, we are going to encounter a truly great Jewish leader. Total integrity. Total core. Empathy. Discipline. Work ethic. Self-sacrifice. Able to work with and to motivate people. He gets stuff done-incredibly impressive accomplishments done in adverse circumstances -on behalf of the Jewish people. He does not personally benefit from his hard work. Indeed, it costs him dearly. But he is moved by a genuine sense of mission. He seems to be exemplary.

But there is an interesting wrinkle. Jews never hear of him. Never read of him. Never talk about him. You could go to shul every day, take 100 classes, daven three times a day, for your whole life and you will never hear his name.

Some Christian preachers love him. I have heard Christian sermons about this man that inspired me deeply. All the while, the rabbis of the Talmud are cold on him.

Who is he, what does he have to teach us about leadership now, and why has the rabbinic tradition been so decidedly unenthusiastic about a leader who, facing true adversity, gets so much done.

Stay safe in the storm. See you on Shabbat morning at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: Spiritual Notifications

Shabbat morning, March 3, 8:30 – 9:30 am
with Rav Hazzan Aliza Berger

To live in the modern world is to live in a world filled with audio notifications. Our days are punctuated by pinging phones, email notifications, buzzing texts, honking horns, and human sounds which alert us to information which is available to us and provide us with opportunities to connect. We are good at deciphering each of these aural cues, but we aren’t always so adept at deciphering the aural cues of our tradition.

Have you ever wondered why we chant Torah to specific melodies? Why prayers sound a certain way in certain seasons?

Our ancestors created a musical system of notifications that help us to arrive in the moment-to be alive to the spiritual potential of our texts and traditions. There are places in the Torah where the music creates jokes, places where the music highlights the plot or uncovers secret meanings.

Join me this week as we explore the sound notifications of our tradition. We’ll focus on two fabulous stories and I’ll show you how understanding the mechanics of the music transforms our understanding of the text.

See you at 8:30!

Shabbat Talmud Study: Our Moral Blind Spots–What Are We Not Seeing?

Shabbat morning, February 24, 8:30 – 9:30 am

Moral blind spots. We don’t see what we don’t see.

When King Solomon builds the Temple in Jerusalem, the House of God, which we read in our Haftarah last week, there is a huge moral blind spot. As is the nature of a blind spot, he does not see it. The author of 1 Kings 5 and 6 does not see it. But we, the modern reader, see it clearly.

The House of God was to be a House of God, which meant that there had to be a moral core to its construction and use. The builders could not use any hammer, ax or iron tool on the stones that would compose the House of God because those are instruments of war, and the stones must be happy, peaceful stones, not befouled by weapons of war. While seeing some moral problems (war), other moral problems neither the King nor the biblical author could see.

Similarly, when Ari Shavit’s great grandfather Herbert Bentwich goes from England in 1897 to visit Eretz Yisrael, he has a blind spot. He does not know it at the time. He does not see what he does not see. But it is crystal clear to his great grandson Ari Shavit what he did not see.

How do we understand the phenomenon of a moral blind spot? What causes us to have moral blind spots? What are our moral blind spots? What do we not see that we do not see?

What do we do about it?

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: The Best Kept Secrets of the Torah Service

Shabbat morning, February 10, 8:30 – 9:30 am
with Rav Hazzan Aliza Berger

When we come to shul on a Shabbat morning, we see a service that is fully formed, filled with familiar melodies and rituals. Our service feels like a composed masterpiece-assembled at Sinai and safeguarded through the ages.

But if you look closely, our liturgy is more like a patchwork quilt. There are pieces of fabric from Sinai, threads from our ancestors, lace that our grandparents added, all stitched together with love. When we look at these individual pieces, when we trace the development of our service over time, we begin to see not only the wisdom of our tradition, but also ways we can access deeper meaning and connection during the service.

This Shabbos, we’ll be exploring the Torah service. We’ll trace the Torah’s journey since Sinai, we’ll discover how Torah became a military super-hero, the ways that Torah has been leveraged to create healing and wholeness in the world, and we’ll see that Torah is part of a theatrical and improvisational experience of learning that developed long before scientists touted the wisdom of active learning.

If you’ve always wondered why the Torah service is the way it is (or if the Torah service bores you to tears) please join me this Shabbos at 8:30!


Shabbat Talmud Study: Thou Shalt Get Out of the Comparison Trap!

Shabbat morning, February 3, 8:30 – 9:30 am

There is this thing that many of us do, it is not helpful, it does not work, and yet we continue to do it. We compare ourselves to others. How am I doing? I compare myself to the person on the left. I compare myself to the person on the right. I have this. They have that.

The preacher Andy Stanley calls this “the comparison trap.” It is a trap because we are never well served by comparing ourselves to others. As Andy Stanley puts it, “there is no win in comparison.”

Which leads us to the Tenth Commandment that we will receive again this Shabbat morning at Sinai. Rabbi Shai Held quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel to the effect that the Tenth Commandment is: Thou shalt get out of the comparison trap. Do not compare yourself to others. Compare yourself to yourself. Who are you? Who do you want to be? How do you get there?

It is easy to say: get out of the comparison trap. But how do we do it?  If we find ourselves thinking about this friend’s vacation, that friend’s second house, the incredible nachus that friend has from their children and grandchildren, this friend’s abundant financial resources, we know it is a bad idea. We know it is not helpful. But how do we stop it?

On Shabbat we will consider a psalm and a story from the Talmud that can help us get out of the comparison trap because there is no win in comparison.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: Do We Serve the God Who Loves the Vulnerable? Or Do We Domesticate the Texts That Tells us To?

Shabbat morning, January 27, 8:30 – 9:30 am

What light do Jewish values shed on the current conversation on immigration? Take the issue of the 200,000 people from El Salvador who immigrated here legally but on a temporary basis–which meant that the American government that let them in could, legally, say their time is up and it is time to go, which is what the administration recently decided.

This decision may be legally sound. Does it cut muster from a Jewish point of view?

Consider the following fact pattern. Two people who came here temporarily from El Salvador years ago meet and marry. They work in America. They pay into social security. They get married and have three children, all of whom are born in the United States, all of whom are American citizens. This family of five is living and working productively in an American city. The decision of the administration to send people from El Salvador back home means that the parents will be forced to return to a place they have not been to for years, where they have no opportunity and will face violence and destitution. Their children face the choice of going back to El Salvador with their parents, without prospects. Or staying in America without their parents, their family broken.

Do Jewish values have anything to say here?

When Rabbi Shai Held came to Newton in September to talk about his book of Torah commentaries The Heart of Torah, he made an observation that has not only stuck with me, but has haunted me. Namely, the Torah has all these beautiful passages about God loving the most vulnerable among us, the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and commanding us to have empathy for the vulnerable, because we were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt. Rabbi Held pointed out that there is a danger that we “domesticate” (his word) these texts. That we treat them like pets. There, there, nice, nice text. But we don’t actually live them. If we lived these texts, what would we do now? How would we act?

Rabbi Held wondered out loud, a few days before Yom Kippur, whether he had ever truly served the God who loves the vulnerable. Maybe he only domesticated the texts that tell us to do so.

Tomorrow morning, we will read excerpts from two essays in Rabbi Held’s book that ask the same question.

Wherever you happen to come down on the merits of this contemporary issue, our thinking should be deepened, and challenged, and enhanced, by Torah, ever contemporary and wise.

See you tomorrow at 8:30 in room 24-25.

Shabbat shalom,

Shabbat Talmud Study: The Best Kept Secrets of Shabbat

Shabbat morning, January 20, 8:30 – 9:30 am
with Rav Hazzan Aliza Berger

In religious school as children, we learned how to pray. We learned where to bow and what to say. But we didn’t always have time to learn why. We didn’t always get the download of magic spiritual potential hidden in the service.

Today, we come to Shabbat services every week, and go through the motions of prayer. Sometimes the services touch our hearts, sometimes it feels like the whole point is just to bring us together as a community.

But there are so many treasures of meaning and transformation hidden within the Shabbat morning liturgy. When we hone in on the spiritual gems of our tradition, when we access the deeper wisdom of our ancestors, Shabbat can be an experience of enlightenment-a series of prayers which leave us feeling lighter and brighter after davening together.

Join me this Shabbos as we discover all the magical secrets of Shabbat morning that you wish you had learned as a child.

See you at 8:30.

Shabbat Shalom,