Shabbat Talmud Study: The Canaanite Prostitute Who Saved the Jews and What It Means for Us Today–Three Different Readings of Rahab


The best literature, the most evocative stories, generate multiple and conflicting interpretations, each of which is true. Can we hold them all in unrelieved tension? That is the case with Joshua, chapter 2, our Haftarah for tomorrow, the story of Rahab the prostitute.

Background: Their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness are now over. The Israelites are coming to Israel. This time they mean business. The Torah has commanded them, multiple times, and quite ignobly from our modern point of view, to slaughter the Canaanites. Genocide. No other word for it.

Rahab is a Canaanite prostitute. She knows and fears that the Israelites are about to invade, conquer, and slaughter her people.

Collusion is at the heart of the story. Explicit collusion. The whole Haftarah is a smoking gun on collusion. She makes a deal with the Israelite spies. I lied to my King. I betrayed my people. I protected you. When the Israelites comes to kill all the Canaanites, please save my family and me. The spies say yes.

How do we see this?

Tomorrow we will see three very different reads of Rahab, each of which will leave us with a different and lingering question for our own time.

Shabbat shalom,
Wes

P.S. I want to thank everybody who came to our Talmud class this year.
I love learning from you. Our class is always a highlight of my week.

Shabbat Talmud Study: Amos or Jeremiah – Which Prophet is More Helpful to Us Now?


Both Amos and Jeremiah lived in societies that they believed were rotten to the core, with corrupt and unresponsive leadership that trammeled the rights of the vulnerable
and the oppressed. Where is the ethical core of our society, each asked. Where is moral leadership, each demanded.

To add to the cataclysmic feel of the time in which each lived, international events were conspiring to doom both the Northern and Southern Kingdom. Amos preached in the shadow of Assyria’s destruction of Israel in 721 Before the Common Era. Judah preached in the shadow of Babylonia’s destruction of Judah in 586 BCE.

For speaking truth to power, Jeremiah was impugned and then imprisoned by the King. He offers his most powerful prophecy from a jail cell. Amos froths
and fulminates. His message does not seem to have landed in his own time. Yet for all they have in common, Amos and Jeremiah offer very different prescriptions.

On Shabbat we will see Amos’ most iconic move, Jeremiah’s most iconic move, and ask which voice is most helpful for our time.

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,
Wes

Shabbat Talmud Study: Can God Be With You If You Don’t Believe in God?


Tomorrow morning we are going to pivot from the political to the personal.

Since Pesach, we have been talking about issues that concern the Jewish people: intersectionality and the rising generation’s relationship with Israel.

Tomorrow morning it is personal–about your relationship with God.

Our prayers speak of a personal relationship with God. “The Lord is my shepherd;
I lack nothing.” “God is with me; I have no fear.”

That’s great. But what if you don’t believe in God? Can God still be with you if you
are agnostic, atheistic, indifferent, angry? If God is not your thing, is there still a place for God in your life?

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,
Wes

Shabbat Talmud Study: 20-Somethings Talk About Israel


with Rav Hazzan Aliza Berger

For the last month, we have been talking about 20-somethings.

In a refreshing and long-overdue correction, this Shabbat morning, May 12, at 8:30, in Reisman Hall, we will hear from them. What they think. Not what we think they think.

There will be a panel discussion of four 20-somethings moderated by Aliza and me. We will ask them to reflect on questions like:

  • Tell us about moments when Israel was personally meaningful and relevant to you?
  • What kind of Israel education did you receive in your religious school or day school, summer camp, or synagogue? Was it a Disneyland Israel, only the good stuff? Or did you also encounter moral complexity? Before college, did anyone ever teach you about what the creation of Israel meant for Palestinians?
  • What was your experience of Israel in college?
  • What are your feelings about Israel now?
  • What are your feelings about the BDS movement?
  • What do you think about anti-Semitism and anti-Israel animus? How do you understand the challenge of intersectionality, that when we support progressive causes like LGBTQ, women and minorities, often we are in groups that are hostile to Israel?
  • If you had a single bit of advice to give us about how to prepare our teens for what they will find on college campuses, what would it be?

Let’s hear the rising generation in their own voices.

See you in Reisman Hall on Shabbat at 8:30,
Wes and Aliza

Shabbat Talmud Study: Developing Moral Language to Talk About Their Nakba


We are going to be hearing a lot about Nakba Day in the next two weeks. An article yesterday in the Israeli paper Haaretz had this to say about Nakba Day on May 15:

Hamas has been ramping up the drama in the run-up to Nakba Day, which will be marked precisely between the transfer of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the beginning of Ramadan. Hamas’ leaders in Gaza plan a mass storming of the border that will bring down the fence, highlighting Gazans’ distress and symbolizing the Palestinian refugees’ claim to a right of return to pre-1967 Israel.

How do we think and talk about their Nakba? How do we teach their Nakba to our children?

Tomorrow we will consider the Nakba through the lens of one man’s story, Jamal Munheir, who had lived in Hulda, on ancestral property for many generations, side by side with a Jewish community that was also in Hulda. On April 6, 1948, a Zionist battalion conquered the Arab village. What had been Arab Hulda became Jewish Hulda. What had been Jamal Munheir’s home is now an Israeli winery. In My Promised Land, Ari Shavit takes Jamal Munheir, now a penniless refugee in the West Bank, back to what had been his home. There is a lot of pathos in these pages.

We will consider Jamal Munheir’s story of loss, his nightmare, through the lens of four great Zionist thinkers: Ahad Ha’am, Theodor Herzl, Vladimir Jabotinsky, and David Ben Gurion.

We must develop moral vocabulary and moral categories to help us understand Jamal Munheir. We must find a way to teach our children that Israel is morally justified, and morally complicated, and that is okay. Denial will not help our children when they face a BDS petition in college. An honest conversation can.

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,
Wes

Shabbat Talmud Study: Why We Must Teach Their Nakba To Our Children


Pick a super Jewish school in a super Jewish city: say Barnard, in New York City.

This week Barnard’s students voted by a nearly 2 to 1 margin in favor of BDS. In other words, Jewish students, in a college with a lot of Jews, in a city with a lot of Jews, voted against the Jewish homeland. Indeed, young college-educated Jews, en masse, committed a flagrant act of anti-Semitism. How can this be?

This is a wake-up call. We need a different kind of Israel education, one that can equip our children to get, and to be okay with, the moral complexity that inheres in the creation of the Jewish state.

A Jewish alum of Barnard, Aiden Pink, observed:

Jewish students arrive at college unprepared to defend Israel despite wanting to, because they were handed a fairytale about Israel, not an education.

The way liberal Jewish students, synagogues and other institutions teach students about Israel fails to prepare us to develop adult relationships with the country. And in seeking to make young Jews into propagandists for Israel, American Jewish institutions deprive us of the very tools we need to defend it.

There was moral complexity in the creation of the State of Israel. Contrary to Golda Meir’s claim, it was not a people without a land for a land without a people. It was a people without a land coming to a land that already had a people. Our dream was their nightmare. The Arabic word for nightmare is Nakba.

I am currently working on Nakba 101 to teach our children. If the creation of Israel meant a nightmare for Palestinians, why is that okay? How is that okay? There are compelling answers to these questions. Our children need to hear about moral complexity from us before the BDS petition that awaits them when they get to college. Tomorrow morning, we will consider a mature and adult relationship to Israel: we know of the moral complexity, and we love Israel anyway.

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,
Wes

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


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,
Wes

Shabbat Talmud Study: Intersectionality


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,
Wes

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


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,
Wes

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


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,
Wes