Shabbat Talmud Study: The Confessional’s Biggest Problem is Among Our Hardest Problems

Join us on Shabbat morning September 22 | 8:30 – 9:30 am

“We have sinned against You by the way we talk.”

Tuesday night, and yesterday, we recited this line over and over again. By far the biggest cluster of sin and transgression in the confessional concerns how we talk to one another.

Getting this question right is exceptionally complicated.

Suppose somebody says something to you, or about you, that is untrue, unkind, unfair. What, if anything, are you supposed to say, and how are you supposed to say it?

If you engage their baseless claim, does that give it credence?

If you are silent in the face of their baseless claim, is that acquiescence?

While this issue feels particularly urgent given our riven politics, it is also ancient. On Shabbat we are going to examine the sources from a fabulous lecture at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem this past summer delivered by Elana Stein Hain entitled: “In a Manner of Speaking: How to Answer a Fool.” We will see that the Bible and the Talmud both face this issue, and both sources evince profound ambivalence.

You will leave class not with an answer, but with a set of questions and considerations to take with you in this new year.

Acknowledging the challenge of speech in the confessional is easy. Getting it right in life is hard. With Yom Kippur over, now the real work begins.

See you on Shabbat!
G’mar tov,


Shabbat Talmud Study: On Yom Kippur Do We Change God’s Mind? Or Does God Change Our Mind?

During these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, at our morning minyan, we recite these lines from Avinu Malkenu (Our father, our king):

Avinu Malkenu, inscribe us in the Book of good life.
Avinu Malkenu, inscribe us in the Book of deliverance.
Avinu Malkenu, inscribe us in the Book of prosperity.
Avinu Malkenu, inscribe us in the Book of merit.
Avinu Malkenu, inscribe us in the Book of forgiveness.
Avinu Malkenu, grant us a productive new year.

What is the impact of these words? They leave our lips, and they go where? They do what?

How prayer actually works is a particular challenge for those of us who see ourselves as secular and rational. Many of us do not believe in God. Or we are not sure. The jury is still out on whether God even exists. Many of us do not believe in intercessionary prayer. Why do we pray to a God we are not even sure we believe in, for goodies and blessings, when we do not believe the world works that way? What is this?

In a great lecture that Micah Goodman delivered at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, he puts the question this way: On Yom Kippur are we trying to change God’s mind? If we pray hard enough, often enough, long enough, if we really, really mean it, if we have been fasting all day, then eventually will all that intensity change God’s mind and persuade God to grant us all the good things we pray for? If that is the vision of how prayer works on Yom Kippur, it may leave many of us unmoved.

On Shabbat morning, we will examine four sources brought by Micah-Ezekiel, Maimonides, Leviticus 16 and the avodah service-as well as a haunting story from Kohelet Rabbah about the famous rabbinic rebel, Elisha Ben Abuyah. These sources point to a different understanding of what Yom Kippur is all about.

See you on Shabbat morning at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom and shana tova,

Shabbat Talmud Study: Learning From the Moral Failures of King Solomon

Evidently, being the wisest, wealthiest and most powerful man on the planet is not enough to keep you centered, grounded, and living a decent and moral life.

That is the Bible’s testimony based on the life of King Solomon. He had it all. But his rule and his life end in disgrace, disrepair, failure. His legacy is a divided kingdom and ultimately destruction and exile.

What is the learning for us, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah? What can King Solomon’s sordid story teach us about proper posture not only for High Holiday services but for life?

We will compare and contrast Christian and Jewish responses to the problem
of human failure.

The material for this class comes from a lecture Micah Goodman gave to
a rabbinic seminar at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

Welcome back, Talmud class! I have missed you. See you Shabbat
at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom and shana tova,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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,

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,