On Bibi’s Statement and Israeli Democracy

What was it that prompted the Rabbinical Assembly to issue a strongly-worded condemnation of Bibi’s 11th hour statement calling on right-leaning Israelis to vote Likud to counteract the ballots of the Arab hoards? The RA is, as the New York Times describes it “traditionally a reliable defender of the Israeli government”, but this was deemed beyond the pale. At first glance, it seems that it was the race-baiting “dog whistle” that caused the outrage, the implication that Arab citizens of Israel voting is intrinsically problematic. Gershom Gorenberg points the finger at the military terms used, which raise the spectre of Arab voters as an invading force within the State.

As serious and problematic as this all is, I think there is something deeper about Netanyahu’s pitch that repulses believers in liberal democracy, perhaps especially Americans (and perhaps especially Conservative rabbis). Despite the Republican Jewish Coalition’s attack on the Rabbinical Assembly for making this statement, I really don’t believe that a top-tier Republican leader would ever (publicly) say, “Black voters are being bused to the polls by liberal activists—protect the Republican-controlled House and vote now!” But why is that? Continue reading


Rosh Hashana 5772 (on the value of a shared day of judgement)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

Every Rosh Hashana, I come to the first night of services and am surprised at the brevity of the liturgy. We always remember Rosh hashana and yom kippur for their lengthy amidahs and countless piyutim, but tonight, despite the shaliah tzibur’s best efforts to get us into the sounds and emotions of the high holidays, it’s almost as short and unremarkable as any erev yomtov service. I’m starting to wonder why there are so many people here and why I even put on a suit and tie.

One of the few new additions are the lines we will be inserting into the first two and last two blessings of the amida throughout the aseret yemai teshuva, up until the last amida of yom kippur. These all make reference to being written up for life in God’s book – kotvenu basefer hahayim – write us in the book of life, zokher yetzurav lehayim – God who remembers all creations for life, and so on.

This is without doubt one of the key images of the period, God judging us and deciding who is worthy and who is not. Rosh Hashana is Yom haDin, the day of judgement.

This key motif is described in the second mishna of Rosha Hashana. Among the times when the world is judged, Rosh Hashana is identified as the day that:

בראש השנה, כל באי עולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון

… all the inhabitants of the universe pass before God like troops. 

שנאמר: היוצר יחד ליבם המבין אל כל מעשיהם

As it says in psalms: God who created the heart of each of them, Who understands everything they do. (Mishna Rosh Hashana 1:2)

On Rosh Hashana, we are all soldiers parading before the general who will inspect us, and this commander is not just checking that our boots are shined and our berets are straight – that who we appear to be on the outside seems good, but, even our innermost secrets are on display before our Creator.

This annual inspection of all people does make it understandable that we are all here, why we feel compelled to come to services and put on our finest clothes and most serious demeanour, to join in the singing and put on the best show we can. But, the Mishna taught us that “all the inhabitants of the Universe pass before God” – seemingly whether or not we are ready! If we have not prepared, or aren’t in the right state of mind, how different will it really be? After all, this is an inspection of our character and deeds, not our fashion sense, our voices and our solemnity, and it is here regardless of our actions.

It is therefore curious that the Tosefta – a parallel text to the Mishna – puts this same line about God’s inspection of the troops together with the following midrash – which is based on one of this evening’s other new pieces of liturgy :

ואומר תקעו בחודש שופר וגו’ ואומר כי חק לישראל הוא  וגו’ אם קדשוהו ב”ד הדין נכנס לפניו ואם לאו אין הדין נכנס לפניו

Psalms also says: blow the the shofar on the new moon, etc. because it is a statute for Israel and a law for the God of Jacob. [This is interpreted to teach us that] if an earthly (see BT Rosh Hashana 8b) court sanctify the holiday, the Judgement is brought before God, and if they don’t, the Judgement is not brought before God. (Tosefta Rosh Hashana (Leiberman) 1:11)

So, in contrast with the image we saw before, we learn that this inspection, the whole institution of Yom haDin cannot go ahead unless we who are being judged are ready for it. The Judgement will not even come before God without the consent of the Bet Din here on Earth.

Though the Tosefta frames it on a national level – if the Sanhedrin does not set the calendar, then the Judgement is not brought before God – we can also see this in an individual light: unless each of us has accepted that this is the watershed, that this is the opportunity we have to consider who we are and who we might be – this day will have no significance for us. Even if we turn up at services and put on a good show, unless we have internalised this is the time of year to take notice of who we are and decide how to improve ourseleves, it will be meaningless.

That seems fair enough: Why remark on God’s judgement if we are not going to do anything about it!? But if it depends on us, why do we need a day on the calendar?! Is God just too busy the rest of the year? Surely we could expect God to judge us once we have prepared ourselves appropriately, whenever that might be. And we would not be without support in the tradition for this: in a Mishnaic-era comment in the Talmud, Rabbi Yosi claims that “people are judged [by God] every day”, and Rabbi Natan argues that “people are judged at every moment”. (BT Rosh Hashana 16a) So if God is ready whenever we are, as long as we remember to prepare ourselves for judgement every now and again, we may as well ditch Rosh Hashana.

Luckily, there is some further guidance in our mahzor. The other addition to the amidah that continues throughout the yamim noraim is substituting “hael hakadosh” (the Holy God) with “hamelekh hakadosh” (The holy Sovereign). This is the only addition for the amidah of the ten days of repentance, for which, if we realise that we forgot to say it, we are meant to go back to the beginning and start again. Rabbi Shmuel Lewis, Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, understands this as indicating a crucial imperative of this season. HaEl Hakadosh is, he says, the most distant epithet for God – “El” is the transcendent counterpart to “yud-hey-vav-hey” – which is typically the immanent side of God, who speaks personally to our ancestors. Kadosh, holy, has a core meaning of “set apart”. HaEl haKadosh, therefore, refers to a far-away God, on-high, who has no direct influence on our world below. In contrast to this, at this time of the year, call God “melekh”. A king or queen is one whose reign is applied, whose laws and proclamations are obeyed throughout the realm. Indeed, a monarch can only be a monarch by having loyal subjects.

Our task, then at this time of year is to confirm God’s role as Sovereign of the world – “melekh al kol haaretz” “Sovereign over all the earth”, says the kiddush ha-yom paragraph of our amidah. We have to improve ourselves at this time of year, but in doing so we must also bring the world closer to perfection – making it a place that can be acknowledged as God’s Kingdom. This theme of progressing towards a world where God is Sovereign by means of our actions is expanded upon in the lengthened third blessing of the amidah. Of particular note is the line:

ויעשו כולם אגודה אחת לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם

May everyone become one association, to do Your will with whole heart.

We need a day on the calendar for yom haDin, becasue it is not enough to work on correcting our own flaws. In order for God to be Sovereign, we must form “aguda ehat” one association and work towards a common end.

In Mishle, the book of proverbs, there is a proverb that later becomes a halakhic principle:

בְּרָב-עָם הַדְרַת-מֶלֶךְ

The king’s hadar (!) – splendour, is in the multitudinousness of people. (Proverbs 14:28)

The majesty that we associate with royalty is dependant upon, not merely individuals who give honour to the monarch, but an assembled body of people. God can only be Sovereign when we are making a coordinated communal effort to make this evident in the world.

So why are we here this evening, if there are no lengthy liturgical poems? We must be primed for improving ourselves in order for yom ha din to be a meaningful event, but by gathering here on the same day, and proclaiming the sovereignty of God, we are declaring that we will be united in our efforts to bring that improvement into the world.

This Rosh Hashana, may we all be prepared for Judgement, and work together to prepare the world so that it can be justly called God’s kingdom.

לשנה טובה ומתוקה תכתבו

May we and all the world be granted a good and sweet year.

Installation of Rabbi Daniel Stein (on relationship and rabbis)

Coming up this week is Shavuot, when we read Megilat Rut, the book of Ruth, the story of a Moabite woman who chooses to become a part of the Jewish people. And on Shavuot, we commemorate the giving of the Torah. So, Ruth’s acceptance of Torah as an individual mirrors our national acceptance of Torah at Sinai.

At Sinai, we had just been freed from slavery, after 10 plagues, and we were gathered at the foot of a mountain. There was thunder, lightening, shofar blasts, smoke, and we heard the voice of God. Is there any wonder that we said naase ve’nishma– we will do and we will hear – that we accepted the Torah?!

But for Ruth? What was there? No sound and lights, no miracles, no tangible presence of God. A different kind of commitment was needed to willingly accept God, accept Torah, and accept Israel.

In our times, the model of Ruth may be more relevant to us than the model of Sinai. We are not privy to great miracles, and in contemporary Western society, we are free to embrace or reject our Jewish heritage as individuals- As some put it, nowadays, we are all “Jews-by-choice”. And this applies not only as a once-and-for-all decision, but at every moment – will we come to synagogue for services or a class this week? Will we just drop off our child at Hebrew school, or will we engage them in conversation about what moves us Jewishly? How far will we take out commitment to tzedaka when we make our budget for the coming year?

So, what brought Ruth to herdecision? No doubt Ruth had her personal spiritual path, but the only thing that we know for sure that, following the death of her husband, connected her to Judaism and to the Jewish people was a relationship with another person – her mother-in-law, Naomi. Naomi was clearly very special – her connection to Ruth was powerful enough to ignite and sustain Ruth’s desire to return with her to the Land of Israel and become a part of our people.

And so, we in our role of Ruth, choosing how to live Jewishly at every moment, all need a Naomi. And this community is fortunate to have a Naomi in your Rabbi, who is, indeed, a very special person:

My good friend, Rabbi Daniel Stein, has the musical skill and sincerity of spirit to daven a beautiful musaf, but he knows that this is not what ultimately brings us closer to God.

He has the depth of learning and intellect to teach a great class – but he knows that this is not what ultimately brings us closer to Torah.

And he has a love and appreciation of Jewish culture that is passionate and contagious – but he knows that this is not what ultimately brings us closer to the people of Israel.

Rabbi Daniel Stein can be the Naomi that we need, because he understands that only through building honest, caring relationships with us, can we make our Jewish choices.

And so he builds these relationships. He engages us with his humor, builds our trust with his integrity, inspires us with his wisdom and knowledge, and reassures us with his humility. I know that I for one have been drawn closer to Judaism and the Jewish people through my relationship with Rabbi Stein, and I hope that every member of this community receives that same blessing.

But even Rabbi Stein cannot do it on his own. If we are all Ruth, having to choose at every moment how to engage with the Jewish tradition, how can any one person, no matter how special, bring us in? What then should we do? In truth, we all have the power to be a Naomi for each other’s Ruth – to draw each other closer to God, Torah and Israel through our relationships.

In Jewish Law, weddings and other celebrations, prayer services and even certain financial transactions, can only take place in the context of community. We are coerced to live with each other. It seems to me that this is more than to fulfil a technical requirement – without a critical mass of involved Jews who care for each other, we cannot endure as committed Jews. We will be Ruth without a tether in Judaism, if we have no Naomi.

By treating each other with compassion and love, tolerating each other’s flaws, and engaging in honest and open conversation, stronger connections are built. These relationships do bring practical and emotional support, but, as we learn from the example of Ruth and Naomi, they also help us to choose to be more complete Jews.

This work is not easy, and that is why communities develop structures to help them do this – like bikkur cholim committees to systematise caring for the sick and support groups for those going through hard times. And this is also why they seek out a rabbi, one who is willing and able to connect to its members and show how relationships are built, who can encourage everyone in the community to play their own essential part. A rabbi, in short, like Rabbi Daniel Stein.

At the end of megilat Rut, Ruth has a son, and this boy is considered to be the son of Naomi as well. And the punchline of the book is that Ruth’s great-grandson becomes King David, from whose line the messiah is said to eventually come. Perhaps by acting like Naomi, and building relationships that eventually lead to improving the world, we too can be considered parents of its redemption.

As you all continue to make your Jewish choices, may you be inspired by your relationships with each other, and with your Rabbi.

Chag Sameah – and Rabbi Stein –  Hazak ve Amatz!

Siyum on Mishna Moed (on the real and the imaginary)

Taught during kiddush in the chapel at Temple Beth Sholom

This past year, I’ve learned the whole of Seder Moed of the mishnah, which deals mainly with laws about shabbat and holidays.

One of the themes that I’ve been struck by in Seder Moed, is the interplay between the real – or maybe the objective, and the invented, and I’d like to share a couple of pieces of mishnah from the seder that bring this out in different ways:

Firstly from eruvin. The kind of eruv that we’re most familar with today is based on a model of an several courtyards off of an alley. The alley leads to the main street. To make an eruv – literally a combining – that renders all the dwellings off of that alley one domain, within which things can be carried around, the point at which the alley meets the main street has to meet certain criteria, and eruvin begins by defining these.

מבוי שהוא גבוה מעשרים אמה, ימעט; רבי יהודה אומר, אינו צריך

[A beam that is placed over the entrance to] an alley [in order to combine its courtyards], if it is higher than 20 cubits, it should be lowered. Rabbi Yehudah says: one need not [lower it].

There has to be a beam across the alley at, or close to where it joins the main street. The first opinion in the mishna limits the height of this beam, presumably because above 20 cubits – around 30 feet  – people wouldn’t think of it as an entrance to a private domain. Rabbi Yehudah, however, is not worried about this. A major concern with the eruv, is that it can be seen as a legal fiction – avoiding the prohibition of carrying by designating an area as a private domain, even though no-one really treats it as such in regular life. Perhaps the first opinion, as opposed to Rabbi Yehudah, is attempting to emphasise the reality of the eruv, by making sure that it does not depart too far from how people normally understand boundaries between domains.

And throughout the tractate, there is this underlying tension – the eruv is in some sense a fiction, but if we stretch too far, it loses any tether to the reality of distinctions between domains.

A very different example is from masekhet sukkah. On sukkot, in the days of the Temple, there was a huge celebration, followed by the filling of a vessel with water from the Temple mount spring, and the pouring of this water as a libation. Here is part of the detail of the ceremony, from chapter 4, mishna 9:

How was the water libation [performed]?

A golden flask holding three logs was filled from the Shiloah.  When they arrived at the water gate, they sounded a teki’ah, a teru’ah and again a teki’ah. [The priest then] went up the ramp [of the altar] and turned to his left where there were two silver bowls. … They had each a hole like a slender snout, one being wide and the other narrow so that both emptied at the same time. The one on the west was for water and the one on the east for wine.

Now, having this detailed description of the ceremony is very exciting because it makes it so vivid. I knew about this ceremony before, but only after reading the mishnah could I really visualise it. I now really feel closer to this ceremony, and all of the other Temple rituals that are described in mishnah Moed.

But where do all these details come from? We see that there are disagreements amongst the rabbis of the mishnah about certain issues, and the mishna was compiled well over one hundred years after the destruction of the Temple. And this mishna ends with a story of a high priest who poured out the water on his feet instead of onto the altar, and the people threw their etrogs at him – apparently because he was a Saduccee, and the Saducees did not believe in doing the water libation. So even at the time there may have been disputes over the correct ritual, and we are only hearing one side of it. Perhaps this whole scene only happened in the rabbinic imagination?

But, through the Mishnah, I now connect to it nevertheless.

To bring this theme to bear on the whole Seder, our moadim – our seasons – have their foundation in the real, objective world. The earth rotates on its axis 365 1/4 times during a complete rotation of the Sun. The weather gets warmer, the rains fall, the crops grow. And we have our three harvest festivals – pesah, sukkot and shavuot accordingly. But how we understand and experience all of these times – rest, pilgrimage, celebration, commemoration, repentance, ritual – is the result of the Jewish people’s creative dialogue with God.

And perhaps the enduring power of these holidays and seasons is that they are “inventions”, going beyond our mere observation of the world, but still remaining rooted in it.

Installation of Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg (on combatting complacency)

Devar Torah at Temple Emeth
Squeezed in between the accounts of Noah and Abraham, near the end of this week’s Torah reading, is the tale of the Tower of Babel. One of the many things omitted in this 9-verse-long story is how the people of the world arrived at the point where they believed that building a tower to the heavens would be humanity’s crowning achievement, that the ideal society is one that creates edifices, not one in which every individual strives to better themselves and each other. In the midrash, Rabbi Yitzhak (Genesis Rabba 38:7) points out that the story begins with the people settling in Shinar. He seems to read the word for “they settled” – vayeshvu, as implying that the people had become complacent. In the peaceful world following the flood, they made a mistake that we all make from time to time. They thought: “We’re not the evil people that were around before the flood, and in any case God promised not to destroy us again. Our lives are already good, happy and secure. So we don’t have to try to be better people, a better society – we’re pretty good as we are.” And to celebrate their self-satisfaction, they started to build a monument to themselves.

How did they slip into this? The Torah gives us a clue by placing this story between the lives of Noah and Abraham. Noah and Abraham, though they had their flaws, were leaders. They were willing to take a stance. Noah was the one righteous man in a wicked generation; Abraham abandoned idolatry to follow God, and brought ethical monotheism to the world.

In contrast, no names are given in the story of the Tower of Babel. They had no real leaders. The people clearly managed to cooperate with each other, and perhaps they had foremen or construction managers, but there was no-one to dissent, to provoke, or to inspire. No-one to lead them.

All communities need leaders to keep them safe from complacency. And Temple Emeth has the fortune of having found such a leader in my father-in-law, Rabbi Randy Konigsburg. He is a sworn enemy of complacency, and always eager to work in partnership with the others in his community to take on the challenges – both old and new – that face them. Be it changing demographics, modern values or technology, Rabbi Konigsburg has a fresh approach and and open mind. And for the eternal matters of deepening our connection to God and Torah, and how to better our society, he is primed to goad and inspire us to work harder and smarter.

It is my prayer – and conviction – that Rabbi Konigsburg will help this congregation, the local community, the Jewish people, and the world to keep complacency at bay for many years.

Mazel tov Rabbi Konigsburg, and mazel tov Temple Emeth!