There’s No Wrong Way to Have a Body

The title words of this blog are from my colleague Rabbi Elliot Kukla, the first openly transgender person to be ordained by the Reform Jewish seminary, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. He is a rabbi at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. I heard him speak at a convening of T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

Rabbi Kukla’s presentation, teaching really, was so powerful to me because I realized as i listened to him, how blind I’ve been to the realities of a person being part of the LGBT community,  how insensitive my heart, how far I need to go. His emphasis was on personhood and, I recall saying to myself “Well, of course!”, as he spoke about the personhood of every person, no matter how they see and feel their bodies as part of the way they articulate themselves into the universe.  I began to relate the identity journey of a trans person to some of my own journeys: moving from a child into adulthood, the craziness of early adolescence, becoming a husband, a father and certainly being a rabbi. I realized that none of my journeys could compare to the spiritual journey of a transgender person considering that there is (and has been) a dissonance between his/her/their sense of self and his/her/their gender reality. As I said, I have a long way to go, but thanks to Rabbi Kukla’s excellent teaching, I think I’ve taken a few more steps. There’s no wrong way to have a body.

And that is why I need to say to my LGBT relatives, friends and colleagues, I am so sorry for the pain that the President inflicted on you today when he signed a directive banning transgender troops from serving in our nation’s military. It is such an insult, to all of our personhoods because there’s no wrong way to have a body. It is such an insult to all of our personhoods because we are all guaranteed life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and equality. No person, even the President, has the right to invalidate another person’s sense of self. No person, even the President, has the right to limit the participation of some in our society from full participation in that society. No person, even the President, has the right to even infer that someone else’s sense of body is wrong.

Thus far, our military, which has integrated all of us into its ranks and has often been the pioneers of such integration, has held strong and refused to implement the President’s declaration , now turned directive. I will lobby, and I hope you do, to make sure they keep doing that because there’s no wrong way to have a body. In the meantime, a bit of Torah:

And God said, “Let US create a human in OUR image, after OUR likeness” Gen. 1:26. Need we say more? Well there is more. We should also remember that in the second creation story, the first human being was created as a hermaphrodite, both male and female. At least according to that version of humanity, that was OUR original form, all of us, every one. There is no wrong way to have a body.


I often relay teachings of my favorite Chasidic rabbi, Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, also known as the Kotzker Rebbe. Once, the Kotzker asked his students, “Where is God.” “Simple!” they exclaimed. “God lives everywhere!”. “No,” the Kotzker replied. “God lives where people let God in.” From what I know of the Kotzker, he didn’t mean his response to be taken literally. It’s not as if there is some magical portal, a spiritual membrane, through which we can invite God into our lives or shut up tightly with a series of locks and bolts so that God cannot enter.

Charlottesville? I’ll get there.

What the Kotzker is talking about is our attitude. If we perceive God as present in a situation, then God is there. If we don’t, then God isn’t. God is all probability and possibility. God is all there is and all there isn’t. God, as the Jewish mystics refer to God, is the Ein Sof, that which has no end. In other words, limitless, boundless. Every thing and no thing. God is.

Charlottesville? In a minute.

God doesn’t decide. God doesn’t judge. God didn’t decide that Heather Heyer would die on Saturday or the other people wouldn’t. It didn’t have anything to do with who let God in and who did not, in the literal sense. Many who were there felt that God was “in” and “on” their side. God doesn’t take sides.

Charlottesville? Now.

So, no presumptions about where God is or God isn’t, whether God is “in” or “out”, whether God was in Charlottesville on Saturday or whether God’s there now.

I can be in! We must be in! We are tiny pieces of God, of Everything, and we must choose to be “in”. In all that I do and say, I will choose to work against racism, bigotry, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and violence. I will petition. I will email. I will make phone calls. I will march. I will demand that the leaders of this country act like adults. With all my heart, with all my soul, and with everything I have I will strive to bring justice where it is absent. I do not pretend to love everyone. I don’t love neo-Nazis or White Supremacists. I don’t pity them. And…I can’t become them in trying to counter them. I will not be filled with hate, but I won’t necessarily be filled with love.

I will be filled with hope. I will give myself no other choice but to hope. I will be filled with courage, even when I am most afraid. I will give myself no other choice but to believe that the world can be, must be, better. I will believe that I play a vital role in that change. I am in. 

Important and Famous People

As is usually the case when we gather outside in our Gan Shalom to celebrate Shabbat together as a community, our gathering this past Friday was a mixture of adults, a few JELLI (Religious School) kids and young children from our Early Childhood Center. So, Rebecca Itow and I facilitated a Shabbat with elements that would speak to everyone. When we arrived at the end of our time together and it was time for me to introduce the Kaddish, I tried to do so with the kids in mind, giving them just enough to fill them in on what was about to happen. After I read all the Yahrtzeit names and we recited the Kaddish, I was preparing to lead Oseh Shalom. At that moment, one of our JELLI kids, Asher Zaczepinski, who has some of the best (and perhaps the most frequent) questions on the planet, asked me, “Rabbi, was that a list of famous or important people? Is that why you read their names?” I was stumped for a minute. Finally, I said to Asher, “Well, the people we named were famous to their family and friends. To them, they were very important.”

So much of our focus these days is on people we consider to somehow be nationally or internationally famous and/or important – politicians, musicians, chefs, sports figures and those filled with self-importance who too often end up on “reality” TV. Perhaps we should take our energy away from such folks (they’ll have plenty of admirers left anyway) and look right in front of our noses to the people around us, family, friends, people at work or school, the people who serve our food, clean up after us and many others who are “famous” and/or “important” in our lives.

You may know the urban tale of the professor who, the way I heard it, put a question on a final exam that said something like, “Who is Tony Esposito (In the story I heard, another name was used, but I can’t remember it)?” The students began to go over their notes in their heads – was Mr. Esposito a noteworthy spokesperson on that course’s field of study, one of their professor’s teachers or colleagues? Who could Tony Esposito be? How was he mentioned? Was it a footnote or something more major? When the students received their graded tests and gathered for the last time with the professor, they realized that not one of them knew who Tony Esposito was. They asked the professor and he told them that Mr. Esposito was the custodian for the building in which their class was held.

They started to giggle in surprise and with some resentment that their professor would have the audacity to put such a frivolous question on their final exam and thus reduce all their scores and final grades. The professor told them, “Whatever you end up doing in your professional life or whatever the personality and context of your personal life, it will never be complete unless you do not merely notice but care about those around you whom many others consider expendable and invisible.”

Perhaps we all need to ask ourselves a version of Asher’s question: “Who are the people who are famous and important in my life?”

When Leaders Don’t Act Like Leaders

This week, I am infuriated by the actions of three leaders: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Donald Trump and the leaders of the “Dyke March” in Chicago. Mr. Netanyahu bowed to his most right-wing supporters on two issues: reneging on the agreement to create an egalitarian section at the Western Wall and he also gave his backing to a return to Orthodox control over conversions.  As for Mr. Trump, there are so many things about him at which I am piqued. My disquiet has often stemmed from the base, acidic and venomous manner in which he expresses himself, but this week, his tweet about the hosts of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC was absolutely vicious. He was especially animalisticly ferocious toward the female host of the program, Mika Brzezinski. He tweeted: “I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don’t watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe [Scarborough], came to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!” As for the organizer/leaders of the Dyke March in Chicago, what they did is at first glance a misunderstanding but then it becomes clear that those leader/organizers knew exactly what they were doing. They knew what they were doing when they assumed that one of the marchers, who wished to proclaim both being a lesbian and being a Jew, marched with a rainbow flag (for gay pride) with a Star of David superimposed on the rainbow colors. She was given the choice of rolling up her flag or leaving the march. She was told that the star was a symbol of the State of Israel, therefore a symbol of oppression and as such was a “trigger” that made others “feel unsafe”.

Years ago, I heard a wonderful Israeli whom I admire, Yitzchak Frankenthal, who turned his grief over his son, who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists, into activism by becoming a voice for peace, use a talmudic phrase to describe the Israeli government’s attitude toward making peace. The phrase is “your leaders act like dogs”. The phrase took me aback until I understood it’s context. This section of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a) paints of picture of the generation preceding the coming of the Messiah as absolutely corrupt. “It has been taught: R. Nehorai said: in the generation when Messiah comes, young men will insult the old, and old men will stand before the young [to give them honor]; daughters will rise up against their mothers, and daughters-in-law against their mothers-in-law. The people shall be dog-faced, and a son will not be abashed in his father’s presence.” Mr. Frankenthal took his interpretation of the “people shall be dog-faced” from Rabbi Yisroel Salanter who “explains that a dog always runs in front of its master, almost to the point where it appears as if the dog is leading and its master is following after it and obeying its directions. The truth is, however, that the master is going where he wants to go, and the dog is constantly looking behind to see where its master is headed. If he notices that his master is turning, the dog quickly adjusts and turns to run in front of where the master is going. This scenario will describe the people of the generation of the Moshiach [Messiah]. In previous generations, the leaders determined where and what the people would do, and the community followed behind faithfully. At the time of Moshiach, however, the people will run ahead and appear to direct their own leaders, who will be following behind.”

And so it was with these three scenarios, Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Trump and the organizers of the Dyke March, all leaders who were entrusted with guiding their constituencies to the highest moral ground. Instead, they have entrenched their countries and communities deeper into misogyny, intolerance, narrow-mindedness, anti-Semitism, reneging on promises, and cycles of punishment and vengeance that ultimately cause societies to tailspin out of control. Of course, if we follow Rabbi Salanter’s thoughts, this might means that things are getting so bad that the coming of the Messiah is imminent. I don’t believe in that kind of Messiah. I believe in the kind put forth by my colleague Rabbi Robert Levine, who’s book, entitled, “There is No Messiah – and You’re It” pretty much articulates my view. There’s no one or nothing to wait for. There’s no one or nothing going to rescue us. If we’re going to be more tolerant, it’s up to us. If we’re going to stop scapegoating, it’s up to us. If the cycle of hurt and vengeance is going to stop, it’s up to us. If we’re going to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and house the homeless, it’s up to us. Should we still keep trying to elect leaders who will help us with this work? Of course, we should. In the meantime, let’s get to work.

It is Upon Him – “I am God”

This past week I had the privilege of studying for a day and a half with my fellow Reform colleagues, rabbis, and cantors, at an annual gathering called Hava Tefillah, which loosely translated means “Let’s Pray”. Our discussion and sharing centered on the Shabbat morning celebration, and I am inspired and motivated to bring some of the suggestions and innovations from my colleagues to Beth Shir Shalom. Since it was a Shabbat morning experience, when we modeled that gathering, the reading of the Torah was included and, of course, we used this past week’s Torah portion, Emor. My colleague, Rabbi Robin Nafshi, who led one of the Torah reading simulations, pointed to something unusual in the portion which I will both try to explain to you and show you.

Leviticus 21-12


“He shall not go outside the sanctuary and profane the sanctuary of his God, for upon him is the distinction of the anointing oil of his God, Mine the Lord’s.”

Those three highlighted spots are what are called trope marks. Some of us may be familiar with them as musical notes. However, they began as grammatical marks for phrasing. What Rabbi Nafshi pointed out is that the tropes indicate that the last three words of this verse form one phrase although that doesn’t make sense in the context of the entire verse. When we translate just those three words themselves as a phrase it comes out: “Upon him I am God”! How can we make sense of a phrase that says, “Upon him I am God”?!  It was surprising to me that when Rabbi Nafshi asked the question I immediately understood!  If everything is God and the text says, “Upon him I am God”, then the text says that the consciousness, the awareness, the perspective of “I am God” must be “upon” the priest.  In other words, the priest must be aware that he is not God, that he’s only part of God and a small part at that!  The complex and ornate ceremony that initially ordained him as a priest and now dictates his function in the community can easily make the priest feel elevated, God-like, set apart and above everyone else. The phrase, “Upon him I am God” is a polemic against narcissism, against a self-serving attitude, against self-preservation to the exclusion of all other concerns.

You can probably tell where I’m going with this line of thought and you’re right, but first, let me speak about something that I intended to speak about last Shabbat and then let me expand the notion to recent events in our nation’s capital. For those of us who live in Los Angeles, there is a charter Amendment on the ballot today call Charter Amendment C.  Those who support it feel that this amendment will be a huge step to ensure that there is civilian oversight over the police department. According to my friends at the ACLU and the Black Jewish Justice Alliance, this proposed amendment will actually do the opposite. Charter Amendment C modifies the process for disciplinary appeals at the Los Angeles Police Department.  Currently, the civilian Police Commission decides whether shootings and other serious uses of force are within policy or not, and the Chief of Police makes recommendations about serious discipline.  But if the Chief recommends that an officer be fired, that officer may appeal the decision to a Board of Rights — a panel made up of two command-level LAPD officers and one civilian drawn from a pool of approved panelists.  Charter Amendment C proposes that the officer may appeal to a panel that is made up of only civilians. That looks like civilian oversight but it’s not. This new panel would have very limited power period it can only reduce the disciplinary measures that have been proposed by the police chief – it cannot increase them. Even more troubling is the small pool from which these civilians on this panel may be chosen. According to the City’s current regulations, civilian panelists must have seven years of experience in either arbitration, mediation or administrative hearings. These are not civilians who are drawn from the community, especially the community that is most impacted by police misconduct.

How does this intersect with our Torah portion? If our ancient priests were admonished to keep in mind that within the grandness of everything that is God, they are just small functionaries and they shouldn’t let their elevated position in society “go to their heads”, how much the more so should those who comprise a small panel in the city of Los Angeles charged with the weighty task deciding whether police officers should be allowed to continue with his or her career be humbled by their assignment and recognize that they are not divine and therefore should do everything they can to adjudicate with compassion to both the alleged victims and the officer. Constituting this decision-making panel with officers and so-called civilians, the latter of whom are as much chained and prejudiced by their expertise as they are empowered by it, creates anything but a fair process.  Those who are placed into such positions of responsibility must remember that upon them should always be the awareness that “Ani Adonai – I am God” is greater than they are.  Charter Amendment C creates the opposite of that, a bubble, an encapsulated, narrow perspective that favors the officers. I urge a “no” vote on Charter Amendment C.

Last week, I naively thought that speaking about this amendment wouldn’t be eclipsed by any national or international concerns. I guess I was wrong!  What effected our president this past week and this week can also be understood as not understanding “Alav Ani Adonai”, he must have a full consciousness that it is “upon” him, that is it his constant and consistent responsibility to know that, he is a small part of God, ultimately equal to all the other parts, especially knowing that not one of us is above the law. He cannot use his position as President and his power to hire and fire as a sword of Damocles to suspend over others. More appropriately, when a leader truly understands Alav Ani Adonai, that he is within or even beneath God, then the Sword of Damocles hangs over him and he knows it because he hung it there to keep himself in check.

On Israel’s 70th Birthday – One Way Toward Peace

I began life as a non-Zionist because thaarrow on roadt was the essential stance of the Reform movement at the time. I do remember when, very indirectly, I realized that the Movement’s position had changed. I was in my first year or two of Hebrew school and we were informed that from this day forward, we would be pronouncing Hebrew “as they did in Israel”. As a result, we need to relearn the ways in which we were pronouncing certain letters and vowels because we had been taught a Yiddishized, Eastern European, Ashkenazi pronunciation. Now all the “aw’s” and many “o’s” were “ah’s” and most of the “s” sounds were now “t” sounds. Oy! It’s hard to be a Reform Jew!

Despite the linguistic change, there wasn’t much else that was different. An official prayer for Israel would be long in coming and the Reform Movement was slow to adopt the placing of an Israeli flag on the bimah. I don’t recall celebrating Yom haAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, when I was growing up. All of that remained fairly constant until 1967. My family had joined the Conservative Movement four years earlier and Conservative Judaism was very much a Zionist Judaism. As many know and some of us remember, 1967 was the year that Israel was bracing for an attack on all of its fronts, Syria and Lebanon to the north, Jordan to the east and Egypt to the southwest. It was clear that all of those nations were massing troops on the border. Israel wasn’t going to wait around for the inevitable invasion. Israel struck preemptively and was victorious in what was dubbed the Six-Day War. When the war began, I recall that we all went to the synagogue. I was just sixteen. I don’t remember many of the details. I can imagine that there was fundraising going on and no doubt people were signing postcards to be delivered to Congress advocating for the government’s support of Israel to remain firm during Israel’s crisis. If that was the case, I didn’t notice. What struck me was a feeling, a sense, a rich swirl of emotion, a deep notion of Jewish communality. This, I now know in hindsight, is what the Talmud means when it says, “all Jews are responsible one for the other” (Shavuot 39a). I was struck by how intensely palpable was that interconnectedness, that tribalism, that sense of responsibility. It was thick and I was part of it. It was incredible to feel every set of Jewish eyes focused on Israel and every Jewish heart pounding in anxiety for Israel and praying for her safety.

And, then, nothing. At least not much until I went to rabbinical school the first year of which was in Jerusalem. I know part of the reason I became a Zionist that year was because it was the year of another war, the Yom Kippur War. I never felt invaded or threatened before. I did then. I told my rabbi that I hoped they would train me and give me an Uzi so that I could do my part to defend Israel (about whom I now felt extremely hawkish – contrasting with my peace and non-violence stance about the Vietnam War during my college years). After all, “All Jews are responsible one for the other.”

That belief was struck down or at least defused when I met an Arab gentleman who returned to work in the sugar and flour factory at which I was volunteering during the War. He was a good soul with many children for whom he provided. He told me, “This is not my war.” I had been so blinded by my new-found hawkishness that I believed the every Arab was at war with Israel…and me. Clearly, it was not so. I was still a Zionist but now a confused Zionist. I even wanted to stay in Israel when the year was over but if I did, I was told, there would be no rabbinical program (there is now!) and if I was to continue that journey of study, I’d have to return to America.

On my way home from Israel, I stopped in Copenhagen for a couple of days. The emotional contrast from being in Israel, a country, now my country in a way it had never been, a country that, I now understood, was under constant threat and whose day-to-day reality was both incredibly strong and overwhelmingly fragile, to then be in Denmark, a country that, comparatively, seemed not to have a care in the world – that contrast was immense. I began to gain some perspective.

It wasn’t long before I became part of the American support group for those working for peace and a two-state solution for Israel. Some of my heroes became the Israelis who were and are involved in the peace movement. I know how much they were swimming upstream – how much they are still swimming upstream! Because of those early experiences in Israel and my experiences since, I am more convinced than ever, as are hundreds of Israel’s former military officers, that the only hope for a future for Israel is a sovereign and complete Palestine. Of all the people in the world, we should know that. We waited for a return to our own sovereignty for two-thousand years, sometimes patiently, sometimes impatiently. We know that you can’t forcibly stuff that yearning back into its womb once it is born in a people’s consciousness. Will there be difficulties along the way? Of course!

Paraphrasing the words of Member of the Knesset, Eyal ben-Reuven, a retired major general, our obstacles are and will be the ease of the promulgation of fear, the megalomania and power-mongering of Benjamin Netanyahu, the need for a truly open democratic election (for a candidate rather than party), draconian legislation toward Arab Israelis, critics of Israeli policy and liberal Judaism, and bad actors within the Israeli Defense Forces who, whether it is out of frustration or because of the power of their uniforms, over-response to Palestinian provocation, creating provocations of their own. To that list, I would add rabid pro-Israelists in America who consider the two-state solution a weak choice for Israel and do everything they can to undermine it. And, of course, there is that small percentage of Palestinians who use violence to communicate their frustrations and anger, killing and maiming innocent Israeli citizens and Israel soldiers only because they wear the IDF uniform.

MK ben-Reuven said that Israel’s democracy is in trouble. Part of the reason for that is that Israel still hasn’t determined what it means to be both a Jewish state and a democracy. Ben-Reuven was clear that this was our responsibility to figure out, not the Palestinians. Just as it is their responsibility to determine what a sovereign Palestine at peace with and hopefully symbiotically involved Israel is going to look like. This is why Prime Minster Netanyahu’s insistence upon waiting for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is a complete red herring. Israel and Israelis don’t even know what means for Israel to be a Jewish state AND a democracy! Are the Palestinians supposed to determine that via their recognition of Israel as a Jewish state? Would we ever accept their definition of what it means for Israel to be Jewish?

Similarly, we (Israel and world Jewry) are not responsible for how the Palestinians will mold the personality of their sovereign state. The Palestinians are. On the other hand, we can do much to positively influence and encourage that process via good faith negotiations, infrastructure support, transparent diplomatic coordination and communication, economic investment, etc.

MK ben-Reuven said that he knows it will take international pressure to turn the Israeli government and society in that direction. He expects little or nothing from Abbas and Netanyahu, and that it will mean a sea-change in the attitudes of both the Israeli and Palestinian citizenry. Still, he and many others are there, on the ground, working for it every day. We cannot abandon them!

I love Israel too much and believe in our Jewish state so much that I can’t stand idle as she goes in the wrong direction. It will take a Samson-like strength to turn the Israel ship around. But, “all Jews are responsible one for the other”. When we finally act that way, it will happen.

Zachor – זכור- Remember

Zachor – זכור– Remember

Note: I wrote this before President Trump’s address at the United States Museum of the Holocaust on the occasion of Yom haShoah, in which he referred to both anti-Semitism and the six-million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. While I assume his words were specifically crafted to compensate for the fact that he didn’t mention either of those on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, they do not. Neither does his speech repair the damage done by the President’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer. Below, please find the sermon on delivered this past Friday evening, April 21st.

Sunday evening begins Yom haShoah, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day. International Holocaust Memorial Day has already past. The international commemoration was established by the United Nations in 2005 using the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Yom haShoah was established in 1951 coinciding with the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nissan. As Yael Shahar wrote in Haaretz, one of Israel’s leading newspapers, “The choice of date was an attempt to focus on those who fought against the Nazis, rather than on those who never had that chance… Israel’s version of Holocaust memorial day was not a commemoration, but a denial of memory.”

Not a denial of history, a denial of memory. It was an attempt to take the focus away from the majority who did NOT survive the Holocaust and place it rather on the foundations of the new Jewish state’s strength and determination to become a new kind of survivor: Jews who survived because they fought, not by chance. Israel’s Yom haShoah is as much about the present as it is about the past. It was established only three years after Israel was founded and only seven years after the war in Europe ended. At that time, in 1951, new Israelis who had emigrated from Europe out of the ashes of the camps were the living reality of the commemoration and the memory. Their children were the inheritors of the memories and were living it out speaking Hebrew in the new state of Israel. The memory of the Holocaust did not need to be recognized in those early days of Israel. It was walking down the street.

In some ways, the Holocaust is still walking down the street in Israel, certainly on Yom haShoah. Israel is the only country in the world that nationally acknowledges Yom haShoah. On that day, air raid sirens sound at noon throughout the country and everyone stops whatever they are doing – literally – and stand silently. People stand in the street. Cars, buses, and trucks stop and everyone gets out. The last time I was in Israel for Yom haShoah I even saw surfers stop surfing and sit on their boards. Of course, Israel conducts more solemn ceremonies on Yom haShoah, but the simplicity and the enormity of all Israelis standing silently is the deepest and most profound articulation of the memory and the history of the Holocaust in the world. Given how many genocides have been carried out or attempted since the Holocaust,  it is clear that the world would be better off to acknowledge not merely the history of the Holocaust and not even to honor the memories of our Jewish six million and the five to six million other persons who were murdered but rather to acknowledge what the Holocaust says about the animal that lies deep within the marrow of humanity, ready to blindly and viciously pounce and tear apart victims for minimal or no reason.

And that, my friends, is what is so ominous about the statement that came from the White House on International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the comments made by President Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer. The statement from the White House did not have any mention of the six million murdered Jews, anti-Semitism or the Jewish community. It remains to be seen if the White House will issue a statement on Yom haShoah as well and whether or not the wording of that statement will be any different. The Press Secretary was inexcusably inept and insulting when he, apparently spontaneously, contrasted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical gassing of Syrians with Hitler’s use of gas. Hitler, he said, “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” and later tried to clarify his words by adding, “”He was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.” Were the six-million not people, his own people? Even if most of them were not Germans, they were conquered people under German authority. In later statements, Spicer did say that he apologized, but he apologized for a bad reference, not for or to anyone he insulted. He apologized for an “inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which there is no comparison”. He also said he made “mistakes” and that was “wrong”. He asked for people’s forgiveness. First of all, Judaism emphasizes apology much more than forgiveness and a person cannot apologize to a “bad and insensitive reference”. A person apologizes to other people. A Press Secretary does that. A President does that, too. Here’s what we got from the White House: another spokesperson, Hope Hicks, who told CNN that, “despite what the media reports, we are an incredibly inclusive group and we took into account all of those who suffered.” Not even close to an apology. Not even close to mentioning our six million.

The only eye witnesses to the Holocaust are quite old now and will soon die, taking their memories and the truth with them. We are all, Jew and non-Jew, responsible, to carry out the one imperative that is the Holocaust’s legacy, “zachor/זכור/remember”. When those with such significant bully pulpits as the President of the United States and his Press Secretary blithely fail to mention the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust or clumsily and unintelligently prostitute their memories and the significance of how technology finally caught up with anti-Semitism, insulting the Jews who were murdered and those who survived, our task of zachor becomes that much more difficult. The incline of the mountain of memory and responsibility steepens when careless words give ignorance deeper roots.

The Quarrel


Last night I showed what I think is one of the most important films about the Holocaust to my Introduction to Judaism students. The Film is called “The Quarrel”. The setting is Montreal a few years after World War II and it involves a chance meeting between two former yeshiva students both of whom thought the other was murdered in the Holocaust. One of the men, Hersh Rasseyner, has become a rabbi and now lives in Montreal teaching in a yeshiva he founded. Most of his students are also survivors. The other, Chaim Kovler, is a secularist Jew, a Yiddish writer and is Montreal on a reading tour. Because it is Rosh haShanah, the two take the opportunity to spend the day talking and arguing with one another, picking up right where they left off before the war. Their argument is their prayer. Based on a novel by Chaim Grade, the film is marvelously crafted and the dialogue is a superb choreography of how their two perspectives on Judaism, God, and life intertwine, collide and stand in contradistinction to one another. As individuals, both Chaim and Hersh are damaged traumatized souls whose day-to-day lives are inhabited by the ghosts of their experiences whom they keep at bay through their dedication to their respective careers. Their coming together, releases those spirits, enabling each to feel both the force of his own emotions

Based on a novel by Chaim Grade, the film is marvelously crafted and the dialogue is a superb choreography of how their two perspectives on Judaism, God, and Life intertwine, collide and stand in contradistinction to one another. As individuals, both Chaim and Hersh are damaged, traumatized souls whose day-to-day lives are inhabited by the ghosts of their experiences whom they keep at bay through their dedication to their respective careers. Their coming together releases those spirits, enabling each to feel both the force of his own emotions and the impact of the other’s. Many times during their “quarrel” they were brought to the brink of tearing their long-lost relationship apart. Somehow, they are able to maintain their basic respect for one another as human beings and as Jews.

I told my students that Judaism, post-Holocaust Judaism, now lives squarely in the middle between the two perspectives of these study partners and their responses to the Holocaust, one a deepened commitment to traditional, Jewish observance and the other a secular-human brand of Judaism whose horizons have no limits. That tension is what animates Judaism in the post-Holocaust era and both extremities are essential to fueling that animation.

At this time in history, when the last eyewitnesses to the Holocaust are reaching the ends of their lives, it is incumbent on those of us who will become the survivors-of-the-survivors to keep this centuries-old philosophical tension alive. This will not be easy for us because we have become so dichotomized and we too often live in completely different worlds. Still, I truly believe that it is this dissonance, the disharmony of this “quarrel” and so many others like it within Judaism, that has kept us alive as a people. We really cannot afford to disengage from these quarrels. In a strange and beautiful way, the ability to so struggle is our gift to humanity. These wrestling matches, which have always been a vital part of Jewish life, are the paths to change, the paths to betterment, the paths to justice, the paths to respect and equity, the paths to peace. There’s even a term for such a struggle in Judaism, it is called a Machloket l’Sheym Shamayim, מחלקת לשם שמים, a “dispute for the sake of heaven”!

This Yom haShoah, this Holocaust Memorial Day and during the Shabbat that precedes it, may we dedicate ourselves to honor both the victims and the survivors of the Holocaust by becoming survivors ourselves. In their memories, and for the future, let us quarrel – for the preservation of Judaism and Jewishness, for the sake of humanity and the potential for a “heaven” that can be created among us, and for the sake of wholeness and peace.

Let’s Not Make Fun of Suffering at Our Seders

Over the last few years, there have been all kinds of innovative products introduced to enhance our seders (sedarim/סדרים) in order to keep the kids alert and interested (adults, too!). Unfortunately, too many of these gadgets use the Ten Plagues as the butt of their joking and mindlessness. All those things you can buy to have “fun” with the plagues – little finger puppets and toy frogs and locusts you can throw around (the latest is green colored, frog-shaped ice in your water!) – takes the Jewish soul in a dangerous direction. Look at this brilliant Talmudic story-about-the-story (which we’ve included in our Friday evening siddur as a prelude to Mi Chamocha) and see if you can juxtapose it with all those frivolous games and toys and somehow make it fit. Think about whether or not you’re ready to make fun of the killing of the first born after reading this:
“At the very moment when the Egyptian armies were perishing in the sea, the ministering angels were about to sing to God in jubilation. God silenced them and said, ‘My creatures are drowning; how can you sing?!'”(Sanhedrin 39b)
To which I added:
When we sing our people’s ancient song of freedom, let us pray for a day when one people’s freedom will not depend upon another people’s defeat.
The seder is a great celebration, quintessential to who we are as Jews, filled with great ceremony, beauty, and purpose. My ancient colleagues created the seder in order to imprint the Exodus from Egypt, and the resulting mission of our people to free the enslaved, on our hearts. It was never the rabbis intent to have a component of the seder be poking fun at the Egyptians and their suffering like some warped, ceremonial version of “America’s Funniest Videos”. There’s plenty to be festive and joyous about at the seder without doing it at the expense of others.
When we recall the Ten Plagues at our seders and reduce our joy by taking ten drops of juice or wine from our cups, I hope many of us will be talking about the contemporary, humanly-manifested plagues from which the world suffers today: the innocent victims of war and violence (and, while we’re at it, let’s ask ourselves why we tolerate “conventional weapons” and only get upset when empowered criminals and despots use gas?), the innocent species and the innocent earth itself that have become “collateral damage” to human progress, the demotion of healthcare to a “product” instead of an “inalienable right” (the Declaration of Independence refers to it as “life”!), the categorizing of some of us as “illegal” rather than “brave-souls-seeking-a-better-life-and-safety-for-themselves-and-their-families” (precisely like our ancestors who preceded us in this country), our self-imposed impotence about the growing gap between those who have so much and those who have so little, our blase attitude about the oxymoronic reality of the “working poor”, the trafficking of our fellow humans which is very much a modern slavery, and so much more. Throwing around little plastic locusts becomes incongruent at a gathering that considers the seder to be both a wonderful and upbeat celebration of our freedom and simultaneously a recognition of the responsibilities that freedom brings.
Have a ziesen Pesach, a Passover filled with joy, hope, family, friends and a purpose!

“Ya Can’t Make This Stuff Up!”

Let’s start with this. Here’s a quote and a great explanation from this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, the beginning of the book of Leviticus:

Vayikra 4:22.

אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶֽחֱטָא וְעָשָׂה אַחַת מִכָּל־מִצְוֹת יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהָיו אֲשֶׁר לֹא־תֵֽעָשֶׂינָה בִּשְׁגָגָה וְאָשֵֽׁם:

וכי יעלה על דעתך שיהא נשיא, מנהיגם של ישראל, חוטא? אלא, אומר רבי יוסף חיים מבגדאד–ראשי התיבות של “אשר נשיא יחטא” הם אותיות “אני”: כשהנשיא מתגאה, חס-ושלום, ואומר בלבבו “אני ואפסי עוד”, אז הוא בא לידי עבירות גדולות וחמורות.

When a ruler sinned, and did something through ignorance against any of the commandments of Adonai his God concerning things which should not be done, and is guilty…”

Jewish tradition looks at these words VERY carefully, as should we. The very first word of this verse אשר, which means “when” in this sentence, is immediately noteworthy to the rabbis. In referring to the consequences for ANY other category of sinner and sinning, even A PRIEST, the Torah uses the word אם, meaning “if”. The Zohar, the great text of Kabbalah, our mystical tradition, says that the reason our text uses אשר/when instead of אם/with is because for a ruler…

“…surely HE HAS SINNED, for his heart is swelled with pride because all the people follow him and are under his charge. Hence, it says, “When a ruler has sinned,” namely in transgressing a negative precept and sinning against one of them. It, therefore, does not say of him ‘and if’, because this matter OF HIS SINNING is not in doubt.”

The anticipatory nature the rabbis assigned to the sinning of those in power is further underscored in the Zohar when Rabbi Yehuda comments that even though ALL the people were offered the possibility of donating semi-precious stones for the breastplate of the High Priest in the Tabernacle, the Torah specifically says, “And the rulers brought onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the efod, and for the breastplate” (Shemot 35:27). Rabbi Yehuda imagines a proclamation from God that explains why: “Though this donation is open for everyone, let these stones be brought by the rulers”. What is the reason for this? THE STONES are placed on the priest’s heart, so the Holy Oneness, blessed be God, said, ‘Let the rulers, whose heart is proud, come and bring these stones that are on the priest’s heart, and their heart’s pride will be atoned for’…” Ya can’t make this up, people!

Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad points out that the acrostic of אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶֽחֱטָא, “when a ruler sins” is the Hebrew word, ani/אני – meaning “I/me” in English. Therefore, Rabbi Yosef Chaim explains, if a prince becomes arrogant, and says to himself “me and nothing besides me” he arrives, heaven forbid!, at a state of the commission of sins of major proportions. In other words, it’s not a matter of if the ruler will become arrogant, self-serving and/or narcissistic, he already has. To assume otherwise is not the ruler’s fault, it is the fault of his subjects. It’s not his problem it’s ours. Ya can’t make this stuff up folks!

An analysis by Rabbi Shimon haSofer of an earlier verse in this week’s portion underscores this point.

Vayikra 4:3. If it is the anointed priest who has incurred guilt, so that blame falls upon the people, he shall offer for the sin of which he is guilty…

Rabbi Shimon explains, “Each generation gets the leaders most appropriate for it. Therefore, if the High Priest sins, it is an indication that the people are themselves in a low state of spirituality, and that can be the cause of the priest’s sins.” Ya can’t make this up either.

Another commentator on the same verse, Rabbi Yaakov of Lita, noticing that this verse uses two words for sins chata’im/חטאים and ashamot/אשמות, says that if the leader of the people permits himself to do small sins – chata’im/חטאים, then the people will allow themselves to do ashamot/אשמות  – even greater ones. That is to say that the people look to their leaders as role models and when the leaders act or even speak sinfully or rudely, the people will do likewise but in an even more unfettered manner.

Now, chata’im/חטאים are considered inadvertent “missings of the mark”, that is we assume the person was “aiming” to do the right thing but ended up doing the wrong thing. Ashamot/אשמות, on the other hand, are sins of guilt, in which a person knows that s/he is guilty of a wrongdoing. And, because s/he knows, s/he can express remorse and atone. But of course, if the leader doesn’t apologize and repent, neither will the people. And, no, ya can’t make that up.

Finally, in our Torah portion, as it is several other times in the book of Leviticus, the Torah distinguishes between the sacrifice brought by a poor person and the sacrifice brought by an affluent person (to the Tabernacle)… The Talmud asks: “What if a rich man brings the same sacrifice as is required of the poor man. Has he fulfilled his obligations?” The answer is that he has not, and, according to one view, it is considered as though he is מביא חולין לעזרה – bringing an unconsecrated offering to the Temple and thereby profaning the name of God. Rabbi Yaakov D’lllescas comments: “In every instance of fulfilling a Mitzvah, he who can do much, but does little, profanes the name of God.” Ya can’t make it up folks! The rich are supposed to have a completely different category of taxation than do the poor. And if they succeed in fooling the IRS and somehow end up paying less…or nothing, they’re not smart – they’ve profaned the name of God.

I’ll bet you can’t guess to whom all this refers? Turns out this week’s Torah portion, if it’s not a biblical version of a Congressional hearing, it’s at least a list of the allegations that lead to a hearing. And who’s making the allegations? The Voice-of-Everything! The Universe itself is screaming out for transparency – for one, straight-up, true narrative.

The Torah’s attitude and the rabbis’ attitude toward the powerful and the wealthy may seem a bit cynical, but it’s from real-life experience, theirs and ours. Did you ever wonder why the Torah, and specifically the book of Leviticus which contains the great bulk of our commandments in its verses, is so obsessed with the articulation of law to limit people’s behavior? Because a person doesn’t need to look very far beyond his or her own nose (or look in the mirror) to see that people can’t be trusted to be good or kind or benevolent or thoughtful or magnanimous or inclusive or embracing or respectful. There are stop signs for that. There are speed limits for that. There are seat belts for that. And there’s the Torah and all its commentaries for that. And my responsibility as a progressive Jewish American is to bring that wisdom to laps of my elected officials and stand there until they pay attention.