A D’var for Shavuot (2009 / 5769)

D’var Torah – Shavuot 5769

Rabbi Maurice Harris

Shabbat shalom and gut yontiff.  As we celebrate our 2nd Shavuot in our new home, I want to ask us all to take a moment to look around.  We are so blessed.  We have now completed one full cycle of Jewish holy days and sacred seasons, one full year of the cycle of the Five Books of Moses, one full year of ups and downs, controversies and moments of serenity, one full year of mitzvot and of mistakes.  One full year of life.  There are so many people who worked so hard to make this new home possible, and we have only just begun to discover the ways we can continue to grow as a community in this amazing space.  Shavuot is a festival of offering our first fruits, the first fruits of our labor, to God.  We, as a community, now can offer one year’s worth of Jewish living to the Eternal One as an expression of our thanks and our desire to bring greater meaning and unity into our lives and into the world.

Over the last 24 hours we have engaged three different texts in our observance of Shavuot.  Last night we studied the Book of Ruth, which is traditionally chanted at Shavuot, and this morning we read the story of the giving of the 10 Commandments at Mt. Sinai in the Book of Exodus.  Then, Rabbi Yitzhak chanted the assigned reading from the books of the prophets, which happened to be from the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel.

Ruth, the 10 Commandments, and Ezekiel.  Something I noticed about these three readings is where they take place.  The Torah reading featuring the dramatic revelation at Mt. Sinai takes place not in the land of Israel, but in the Sinai desert, in the wilderness, in an in-between place that was neither Egypt nor the Promised Land.  Ezekiel takes place in ancient Babylon, and tells the story of the visions and activities of a prophet who was sent into exile in Babylon along with the entire leadership of the ancient Israelite community some 2, 600 years ago.  That leaves the Book of Ruth.  Ruth takes place partly in the land of Moab, just to the east of the Land of Israel, and partly in the territory of Judah, which was part of ancient Israel.  It is the Book of Ruth that brings us geographically closest to Jerusalem, as Ruth ends up making her new life as a Jew by choice in Bethlehem, which is only a few kilometers away from Jerusalem.  Although the Book of Ruth never specifically mentions Jerusalem, because the city had not yet become the Israelites’ capital, the last words of the book point to Jerusalem.  As many of you may know, the Book of Ruth ends with a genealogy that shows Ruth to be the ancestor of King David, and David’s name is the final word of the book.  The Book literally points towards a Jerusalem that has not yet been realized, a Jerusalem of the future.

It is that idea – a Jerusalem that has not yet been realized, a Jerusalem of the future – that caught my attention these last days.

The city’s name, Yeru-shalayim, roughly means “they will see peace” or “the inheritance – yerushah – will be peace.”  Yet for the last 2500 years, Jerusalem has known so much war and far too little peace.  As we all know, Jews, Christians and Muslims all consider Jerusalem to be sacred, and the mythic encounters with the Divine that are so central to all three of the Abrahamic religions intimately involve Jerusalem and the Temple mount itself.  Just to illustrate this with one small example:  in Arabic Jerusalem is called al-Quds, meaning “the holy.”  This is from the same Semitic language root that forms the word kadosh in Hebrew.  It’s as if our people had named the city ha-kadosh.  And in fact, we have, as one of the city’s Jewish nicknames is Ir ha-kodesh, “the holy city.”

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Leaked Transcript of Israeli Police Interview of Conservative Rabbi

Note: Translated from the Hebrew. All names have been changed.

Officer 1: Let the record note that we’re beginning this interview at 05:44 local time and we are recording this conversation. We have a few questions for you, Rabbi Schechter. Where were you between 19:00 and 20:00 on the evening of June 5, 2018?

Rabbi: At the Beach Plaza Hotel near Haifa.

Officer 1: And what were you doing there?

Rabbi: Officiating a wedding between two Jews.

Officer 1: Who said you could do that?

Rabbi: Well, I’ve been doing it for 35 years.

Officer 2: Answer the question!

Officer 1: No, it’s okay, Rafi. He’s cooperating. Rabbi, can I get you anything? Cigarette? Coffee? Bamba?

bamba

Rabbi: No thank you.

Officer 1: Are you sure? There’s nothing like Bamba–

Officer 2: Stop coddling him, Shmulik. Rabbi, why did you do it!? Tell us now or it won’t go easy for you!!

Rabbi: The wedding?

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The gates of the ancient rabbis

This essay appeared in the RRA Connection, the newsletter of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, in 2014.

I’m guessing that many of us have given a d’var at some point that cited the passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 32b, that reads, “From the day that the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer have been closed . . . but even though the gates of prayer are closed, the gates of tears are not closed.”

I’ve always been struck by what this, and some of the surrounding passages in the Talmud, appear to reveal about the attitudes of the early rabbis towards God. For instance, right after this sha’aray dimah [gates of tears] passage, we also read, “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, a wall of iron has been established between Israel and their Father in Heaven.” (I left the male God imagery unaltered because it offers the poignant metaphor of a child unable to access his or her parent.)

Llagrimes_(tears),_pastel_portrait_by_Robert_Perez_Palou
       Llagrimes (tears), pastel portrait by Robert Perez Palou.      By Rpp1948 [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

As one studies the whole of this page of Talmud, one also finds passages that nevertheless offer reassurance that, with great effort and sincerity, we can still reach God and move God to compassion. For instance, “Every person who lengthens their prayer – their prayer will not be returned empty  (ayn tefilato chozeret ray-kam).” And, “If a person sees that s/he has prayed but it is unanswered, s/he should pray again, as it says in Scripture, ‘Wait for the Eternal, be strong and let your heart take courage,’ etc.” Continue reading “The gates of the ancient rabbis”

D’var Torah – Shelach Lecha & the Gaza Flotilla Crisis of 2010

This is a talk I gave at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon in 2010. Though it is now almost a decade later, and we continue to lurch from Gaza-Israel crisis to crisis, as I just re-read it, it seems very applicable to this time.

In this week’s Torah portion, called Shelach Lecha, we find the Israelites at a critical crossroads in their early history as a free people.  A little over a year has passed since they escaped slavery in Egypt, and they’ve arrived close to the border of their destination – the Promised Land.  God commands Moses to select a team of 12 leaders – one from each of the tribes – and assign them the mission of scouting out the Promised Land. They are to take a full tour of the land, and then return and make a report to Moses and the Israelites.  

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Logo from an Israeli winery featuring the Israelite scouts carrying the ginormous grape cluster as told in the Torah story of this week’s parashah.

After spending 40 days scouting out the land, the team returned to the Israelite encampment in the wilderness of Paran.  They brought samples of the land’s produce, including a cluster of grapes so large it had to be attached to a large wooden pole and carried by two men.  

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Progressive Zionism

THIS IS A WORK-IN-PROGRESS THAT I’M GOING TO BE EDITING AND CHANGING, POSSIBLY A LOT. I’M NOT SURE I AGREE WITH EVERYTHING IN THE ESSAY AS IT IS. I STARTED IT IN 2012 AND THOUGHT IT WOULD BE A SUBSTANTIVE LECTURE, AND I’VE RETURNED TO IT A FEW TIMES. THERE’S LOTS THAT HAS HAPPENED, ESPECIALLY SINCE THE TRUMPOCALYPSE BEGAN, THAT HAS IMPACTED MY THINKING ON THESE ISSUES. SO IF YOU’RE READING THIS, PLEASE KEEP THIS CAVEAT IN MIND. -MAURICE

Few nations evoke such strong feelings, either positive or negative, as the State of Israel. I come to my relationship with Israel as a Jewish-American rabbi from a liberal denomination of Judaism and as part of a large family of Moroccan Jews who live in Tel Aviv.  I spent much of my childhood in Israel, my Hebrew is good, and I love being there. I love the language, the way the light looks, the history, and the mix of Jews from many lands who come in different skin colors and have different accents.  Israel is in my heart and there’s no un-doing that. I disagree with many of the Israeli government’s actions, but I love Israel unconditionally. My love for the U.S. is similar.

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Pogromchik

I’m reading Saul S. Friedman’s Pogromchik: The Assassination of Simon Petlura (Hart Publishing Co., New York, 1976). It’s a non-fiction account whose central drama is an act of public assassination carried out in Paris in 1926 by a Ukrainian Jew, Sholom

petlura

Schwartzbard. Schwartzbard shot and killed Simon Petlura, a former head of the Ukrainian nationalist movement and supreme commander of Ukrainian nationalist forces during the civil war in that country that took place in the aftermath of World War I and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 in Russia.

Friedman was an historian who wrote extensively about Antisemitism, the Holocaust, and the Middle East. He died in 2013, and from what I can glean on the interwebs he is, much to my dismay, a favorite go-to source for the Jewish and American right wing – particularly of those who passionately believe that Christianity & Judaism are in a global war against Islam, and that naive and ignorant liberals (like yours truly) keep ignoring the depths of the hatred found against Jews within Islam. Given my politics, I could dismiss anything Friedman has written out of hand, but that’s not how I roll. My primary interest in Pogromchik is as a portal into the horrific world of the pogroms that took place from the late 1800s well into the 20th century in the Ukraine, Russia, and other parts of eastern Europe. I could, of course, have just read a bunch of articles about those pogroms, but I guess I’m a sucker for a good story, and this is one.

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Sholom Schwartzbard, 1926

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Israel / Palestine Bogus Argument #1: “Settlements aren’t really an obstacle to peace”

This is a new series of posts I’m going to work on, in which I debunk BA’s (bogus arguments) that are often made, on one side or the other, about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or the wider Arab-Israeli conflict, etc.).

Today’s Bogus Argument: “Settlements aren’t really an obstacle to peace,” often claimed by AIPAC supporters and other apologists for the Netanyahu gov’t. Actually, even though the argument often gets stated the way I just phrased it, what those making the argument usually mean when they say this is that Israeli announcements of plans to build new housing units within the large settlement blocs abutting Jerusalem are not really an obstacle to peace.

Let’s consider this argument.

Usually it is supported by two claims: one, that Palestinian complaints are disingenuous because both sides already know that a final status agreement would preserve the major Jerusalem settlement blocs within Israel and there would be compensatory land swaps to the Palestinian state; and two, that the Palestinians had previously engaged in negotiations w/o too much fuss despite periodic new Israeli building in the blocs.

Therefore, the argument goes, these Palestinian complaints (and those made by groups like Peace Now, J Street, and various Knesset members in the opposition) are disingenuous. The Palestinians, according to this theory, only complain over this for strategic and negotiating purposes, not because they are actually upset about new Jewish housing being built in neighborhoods that everyone knows will eventually be part of Israel. No, they press these complaints fully knowing them to be without merit, because they are actually not interested in going back to negotiations with Israel, and because they are not serious about accepting Israel’s right to exist as part of a two-state final status agreement. By insisting that Israel cease and desist from new construction in all the settlements, the Palestinians are, supposedly, making an unreasonable demand they know Israel won’t accept, and by doing so they are deliberately sabotaging peace talks and building up global animosity towards Israel as part of a long-term plan to one day get back all of what was British-ruled Palestine.

This line of reasoning, and its dismissal of Palestinian objections to new settlement construction, is, in my humble opinion, completely bogus. It’s wrong.

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Coming Soon: Israstine

nablus-outpost
From today’s headlines…

With news of a brand new settler outpost emerging in the Nablus area, we start 2017, the likely year that will be remembered as the year the State of Israestine was born.

With the blessings of the increasingly vocal Israeli and American-Jewish right wing, and the upcoming carte blanche support of the Trump Administration, Israel and Palestine are now rapidly heading towards one state. A few more outposts, a few more announcements of plans for new neighborhoods, a few more openly public statements by top ministers in this Israeli gov’t saying they don’t want two states ever and they want to annex parts of the WB starting now. Not sure when the last straw will come, but when push comes to shove and the two-state option is completely and utterly gone, regardless of whether it was more because of aggressive settlement policies or more because of PA incitement and rejectionism, many lifelong Zionists will feel morally compelled to advocate for the single state between the Jordan river and the sea to be a democracy, with one person, one vote, complete freedom of movement, and new elections for a Knesset that reflects the wishes and identities of the 10 to 12 million people who live there. We’re witnessing the birthpangs of Israstine. Bibi is one of the founding fathers. Abbas too. Trump may just help deliver the baby.

If this is the will of most Israelis and Palestinians, then I wish them well and wish them success, and hope that the birth of the signle state is not a violent one. I think a two-state agreement along the lines Kerry outlined is a better option, a political resolution to an intractable conflict that is more likely to succeed, and more likely to meet some of the security needs and national/cultural expression needs of Jews and Arabs in this part of the world. But if Israstine is where the leaders of Israel and the PA want to head, and if their respective constituents are unwilling to demand otherwise, then it is what it is.

What I don’t think I can do, in the years ahead, is support de facto indefinite Israeli rule, direct and indirect, over millions of Palestinians because “it’s a temporary situation” or because “it’s mainly their fault.” I know my own heart, I know what I can and can’t support. I don’t want to be left with only the option of a democratic bi-national Israstine to support, but I also don’t know that I’ll feel able to support any other program. I have no control over what Israelis or Palestinians want or choose to do with their political and security calculations, and I’m not judging anybody. But by the same token, nobody has the right to judge me when I’m asked, as an American citizen, what do I support and what do I want our country to support with its resources? I know the answer to that. I can only see myself supporting a US policy that supports two democracies or one democracy – two states or one – but democracies as a bottom line, not this frozen endless status quo that denies the essence of the values of Israel’s own Declaration of Independence, the values of liberal Judaism (and I would argue of the essence of Judaism), and the best values of the United States.

The new kapos (i.e. Jews like me)

In the aftermath of Trump’s decision to nominate David Friedman to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Israel, we’ve learned that Friedman has had some choice words for Jews like me, who support J Street, and other progressive Jews. Specifically, he’s said that we’re worse than kapos, who, if that term isn’t familiar, were the Jews the Nazis assigned to supervise other Jews in concentration camps and in forced labor.

Image result for kapo ww2When one Jew calls another a kapo it means “ultimate traitor.” To have Friedman calling other Jews kapos, when he’s about to go to work for a man who has retweeted anti-Semitic Twitter accounts, and who has won the high praise of American neo-Nazis, is so ironic that … well, it’s just really ironic, that’s all.

Anyway, one of my FB friends – someone who has critiqued left wingers many times for their blindness to anti-Semitism in progressive circles – just posted today, with alarm, that he is receiving messages calling him a kapo for opposing the Friedman nomination.

I believe this is probably the shape of things for American-Jewish politics for the next few years, possibly more. I also suspect that it is connected to Steve Bannon’s strategic thinking about how to best deal with the American Jewish community. Do things that widen the acrimony and divide. Tie up the energies of the progressive political American Jewish community, and its often quite effective political organizing and influence, with having to fight the right wing of the American Jewish community. Meanwhile, take the American Jewish right off the table as a potential obstructive political force by emphasizing how RW / anti-Muslim / pro-(greater)-Israel Trump is. This makes it easier for some of Bannon’s anti-Semitic and truly fascist circle to be able to take their places in Trump’s inner circle.

Friedman is a great example. He has no experience as an Ambassador, and he’s a loudmouth. He can’t make policy – he’ll have to take orders from Trump – but he’s perfect for a divide & conquer approach to minimizing the political power of different parts of the American Jewish community.

My guess is that Bannon sees himself as a major player in Trump’s inner circle, but that he sees himself as in competition, to some degree, with others who have different agendas. Bannon may not care that much about Jews himself, but what we know from his previous work is that he’s interested in bringing to the table people who are quite serious about their anti-Semitism. (That’s a generous reading of Bannon, BTW.)

Anyway, I just think we’re likely to see Trump work some kind of strategy like this vis-a-vis the Jewish community. I think Trump’s promise to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is perfect as their first gambit of this nature. In terms of really changing the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the ultimate shape that a viable agreement to end the conflict might take, moving the embassy to (West) Jerusalem is not really that substantive a thing to do. In an ideal world, with a permanent peace agreement establishing two states, Israel and Palestine, each with a capital in different sections of Jerusalem, the American embassies to both states would proudly take their places in their respective parts of Jerusalem. But for all kinds of practical reasons that make good political sense, U.S. policy under Republicans and Democrats for decades has been to hold off on moving the embassy to Jerusalem until a final status agreement is reached.

Image result for divide and conquer

But the decision to move the U.S. embassy is a great wedge issue for the American Jewish community and it will suit Trump’s team perfectly. It’s highly symbolic and highly emotional. The tweets and one-line talking points to be offered in a tone of moral superiority and “can you believe these politically correct idiots?” contempt easily write themselves.

Trump announcing the embassy move will send the various Jewish political organizations into their various corners, firing away at each other. AIPAC, ZOA, RCA, the Conference of Presidents, and possibly JCPA and even maybe Reform & Conservative organizations will support the move. J Street, APN, Ameinu, maybe the Reconstructionist movement will dissent or offer qualified dissent. In the Islamic world, the announcement will probably ignite extremists’ passions and increase the likelihood of terror attacks, either in the US, Israel, or elsewhere. It’ll also lead to a big UN showdown. And then, while we in the American-Jewish community are all consumed with this unnecessary shit storm, all of our energies and resources are tied up and largely unavailable to be a useful force against any/all other Trump agendas.

It’s so smart I’m surprised Putin didn’t think of it himself…