This was written shortly after my book, Leviticus: You Have No Idea was published almost a decade ago. To read the full book review, click here or on the image below.
Tag: Rabbi Maurice Harris
#TrendingJewish: The Accidental Rabbi
Interview I did with Rachel Burgess and Bryan Schwartzman of the Podcast #TrendingJewish
ABOUT THIS EPISODE
Taking a page from the Judaism Unbound podcast, Rachael and Bryan ask the questions: What does Judaism do and what it is for? What does it do for those who don’t feel compelled by God to live life according to Jewish law? Rabbi Maurice Harris fields these questions, and also explains why he avoids “outing” himself as a rabbi while he’s a passenger on a commercial flight.
To give it a listen, click here or on the image below!
Moses’s encounters with God – a podcast interview I did with Reconstructing Judaism
Dr. Elsie Stern’s interview with yours truly
Here’s the intro:
In this Community Learning call from November 21, 2017, Rabbi Maurice Harris talks about the strange way the Torah tells us about Moses’ up-close encounters with God, contradicting itself purposely within the space of nine verses. Two consecutive stories in the Book of Exodus confront us with a crucial paradox about how it is or isn’t possible to encounter the Divine, leaving us as readers with something like an “impossible” mental picture that we may be tempted to try to resolve or to hold as a fruitful paradox. Either way, the mental image these two texts generate beckon us to keep trying to look again and again, despite the endless loop the image generates in our minds.
Just click here or on the image below to give it a listen!
The Rise and Fall of the Reconstructionist Publishing Service House
(This is parody in case it’s not obvious.)
Earlier this week, the Reconstructionist Publishing Service House (RPSH) announced the indefinite suspension of operations and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the district court of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. The news sent shockwaves through the liberal Jewish world, as RPSH had built a reputation as an innovative progressive Jewish influencer. RPSH’s profits used to soar on reissues of the works of Reconstructionism’s founding thinker, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. The publishing house holds the copyrights to all of his works, including his classics, Judaism as a Civilization, The Future of the American Jew, and the surprisingly popular Not So Random Thoughts. But even Kaplan’s lesser known works have done well, especially the “Judaism as a…” pamphlet series that reshaped mid-20th century Jewish thought with editions such as “Judaism as a Hypervigilant Neurosis,” “Judaism as a Needle Nosed Pliers,” and the forever beloved “Judaism as a Confusing Morass – Parts 1, 2, and 3.”
But the major success came in 1998, when synagogues of many denominations bought massive numbers of Jewish, Alive & American, a brilliant curriculum for a 30-week course that was simultaneously part “Intro to Judaism,” part conversion-to-Judaism prep course, and part sociological history of Judaism. Accessible yet well-researched, and filled with exciting group activities, JA&A, as it became known, raised the profile of the smallest liberal movement of Judaism, and brought unexpected profits to RPSH.
Perhaps the dazzling success of JA&A fomented the subsequent overreach that appears to have sunk RPSH. At first, Chief Editor Bartenura Bartzilam sought to amplify JA&A’s success by creating multi-media editions. This was the turn of the 21st century, so RPSH released a CD-ROM version as well as a DVD lecture series. Neither did all that well, but Bartzilam doubled down, committing millions to the development of an audio book series in 16 languages that lost money. Bartzilam nearly was fired, reportedly, after having funded a traveling puppet theater company tasked with the mission of bringing JA&A to untapped audiences among interfaith families with children ages 3 to 8. It turned out that there was no interest in the program at all, and in the lone public performance offered at a Jewish day school in Denver several of the children reported having nightmares in reaction to some of the scarier-looking puppets.Continue reading “The Rise and Fall of the Reconstructionist Publishing Service House”
Podcast interview: Ben & Jerry’s, Amnesty International, and the Debate Over Boycotting Israel
Check out this podcast interview in which Bryan Schwartzman of Reconstructing Judaism asks me about some of the things I’ve been blogging about lately re Israel and Palestine: https://evolve.fireside.fm/28
5 easy steps to writing a good d’var Torah
My little 7 and a half minute video that presents an easy strategy for writing a d’var Torah!
Who, If Anyone, Should be Boycotted? The Ben and Jerry’s Controversy
Note: this article was published for Evolve, a project of Reconstructing Judaism. This blog post only contains the beginning of the article, and then provides a link to the full article on Evolve.
So much has been written about the decision by Ben & Jerry’s corporate board last spring to stop selling ice cream in the West Bank that one might think there’s nothing more worth saying about it. As the dust settles, I think there are some important things that the controversy has revealed about the way Americans talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the way the thorny topic of boycotts is discussed in the progressive Jewish community.
Supporters and opponents of boycotting Israel see their position as an urgent moral calling, and as a result, the public debate about Israel/Palestine often takes on the hardest lines of opinion that both activist bases promote. Here’s how I understand the way in which both camps narrate and morally frame their positions.
Pro-boycotters often argue that boycotting is a time-honored non-violent form of activism, and that people should boycott Israel until several goals are achieved: ending the occupation of the West Bank, removing the blockade of Gaza, and granting all Palestinian refugees and their descendants the right to return to their homes and lands. The status quo on each of these issues is, for the boycott movement, an intolerable injustice that must be resisted with non-violent, worldwide non-cooperation with the responsible regime. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement wants to end the daily human rights abuses and indignities that Israel imposes on Palestinians and draws inspiration from the boycott of apartheid South Africa. The movement is agnostic on the question of whether, once its desired goals are achieved, there should be a final political arrangement that includes a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state, and many BDS supporters regard even the minimalist aims of Zionism—the secure existence of a Jewish and democratic state in some part of the Jewish people’s ancient homeland—as an inherently unjust project that must be replaced.
To read the rest of this essay, click here.
You can also listen to the entire essay at the following link: https://anchor.fm/maurice-d-harris/episodes/Who–If-Anyone–Should-be-Boycotted–The-Ben-and-Jerrys-Controversy-e1ca55p
Abraham, Isaac, and Bob
Rosh Hashanah Day 1 – Sermon 2021 / 5782 – String of Pearls / Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation (Princeton, NJ)
Rabbi Maurice Harris
Shana Tova to one and all. I’d like to talk about midrash this morning. Midrash and Bob Dylan. And then invite us to have a chance to break into small groups for a bit of discussion. I’m not sure where the inspiration for this came from, so I hope you’ll indulge me and see what we discover together.
First, a word about midrash. I know many of us are already familiar with what midrash is, but because we are all bringing different kinds of knowledge to this moment, let me start with a definition.
Midrash, and I’m quoting someone here, “…can be described as a form of storytelling that explores ethics and values in biblical texts.” Midrash adds to, expands upon, or even challenges the plain meaning of the biblical texts it works with. It is a method and a form of biblical interpretation that is open to multiple interpretations of biblical texts. In many ways it is creative and almost free form, yet it does follow certain rules and traditions. There is no one set of books called “The Midrash” – midrash is a disorganized collection of writings scattered across many different anthologies.
Midrashim – the plural of the word in Hebrew – often take the form of stories elaborating on incidents in the Bible, to derive a principle of Jewish law or provide a moral lesson. The ancient rabbis would create midrashim in response to something puzzling, interesting, disturbing, or confusing in a biblical text. Any number of bumps or oddities in the Hebrew of a biblical passage could trigger the sages to develop a midrash – an explanation or fanciful story that would provide an explanation for the unusual or perplexing feature in the text.
The tradition of developing midrash took hold in early rabbinic communities up and down the land of Ancient Israel during the time when the Second Temple – the one that the Romans destroyed about 2000 years ago – still stood in Jerusalem. After the Roman destruction and the beginning of the great exile of the Jews, midrash became one of the ancient rabbis’ primary tools for reinterpreting the Bible to make it speak to their time and situation.
Let me offer an example. In the Book of Genesis, chapter 13, we find this passage in which God says to Abraham:
“Lift up your eyes from where you are and look north and south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust (!) of the earth; only if a person could count all the dust of the earth could they actually count the number of your future descendants. Go, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you.”Genesis 13:14-17
In the aftermath of the great Roman destruction, the surviving rabbis were struck by something curious in this text. They wondered why God tells Abraham that God will make his offspring like the dust of the earth, when God could have used a different metaphor that might be a little less, well, dusty and, well, dirt-like. In fact, two chapters later in Genesis 15:5, God repeats the promise to Abraham of uncountably large numbers of descendants, but in that text God says to Abraham, ““Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!” Why not just stick with stars – why also dust? This question led to the development of the following midrash:
Why in the Torah does God say to Abraham, I WILL MAKE YOUR OFFSPRING LIKE THE DUST OF THE EARTH? Why dust?… Here is what God was trying to say to Abraham: just as the dust of the earth extends from one end of the earth to the other, so too your children will be scattered from one end of the world to the other. … And as dust is made to be trampled on, so your children too will be made for kingdoms to trample on. Also, as dust wears vessels of metal away, but itself endures forever, so with the people Israel: all the idolatrous nations shall disappear, but the Jewish people will endure.Genesis Rabbah 41.9
What a poignant glimpse this midrash offers us – not so much of what the actual meaning of the verse in Genesis is – but of how a newly scattered and exiled people saw their own predicament woven into the words of the Torah itself. And that brings me to the main idea I’d like to explore with you: that midrash is often a mirror, a mirror that allows us to look at an ancient bit of the Bible, bring in our imagination and our literary creativity, and discover something of our own situation refracted through the prism of the original text.Continue reading “Abraham, Isaac, and Bob”
Revolutionary Love – a talk for Yom Kippur 5781 / 2020
I shared this talk with String of Pearls / Princeton Reconstructionist Congregation on September 27, 2020.
Good Yontiff. For those of you who joined us for Rosh Hashanah, welcome back. And for those just joining us for the first time, it’s good to be connected with you tonight.
Tonight I’d like to talk about what Valerie Kaur calls “Revolutionary Love.” If you haven’t had the chance to read or listen to Valerie Kaur, you are in for a wonderful discovery should you decide to look her up. She is a civil rights lawyer, filmmaker, and is the founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, which I’ll say more about in a moment. She is also a Sikh-American – a member of the Sikh religion. If you’ve ridden a subway or gone to the grocery store and seen people wearing cloth turbans, there’s a good chance they are Sikhs.
Sikhism is a 500 year old religion that was founded in the Punjab region of what is now part of India and Pakistan. Its founder, Guru Nanak, was a witness to terrible violence between Hindus and Muslims, and he founded a new monothesitic religion based on core beliefs that are similar to those of many of the world’s religions and prophets. Sikhism teaches that all are equal before God – a teaching that we emphasize in Judaism through our practice of burying our dead in a simple cloth shroud in a modest coffin. Sikhism also stresses the obligation to treat everyone equally, to be generous with all in need, and to be brave and stand up to defend those who are being oppressed.
It’s that last part that may distinguish Sikhism a bit from the other monotheistic religions. What I mean by that is this: all of the monotheistic religions share the same core values. We know this. One God. Do unto others. Justice, justice shall you pursue. But there are different insights, emphases, and commitments that jump out from different religions, in the same way that all doughnuts are made of dough and taste good, but they have different fillings and icings that distinguish one kind from another. I know: did the rabbi really just make a food analogy when we have only just begun fasting? And did he mention doughnuts, no less?
Guilty as charged. I ask for your forgiveness.Continue reading “Revolutionary Love – a talk for Yom Kippur 5781 / 2020”
Me going on about loving Leviticus
The Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning invited me to do a little vid on why I wrote a book about Leviticus. It’s part of their “A Call to Learning” program. Here ’tis.