Current Thoughts from Rabbi Steven Kushner
I have a new hero. And I'm not the only one. Her name is Ruth Calderon and she is the most talked about new "MK" (Member of Knesset) in recent memory. In fact, I can't remember ever a time when the election of a person to Israeli government caused such interest and excitement.
It's not merely because Dr. Calderon is not a politician. The Israeli-born daughter of Bulgarian (Sephardic) and German (Ashkenazic) Holocaust survivors, she comes to leadership from a non-conventional path. Well into her life as the wife of a shaliach ("ambassador" representing the Jewish Agency for Israel in our own community of MetroWest), Ruth became enchanted with Torah and text-study and pursued a career as an academic. She received her Ph.D. in Talmud from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, then subsequently founded Alma and Elul, institutions both egalitarian and secular devoted to, among other things, the study of sacred texts.
But having an academic in Israeli government circles is nothing new. Israel's leaders have always been studied in scholarship. What sets her apart is that she is not merely versed in our literature, she employs it every chance she can. Much like Ben-Gurion's constant referencing of the Bible, Ruth Calderon teaches Talmud as a living document in a socio-political context from which modern Israel can grow. In her inaugural speech to the Knesset, she said, "The Torah is not the possession of this or that denomination—it’s the gift that was given to all of us… I aspire to bring about a situation where Torah study will be the heritage of all Jews." Of course you might well expect that I, as a rabbi, would celebrate such a statement. But, in her own words, she's not religious. On the contrary, she's a self-proclaimed secularist. And that excites me. Because Israel doesn't need Israelis to be religious; Israel needs Israelis to embrace themselves as Jews.
What we are witnessing may very well be a ground-shift of Israel's political landscape. Dr. Calderon is part of an emerging cadre of Israelis who are exasperated with the paucity of vision, courage, and devotion to the "spirit" of our Jewish heritage—as opposed to its "letter"—that characterizes the country's recent governments. A member of the most surprising winner of Israel's February parliamentary elections, the Yesh Atid ("There is a Future") party captured 19 seats, making it the second-largest political party in the Knesset. (Not bad for a party that didn't exist a year ago.) Ruth was ranked number 18 within the party's hierarchy; she never imagined she would actually end up a MK. But here she is. And people are paying attention. As the second century sage Shimon bar Yochai taught, Torah can be a powerful weapon in the right hands. Dr. Calderon appears to many to be deftly ambidextrous.
Yet what I find most compelling about Ruth Calderon is her authenticity. She carries no pretenses. In fact, when I went to hear her speak the other night in New York City, I was taken with how starstruck she is at her own celebrity. She doesn't get why so many people want to be her "friend" on Facebook. She's genuinely surprised when she becomes the topic of radio and television "conversation". It is clear to anyone who meets her that Ruth is simply an Israeli who loves her country, its people, and its heritage, and like so many other Israelis, she wants Israel to be the "ideal" of which its Zionist creators had dreamed.
Ruth Calderon and Yesh Atid give me hope for Israel. Her voice, deeply rooted in a reverence for sacred texts, is fresh and uninhibited. She speaks her mind regardless of who is listening. She is not afraid to offend. (She refers to the Kotel—the Western Wall—as "occupied territory".) And while the political extremes of Israeli politics might not always agree with her—she has been sarcastically derided as "Rabbi" Calderon by the ultra-Orthodox for daring to teach Talmud to men, while equally dismaying her liberal allies for her unwillingness to protest alongside "Women of the Wall" because she feels she cannot, as a lawmaker, break the law—it is clear she has gotten their attention if not earned their respect. All you need do is go to YouTube, type in her name, and then watch her speech to the Knesset where she turned a political venue into a beit midrash (house of study). A woman. Teaching Talmud. To a room filled with more than a handful of ultra-Orthodox Jews. They listened. And by the end, several vocally called out Yashar Koyach. The highest praise one gets from a serious Jew. Watch the video. You too will be smitten with her.
Ruth Calderon may very well be the future of Israel. And, if it be so, she will take along the Torah on her historic journey. The same Torah that God gave to "all" Jews. For such is her message. Torah—and the land where it was born—belong to each and every one of us. And should she be successful in realizing this vision, and I pray that she will, then the State of Israel and Jews the world over will have every reason to reclaim the Tikvah, the Hope that is at the core of Israel's soul.
Maine. The Blue Hill Peninsula. The Town of Brooklin (the correct spelling). On Eggemoggin Reach, a channel of ocean that intersects the mainland and Deer Isle. Nothing short of paradise. Always a breeze. Temperature sometimes gets up into the 80s. Sailboats galore. And the sunsets. No two are alike.
Actually, if you're a "friend" of mine on Facebook you already know this. Virtually everyday for two weeks I posted an image taken from my porch. I apologize for constantly putting up photos of what might have seemed like the same vista; it's just that each one swept me away more than the one before. And none more than when the "Reach" was inundated with fog.
Virtually every morning the fog hovered over the water. Sometimes it lifted with the warming sun. Sometimes it stayed until after noon. And even though you might think it obscurant, for me it was more akin to a veil. Like the veil Moses had to wear when he descended from the Mountain, the fog would greet me each morning as a reminder that the world is a mystery.
But after several days the fog came to have a different meaning for me.
I come to Maine to escape. The only noise you hear are the birds and the gentle undulating of the breathing ocean. Maine feels safe. The thing is, though, I also find it easy (and dangerous) to lose touch with what goes on in the "real" world (i.e., the one I left) when I vacation in Maine. The Olympics this year seemed less compelling. And the horrors at Aurora and Oak Creek were muted, their pain not as piercing. This is not good. Even as I know that from time to time we all need escape, we all need to vacate our daily lives (both emotionally as well as physically), I also believe that there are some things that should transcend the fog, no matter its density.
Alas, I fear that for so many of us that metaphorical fog permeates our entire world, not just the "downeast" coast of Maine. I fear that so many of us allow our view of the world to be covered with a veil, so that we don't have to see it all the time, or without its stark intensity. I fear that so many of us find a comfort level in not seeing the steady stream of death and pain by distancing ourselves from the things that are calling out to us. "Your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground," God said to Cain. And Cain replied, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Of course the Torah's question is rhetorical. Because the question is actually for us.
Do we still think about the gun violence of this past summer or have we retreated to the comfort of the fog?
How long will we allow our world to be filled with guns? How long will we allow the politicians and the NRA to dominate the discussion about weapons designed to kill human beings? When will it be enough for us? What will be our tipping point? When it happens in our community? When it strikes someone we love?
I believe that handguns and automatic rifles in the hands of private citizens are invitations to acts of evil. Do the math. How many times do those guns actually "protect" us? And how many times do they "destroy" us? A child playing with the revolver he found in his parent's drawer. The rebuffed lover in a moment of rage. The psychotic with an AK47 in his basement. I know I am not alone in my abhorrence of these things. I know that most Americans would agree that the time has come to take away the guns. But somehow we don't. We sigh. We shrug. But then we retreat to our fog of daily living. Ignorance is bliss. Until it happens again.
When will we break the cycle? Clearly the killing isn't stopping. Is the taking away of guns really so bad? Perhaps it is, indeed, an infringement of personal freedom. But just as freedom of speech does not permit one to yell "Fire" in a crowded theater, so it seems to me that freedom should never be unlimited, especially when it comes to owning weapons that exist for no other reason than the taking of human life.
Spare me the 2nd Amendment argument. I won't pretend to be able to deduce how the Founding Fathers would weigh in on this issue. But just as I'm not a "literalist" or a "fundamentalist" when it comes to interpreting the Torah, I think being a "strict constructionist" when it comes to the Constitution defeats the very reason we have a Constitution. After all, the creators of this nation understood that America must be a nation able to change and reform and adapt. That's why they allowed for "amendments". To wit, we no longer tolerate human slavery. Women finally have equal rights. Neither was true when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were composed. And to my thinking, the time has come to abolish guns. Unless, of course, we prefer to live out our lives in a perpetual fog of fear and death.
A nation that permits its citizens to own weapons designed to kill each other will not be judged well by future generations. I want my daughters to feel safe walking into a movie theater or a synagogue on the High Holy Days. Perhaps in earlier days it was necessary to protect ourselves from hostile neighbors, but today the only way we can truly be safe is to disarm those neighbors as well as ourselves. To fail to do so is like living in a fog.
Fog in the morning may be beautiful, but living in a state of fog is simply dark and dreary. America was created during the Age of Enlightenment. It's time we reclaimed that title for ourselves.
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