Current Thoughts from Rabbi Steven Kushner
Friday, February 10, 2017
The Holiness of Fragility of Truth
Over the last several days several of you have sought my opinion regarding the import and meaning of the decision by the United States to abstain from exercising its veto power regarding UN Resolution 2334. That resolution condemns Israel for its policy of allowing Jewish settlements in the disputed territories seized following the 1967 Six-Day War.
As many of you know, I have always been troubled by the settlements. While I do not believe that their existence is a moral one, nor do I feel that the predicament that has led to Jews living on lands that were previously occupied by Palestinian Arabs to be a "black and white" issue (meaning that like any geopolitical conflict there are issues of history and politics that are deeply nuanced), I have always held that any hope for a resolution of conflict between the State of Israel and the Palestinian people must involve a "trading of land for peace." The presence of the settlements complicates and potentially obstructs such a hope. That the current Israeli government continues to encourage settlement in the disputed territories is profoundly frustrating for me. I can understand the United States' decision not to oppose UN Resolution 2334.
By the same token, well we know there are forces within the Arab world and particularly within the Palestinian nationalist movements who have consistently rejected the right of Israel to exist at all. For them the words "settlements" and "occupied territories" apply to the entirety of Israel. Moreover, support for these rejectionist attitudes have invariably found sympathy among many of the members of the United Nations. Indeed, condemnation of Israel at that international body has been so frequent and predictable that it leads one to question the motivations and the integrity of the institution itself. Even the departing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon admitted as much when he said, "Decades of political maneuvering have created a disproportionate number of resolutions, reports and committees against Israel..." The institutionalization of anti-Semitism (in the cloak of anti-Zionism) at the United Nations is hard to deny.
As much as I understand the US "abstention" at the UN, I must say that I fear for its consequences. With so much uncertainty in both American and world politics, this is a time for calmness and discretion. I believe that this resolution will serve to do nothing but embolden the forces that oppose Israel. America's refusal to exercise its veto at the United Nations may prove to do more damage than good.
I have no doubt of the inviolability of the unique relationship between Israel and the United States. Of this I am certain. And notwithstanding my frustrations that Israel cannot seem to get out of its own way on the question of settlements (the truth be told, Israel has many greater domestic issues to face), I am equally certain that the omnipresence of anti-Semitism and its institutionalization in international attitudes against Israel is, in my mind, a much greater threat to peace in the Middle East. As such, I am disappointed and saddened that the United States played into this charade of allowing a matter of bias and hate to be guised in the clothing of politics.
The settlements are a serious problem. As Jews who love Israel, we must face this. But as Jews and as Americans we should also be demanding universal and unequivocal recognition of Israel's sovereignty. Indeed, this was something that was decided by the same United Nations 70 years ago. Let us not forget that it was the Arab world who rejected that decision and thereby created the refugee problem. If anything should be condemned, it is their persistently violent and obsessive rejection of the State of Israel.
Recognize Israel and renounce terrorism and then we can talk about the settlements.
Shabbat Lekh-Lekha Sermon ~ November 11, 2016
What Now? thoughts on the presidental election 2016
Erev Rosh Hashanah
Living at the Center of the Universe
Rosh Hashanah Morning
"...for in its peace shall you have peace"
a Jewish prescription for America
Yom Kippur Morning
Teshuvah: The Art of Self-Rediscovery
It is with not a small amount of sadness tempered by a deep breath and a joyous eye to the future that I write to inform you of my decision, in close consultation with our synagogue’s leadership, to retire as your rabbi on July 1, 2018. At that time I will assume with honor the status of Rabbi Emeritus accorded to me by the Board of Trustees.
While retirement will open a welcome doorway into the next chapter of my life, the prospect of concluding my rabbinate with you is daunting. For almost forty years my life has been filled with countless opportunities to be your teacher, to be your guide through life’s joys and sorrows, and — in partnership with you — to help make Temple Ner Tamid into the unique community it is today. In return you have enriched my soul and filled my heart. Our relationship is a gift that will forever be a source of satisfaction and joy.
Of course, there is still much time for us to draw even closer. We have more than two years of Torah between us. We have more than two years to continue our mandate to repair the world and explore ways to allow God into our lives, to draw closer to our people and build bridges with our neighbors. I look forward to continuing our journey together.
In the meantime, please know this: The great strength of Ner Tamid is not any one individual. We are a sacred collective. What makes us who we are . . . is you. Moreover, we are blessed with visionary leadership and a deeply dedicated professional staff. From Iris Schwartz to Arlene Sherman, Missy Jacobs, Ronni Pressman and particularly Cantor Meredith Greenberg, alongside our President Andi Robik and the chair of our transition team, Ken Cohen, Temple Ner Tamid remains in exceptionally gifted and loving hands. I have absolute confidence that my retirement will be an opportunity for our congregation to “grow” from strength to strength.
I am so proud of all that we have accomplished throughout these past four decades. Our dreams that we birthed in 1980 have been fulfilled beyond any of our expectations. One of those dreams was to guarantee this Jewish community for generations to come. Nothing could bring me a greater sense of accomplishment than to bequeath the mantle of rabbinic leadership to that next generation.
As such, my primary goal over these remaining two years will be to ensure a smooth transition to my successor. And we are all here to help you throughout that process. Until that day arrives, however, I will eagerly continue to serve you. I remain grateful for the privilege of being your rabbi. For me, it is a blessing.
No doubt you have been, like me, closely following the horrible news coming out of Israel and Gaza over the last three weeks. Regardless of one's political sensibilities, we must agree that this war is taking a terrible toll. What seems to have started (but not really) by the deaths of four teenagers, has now spilled over into the deaths of so many more: combatants and bystanders alike. I pray that it will end soon and that Israelis and Palestinians will dig deep within their collective souls to find the compassion and the wisdom and, above all, the strength to do what is necessary to end this conflict and make peace.
Having said that, I write to you today to affirm my support for the State of Israel. Moreover, I encourage you to do the same.
Indeed, in the face of world opinion (weighing in on both sides of the equation), taking sides can be experienced as emotionally precarious business. Whether we see ourselves on the political right or left or the more likely "confused" somewhere in-between, what cannot be denied is that Israel is under attack. And so are Jews. This is as much our struggle as it is that of Israel. When Hamas indiscriminately sends rockets into Israel hoping it kills anyone, it becomes clear that its target transcends the State and simply wants to kill Jews. And so Hamas says in its charter. As a dear American friend of mine wrote from Jerusalem last month, this is personal.
No doubt in your attempt to make sense of this, if you are like me you have spent a good amount of time reading as much as possible. Because we desperately want to understand. To that end, I share with you an essay from today's Op-Ed page of the Israeli daily HaAretz. Written by Ari Shavit, author of the highly acclaimed My Promised Land, Mr. Shavit insightfully and succinctly frames the current conflict in a way that I believe is accurate. I recommend it to you.
Over here, summertime seduces us with its prospects for escape. (As I write this I am preparing for a vacation to Quebec.) But well we know, Israel knows no such vacation. These days leading up to the month of Av (next week) wherein we commemorate the anniversary of the destruction of Jerusalem do not afford Israelis the luxury of relegating Jewish existential angst to the world of intellectual discourse. It is as real to them today as our wondering what the weather will be like when we get up in the morning. Simply put, let us not lose sight of a fundamental teaching of Judaism: כל ישראל ערבין זה לזה. All Jews are intertwined (Talmud Yerushalmi). Lest we forget, the name of the Jewish people is ישראל / Israel.
Stand with Israel. And keep in your hearts the children. For their sake, pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
Recently one of our congregants shared the following story with me. Several years ago she read an article in the Science Times about a woman who decided to give a gift a day for 29 days as a way to cope with newly diagnosed MS. The article went on to describe the health benefits of "giving". The article stuck with the congregant and last year she got the notion to give it a try. She proposed to her family that for the month of December they try to do a good deed a day. They agreed that it could be as simple as holding the door for someone, but they'd also aspire to bigger things some days. So they decided to give it a whirl. In the evening, they reported back to each other what they had done; their stories were moving, funny and even ridiculous. They all found that after doing it for several days, they had a noticeable shift in how they viewed their days as well as the people with whom they had interacted. They purposefully looked for people to help, moving them away from thinking about themselves.
At a recent meeting of our Tikkun Olam ("Repairing the World") Committee, we explored the possibility of replicating this as a congregation. We all agreed that it would be great to do it in January as we come off the bounty of December. As it turns out, January contains Tu b'Shevat: the new year of the trees. And it struck me, perhaps just as we plant trees to bear fruit for the future, performing daily deeds of lovingkindness might lay the seeds for more such good deeds, thereby "paying it forward".
And here's how we plan to turn it into a community event:
As part of this project, we hope to collect any story that you would like to share about your experiences through the month (no set form or length is required). Merely tap it out and send it on to Jane Marcus who has agreed to collect them to be shared with the congregation. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rabbi Tarfon used to say: There is much work to be done. You are not required to finish the task, but neither are you free to leave it for someone else to do.
Please join us as we challenge ourselves to a month of giving. There is no right or wrong way to participate; whatever feels right to you to do is right. Join with us as we seek to repair the world, one good deed at a time.
It’s eleven miles from Blue Hill to Brooklin, Maine. State Highway 172, which changes names from South Street to Salt Pond Road to North Sedgwick Road along the way, is a two-lane asphalt road with hills and valleys, twists and turns as it meanders from the urbane Tradewinds food market of Blue Hill to my summer rental along Eggemoggin Reach in Brooklin. By now, I know exactly where the sharp turns are. I anticipate the hills, the spots where the fog is predictable, even the places where the deer dart from the woods unannounced.
The ride is quite pleasant. Except, that is, for the Sedgwick portion. In Sedgwick, a smaller than small town between Blue Hill and Brooklin, the roads yellow line all but disappears. It probably hasn't been repainted in ten years. The road itself is a composite of years of filled-in pot holes, a bumpy ride if ever there was one. And you wonder, “When are they going to resurface? This is ridiculous.” Forget trying to drink that cup of coffee on your drive into town. And for the passenger in the car, don’t even think of texting on your smartphone. It’s better to just wait until you cross the town line into Brooklin or Blue Hill (depending on your direction, of course).
For whatever reason, I’d never paid much attention to this stretch of road before this summer. Maybe I was so smitten with the beautiful vistas along the way that I simply failed to pay attention to the road itself. But now, after several years of driving the same route, the view has grown somewhat more mundane, the serpentine path has become routine. Now I’m more aware of the ride itself. I guess I’m becoming a “local.” I’m even paying attention to the road signs. Indeed, for the first time I noticed that just as you’re leaving Blue Hill and entering Sedgwick there’s one of those big yellow signs, a square turned on its point. It reads: “Rough Road.” Duh. “Thanks a lot,” I say to myself. As if I need a road sign to tell me this. But then I do the math. Given the meager resources of the small town, it becomes clear. It’s easier (and cheaper) to simply put up a sign than actually fix the road. And that made me think of the High Holy Days.
We’re pretty much the same way. Doing teshuvah, doing serious repair of one’s “self” (or neshamah in Hebrew) is hard work. It comes at a not small cost. Whether it’s probing psychotherapy or focused spiritual examination, well we know that it’s a lot easier to simply put up a sign. Al chet shechatanu lifanekha. For the sin we commit before You. You know the list. No need to repeat it here. We say the words. We beat our breast. We stand up. We go home. Until next year. The road remains “rough.”
Of course, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are intended to be more than just road signs. They are an annual exercise goading us to take ourselves a bit more seriously, to pay attention to our dreams and work on our shortcomings, to appreciate that we are imperfect beings and that life would be a lot better (for those around us as well as for ourselves) if we bothered to actually do some work on our neshamas. Our relationships would be smoother. Our work would be more rewarding. We would feel more whole. We would be more whole. But, well we know, the real work comes after the Holy Days. That’s why the first mitzvah incumbent upon us after we leave the synagogue on Yom Kippur is to hammer a nail into our sukkah. To build. To make something. To do something concrete. To do more than just say we will do it. And it’s hard stuff. It requires more than just a patching of potholes.
For a lot of us, we want our experience of Judaism to be filled with joy. We want it to be fun. And much of our tradition is just so. But at its core, the raison d'être of our faith is Tikkun Olam – the repairing of the world. This is why we exist as a people. Nevertheless, as the rabbis remind us, we cannot possibly expect to do Tikkun in the world until we are able to do the same work on ourselves. We are each a microcosm, pot holes and all, works in progress. And the question we should each bring with us into the new year is how long we’re content to continue traveling the rough road.
Not long before I left Brooklin, I noticed yet another sign on State Highway 172. In fact, it was just about twenty yards in front of the “Rough Road” sign. This sign read: “Under Construction.” It gave me hope for next year’s summer vacation to Maine. And that is the real message of these Days of Awe. We are all “under construction.” The only thing remaining to be answered is whether the words we utter on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will actually be signs of things to come, or just a signpost telling us what we already know?
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.
Click here to read archived "Thoughts" from Rabbi Steven Kushner.