Thursday, July 24, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Massei - Thou Shalt Not Seek Revenge

In the original Star Wars movie, Obi Wan Kanobi takes Luke Skywalker to Mos Eisley and warns him before they get there – you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy, we must be cautious.  As the viewer, we don’t know what to expect other than Obi Wan’s words. I always found it funny that in this place of scum and villainy we meet Hans Solo and Chewbacca who will go on to become heroes of the trilogy.  I guess you never know who you’re going to meet in different places. 

In this week’s Torah portion we get introduced to the Cities of Refuge.  Another place that at first glance may seem like a location that would be associated with scum and villainy.  But when we read further, we discover that the Cities of Refuge are actually supposed to be a haven where a man-slaughterer might flee.

God instructs Moses to set up 3 Cities of Refuge on the other side of the Jordan and 3 Cities of Refuge in the land of Canaan.  The intention is that if a person kills someone accidentally they then have the opportunity to flee to one of the Cities of Refuge before the family of the murdered person can pursue them and exact revenge.

In this way, at the first glance, the Cities of Refuge appear as a haven for man-slaughterers to flee to so that they can then allow for a judicial process to ascertain their level of guilt.  But on a secondary level, the City of Refuge also may be considered to provide some form of protection for the family of the murdered person.  They may feel compelled, in the heat of the moment, to go after the person who accidentally killed their loved one and exact revenge.  The Torah even refers to them as the “blood avengers”. 

But, do they really want to kill a person in cold blood?  Do they want to fulfill the edict of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?  Rather, the City of Refuge also allows for their anger to cool somewhat, for them to also wait for the judicial process to decide on the guilt, or otherwise, of the person who accidentally killed their loved one. 

The Cities of Refuge are protection for the man-slaughterer, but they are also protection against seeking revenge. And, the one thing that the Torah never goes into is to talk about what happens after the family of the murdered person exacts their revenge.  Do the family of the person they have killed now come seeking them out?  And do we enter into this cycle of revenge, potentially never ending. 

In this way as we read about the Cities of Refuge they provide protection for the man-slaughterer but they also provide protection against entering into an endless cycle of revenge, from which no good will ever come. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Matot - Our Responsibility

As we continue to watch events unfolding in Israel, living here in America, one might wonder, what is our responsibility?  What are we supposed to do as Jews living in the Diaspora for the people of Israel who are suffering under the barrage of rocket fire from Hamas?

One of the challenges of living in the Diaspora is the distance that we sometimes feel from our brothers and sisters who are in Israel and, in many ways, on the front line.  We are all members of one Jewish family and in this regard, we might wonder, what are our obligations to our Jewish brothers and sisters who are suffering?

In this week’s Torah portion of Matot, the Israelites continue on their journey toward the promised land and, as they stand there, just outside the promised land, the Reubenites and the Gaddites, who had much cattle, observed that the land outside of Israel would be very suitable for them to live and settle and raise their flocks.

They therefore approach Moses and ask him whether it would be possible for them to settle in this land outside of Israel.  In many ways they are proposing the first permanent Disapora community. Moses’ response is to ask the question – Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here?  In this way, Moses makes it clear that if part of the Israelite community is at war – are others going to stand idly by and just watch them fighting?

The Reubenites and the Gaddites respond and say they will build their homes and then they will serve as the shock troops, leading the Israelites until their homes are established.  In this way, the Reubenites and the Gaddites say that while we might not be living with you, we will be there serving on the front line taking our place with our brothers and sisters, the Children of Israel. We will not let you do this alone, we will be there with you.

I doubt that many Jews in the Diaspora are about to drop everything to go serve on the front line in Israel.  But we might consider how we can be there supporting them from our homes and our places.  How do we offer our solidarity and make it clear to the people of Israel that they are not alone.  Whether it’s by fighting their cause on social media, or by messages of support to those we love in Israel, or if it’s by making contributions to those charities helping those who are suffering in Israel today.  Each one of us has a choice.  We can stand idly by while our brothers and sisters in Israel are suffering or we can be like the Gaddites and Reubenites who said that our destiny is a shared destiny amongst all of the Jewish community. Supporting those in Israel in their time of need and being there together as one Jewish people.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Some articles about Operation Protective Edge and the current situation in Israel

It is currently around midday in New York on July 10th and I thought it might be worth putting together a few articles about events in Israel which I have found interesting– I do not necessarily agree or disagree with the content, but I felt they were worth sharing.  This is by no means an extensive list, but it offers a variety of insights and opinions.
There is an introduction to each article so that you can read what you find interesting.

Rabbi Danny

Ten Questions and Answers about the current war in Israel
Shoshanna Jaskoll tries to help answer some of the main questions people might have about the current situation in Israel.

Hamas, is this the best you can do?
Marc Goldberg (who I spent a year in Israel with) writes about how he feels as a Jew and an Israeli about Hamas’ latest attack on Israel and her citizens.

Where is the outrage over the bombardment of civilians in Israel?
Arsen Ostrovsky (in a British newspaper) asks why there has not been more condemnation of Hamas in the international community.

Only in Israel, or only in Palestine?
Yuval Noah Harari considers some of the factors which mean that while most of the world is at peace, in the Middle East there is still tension and war.

Israel’s years of calm are over
Ari Shavit (author of My Promised Land) offers an insight into the causes of the latest escalation in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

To Israel’s critics
David Harris (Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee) writes a letter to the critics of Israel in light of the current situation and the escalation of rocket attacks from the Gaza strip. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The "Wicked" Child of the Pew Study

Pesach is coming, and at sedarim across the Jewish community we will once again label four children as wise, wicked, simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. I have always struggled with this part of the seder for two reasons. All of my work with young people has taught me that we should avoid labeling children because it gives them a negative message, often encouraging them to live up to the label we ascribe. And on a secondary level, I have always found it hard to understand why the respective questions correspond to the labels which the Hagaddah gives them. While we could analyze each of the children and their corresponding labels, I would like to devote my focus on the wicked child. He asks: “What does this service mean to you?” The Hagaddah’s preoccupation is on the fact that the question says “you”, suggesting that this child no longer identifies with the Jewish people; he is therefore told, in no uncertain terms, that if he had been there he would not have been saved from Egypt. But in reality, one could see this as a question seeking to understand what is happening by looking at it through another person’s eyes. The “wicked” child might not feel a connection to the seder, but he is still seated around the table trying to understand the relevance and meaning for others. In light of the recent Pew study, this question and this child has taken on a new significance for me. A great deal of attention was given to the study’s finding that 22% of the American Jewish community today identify as Jews of no religion. The study said of them that they “are not only less religious but also much less connected to Jewish organizations and much less likely to be raising their children Jewish.” (see here; page 8) But despite this label, according to the study, 42% of Jews of no religion still attended a seder last year, assuming their place around the table. With this growing group in the Jewish community, we might reconsider the question of the supposedly wicked child: “What does this service mean to you?” Using the Pew study’s categories, surely this is the question the “Jews of no religion” could conceivably ask the “Jews by religion”. In this context, the “you” in the question does not symbolize that the group no longer identifies as part of the Jewish community. Rather it symbolizes a struggle to find meaning in Jewish religious life. In seeking meaning, they are still seated around our communal table, identifying as Jews, and they ask others to help provide them with an insight into the meaning. If we offer this group the answer suggested by the Hagaddah, not only do we fail to answer their question, but we further alienate them from Jewish religious life, and by extension the organized Jewish community. The Hagaddah solidifies a “them” and “us” approach by excluding them from the formative experience of Jewish history, our Exodus from Egypt. And once we exclude them from our communal history what likelihood is there that they will want to be part of our shared future? Their voice will be silenced, but unlike the child who does not know how to ask, who is silent due to an inability to question, their silence will come because they have removed themselves from our communal table. It is wonderful that in twenty-first century America, people continue to identify as Jews despite feeling no connection to the religion. In this group we can either see a threat or an opportunity. The Hagaddah’s response to the question comes from a place of fear, feeling threatened by this group and trying to coerce them back into the fold. Instead, we can see the opportunity to try and find ways to help this group find meaning in Jewish religious life. It may not have the same focus as the Judaism of our grandparents, but it can still be rooted in Jewish history and tradition, inspiring them to a deeper Jewish connection. In this way, the question “What does this service mean to you?” is a wonderful one for us to answer. One may find meaning in the story of the Exodus as a way to find a connection to God, through God’s relationship to the Jewish people. Or perhaps the meaning comes from our slavery experience which compels us to be socially active in the world on behalf of others. Or maybe there is meaning in the seder as a chain linking us back through our history, but also forward into the future with the emphasis on teaching our children. We can each share our personal understanding of the seder to offer them a variety of ways to find a connection. The Hagaddah provides us with just one answer. Today, with so many possible responses to this question, rather than pushing this group away, we can instead find ways to answer this question with meaning and love to deepen their Jewish connection. Then, perhaps at next year’s seder, they will not ask this question but instead answer it for others, sharing the meaning that they have found. (Originally posted on and

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Why is 13 the age for Bar and Bat Mitzvah at the synagogue?

 When a child becomes Bar or Bat Mitzvah we say that they are becoming adults, but in our modern world the age of 13 seems a little bit young for being considered an adult. All the other markers of adulthood in our society come later: driving license at 16, right to vote at 18, etc.  So we might wonder why Judaism considers adulthood to start at a significantly younger age.

One answer to the question is that the rules of Judaism developed in an earlier time when many of the responsibilities of adulthood started at a younger age, but this still doesn’t answer the specific question of why the Bar and Bat Mitzvah happens at 13 years of age.

In our Torah the age of 13 does not appear to be particularly significant, except for the fact that Ishmael was circumcised at this age (thankfully we follow the practice of Isaac who was circumcised at 8 days old). So we have to look into other texts. 

In the Mishnah, in a section called Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our ancestors, Rabbi Judah ben Tema offers us a schedule for our children. He says that ‘5 years is the age for the study of Torah, 10 years is the age for the study of Mishnah, 13 years is the age for becoming subject to the commandments, 15 is the age for the study of Talmud, 18 is the age for coming to the chuppah (bridal canopy)’ and so it continues right through until the age of 100.  

He does not say that a person becomes an adult at 13, instead he says that a person becomes subject to the commandments at 13, which by extension means that the person is treated as an adult. In another section of Jewish law (Talmud Niddah 45b) it says that the vows made by a person of 13 years or over are binding.

Becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah means becoming a son or daughter of the commandments, and so it makes sense that it marks the age when a person becomes subject to Jewish law.

From an anthropological perspective seventy percent of primal cultures have some form of formal adolescent-initiation practice; significantly as with Bar and Bat Mitzvah these rites precede marriage, reproduction, and adult responsibilities. And from a neuroscientific perspective there are benefits in having these rites of passage before adolescent hormones and emotions begin (you can read more about this here

In this way the Jewish choice of 13 as the age for becoming an adult clearly has benefits which can be seen in the wider world and adolescent development. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the institution of Bar and Bat Mitzvah has not only survived in our Jewish culture, but thrived to become a central rite of passage, and a central moment in most people’s and most families’ Jewish journeys.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

TCS Value - Social Action - Why am I Jewish?

“Why am I Jewish?” – This might seem like a strange question to ask, but it is one that is worth considering.

On one level I am Jewish because my parents are Jewish, and they raised me according to the religion and traditions which they practiced. This may provide a basic Jewish legal answer, but at the same time I believe that in our modern world we are all Jews by choice. Modernity removed the restrictions of the ghetto, and so we all have to make a choice to be, or to remain, Jewish. So I might amend the earlier question to ask: “Why do I choose to be Jewish?”

For me this question does not lend itself to a simple answer, because there are many reasons why I choose to be Jewish. On one level I choose to be Jewish because it is the religion of my family stretching back for countless generations. On another level I choose to be Jewish because it provides me with a framework for viewing the world in which I live and experiencing the Divine within that world. Alternatively I might say that I choose to be Jewish because I enjoy the rituals and traditions which make up Jewish practice.

But ultimately I choose to be Jewish, because I want to be an heir to the promise which Abraham and Sarah received, accepting the call to bring blessing to the world. At the very beginning when God called to Abraham, there was no statement about the worship of One God, the need for prayer or sacrifices, or a requirement of rituals and practices. At the very beginning Abraham and Sarah were called upon to undertake a journey, and they were told ‘you shall be a blessing … and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed’ (Bereishit 12:2-3). I choose to be Jewish because I want to find a way to bring blessing into the world.

Now this might seem like a rather lofty aspiration, and in some ways it is. But at the same time being a blessing simply requires us to do some good, so that the world is a better place for us having lived on it.

Judaism allows me to see the glory and majesty of the world, but at the same time it forces me to recognize that the world is not yet perfect. We witness violence, oppression, prejudice, injustice, and suffering (to name a few). Our obligation as Jews is to bear witness to the imperfection, and then to do something about it.

Throughout the Torah we are given commandments which end with the words ‘because you were slaves in Egypt’. While we may have no firsthand experience of suffering, as a people we have been the victims of violence, persecution, and injustice. Every year at our Passover Seder, we say that ‘we were slaves in Egypt’, we claim this memory so that it will lead us to action in the world for those who are currently suffering.

In the Talmud a debate is recorded between Rabbis Tarfon and Akiva. The question came up of whether study or action is greater. Rabbi Tarfon spoke up first and said ‘Action is greater’; in contrast Rabbi Akiva claimed ‘Study is greater’. The elders who were with them then intervened and settled the dispute saying: ‘Study is greater because it leads to action’.

In Judaism we sometimes study Torah lishma – which essentially means we study Torah simply for the sake of studying Torah. But more often we study Torah laasot – so that we will do, so that we will be active, so that we will seek to make a difference in the world.

As a community, it was clear that social action had to be one of our core values. We recognize that there is injustice and suffering in the world, and so we engage in acts of tikkun olam (repairing the world) that will lead to greater justice, righteousness and human dignity. We do this communally and we do this individually.

Collectively we are the heirs to Abraham and Sarah, and as such we are obligated to find ways to bring blessing into the world. Each one of us will have a different way of being that blessing, but in an imperfect world it is a call which none of us can ignore, and which all of us should hear.

Ultimately I choose to be Jewish because it requires me to be active in making this world a better place, because it allows me to be in partnership with God in the ongoing work of creation, and because it necessitates that I find my way, as an heir of Abraham and Sarah, to be a blessing.

Together, as a community, when we join together in acts of tikkun olam we can exponentially increase our blessing in the world. 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Why are we celebrating a second New Year in January?

We of course know that January 1st is our secular new year, when we make the move from 2013 to 2014. But in the course of this month we will also celebrate a second new year, beginning on the evening of January 15th, when the festival of Tu B’Shvat begins.

Now I know what you are thinking (or at least I think I do), you are wondering how can Tu B’Shvat be the new year, if we celebrated Rosh Hashanah back in September, which everyone said was the Jewish new year. Well the answer is that they are both new years, and actually we have two further new years in our Jewish calendar. According to the Rabbis of the Mishnah there are four new years: On the first of Nisan, it is the new year for the kings and for the festivals; on the first of Elul, it is the new year for the tithing of animals; on the first of Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah) it is the new year for years, and on the fifteenth of Shvat (Tu B’Shvat) it is the new year for the trees.

We celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the primary new year, because it is on that day that we make the move in terms of counting years (we are currently in the 5774th year of the Hebrew calendar). However, there are other points in the calendar when new years are celebrated and marked, and yet none of them coincide with our secular new year of January 1st.

In part this is because we are comparing 2 calendars which operate according to different ways of counting time, our secular calendar counts time according to the passage of the full four seasons, or according to a full revolution around the sun. In contrast our Hebrew calendar counts time according to the cycles of the moon, with each moon corresponding to a complete lunar cycle of new moon to full moon, to new moon again.

With four Jewish new years and a separate secular new year we might consider that the positioning of these moments is less important than the fact that we have them. What becomes clear from all of these new years is that there is something important in counting the passage of time. It is important for us as individuals, but it is also important in a communal context whether it is in our Jewish or secular worlds. And I wish all of you Happy Tu B’Shvat – have a wonderful celebration of the new year for the trees.