Monday, November 21, 2016

My derashu on Psalm 104 given at the 2016 Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, Marathin JCC

Here is another story that proves that behind every great man is even a greater woman.
Rabbi Meir, the second century Talmudic scholar, had a serious problem. The thugs in the neighborhood were making his life miserable. Desperate for a way to escape their harassment, Rabbi Meir decided that drastic measures were called for. He decided to pray that the ruffians would die.

But Rabbi Meir’s wife, Bruria, wasn’t pleased with this solution. Bruria quoted to her husband a verse in our psalm 104:35  “Let sin be uprooted from the earth, and the wicked will be no more.”

It doesn’t say “Let the sinners be uprooted,” Bruria pointed out. It says “Let the sins be uprooted.” You shouldn’t pray that these thugs will die; you should pray that they should repent! And then, automatically, “the wicked will be no more.

Rabbi Meir followed his wife’s advice. Sure enough, the neighborhood hooligans changed their ways, due to the scholar’s prayers. 

Shouldn’t we follow Brurua’s advice too! Let us pray this Thanksgiving that all of the dwellers of our beloved country live up to tis highest ideals and aspirations as George Washington wrote to the members of the Turo Synagogue in Rhode Island: 

“everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”  For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

If we can realize his words in our lifetime, then every day will be a thanks giving day

Friday, November 18, 2016

Life's pop quizzes

Vayera 5777

Over the years, students have tried their luck with entertaining answers to exam questions in order to appeal to their teachers’ funny side. I found a website with some hilariously wrong answers.  Here are some of my favorites:

What is a fibula?-a little lie.

Explain the phrase “free press.”-When your mum irons trousers for you.

Joanna works in an office.  Her computer is a stand-alone system. What is a stand-alone computer system?-It doesn’t come with a chair.

Steve is driving his car. He is traveling 60 feet/second and the speed limit is 40 mph. Is Steve speeding?-He could check his speedometer.

Where was the American Declaration of Independence signed?-At the bottom.
Briefly explain hard water.-ice

This week's Torah portion ends with the Binding of Isaac. The story begins “יְהִ֗י אַחַר֙ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְהָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים נִסָּ֖ה אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֑ם Sometime afterward, God put Abraham to the test.” According to the Rabbis in the Mishnah God tested Abraham not once, not twice, and not even thrice, but 10 times! In this parasha alone, we read about the last 4 culminating with the near sacrifice of Isaac.

I don't know about Sam, but if he is anything like me when I was his age, I hated pop quizzes. As I have grown older and have been out of school for a long time, I've realized pop quizzes are not a thing of the past. Life tests us all the time. The results of these tests teach us much about our character strengths and weaknesses.

Exams in school tests our honesty. Do we cheat if the occasion arises and we know we won't get caught?

Passing the homeless and hungry on the street tests our compassion.

Returning a wallet full of cash or returning too much change to the cashier tests our integrity.

Standing up to a bully tests our character.

Facing long odds tests our resolve.

Being married tests our fidelity.

Having children tests our patience. 

Responding to the fears and needs of others tests our sympathy and empathy.
The words we choose tests our truthfulness.

Thinking about we have and what we're missing tests our gratitude

Every moment in a policeman's or a fireman's life tests his determination to serve and protect.

Every moment in a soldier's life on the battlefield tests his courage under fire.
Growing old tests how we age gracefully.

Failing these tests won't stop you from being admitted into medical school, law school, or business school and even prevent you becoming President of the United States, but the results will determine what kind of doctor, lawyer, business man, and human being you are. Are you a person people trust, admire, and appreciate? Are you a caring decent kind person? Are you understanding and tolerant of differences and show compassion to those who have disabilities? In other words, are you a mench?

Your answers to life’s pop quizzes will determine how you will be remembered long after you stopped walking on this earth. Will you be like Abraham, who passed all his tests with flying colors, as a blessing to his family to his people and to all humankind? I hope so.

Monday, November 14, 2016

My acceptance speech upon becoming the President of RANSAQ November 13, 2016

Ascending the Presidency of Ransaq, Nov. 13, 2013

Intro:  Being President of the Rabbinical Assembly region of Nassau, Suffolk, and Queens is an awesome responsibility.  I’ve just added another 120 or so bosses on top of my membership for now I am responsible to approximate 120 rabbis in our region.  I appreciate their confidence in me.  Since I don’t want all this power to go to my head, I’m taking seriously the following Hassidic lesson. According to Rabbi Bunim of P'shiskha, everyone should have two pockets, each containing a slip of paper. On one should be written: I am but dust and ashes, and on the other: The world was created for me. From time to time we must reach into one pocket, or the other. The secret of living comes from knowing when to reach into each.

Being a good Conservative Rabbi, I have updated Rabbi Bunim’s message specifically for me based upon my background. By now everybody knows that I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio and spent the first 25 years of my professional life in Massachusetts. Since we’re in the middle of football season in one pocket I have a note that reads “I am a N.E. Patriots fan” and in the other “I am a Cleveland Browns fan.” And I think that should do the trick too.

 I want to thank all of you for joining me and my board at our installation.  I want to acknowledge the few colleagues who could break away from their busy Sunday schedule and join with us. I want to show my appreciation to my congregation for all their love and support.  I envisioned just some coffee and cookies at the fellowship at the conclusion of the installation.  My president didn’t think that was appropriate enough for the occasion and he suggested hor d’oeuvres and the Sisterhood and Kiddush committee thought that hor d’oeuvres wasn’t appropriate enough so they chose to serve a light dinner for all attending. I want to thank all the people who put today’s installation together.  I am a very lucky rabbi to serve the Marathon JCC family.

You should know that I have a great board supporting me. As immediate past president, Rabbi Vernon has set the bar high for me as I follow him. I remind the extremely knowledgeable and capable Rabbi Wise that he is only a heartbeat away from the presidency. Rabbi Silverman and Rabbi Yaffe hold a special place in my heart for they are my Hevrutas, study partners. Not only do we study Talmud and Rambam’s Mishneh Torah together, we share and support each other in our work and life. Rabbi Benson has already done an admirable job as our corresponding secretary keeping our membership informed and hosting us for our very first meeting in the Sukkah by introducing us to Jewish without walls phenomenon.  I am indeed a very lucky president.

Last and not least, I need to acknowledge my biggest cheerleader, my ezer kenegdo, and the love of my life, my wife Judy. Without her I’m nothing. My children had previous engagements that prevents them from joining with me today. I know that they are as proud of me as I am of them. I am a very lucky man.
The goal of my tenure is to implement the Rabbinical Assembly’s OurRA for our region.  The national RA has realized that not only are we in a paradigm shift when it comes to Judaism, but also for our rabbis.  We are a more diverse group of men and women than ever before. One size fits all no longer works.  To meet the various needs of our colleagues, we now have 10 major focus points that will allow each individual to find the spiritual, vocational, and physical support he or she needs. I am excited that my board and I decided to be the catalyst in this endeavor to support one another.

I am hoping that the experience we gain helping our colleagues meet their Jewish needs will translate to our work with our congregations so that we become better rabbis for the Jewish people we serve in our here at home and throughout the world. I conclude with King David’s prayer in psalms:

וִיהִי נֹֽעַם אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ עָלֵֽינוּ, וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵֽינוּ כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵֽינוּ, וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵֽינוּ כּוֹנְנֵֽהוּ.

May Adonai our God show us compassion, and establish the work of our hands. May the work of our hands be firmly established. Amen

Friday, November 11, 2016

A Jewish response to Donald Trumps victory

With gratitude to Dr. Steven Bayme who in a webinar spoke of the 3 aspects of a Jewish response delineated in this blog.

Why was Abraham chosen to be the father of the Jewish people? We know why God chose Noah to restart humanity after the flood.  He was a righteous man in his generation. We also know why God chose Moses to lead the Jewish people to freedom from the early stories of his life in the Torah. At risk of his palace home, his elevated position in society, and his very life, he protected an Israelite from the task master’s whip and tried to make peace between two Israelites.  Moses also showed concern for the weak and bullied non-Israelites when he came to the aid of Yitro’s daughters at the well. 

But we know absolutely nothing why God chose Abraham and entered a covenant with him and showered him with all of those blessings. The blessings include that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the shore. God has given the land of Israel to him and his offspring. All who bless Abraham will be blessed and all who curse him will be cursed. The Torah just recounts that God told him leave his homeland to a place He will show him and Abraham left when he was 75 years old.

So why did God choose Abraham? I think that the answer is embedded in Genesis 18 just before Abraham begins to argue on behalf of the wicked people of Sodom and Gemorrah. God says: “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do… For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right."

I don’t know whether you voted for or against Donald Trump. Either you are jubilant like some of the Jews I daven with at Young Israel or you are in shock and mourning like I am. As descendants of Abraham, we must keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right as we confront a Trump presidency. Whether you a Republican or a Democrat, what is the Jewish response to him being our next president?

First of all, we need to heal the breach amongst us citizens. The country is evenly divided in half. Hilleary Clinton won the popular vote by a mere 200,000 votes. A lot of people have been left behind and are suffering and have put their hopes in Trump. They are in the older sectors of the economy that will never come back no matter how many trade agreements Trump renegotiates. I read in the newspaper that manufacturing in the United States is at a high rate if not at all-time high. But the vast majority of the jobs people used to do like on assembly lines have been replaced by robots.  These jobs are never coming back. We on the left have to hear their pain, not ignore, and help them.

People on the right have to hear our fears and consider them real. Muslims are scared. The major of Teaneck who is a Muslim himself has never seen his community so terrified. They don’t know what to do. Fight back? Lay low? A friend told me that her gay niece is frightened out of her mind.  She is right to be terrified. I saw an article with a picture of a young gay man bloodied beaten by two Trump supporters after he left a bar. 
For the real first time in my life time, I think anti-Semitism that used to lurk in the shadows is entering the mainstream American life.  Jewish reporters have been trolled. “After she wrote a profile of Mr. Trump’s wife, Melania, for GQ magazine, the journalist Julia Ioffe was deluged with anti-Semitic taunts on Twitter. When Mrs. Trump was asked about the controversy, she said Ms. Ioffe had “provoked” her attackers. Jonathan Weisman, an editor at The New York Times, has been sent, among other things, cartoon drawings of the hooknosed Jew and an image of the gates of Auschwitz against the words: ‘Machen Amerika Great.’ And when Ben Shapiro, a former editor at large at Breitbart, the right-wing news website, announced on Twitter the birth of his second child, he received this reply: ‘Into the gas chamber with all four of you.’”(Jonathan Mahler, “Anti-Semitic posts, many from Trump supporters, surge on Twitter, New York Times, Oct. 19, 2016)
Secondly, we need to restore a civil discourse in our society. The discourse during this election reached an all-time new low. Instead of speaking respectfully about the issues, we all heard chants of “Lock her up,” “Lying Ted” and “Crooked Hillary.” The absolute lack of respect was disgusting. Every human being is created in God’s image. We are commanded to respect the other because of that. You can vehemently disagree, but as a person enters the discussion with his or her dignity intact, so should he or she leave the discussion with his or her dignity intact.
Finally, we need to push back those extremist views back to the margins again. Thursday night I was meeting with a couple for the last time before their wedding. The bride is an 8th grade teacher and she told me that 3 racially motivated fights broke out in her school the day after the elections. In one case, a white kid told a second generation American of Mexican descent to go back to Mexico. The offended American punched the other in the mouth. Graffiti linking Trump’s name to hate speech like “Make America Great Again Go back to Africa.”  And David Duke, the former Louisiana lawmaker and former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, tweeted that Mr. Trump’s victory was “one of the most exciting nights of my life,” and also, “Our people have played a HUGE role in electing Trump!” In another tweet, he wrote, “Anyone telling you this was a vote for ‘unity’ is a liar and they know it!” (New York Times editorial “Denounce the Hate Mr. Trump, November 11, 2016)  In no uncertain terms, we have to proclaim that racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and homophobia can find no home here in America.  As President George Washington wrote to the members of the Touro Synagogue “For happily the Government of the United States give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should mean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their mutual support.” 

If we heal the breach in our country, restore civil discourse to our society, and push the racists, anti-Semites, the Islamaphobes, the homophobes back to the margins, then we shall help make America great again and be proud descendants of Avraham Avinu (Abraham our father).

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Why Purim is one of the most important holidays of all

We Jews define ourselves in many different ways.  Some Jews are gastronomical Jews.  They express their Jewish identity by eating Jewish food like a good corned beef sandwich. Some Jews are two-day a year Jews.  They are in and out synagogue just two days a year, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  Some Jews are Passover Jews who just love the whole holiday with its rituals, foods, and family centered meal.  I am willing to wager that most children are Hanukkah Jews for the obvious reason.  I am a Purim Jew.  I love the holiday of Purim.

If you ask Jews what are the most important holidays, Purim wouldn’t break the top 10 list. Nevertheless, Purim probably is the most important holiday of all!  Allow me to give you a traditional reason as well as a modern reason.

In the Talmud Megillah 15b the Sages teach that when the Messiah comes, all the books of the prophets will be annulled except the Scroll of Esther!  The Rabbis in the Talmud Shabbat explain why this verse in the Megillah is so important. “…the Jews undertook and irrevocably obligated themselves and their descendants, and all who might join them, to observe these two days in the manner prescribed and at the proper time each year.” (9:27)

“And they stood under the mountain” (Exodus 19:17) Rabbi Avdimi ben Hama ben Hasa said: “This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain and suspended it upon them like a barrel and said to them: 'If you accept the Torah, well and good, but if not- there shall be your burial!' Rabbi Aha ben Ya'akov observed: “This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah” (i.e., a blanket excuse for nonobservance of a covenant ratified under duress). Said Rava: “Yet even so, they accepted it again in the days of Ahaverosh, for it is written: 'undertook and irrevocably obligated themselves and their descendants, and all who might join them'; they ratified (with the institution of Purim) what they took upon them long before (at Sinai). (Shabbat 88a)

Our acceptance of the Torah on the holiday of Shavuot is in doubt.  Since we accepted the Torah under duress, perhaps it isn’t binding.  A modern analogy is the selling of art owned by Jews during the Holocaust.  The descendants of the art owners are now claiming ownership of those works of art because they were sold under duress.  The original Jewish owners really had no choice but to sell them and at under the market value.  Maybe the Torah and Mitzvot are no longer enjoined upon us. When the Jews accepted upon themselves the holiday of Purim, they happily and freely accepted the covenant of the Torah binding us to God and His commandments.

The Torah has preserved us and has made us who we are today.  Without Purim, perhaps we would have forsaken it and who knows whether we still would be around as Jews today!

We modern Jews have much to be thankful for the post Torah holiday of Purim.  Purim shares many of the same qualities of the pilgrimage holidays in the Torah.  Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and Purim celebrate historical events.  On Passover we celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, and our freedom from slavery.  On Shavuot we received the Torah on Mt. Sinai.  On Sukkot we commemorate living in sukkot, booths, during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.  On Purim we celebrate our victory of Haman and his allies who sought to destroy us. 

There is one major and important difference.  The three Pilgrimage holidays are God ordained. Mordechai and Esther enjoined the Jewish people to add Purim to the calendar as it is written: “Mordechai recorded these events. And he sent dispatches to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Ahaverosh, near and far, charging them to observe the 14th and 15th of Adar, every year. (9:20-21).

Purim is the first post-Torah holiday.  Nothing like it ever happened before.  Mordechai and Esther had the chutzpah to start a brand new holiday that wasn’t sanctioned by God.  They set an important precedent. Without Purim, we might not have been able to add Hanukkah, Yom Hashoa, and Israel Independence Day on the calendar.  Purim teaches us that we too have the power to sanctify and make holy. 

For both the traditional reason and the modern reason we need to acknowledge the importance of Purim and not relegate it simply to a child’s holiday.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

I can help the Palestinians

I sent this letter to the editor of the New York Times.  I don't expect it to be published so I am publishing it here.

Palestinian teachers are striking. The Palestinian Authority claims they can't pay their teachers the promised raise because of the drop in the foreign aid (New York Times, March 7). I can find them the money. The Palestinian Authority pays large bounties to the attackers and their families. An attacker can go out to commit murder assured that if he is arrested he will receive a monthly salary; if he is killed, his family will receive a monthly pension; and if his family home is destroyed, the family will receive a very generous award to rebuild their home. An Israeli government 2014 memorandum, citing official PA budgetary reports, noted that $75.5 million had been paid out in stipends to convicted terrorists and their families in 201. I wonder will the family of the terrorist, who murdered the American graduate student Taylor Force (New York Times, March 8), also be rewarded for his act of murder. Instead of inciting violence against Israelis, that money would be better spent providing a better future for the children.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Zika virus and Jewish Law

When does life begin asks the old joke.  A Catholic priest replies, “Life begins with conception.  That’s why abortion is forbidden. It is murder.” A Protestant Minister disagrees and says, “Life begins at birth; therefore under some circumstances abortion may be permitted.”  A Rabbi responds: “You are both wrong.  Life begins when your last child graduates from college and the dog dies.  That is when life really begins!” Often, the abortion debate has been framed by a question that asks, “When does life begin?”  “When does life begin” is the wrong question.  Of course, a fetus is living.  The question is whether it’s a person, an independent human being. 
The outbreak of the Zika virus shines a bright light bringing in great relief a difference between Judaism and Catholicism (and perhaps other streams of Christianity) when it comes to the theological concept of when the fetus is ensouled and becomes a human being. 
The New York Times reported on February 13, 2016:
As the Zika virus spreads in Latin America, Catholic leaders are warning women against using contraceptives or having abortions (despite the) of the risk of birth defects.
After a period of saying little, bishops in Latin America are beginning to speak up and reassert the church’s opposition to birth control and abortion
“Contraceptives are not a solution,” said Bishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, the secretary general of the National Council of Bishops of Brazil, and an auxiliary bishop of Brasília, in an interview. “There is not a single change in the church’s position.”
Cardinal Odilo Scherer of São Paulo said recently that mothers must accept babies born with microcephaly “as a mission,” and that abortion was out of the question. However, he appeared to open a door to using condoms, saying that is “personal choice” because a new life has not yet been formed.
The papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1968, said that artificial contraception was forbidden because sexual intercourse must always be open to procreation.
The Church believes that life begins with conception.  Abortion is muder.  When a decision is made to save the mother or the fetus, church doctrine teaches to save the mother since she has already been baptized and saved.  The fetus has not and will be doomed if it is aborted without the possibility of being baptized.
We Jews understand the status of the fetus completely differently. Although the fetus represents potential life, throughout rabbinic literature, we find that the fetus isn’t a separate person in the judicial sense, but a limb of the mother (yerech emo).  In fact until forty days after conception, the fertilized egg is considered as “mere fluid.” 
The proof text in the Torah that the fetus isn’t a person is found in Exodus 21:22-3. “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may extract from him, the payment to be based upon reckoning….” If the miscarriage was considered murder, the man pushing the woman would be culpable of a capital offence.  The Talmuld (Sanhedrin 84b) teaches: “It was necessary for the Torah to write ‘He who fatally strikes a man (ish) shall be put to death (Exodus 21:12). For had the Torah written “who kills any person (nefesh) the murderer shall be put to death (Numbers 35:30), one would have concluded that capital punishment is applied to one who kills a fetus.”
 Describing a woman have trouble giving birth and her life is in danger one may abort the fetus in utero to save the mother’s life because the fetus is not a human being (lav nefesh hu) (Sanhedrin 72b).  Since the mother is alive and the fetus is only a potential life, we must save the actual life over the potential life.  The Mishnah in Ohalot 7:6 teaches: “If a woman in labor has a life-threatening difficulty, one dismembers the embryo within her, removing it limb by limb, for her life takes precedence over its life.  But once its greater part (of the head) has emerged it may not be harmed, for we do not set aside one life aside one life for another.” Only when the head has emerged it is considered a living person and cannot be touched.
Not only are we concerned about the mother’s physical wellbeing, but also concerned about her mental health.  “In a contemporary responsum, R. Eliezer Walderberg concludes that in principle, an abortion is permissible as late as the sixth month of pregnancy if tests reveals a Tay Sachs or Down’s Syndrome afflicted fetus. In justifying an abortion even at that late date, his concern was not the possibility of a physical threat to the mother, but rather the mental health of the mother who bears a fatally ill or deformed child. As R. David Feldman explains ‘(T)he principle that the mother’s pain ‘comes first,’ however, is the most pervasive of all factors in the consideration of the abortion question.”[i]
If a mother wishes to raise a child with the birth defect of microcephaly, we would support her.  However, if she would choose to abort the fetus because of the mental anguish it would cause her, Jewish law would also support her.
According to Jewish Law, the obligation to be fruitful and multiply falls solely on the male. Consequently, he is forbidden to use a condom as a birth control method.  Since the woman doesn’t have the obligation, certain forms of birth control are permitted.  Nevertheless, I remember when the Aids epidemic started hearing an orthodox rabbi permit in a sermon the use of condoms for a health measure to protect the lives of the partner and fetus, but not as a birth control.
Finally we disagree with the Church about sex.  At the conclusion of Creation, God views everything He has created and saw that it was very good. That includes sex between two loving partners.  In fact the Torah teaches us that “It is not good for man to be alone.” ( Gen.2:18) So God created Eve to be his partner and not just a hothouse to incubate his babies. Judaism permits sex without the intent of procreation.  Otherwise it would be forbidden to marry a barren person which it is not.  Otherwise it would be forbidden for a couple too old to have children to marry which it is not.  People are not meant to be alone and lonely.  Making love is the deepest and most intimate communication two people can have and God saw that as being very good indeed.

[i] Thinking about Women inAbortion Controversies by Adena K. Berkowitz A Journal of Philosophy, Law and Judaism Vol 2: No 2 1991, page 26.