Shema Yisrael … Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God, the Lord is One                                                      …Deuteronomy 6:4 This is one of the The post Vaetchanan 5779 – The Oneness ...

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Vaetchanan 5779 – The Oneness of God

Shema Yisrael … Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God, the Lord is One                                                    
  …Deuteronomy 6:4

This is one of the most powerful, mystical verses in the entire Torah. And it’s in this week’s Torah reading.

This is the first prayer Jewish children learn. Words we are commanded to say in the morning when we get up, words we are commanded to say when we lie down at night, words that are often the last words on a dying Jew’s lips. We’ll be reciting them in a little while as part of our evening service.

Jews who don’t know any other Hebrew, will know the Shema. Jews who don’t know the meaning of any other Hebrew words, will know what these six words mean.

The words are so familiar they roll off our lips without our giving them much thought.

But what do they really mean? In particular, what does it mean we say Adonai echad?

The Hebrew which is so familiar seems pretty simple and straightforward.

Two simple words: Adonai means God. Echad means one. But what do we mean when we say God is one?

The rabbis have spilled a lot of ink on this question.

Rashi says it’s a prediction for the future. God is our God now, and someday, when everyone in the whole world recognizes our God, God will be one.

Rashbam, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, (12thc. France) said it means God is our God, we don’t have any other God with Him. Adonai echadmeans God is unique, and our relationship with him is special.

Rambam, Maimonides (12thc., Spain/Egypt) takes it in a different direction—he says it not just God’s uniqueness, but God’s unity: “We believe that this Primal Cause [God] is One. [His is] not like the oneness of a pair, nor like the oneness of a species, nor like man, whose complex oneness may be divided into many units, nor like the oneness of a simple body, which is one in number but may be divided and separated without end. Rather, He is One with a Oneness that knows no parallel in any manner. This is the Second Principle, as affirmed by the verse (Deut. 6:4): “Hear O Israel, God is our Lord, God is One.”

Rambam’s emphasis on God’s unique unity or “oneness” is similar to the kabbalistic or mystical notion of God as “Ein Sof,” without end, the Infinite.

Other faith traditions also speak of the essential unity of God and the universe.

In Islam, for example, there’s a principle called Tawhid (Unity). Everything originates from ‘one’ and eventually will return to ‘one’, as stated in the Quran: “We originated the first creation, so We shall bring it back (to its former state) again.” (21:104)

The interconnectedness and oneness of everything is also a very Buddhist idea: Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai teaches,

“Since everything in this world is brought about by causes and conditions, there can be no fundamental distinctions among things. The apparent distinctions exist because of people’s absurd and discriminating thoughts.” 

The goal of Buddhist meditation practice is to sit and quiet the mind. They say the ego gets in the way perceiving the ultimate unity of the universe. Judaism has similar teachings; the Slonimer rebbe taught that the reason we cover our eyes when saying the Shema is so that we can do “hitbatlut,” nullification of the self, getting our ego out of the way, because ego creates artificial divisions. Enlightenment is ultimately about seeing through the veil of appearances of the world around us to see the essential essence of the Unity of the universe.

Interestingly enough, it’s not just mystics sitting on mountaintops who say these things. Western Physics, our rational, scientific approach to the world, says the same thing:

Bell’s Theorem implies unity and interconnectedness in the very fabric of the universe. As Gary Zukav describes it:

Bell’s theorem is a mathematical construct which, as such, is indecipherable to the nonmathematician.  Its implications, however, could affect profoundly our basic world view.  Some physicists are convinced that it is the most important single work, perhaps, in the history of physics.  One of the implications of Bell’s theorem is that, at a deep and fundamental level, the ‘separate parts’ of the universe are connected in an intimate and immediate way. In short, Bell’s theorem and the enlightened experience of unity are very compatible. 

A full discussion of Bell’s Theorem is beyond the scope of a d’var Torah, and beyond the scope of my understanding of physics. Basically, it says the laws of classical physics – including “nothing can travel faster than the speed of light” – break down when it comes to quantum mechanics. One way this has been proven is with experiments showing “non-locality.” A particle is split, and measuring it at location “A” seems to affect what you will see when you measure it at location “B.” Instantaneously, no “communication time lag,” i.e., much faster than the speed of light. What some physicists call “spooky action at a distance.” It suggests that at a fundamental level matter transcends space—it’s all connected somehow.

There are other principles in physics which also speak to the unity of the universe. E=Mc2 says that energy and matter are the same thing—so in a way, “stuff” is just another form of “energy.” The whole universe is just different packages of energy. Another interesting principle is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. What this principle says is that at a sub-atomic level we can’t know both the exact location and the exact velocity of a particle—measuring unavoidably influences the results. There is some kind of connection between what’s being measured and the instrument measuring. One of my favorite bumper stickers is “Heisenberg may have slept here.”

On a more macro level, we are becoming increasingly aware of the interconnectedness of all of us who live on this planet. Polar bears, who live thousands of miles from the nearest “civilization” are endangered because of factories putting toxic chemicals into the air. It has been scientifically proven that acidification of lakes in Sweden is from pollution originating in other countries.

The kabbahlist Ramchal (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, Israel, 16thc.) said,

The oneness of Eyn Sof – He who has “No End”, blessed be He – lies in the fact that only His Will exists, and no other will exists except through Him…God’s supreme unity is the foundation of faith and the root of wisdom…Since He alone exists, He alone is in control. This means that every other being that exists now is contingent upon Him.

Everything that exists is contingent upon God. Your computer may be powered by Intel, but the universe and everything in it is powered by God.

In fact, more than powered by God, it’s all God. Everything in the universe – you, me, the chair you’re sitting on, the homeless drug addict living under a bridge, a hurricane, a rock, everything is a part of God.

You might ask, “isn’t that just paganism? God as nature?” The Jewish mystic isn’t pagan; it’s what’s called “panentheism,” which is a fancy way to say God is more than the sum of the parts. Or another way I like to think of it is God is the soul of the universe.

The mystics say that there is no way we can truly know the ultimate Unity of the Ein Sof. As a Ba’hai prayer says: “Thy unity is inscrutable, O my God.” It is simply beyond human comprehension. We strive to attain an understanding and appreciation of God’s unity, yet we know that ultimately we can never succeed—for as God told Moses, “Man cannot see My face and live.” God is infinite and our brains are finite.

Something to discuss over your Shabbat meal is what are the implications of God’s unity? Ein Sof, God as the infinite, means it’s all God. We are all part of God, as is all of creation. What does that tell us about how we should treat other people? About how we should treat the world around us?

Shabbat shalom

The post Vaetchanan 5779 – The Oneness of God appeared first on The Neshamah Center.


Matot-Masei 5779: Silence Implies Consent

There’s a Mishnah that teaches, “silence is a fence to wisdom.” Or as Mark Twain is reputed to have put it, “better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you’re a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

The Jewish tradition teaches that words are very powerful things. The world was created through speech. Lashon hara, saying bad things about someone, is considered a very serious sin. In this week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei, we are taught that oaths and vows are serious business. If you make a vow, and fail to fulfill it, you’re a sinner.

Even if you don’t believe in divine punishment, the sin of making vows and not fulfilling them often results in negative consequences. If you promise to take your kids out for ice cream, or promise to take your wife on a cruise, and fail to live up to your promise, you’ll damage those relationships. You get punished for that sin. You caused harm by simply opening your mouth: if you hadn’t made the promise in the first place, you wouldn’t have created a problem.

That’s why the sages have taught it’s better not to make any vows at all.

When it comes to words, not only do the things we say have significance: even the things we don’t say have significance.

In Biblical days, very few women were truly free agents. A young woman still in her father’s house was considered to be under the authority of her father. A married woman was under the authority of her husband. The only women who were truly free agents were widows or divorcees. Since the husband or father had control over a woman’s behavior, she couldn’t make a valid vow without their permission.

In this week’s Torah portion we read:

If a woman vows a vow to the Lord, and binds herself by an oath, being in her father’s house in her youth; And her father hears her vow, and her oath with which she has bound her soul, and her father remains silent, then all her vows shall stand, and every oath with which she has bound her soul shall stand. But if her father disallows her in the day that he hears; not one of her vows, or of her oaths with which she has bound her soul, shall stand; and the Lord shall forgive her, because her father disallowed her.

In other words, if a young woman still living in her father’s house makes a vow, her father can overrule it, and her vow does not count. On the other hand, if the father does nothing – if he simply remains silent – the vow stands.

Or as lawyers put it in Latin: qui tacet consentiret, silence implies consent.

We all know that the one of the Ten Commandments is “do not bear false witness against your neighbor.” What you might not know is that the rabbis understand this commandment as meaning you can even bear false witness by not saying a word. Under Jewish law, you need two witnesses to be prosecuted for a crime. If there’s one witness, and you stand next to that witness, making it look like you are a witness with him, when you are not, you are guilty of bearing false witness, and could be punished.

We have an example in the Torah of someone being punished for remaining silent. At the end of Parshat Baha’alotcha, there is a story about how Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of “the Kushite woman,” a reference to his wife. The commentator Ibn Ezra says that Miriam spoke, and Aaron was silent – and thus he was punished. His keeping quiet while Miriam spoke against Moses implied consent, and was a sufficient transgression to merit his being punished.

Not only in the Torah is silence seen as consent. In civil law silence does not ALWAYS imply consent, but it can. According to one law dictionary I consulted, “when any person is accused of a crime, or charged with any fact, and he does not deny it, in general, the presumption is very strong that the charge is correct.”

Now to be fair, the truth is that silence does NOT always mean consent. Silence is actually quite a complicated affair.

The presidential veto is an example where silence can have different meanings. Under ordinary circumstances, when Congress is in session, if Congress sends a bill to the president, he has ten days to send it back for revision or to veto it. If he does nothing and ten days passes, qui tacit consenterit, silence implies consent, and the bill becomes law. Very similar conceptually to the father in this week’s Torah portion.

On the other hand, there’s what’s known as the “pocket veto.” If Congress passes a bill, and then goes into recess, the President does not have an opportunity to send the bill back for more work. In that case, since there is no possibility of protesting an aspect of the bill, silence becomes a veto. The same silence from the president, but with opposite meanings.

Nowhere is the complexity of silence better proven than in a brilliant scene from the movie “A Man for All Seasons,” which Ian Curtis and I will act out for you.

A Man for All Seasons is the story of Sir Thomas More, who had the temerity to stand up to King Henry VIII when Henry decided to divorce his wife against the wishes of the Catholic church. Henry didn’t like what the church told him, so he just started his own church instead, the Church of England, otherwise known as the Episcopalian or Anglican Church. More had been Lord Chancellor, number two man to the King. A devout Catholic, he resigned as the schism with the Catholic church was approaching. A little while later, he refused to take an oath Henry imposed on all citizens of England repudiating the influence of “foreign powers,” meaning the Pope, in English affairs. More maintained that he was not renouncing the king—he was simply maintaining his silence, and silence implies consent, so the King should leave him alone.

The following is the way the movie treats a historical meeting between More (played by myself) and King Henry’s chief advisor, Thomas Cromwell (played by Ian):

Cromwell: Now, Sir Thomas, you stand on your silence.
Sir Thomas More: I do.
Cromwell: But, gentlemen of the jury, there are many kinds of silence. Consider first the silence of a man who is dead. Let us suppose we go into the room where he is laid out, and we listen: what do we hear? Silence. What does it betoken, this silence? Nothing; this is silence pure and simple. But let us take another case. Suppose I were to take a dagger from my sleeve and make to kill the prisoner with it; and my lordships there, instead of crying out for me to stop, maintained their silence. That would betoken! It would betoken a willingness that I should do it, and under the law, they will be guilty with me. So silence can, according to the circumstances, speak! Let us consider now the circumstances of the prisoner’s silence. The oath was put to loyal subjects up and down the country, and they all declared His Grace’s title to be just and good. But when it came to the prisoner, he refused! He calls this silence. Yet is there a man in this court – is there a man in this country! – who does not know Sir Thomas More’s opinion of this title?
Crowd in court gallery: No!
Cromwell: Yet how can this be? Because this silence betokened, nay, this silence was, not silence at all, but most eloquent denial!
Sir Thomas More: Not so. Not so, Master Secretary. The maxim is “Qui tacet consentiret”: the maxim of the law is “Silence gives consent”. If therefore you wish to construe what my silence betokened, you must construe that I consented, not that I denied.
Cromwell: Is that in fact what the world construes from it? Do you pretend that is what you wish the world to construe from it?
Sir Thomas More: The world must construe according to its wits; this court must construe according to the law.

If we are silent in the face of great wrongs, how is it to be construed? At its worst, it could be construed as consent. At its best it could be construed as apathy: a lack of care and concern.

In 1939 the population in Germany was 79 million people. If half of them had taken to the streets in protest, would Hitler have been able to conduct his genocide against the Jews? Isn’t it the silence of 78 million of those 79 million people that gave Hitler the tacit consent to his wicked plan?

Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” That they keep silent.

We live in a world where there are many issues that beg for speaking up. Record setting heat waves, glacial melt, and violent storms show that climate change is accelerating. From whichever side of the political spectrum you sit on, the immigration system in America seems broken. Nationalism on the rise around the world. Antisemitism on the rise. We still have 30 million people in this country without health insurance. As housing continues to become more expensive the number of homeless people living on the streets in metro Seattle continues to rise, currently over 12,000. Nine million people a year worldwide dying of starvation.

We must speak out, on these and other important issues.

Craig Bruce said “Silence is a statement that is open to gross misinterpretation.”

Don’t allow your silence to be grossly misinterpreted. I know you are all good people, who do NOT consent to the terrible things going on in the world. Don’t let your silence be misconstrued. Speak out. Pick a subject you believe is important and learn about it. Talk to other people about it. Write letters to the editor about it.

Lest someone think that your silence gives consent.

May God bless us all with the strength and determination to speak out about injustice, whether injustice here at home or injustice across the ocean, whether the injustice of Jews or the injustice of Gentiles,



Pinchas 5779 – Capital Punishment

Should someone be rewarded for acting as judge, jury, and executioner and killing a criminal?

Everyone here, I hope, would say “of course not!” That’s lynching. It’s a terrible thing. It brings up memories of some of this country’s darkest days. Reward someone for lynching someone?

And yet that’s exactly what happens in this week Torah portion, Pinchas.

At the end of last week’s Torah portion Pinchas ben Eleazar, the late high priest Aaron’s grandson, ran a spear through a Jewish man who was publicly engaging in idol worshipping carnal relations with a Midianite woman, killing both of them with one bold stroke.

In this week’s Torah reading God says,

Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My passion.

Say, therefore, ‘I grant him My pact of friendship.

It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.’

What? He’s being rewarded? Pinchas took it on himself to kill someone who was breaking a ritual law. This wasn’t self-defense. It was a murder to stop someone who was sinning.

Many of us are uncomfortable with Pinchas’ actions. The rabbis in the Talmud were uncomfortable with Pinchas’ actions. According to Torah law, there’s due process to be followed before executing someone. In the Talmud tractate Sanhedrin it says that if a zealot asks if he should kill someone engaging in the same crime Pinchas’ victims were engaging in, they tell him, “no, don’t kill him.” The rabbis make up a bunch of miracles that happened when Pinchas acted the way he did to try and justify what Pinchas did, without allowing it to provide any sort of license for others to do the same.

The rabbis of the Talmud – and therefore halacha, Jewish law – are not only uncomfortable with what Pinchas did with his extra-judicial execution, they didn’t like capital punishment at all, and effectively legislated it out of existence.

There are those in America, however, who approve of capital punishment. Public support for the death penalty in America is below 50%, but just barely below 50%. Meaning about half of all American adults support the death penalty.

Earlier this week Attorney General William Barr announced an end to a 16-year moratorium on executions by the federal government. He ordered the government to proceed with the execution of five inmates on death row, although court challenges to a new protocol for putting the prisoners to death is expected, which will delay the implementation.

With Barr’s announcement, this seems a good time to look at the issue from a Jewish perspective. What does our tradition say about the death penalty?

If you go by the Torah, you might think we’re big fans of the death penalty. There are literally dozens of crimes in the Torah that are punishable by death, including not only what we think of as major crimes such as murder or kidnapping, but also offenses such as contempt of court (don’t give the judge no lip!), a rebellious son, adultery, marrying your wife’s mother (can’t imagine that was a popular crime even in biblical days), and violating the Sabbath (there’s one way to get people to come to shul!).

But despite the Torah’s seeming fondness for capital punishment, the rabbis disagreed, and they effectively legislated it out of existence.

How could they do that?

The rabbis did it by making the procedure for putting someone to death so cumbersome that it could never be carried out. Here’s a summary of the procedural hoops the rabbis put in place:

  • The person had to be warned before committing his crime that he was about to commit a capital offense.
  • The warning had to be immediately before he killed the person. Telling someone in general that murder is a capital offense wasn’t enough. Right before he pulled the trigger, someone had to tell him, “don’t shoot her, you could get the death penalty.” No warning, no execution.
  • The crime itself had to be committed before two witnesses. No witnesses, or only one witness, no death penalty.
  • A supermajority of two from a court of 23 was required – 12 to 11 and there’s no death penalty, you needed at least 13 to 10 in favor for there to be an execution.
  • It also couldn’t be a unanimous verdict – if no one spoke up in favor of the defendant, a mistrial was declared.
  • Witnesses were to be cautioned not to share any hearsay or make any conjectures. They were to be lectured about the sanctity of human life and be cautioned that if their testimony results in an innocent person being put to death, the blood guilt remains on their heads forever.
  • A capital verdict could be reversed for acquittal, but not for conviction.
  • Confessions were not allowed.

It’s not surprising then that executions became rare in the late Second Temple period. There’s a Mishnah that says a Sanhedrin (Jewish Supreme Court) that would execute somebody once in seven years would be considered a bloody court. Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah says: “Once in seventy years.” Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva said: “If we were on the Sanhedrin, nobody would have ever been executed.” There was a dissenting opinion: Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel responded, “if so, they would have multiplied murderers in Israel.”

But his was a very small minority opinion. The rabbis were overwhelmingly opposed to the death penalty. Why? What led the rabbis to being so anti-capital punishment?

Judaism believes lives are of infinite worth. There is no higher value in the Jewish tradition. There’s a teaching that says pikuah nefesh docheh et hacol,” saving lives overrules everything. If you need to feed someone pork to keep him alive, you feed him pork. If you need to steal to avoid starvation, you are allowed to steal. The only things you don’t do to save a life are murder someone else or commit public idol worship or commit sexual offenses.

Valuing life so highly means that the mere possibility of executing an innocent person is horrible to contemplate. Our great rabbi Maimonides from nearly 1000 years ago said,

…if punishment was given based on estimation and circumstantial evidence, it is possible that someday an innocent person would be executed. And it is preferable and more proper that even a thousand guilty people be set free than to someday execute even one innocent person.

It is preferable that even a thousand guilty people go free than one innocent person be executed.

And that’s why we should be opposed to the death penalty as well. In the United States alone 144 people have been exonerated while serving on death row. That’s 144 innocent people who nearly lost their lives. The Death Penalty Information Center has identified ten cases where someone was executed but was likely innocent. Ten innocent people put to death for crimes they did not commit.

Can you imagine how you would feel if you or a loved one were wrongly sentenced to death? How do you compensate for that? How do you give someone their life back? People who have been wrongly given a death sentence are often very bitter after they’re released, and who can blame them?

Estimates are that as many as 4% of the people on death row may be innocent. That means only 96% are actually guilty. Maimonides teaches us even if that figure were 99.9%, it’s not good enough. That’s how valuable an innocent life is.

We can be proud that our state of Washington abolished the death penalty last year. But the fact that ten Americans have already been put to death this year, and the federal government is bringing back executions means there’s a lot more work to be done in stopping this practice that our rabbis have considered unjust for over 2,000 for over 2,000 years. And this is one area where there is agreement among all denominations: Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbinical associations have all spoken out against the death penalty. Nearly 60 years ago, in 1960, the Conservative Movement’s law committee issued a ruling condemning all forms of capital punishment as “barbaric and obsolete.”

The list of countries that have abolished the death penalty has grown from 48 in 1991 to 106 in 2019. It’s time for the United States to join that list.

And if you think about it, a sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole is, in essence, a death sentence. But we should leave it in the hands of God to carry out that sentence.

Shabbat shalom

The post Pinchas 5779 – Capital Punishment appeared first on The Neshamah Center.


Balak 5779 – Can You Separate the Art from the Artist?

Is it OK to appreciate art that comes from very flawed artists?

Knowing what went on at Neverland, should we still listen to Michael Jackson’s music?

Knowing about the accusations against Woody Allen, should we still watch his films?

Should we spend money to see movies produced by Weinstein Films, knowing about Harvey Weinstein and how that triggered the #metoo movement?

Given the serious charges that have been made against Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, is it appropriate to keep using his melodies in synagogues?

Should it be OK to play the music of Wagner in Israel?

In other words, can you separate the art from the artist?

And in Jewish terms, can you separate the Torah from the rabbi or teacher?

There are many people who would say we need to consider the artist when looking at art. Film critic Christopher Llewelyn Reed said,

Do we have to celebrate a Polanski or an Allen? Knowing what we know about both men, how can we not see “Rosemary’s Baby” in the context of Polanski’s later rape of a young teen, or “Manhattan” in the light of Allen’s seduction of his step-daughter? In their day, the films were important, but we humans have forgotten many things that were once considered important. It would be no great tragedy to let these films go, as well.

In Israel, it’s impossible to separate Richard Wagner from his music. There has not been a public performance of his works in Israel since 1938. Even though Wagner died in 1883, long before the rise of the Nazis, Hitler was a big fan, and Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite in his lifetime. Occasional attempts to perform Wagner in Israel have been met by protests, including by Holocaust survivors, that have effectively prevented the performances from happening.

This week’s Torah portion contains an example where we DO separate the art from the artist.

This week’s parsha, Balak, is mostly about the efforts of the king Balak to get the non-Jewish prophet Bilam to curse the Jewish people.

Even though Bilam does not end up cursing the Jewish people, he’s considered a very bad guy by the Jewish tradition. Not only was he willing to TRY and curse the people for money – he gave effective advice for leading the Jews astray. The Torah says 24,000 people died from a plague when the men “profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women.” The midrash says it was Bilam who advised Balak to send the women to seduce the Israelites.

Yet despite Bilam being seen as a wicked character, words of his are found in the siddur. This beautiful line we traditionally recite on coming together in the synagogue is from Bilam:

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!

Jews have been debating separating the art from the artist in this case for 2,000 years.

Some rabbis weren’t thrilled with the idea of celebrating these words from a wicked person. Rabbi Yochanan is quoted in the Talmud as saying that the wording, i.e. the metaphors of Bilam’s blessings reveal that these blessings had been involuntary. He had intended to point to the paucity of synagogues and houses of Torah study, but what came out of his mouth were words of admiration for the same. So it’s OK to include his words, because they were really God’s words – they weren’t what Bilam wanted to say.

A famous 16thcentury rabbi, the Maharshal (Rabbi Shlomo Luria) said we should NOT say those words or any other words from Bilam, because he was a wicked person. And yet his view did not prevail. Despite his opinion those words are in our siddur, and in Orthodox siddurs as well.

Another famous example of Jews “separating the art from the artist” is that we share teachings from a flawed teacher, Elisha ben Abuya. Elisha ben Abuya is the only rabbi in the Talmud who became an apostate – he rejected Judaism. Yet several teachings remain in his name in the Talmud, and there are probably more teachings of his that are found in the Talmud, just reported in the names of his students or colleagues. The rabbis didn’t want to lose the Torah, but they weren’t thrilled with the idea of celebrating the particular teacher.

Judaism in general seems to have a tolerant attitude toward learning from flawed teachers. The avot, our forefathers, the founders of Judaism, were all flawed human beings. Abraham had a knife in his hand and was ready to kill his son; he passed his wife off as his sister and sat by while she was being seduced by a king; one of Jacob’s nicknames is “the deceiver,” because he wasn’t shy about using deception to advance himself, as in when he stole the first born blessing from Esau. Yet they are held in the highest esteem, despite their character flaws.

The rabbis may have been reluctant to say we won’t accept Torah from a wicked person, because where do you draw the line? We’re all sinners. Some admittedly worse than others, but none of us is completely free of sin.

But Judaism is almost never black and white, and this question is no exception. There is a rabbi who had a lot of great teachings, such as “The two most important commandments in the Torah are v’ahavta l’reicha k’mocha, love your neighbor as yourself, and v’ahavta hashem elohecha, love the lord your God.” Yet that rabbi’s teachings do not appear in any traditional sources, and he is only very rarely quoted in a synagogue. That rabbi’s name was Yeshu, or Jesus.

But there’s another question that’s part of this equation. It’s one thing to share melodies from someone who’s been dead for over 20 years, such as Shlomo Carlebach, or to share Torah from a rabbi who’s been dead for 2,000 years. What about artists that are living? Should we be supporting them financially?

This is a much more complicated question. If a person is dead, he or she is not benefitting financially when we listen to their music, watch their movies, or share their art. Besides, our tradition teaches that death is the ultimate atonement for someone’s sins. It’s Yom Kippur on steroids.

If the person is alive, the first question one would have to address is whether the allegations are proven to be true. Halacha, similar to secular law, considers someone innocent until proven guilty. Mere rumors and hearsay would not justify a boycott.

If the allegations have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, it would make a big difference if the person has repented, has done teshuvah. It also would make a difference if the person has made restitution to any victims. If the person has truly repented, we shouldn’t boycott them.

If the person is an unrepentant sinner who has done real harm to people, it may be hard to justify benefitting them financially. But what if you really like your Harvey Weinstein movies? You could try and ease your conscience by making a donation to an organization supporting the #metoo movement in an amount equal to or greater than any profit his company would get.

What we learn from this week’s Torah portion is that it is possible, theoretically, to separate the art from the artist. There is no moral imperative to ban the works of even notorious sinners. A work can be judged on its own merits. As Jonathan Livny, head of the Israel Wagner Society said, “I have no regard for the composer – he was the worst kind of antisemite and I despise him. But God gave him a wonderful gift with which he wrote this beautiful, sublime music.”

At the same time it is understandable that some people emotionally don’t want to be exposed to certain things, such as the Holocaust survivor who interrupted a concert in Israel when conductor Zubin Mehta was going to play some Wagner for an encore: the survivor opened his shirt, showing scars on his chest, and said, “you’ll play Wagner over my dead body.”

Especially when it comes to artists or teachers who are no longer living, we don’t need to deny ourselves taking advantages of their gifts. I’ll keep singing Shlomo Carlebach melodies and sharing his Torah, and I’ll keep Michael Jackson on the playlist I listen to when I’m running. And I’ll keep reciting Mah Tovu in the synagogue.

Shabbat shalom

The post Balak 5779 – Can You Separate the Art from the Artist? appeared first on The Neshamah Center.


Korach 5779 – Change is Hard

Change is hard.

Change is necessary.

Change is inevitable.

In this week’s Torah portion, a man named Korach wants change. He leads a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, saying:

רַב־לָכֶם֒ כִּ֤י כָל־הָֽעֵדָה֙ כֻּלָּ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים וּבְתוֹכָ֖ם יְי וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל יְי׃

You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the LORD’s congregation?

Not only does Korach want change, he’s trying to be the change agent, the one making change happen.

His effort to bring about change fails. In a dramatic showdown that would make a great scene in a movie, there’s a “shoot-out” with “fire pans.”

You have Korach and his 250 followers with burning incense in their fire pans on one side, and Moses and Aaron burning incense in their fire pans on the other side. Moses yells out a challenge…”we’ll see who God likes!” and the earth opens up and swallows Korach, his followers, and all of their stuff.

Change was delayed, but change was still inevitable. Some years later, God tells Moses he’s not going to be given the opportunity to go into the Promised Land. He gets to see it from afar, but it’s time for a change in leadership. His disciple Joshua, one of the “good spies” we read about in last week’s Torah reading, is anointed leader and brings the people into the land of Israel.

There are profound differences in Korach’s failed attempt at bringing about change, and the successful change that came later. What are some of those differences?

Korach was pushing change not because it was necessary, but because of his own selfish reasons. He wanted to be the leader. He didn’t care what others wanted, or what would be good for the community. He didn’t consult anyone about whether he’s the most suitable person to be the leader.

When Joshua was chosen as leader, things were very different.

Change was necessary: Moses was 120 years old, he’d lived his allotted time, and someone else had to be the one to bring the Israelites into the Promised Land.

Joshua may not have been democratically elected, but he was directly chosen by God. You don’t get a better reference than that on whether someone is suitable for leadership.

But even for Joshua, change was difficult. As we read in the book of Joshua, not everyone obeyed his orders when it came to the procedures to be followed when they conquered Jericho.

What we can learn from contrasting the attempted changes in this week’s Torah reading, and the more successful changes when Joshua was put in charge is that change should happen in the right time, at the right pace, and in the right way.

We don’t have God directly giving us instructions, however. So it’s not always easy to figure out the right timing, pace, and way of bringing about change.

One of the Conservative Movement’s mottos is “Tradition and Change.” As a movement, we live in the tension between maintaining the traditions of our ancestors while changing enough to remain relevant as the world around us changes.

For me, Conservative Judaism is the “Goldilocks” of Judaism. We have the temperature just right. The Orthodox are so wedded to tradition that they fail to adequately adapt to the changed role and status of women in our society, or to the spiritual needs of people who are primarily living in a modern, secular, world. The Reform are so much about personal autonomy and accessibility that for me they’ve lost some of the important things that make Judaism Judaism. The fact that our movement has had mighty struggles over issues such as women rabbis, the treatment of people with different sexual orientations or gender identities, interfaith marriage, music on Shabbat, and on and on is proof to me that we’re doing things the right way. These should be difficult decisions.

The Conservative Movement is a pluralistic movement. There is no central authority that tells rabbis, and by extension their congregations, how things have to be done. There are still some Conservative congregations that are not fully egalitarian. There are some Conservative rabbis who would never agree to officiate at a same sex marriage. Rules from one congregation to another on subjects such as kashrut, music on Shabbat, and the status of interfaith families vary tremendously.

If we were making an analogy from the story of Moses and Joshua, I’m neither. I’m not the “old guard” who has led the way for 40 years, and I’m not the leader for the next generation. I’m a change agent. I’m here to help Herzl Ner Tamid successfully negotiate a period of transition.

Unlike Korach in this week’s Torah portion, I’m not here to advance my personal agenda. If I were going to be your rabbi for the next decade or more, my personal preferences would be a lot more relevant.

One of the things I hope to do over the next year is help the congregation figure out where you want to be on that spectrum of tradition and change. We can do some experiments. We can try some things and see what works for the community.

This is my first Shabbat leading services here. I don’t know the community yet. Let’s have a little discussion, right now, that will help me get to know you better. Let’s start with, what are some of the traditions you have here at Herzl Ner Tamid that you want to preserve?


Now what are some of things that you’d like to see change?


I am honored to have been chosen to be your spiritual leader during this time of transition, and I look forward to continuing this discussion, whether at kiddush, over coffee, or in a more structured setting.

May the Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Blessed Holy One, support us in our efforts to walk the best path between tradition and change,


The post Korach 5779 – Change is Hard appeared first on The Neshamah Center.


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