There’s nothing like a war and riots to polarize people and make them feel you have to choose sides. You The post Moving Past the Blame Game appeared first on The Neshamah Center.
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Moving Past the Blame Game and more...

Moving Past the Blame Game

There’s nothing like a war and riots to polarize people and make them feel you have to choose sides. You either stand with Israel, or you support the Palestinians. If you’re on one side, you’re not supposed to see the perspective of the other side, or have sympathy for the other side.

None of that is going to get us out the mess we’re in. If I had more time I would structure the following comments a little better, but here are some reflections and what’s happening, and on what I believe is the appropriate way to look at things.

  1. Assigning blame – “well, the Palestinians did this to themselves,” or “it’s all the Jews’ fault” isn’t going to bring peace.
  2. The Palestinians have been screwed over by everyone: first and foremost, their own leadership, which missed the chance for peace in ’48, and again in 2000. They’ve also been screwed over by Israel, which treats them with gratuitous harshness, and they’ve been screwed over by the rest of the Arab world, especially Lebanon and Jordan which have refused to properly absorb the Palestinian refugees who ended up in their territory.
  3. You can be an Israeli who is very stressed by the rockets and riots, and still be sympathetic to the plight of the average Palestinian.
  4. You can be a Palestinian and be opposed to shooting rockets at Israel. Many are.
  5. Peace will not come from violence. Hamas will not terrorize Israel into meeting all their demands, and Israel will not be able to bomb Hamas into submission. Occupying Gaza might bring peace, but no one in Israel wants to pay the price.
  6. Peace comes from negotiations. Abbas insisting he won’t negotiate until there’s a settlement freeze is stupid. You don’t condition starting negotiations on having your demands met. You negotiate so that you can get what you need. Israel tried a settlement freeze when Obama was president, it led nowhere.
  7. You don’t refuse to negotiate with terrorists. If you want to end terrorism, the terrorists are who you have to negotiate with. Instead of negotiating with Hamas through intermediaries, we should simply negotiate directly and openly with Hamas.
  8. Israel has a right to defend itself. For Hamas to launch over 1,000 rockets at Israel and then try and paint Israel as an aggressor and itself as a victim is clearly disingenuous, and it’s very frustrating that much of the world seems to buy that lie. If Hamas stops the rockets, Israel would stop pounding Hamas.
  9. Hamas needs to stop with the rockets.
  10. Israel needs to stop with stirring up the hornet’s nest.
  11. The new riots, with Israeli Arabs attacking Jews, and right wing extremist Jews attaching Arabs, really needs to stop. It’s scarier in many ways than the rockets.
  12. Bringing peace is more important than being right or being justified.
  13. What’s happening in Sheikh Jarrah is legal but unfair. It has great symbolic value to the Palestinians, and it’s in Israel’s best interests to make the problem go away, which it could do fairly easily in a number of different ways. The equity issue is there’s one law which allows at least some Jews to reclaim property in East Jerusalem (and also denies some Jews that right), but there is no law that allows any Palestinians to reclaim property in West Jerusalem. There’s a fundamental inequity.

It’s maddening how much this place just keeps going around in circles. I totally understand why Biden is reluctant to get involved in trying to be a peacemaker. Many before him have tried and failed, including Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump. Peace will not come until BOTH the Palestinians and the Israelis have leadership that really wants it and is committed to it. Neither sides’ leadership seems very interested in peace right now, to the detriment of both peoples.

The post Moving Past the Blame Game appeared first on The Neshamah Center.


Jerusalem Day 5781

Today is Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, a day that I wish were a day of celebration, instead it’s a day of tension and violence. Hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of Israeli police officers have been injured in the last few days, and this afternoon could be a very dangerous time. It breaks my heart.

I am happy that Israel won the war in ’67 and was able to reunite Jerusalem. I’m happy that Jews can pray at the Western Wall, something they couldn’t do for 19 years during the Jordanian occupation. I’m happy that Mamilla is now the location of some of the priciest real estate in Jerusalem, instead of a no man’s land where no one wanted to live because of the constant danger from Jordanian snipers.

But I’m not glad that this day has become a day for the celebration of the ugliest, most nationalistic, racist side of Israeli society. I’m saddened by the fact that we have not learned how to live in peace with our Palestinian cousins. The “settler youth” that dominate today’s parade like to march through Muslim neighborhoods and raise hell, curse people, and do damage. This is not what Judaism stands for.

Those of you outside Israel may be wondering what the fighting is about. There are several things. The Israeli police have been very heavy handed toward the Palestinian population all month, for example, not allowing people to sit on the steps of Damascus Gate, a favored hangout of young Palestinians, especially during Ramadan.

The other bigger problem is the continued “Judaization” of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

Robby Berman explained the situation well in a Facebook post that I append below. The problem is the property laws here are inherently unjust. Israelis can reclaim property in East Jerusalem that they lost in 1948, but Arabs cannot reclaim property in West Jerusalem that they lost in that same war. Whatever the law is, it should be fair: either everyone gets to reclaim their property, or no one gets to reclaim their property. It would be less disruptive and expensive to say no one gets to reclaim their property. The Israeli government could stop the problem in Sheikh Jarrah very easily: all they have to do is use eminent domain to seize the property owned by Jews in Sheikh Jarrah (and compensate them) and allow the Palestinians to continue living there.

In the meanwhile, I’m also afraid the violence may derail the negotiations to form a government without Netanyahu as prime minister; Lapid needs the support of the Arab parties, but it may be difficult for them to do that with what’s happening in Jerusalem right now.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. We need it.

Robby Berman


For many years I have been going to Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem to protest about the eviction of Arabs from their homes. It may surprise you to learn that I want those Arabs thrown out. They don’t own the houses or the land under it – other people do (who happen to be Jews). I’m not there protesting the evictions.

I’m there protesting the immoral Israeli laws that say what is mine is mine and what is yours is mine. If you are a Palestinian at least.

In short, Israeli laws allow Jews to reclaim their homes from Palestinians but not Palestinians reclaim their homes from Jews. You can be the biggest Zionist in the world and still smell a whiff of miasma from this last sentence.

I, for example, hypocritically live in a home that rightfully belongs to a sweet elderly Palestinian woman living in Australia. Her name is Barbara Ames (nee Sahhar). I won’t go into Barbara’s whole story (Barbara I invite you to tell your story here on this thread) but after she came to visit me two years ago, I went to TABU (the Israeli land registry) and I found that indeed the land and building indeed belonged to her dad (see attached photos).

I would love to receive an eviction notice and have the building rightfully returned to Barbara and her family.

Here are the facts as I understand them. I may be wrong and I’m happy to have people correct me.

In 1950 Israel passed the “Absentees’ Property Law”…/eng/law/kns1_property_eng.pdf which states that any owner of property in Israel that is not present on his land loses his title to the land. That law was written in order to confiscate all the land and homes of Palestinians who fled during the 1948 war all the while Israel DID NOT ALLOW them to return to their land, as Barbara and her family tried to do for TWO YEARS. Kafka could not have scripted this better.

So in 1948 Jews in East Jerusalem fled to West Jerusalem and lost their homes to Jordan. And Palestinians in West Jerusalem fled to Jordan and lost their homes to Israel. In 1967 Israel conquers and annexes East Jerusalem unifying our capital. Now Jews are demanding their homes back – which they deserve. Since the Absentee Property Law only applied to land inside Israel of 1948 Jews never lost their title to their homes in East Jerusalem. So the Israeli courts are giving Jews their homes back while still applying the 1950 law to inside Israel’s 1948 borders depriving Palestinians of their homes.

If you want property rights to be respected they should be respected for all people regardless of nationality. Laws and justice should be sisters but in this country they appear to be second cousins who refuse to talk with each other.

The post Jerusalem Day 5781 appeared first on The Neshamah Center.


Welcome to Hell

My morning run today took me past Gehinnom, the Valley of Hinnom, aka Hell. This is thought to be the place where ancient Canaanites offered child sacrifices to Moloch. In rabbinic literature, this came to be associated with the place where sinners were punished after their death in order to atone for their sins.

But as you can see in the picture, Hell is just another place – it’s people who turn a place into Hell, as legendarily happened here through child sacrifice. Hell isn’t a place of eternal punishment – it’s a place right here on Planet Earth, and many people find themselves in a Hell not of their own making, such as the Jews during the Holocaust, or people living through civil war in Syria, or being harassed by the Taliban or ISIS.

Other people, though, make their own Hell, or they find themselves in a Hell that like this beautiful garden is open that they could walk out of anytime. People in abusive relationships or in jobs that crush their souls are in a Hell that they somehow got themselves into, and they can get themselves out of.

I’m not saying it’s easy – I know the Hells that we make of our own accord can be tough to escape. These stairs are an entry to Hell – don’t they look inviting? Similarly, the gateway to Hell can be a guy who seems nice, or a job that looks like a good fit, but sometimes those things turn out to be an illusion.

People sometimes also put themselves into solitary confinement in Hell – which makes it harder to get out. If you’re struggling with a Hell of your own making, get some help and get out.

The post Welcome to Hell appeared first on The Neshamah Center.


You Reap What You Sow

Last Wednesday I was out on mountain bike ride in the desert, enjoying a peaceful interlude in my workday. When I got home I was shocked, as was almost everyone in the nation, to see that an insurrection had broken out in Washington, D.C., and an armed mob had stormed the nation’s capitol.

In times of trouble, I turn to the Torah and Talmud to try and find sources that can help make sense of madness. Here are a few things I’ve been thinking of this past week.

Jews traditionally include a prayer for the government in our prayer services. The reason why is explained in a passage from the Talmud:

…just as in the case of fish of the sea, any fish that is bigger than another swallows the other, so too in the case of people, were it not for the fear of the ruling government, anyone who is bigger than another would swallow the other. And this is as we learned in a mishna (Avot 3:2) that Rabbi Ḥanina, the deputy High Priest, says: One should pray for the continued welfare of the government, as were it not for the fear of the government, every man would swallow his neighbor alive.

Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zara 4a

The events showed what happens when the control of the government is weak. The Capitol Police were unprepared for what hit them. They shouldn’t have been – the FBI’s Norfolk office had sent warnings about what was going to transpire. Second Amendment notwithstanding, the government contract is that the government has a monopoly on the use of force. It keeps us from killing each other. That contract broke down last week, resulting in five deaths and serious risk to the Vice President and other elected officials.

There is a proverb that says, “you reap what you sow.” Proverbs applies that teaching to our situation today: “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.”

The injustice that was sown by the Trump administration – denigrating minorities, being disrespectful to anyone who dared to disagree with the leader, fanning flames of hatred, spreading lies about a stolen election, certainly resulted in the calamity we saw last week, when, for the first time since 1814, the capitol building was stormed by hostile forces.

The Talmud teaches us:

Anyone who can protest against [something wrong that] one of their family [is doing], and does not, is punished for the sins of their household. [All who can protest against something wrong done by citizens of] their city, [and do not], are punished for the sins of their city. All who can protest against [something wrong done by] the whole world, [and do not], are punished for the sins of the world.

Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b

All of the Republican members of Congress who stood by, or even cheered Trump on as the president made false claims about election fraud – claims that were rejected by every court that considered them, including courts with judges appointed by Trump – shares responsibility for what happened. Perhaps some of them realized the folly of that path as they lay huddled under their desks waiting to be evacuated to a safe location. Unfortunately, some of them, like Josh Hawley, clearly did NOT learn anything from the experience.

God willing, next week when Joseph R Biden is inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States of America we will instead see a time when the guiding principle is one pronounced by the prophet Hosea:

Sow righteousness for yourselves; Reap the fruits of goodness.

Hosea 10:12

The House of Representatives is almost certainly going to impeach Trump a second time; there’s actually a chance that the Senate will convict. Trump is going down with the worst track record of any president – the only president to be impeached twice, the first president since Herbert Hoover to lose the White House, House of Representatives, and the Senate in one term, and the only president to lose the popular vote twice. But those of us who are relieved that his reign of madness is nearly over should not rejoice, as Proverbs cautions us:

Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; lest the Lᴏʀᴅ see it, and it displease Him, and He turn away His wrath from him.

Proverbs 24:17

Schadenfreude is not a Jewish attitude. At the same time, even though we’re not supposed to rejoice, I’m sure many of us will breathe a very deep sigh of relief, and will pray that America can get back on track and recover from the horrors of the last few months, and the damage done over the last four years.

PS: There are some who say we shouldn’t blame all Trump supporters, etc. Not everyone at the demonstration at the capitol was a rioter. Here’s a helpful guideline I found, not sure who wrote it, but it’s a useful way to tell if you’re on the right side or not:

A helpful rule of thumb I borrowed from a friend: Huge numbers of our population believe in a complete alternate reality. Alternate facts as it were. But just as intensely as I believe they are deluded, they think I am the one who is deluded. Maybe I am. So how can I be confident in my perception?

It can be quite difficult. But, I have found that in times of political confusion, particularly when emotions are running high and creating tunnel vision, the presence of Nazis can be an extremely helpful indicator.

If I am attending a local demonstration or event and I see Nazis…neo-Nazis, casual Nazis, master race Nazis, or the latest-whatever-uber-mythology-Nazis, I figure out which side they are on. And if they are on my side of the demonstration? I am on the wrong side. It is tough to argue moral equivalence when I am standing next to a Nazi. Look to my right. Is there a guy wearing a 6MWE (6 million wasn’t enough) t-shirt? I am on the wrong side. Look to my left. Is that guy wearing a Camp Auschwitz t-shirt? Wrong side. Are speakers being applauded for referring to things that Hitler got right? Wrong side.

Team-spirit face paint and hat with animal horns? This is actually an unclear indicator that could mean anything, but safest to keep my distance from that guy anyway, even at a football game.

However, I can always, always, always rely on the presence of Nazis as a guiding light through a fog of disinformation. Some things are relative, and politics can absolutely have its opposing sides and grey areas. But evil and good are absolute. So, just look for the Nazis, and make your own decisions.

The post You Reap What You Sow appeared first on The Neshamah Center.


Trump and Torah

This feels like the most momentous election of my life. I haven’t written anything with my views on the incumbent president. When I was serving as a pulpit rabbi, it was partly because I didn’t want to alienate any congregants. But I’m not in a pulpit now so I’m truly free to speak my mind.

But then I thought, “What do I have to add to the conversation that other people more articulate than me haven’t already said?” I haven’t really seen anything that just talks about Trump, the person and the policies from a Torah perspective. Doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, just that I haven’t seen it. But here are my views on what the Torah would teach us about Donald Trump and who to vote for in the American election. And yes, we’re three days from election day as I write this, so it’s somewhat last minute. But some people haven’t voted yet! Not that I expect this to change anyone’s mind. We’re long past that. But I needed to get what I believe on the record.

Trump as a Leader

In the Torah Yitro, Moses’s father-in-law and the first management consultant, gives Moses advice on the king of person he should choose for leadership:

And you shall choose out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating unjust gain;

Exodus 18:21

Let’s take these one at time:

  1. Able men. Able, capable, up to the task. Reports from people who served in senior positions in the White House indicate that Trump has the attention span of a two-year-old. He never reads books. He can’t sit through a briefing on a vital, but complicated topic. He is incapable of the kind of deep thought and background reading required to make intelligent, informed decisions. Clearly seems that when it comes to making some of the most important and fateful decisions facing us, he’s ill-equipped. The decisions he has made – from picking a futile trade war with China to abandoning allies and cozying up to dictators to his disastrous handling of the coronavirus crisis depict a hard to believe level of incompetence on the part of someone in the Oval Office.
  2. Such as fear God. I don’t believe anyone could honestly describe Donald Trump as a God-fearing person. I hate Mike Pence’s politics as much as I hate Trump’s, but I would at least give him credit for being a God-fearing person. Trump uses the Bible as a prop, utterly ignoring the values inside that same Bible. Oh, and he held the Bible upside down when he was using it as a prop. He couldn’t name a favorite verse or chapter in the Bible, or say whether he preferred the Old Testament or the New Testament.
  3. Men of Truth. All presidents have on occasion told untruths to the American people, sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for self-serving reasons. But Trump seems to relish making things up and passing along outrageous conspiracy theories as truth. The Fact Checker found that from his inauguration through July 9, 2020, Trump made an astounding 20,000 false or misleading claims. An average of 12 a day! If we have ever had a person in public life in America who was LESS truthful than Trump, I have no idea who that would be.
  4. Hating unjust gain. Trump relishes gain, and just as he doesn’t care if what is says is true or not, he doesn’t care if his gain is just or not. He bills the US taxpayers $650/night for Secret Service agents to stay at his property when he’s at Mar a Lago. By hosting visiting foreign delegations at the Trump Hotel in Washington Trump is lining his pockets as visitors spend money at his properties to get on his good side. When he was sued under the emoluments clause, the Supreme Court didn’t take the case not because they didn’t think he was guilty, but because the Democratic lawmakers bringing the case didn’t have standing to bring it. He was also happy to accept help from Russia in the 2016 election, even if he didn’t out and out collude with them. Trying to use the Justice Department as his personal legal department is also a form of unjust gain.

The Torah in Leviticus 19:15 tells us, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” A few verses further on, we’re told (all of us, not just leaders) “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Trump has so many prejudices and biases that it’s hard to know where to start. Women are objects to Trump. Most of us have seen the video ourselves, where Trump says,

You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

What did Trump say about Mexican immigrants? “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” He did throw in, “And some, I assume, are good people.” But he’s already judged most of them as criminals. What did he say about the white supremacists who attacked demonstrators in Virginia? There are “very fine people on both sides.” Sorry, Mr. President, anyone who is a white supremacist is not a “very fine person.” Racist anti-Semites are not “very fine people.”

Trump’s Policies

Some say Jews should support Trump because he’s been so good for Israel. That’s debatable. Many people, including here in Israel where I am as I write this, believe it was a mistake to pull out of the Iran deal – Iran is now closer to nuclear weapons than it was before. Many feel that moving the embassy to Jerusalem was not helpful, and Trump has decreased the chances for a two-state solution with the Palestinians by making clear that the US is not an honest broker for peace (at least under Trump), it’s a partner of the Israelis. I’ll give him credit for normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. That’s a good thing that clearly benefits Israel. But that one thing doesn’t come close to offsetting the negatives.

The Torah tells us over and over – 36 times in fact – that we should love and take care of the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Trump ran his campaign on inciting fear of the stranger – as mentioned above, saying the Mexicans coming to America were drug dealers and rapists. He said he was going to build a wall, and Mexico was going to pay for it. So far under the Trump administration 400 miles of barrier have been built – but only nine miles were “new.” The rest were replacements for old or broken barriers. And Mexican hasn’t paid for any of it.

In many places the Torah commands us to take care of the poor. Deuteronomy 15:11 says, “For the poor shall never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, saying: ‘You shall surely open your hand unto your poor and needy brother, in your land.’” What have Trump’s policies toward the needy been? He pushed through rules that cut 3 million people off of food assistance. Why? To pay for the tax cut he gave billionaires. His administration issued a plan to lower the poverty line – a move that would make millions, possibly tens of millions of people ineligible for benefits such as Medicaid, school meals, or emergency assistance. Trump clearly is favoring the rich over the poor.

In the Jewish tradition, pickuah nefesh, saving lives, is considered the ultimate value. We consider human lives of infinite value. We’re taught someone who saves one life is like someone who has saved a world. Over 200,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus. America has had more deaths from COVID-19 than any other country in the world, including China and India, countries that have 3 to 5 times the population of America. It’s debatable how many lives have been lost due to America’s botched handling of the coronavirus, but it’s safe to say that it’s in the tens of thousands, if not over 100,000. Each of those deaths a lost world, a life cut short, because we have a president who ignores science, calls people who wear masks weak, and has been obsessed with trying to save the economy over saving lives.

The Jewish tradition places great value on protecting the environment. We understand that when God tells Adam the world is his to rule over, it means it is his to take care of. We are charged with being guardians of the planet, to use it for our benefit, but to also tend to the planet. Trump has dismantled one environmental regulation after another. As of October 2020, over 100 of them, pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Accords, weakening Obama-era limits on CO2 emissions, removing protection from over half the wetlands in America, opening up more land for oil and gas by limiting protection for wildlife, and more. He’s been a disaster for the environment.

It looks, God willing, like Trump will be voted out of office on November 3, even if the results aren’t immediately known. Biden is ahead by 9 points in the average of national polls. Even if that number is accurate – it might not be – I’m astounded that given the man’s many character defects, especially his utter lack of integrity and empathy, so many people could still be supporting him.

The latest analysis from FiveThirtyEight says Democrats have an 80% chance of taking the Senate. Perhaps voters have been shaken out of their complacency, and November 3 will put both Congress and the White House back in the hands of the Democrats, giving them an opportunity to repair the grave harm that’s been done to the country by the Trump Administration.

America deserves better. We deserve a government that works to bring people together, not drive people apart. We need a government that protects the weak, the poor, the disadvantaged (just as the Torah charges us to care for the widow, the stranger and the orphan). We need a government that will take charge in combatting climate change so that the impact on my grandchildren’s...


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