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The Miracles of Christmukah!

Dec1

by: Dan Brook and Richard H. Schwartz on December 1st, 2016 | No Comments »

Small christmas tree and chanukah candles side by side.Christmas and Chanukah periodically coincide and do so again beginning on Christmas Eve 2016, the first night of Chanukah 5777. Some are calling it Christmukah. Some are calling it another miracle!

Hope springs eternal. Indeed, it’s always been an integral part of Jewish and Christian history, spirituality, and politics. Without hope, there wouldn’t be a Chanukah; without hope, there might not even be a Jewish community; without hope, there might not be democracy or America. That’s the power of radical hope!

Christmas has been celebrated for over 1600 years and Chanukah has been celebrated for 2181 years. The two holidays may be united in our gratitude for Light, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Latkes. We don’t know if Jesus ever ate latkes, but as a Jew, it is highly likely that he celebrated Chanukah.


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We Will Not Be Silent: Join IfNotNow’s National Day of Jewish Resistance on Wednesday, November 30th

Nov29

by: Aron Wander on November 29th, 2016 | 3 Comments »

Even after President-elect Donald Trump appointed Stephen Bannon – the former head of Breitbart and an enabler of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and other prejudices – as his chief strategist, some of our largest Jewish organizations remained silent about the hate that is being welcomed into the White House.

In their absence, Jewish activists around the country are leading our communities from the streets and standing up for ourselves and other minorities in line with Judaism’s ancient injunction: “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”

The Talmud tells of three rabbis – Yehudah, Yose, and Shimon – who met in the second century to discuss the fate of the Jewish community after it had been devastated by the Romans. Rabbi Yehudah suggested a conciliatory approach. Rabbi Yose was silent. Only Rabbi Shimon, who had watched as the Romans brutally executed his teacher Akiva, called out the Romans for their cruelty, materialism, and selfishness. Rabbi Shimon was reported to the Romans, who sentenced him to death. He escaped and went into hiding to preserve our tradition (Shabbat 33b).

Today, we are faced once again with a choice about how to respond to oppression and injustice. The Talmud leaves little doubt that Rabbi Shimon’s decision to speak out was the moral one, but many of our institutions have still opted for Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yose’s passivity. The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (CoP), among others, have refused to explicitly condemn Trump or Bannon.

As head of Breitbart, Bannon turned the news site into the platform of the “alt-right,” facilitating threats against Muslims, conspiracies about Jews, discrimination against people of color, and hatred against women. When criticized for not taking a stance on Bannon, AJC spoke proudly of its commitment to “centrism.”

Centrism means respecting a wide variety of opinions; it does not mean refusing to condemn bigotry.

Institutions like AJC have made the mistake of thinking that moderation — or a warped idea of centrism — is a value in and of itself. Our ancestors did not deny that there is a time to be moderate: the Talmud records numerous times that caution and temperance brought about the best outcome. The rabbis also asserted, though, that certain situations demand moral clarity. In the Mishnah, they wrote, “Do not associate with a wicked man” (Avot 1:7). They did not follow up with a list of extenuating circumstances in which it makes sense to cooperate with evil. They did not advocate for centrism in the face of injustice. Their message was simple: the only response to cruelty — the only response that preserves the integrity of Judaism — is Rabbi Shimon’s.

That is why last week, IfNotNow led 1,500 Jews in the streets across four cities to demand that Trump fire Bannon and to call on our institutions to stand with us. Our voices have joined with Jewish rabbis and organizations across the country – JFREJ, the Anti-Defamation League, and T’ruah, among others – that have condemned Trump and Bannon and pledged solidarity with marginalized Americans. It is now incumbent upon our community – 76 percent of which voted against Trump – to get our other institutions to follow suit.

This Wednesday, we are organizing a national day of Jewish Resistance. As part of grassroots demonstrations in more than a dozen cities, thousands of Jews will continue to demand that Trump remove Bannon from the White House. At the same time, we will keep sending a message to the leaders and institutions that claim to represent us: stand up for us and our allies or step aside.

Only a few weeks ago on Yom Kippur, synagogues across the country read the words of Isaiah: “Let the oppressed go free” (Isaiah 58:6). Let us show LGBTQ folk, people of color, women, immigrants, Muslims, and our fellow Jews that we meant it.

The choice is simple. Will our institutions continue to be silent in the face of a white supremacy that threatens everyone, or will they stand up for freedom and dignity for all?

Aron Wander is a member of IfNotNow. He lives in New York City where he works as a political consultant, volunteers with PASSNYC, and blogs about Judaism with his roommate at Unconservative

Review of After One-Hundred-and-Twenty by Hillel Halkin

Nov10

by: Paige Foreman on November 10th, 2016 | No Comments »

Photo by Tom Hilton. Source: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/).

Berkeley recently decided to take a break from the drought – it rained all day on Friday, and I remembered asking my father why the rain falls when I was a little girl.

“The angels are crying – someone just died,” my father replied.

“Really?”

“I don’t know,” my father shrugged. “But it sure is a nice idea.”

In the final chapter of After One-Hundred-and-Twenty, Hillel Halkin describes a long midrash about the death of Moses. The Torah is silent about how Moses reacts to his death, but the Rabbinic commentary fleshes out Moses’ humanity. The way Moses reacts to his impending death is not all that different from how most humans react to death. Moses argues with God, evades angels, and begs to live on as an animal. In the end though, Moses’ life is taken by God with a kiss and within sight of the Promised Land that Moses never reaches. After the death of Moses, God wept, and I wondered if it rained that day.

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We Need a Revolution: Overcoming Fascism with a Movement of Love

Nov8

by: Martin Winiecki on November 8th, 2016 | No Comments »

November 9th, the day after the U.S. election, will be a peculiar anniversary. On this day in 1938, more than 1000 synagogues and 7000 Jewish businesses were burning all over Germany, set ablaze by Nazis. Going down in history as “Kristallnacht” or the “Night of Broken Glass,” this dreadful event marked the beginning of the Holocaust, resulting in six million Jews killed in less than seven years.

History reverberates in an eerie manner these days. In the United States, the anger and hatred that has long been boiling in millions of people has now found its political outlet.

No matter whether or not he will be elected president, Trump’s success has been unprecedented and overwhelming. His simple message resonates in large parts of American society, in people who have long felt betrayed, abused, and disenfranchised by an alienated ‘establishment.’ Trump wins against all reasoning of decency because he recklessly breaks what his supporters most despise: ‘political correctness.’ He understands how to play the emotional piano of the masses; he’s the ultimate caricature of a society teeming with universal corruption and sexual perversion.


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The Big, Orange Shofar

Oct10

by: Mike Rothbaum on October 10th, 2016 | Comments Off

Donald Trump shouting with an orange face.

If Donald Trump’s campaign was hoping for strong support from American Jews, they are surely disappointed. Trump’s support among Jewish voters is at an historically low 19%. There is an active website with contributions from rabbis and Jewish leaders called jewsagainsttrump.com. The Jewish social justice organization Bend the Arc has shared a satirical video of Jewish grandparents threatening to haunt their offspring if they vote for Trump. Rabbis, normally fearful of running afoul of congregants and IRS regulations, are openly considering speaking against the man on the High Holidays.

For many Jews, the choice is obvious. Trump’s use of xenophobic language about Latinos plays to white America’s basest instincts. His record of slurs against women he finds unattractive is shameful; and his boasting about assaulting women he does find attractive even more so. He all but bragged at the first Presidential debate about his record of shady business ethics. His proposals for a “shutdown” of immigration from Muslim nations calls to mind the religious bigotry that has plagued Jewish communities over the centuries. And there is, of course, the stereotypical Jew-hatred Trump himself shared in a room of Jews, during a meeting with the Republican Jewish Coalition, in which he referred to Jews as deal “negotiators” and claimed we would not support him “because I don’t want your money.”

For Jews, of course, this isn’t just election time. It’s also the Yamim Noraim, the awesome days in which we are invited to confront our own failings and shortcomings. A key part of that process is the sounding of the shofar. The cry of the shofar is designed to wake us up from our ethical slumber, an alarm clock of the conscience.

So while it may make us feel good, or even smug, to say that we’re better than Mr. Trump, to do so would miss the point of this time of year. Our reaction to Trump’s candidacy, instead, is an invitation to look at our own actions, as individuals and in Jewish community. What if we saw him not just as a man who evokes hatred and fear, but as a walking talking wake-up call, a big orange shofar reminding us to get our own houses in order? Consider the following:

  • Racism and xenophobia. Most Jews are rightly outraged by Trump’s shocking comments about Mexicans, and his support of racist stop-and-frisk policing initiatives. But what is our record as Jews? Do we respect and honor the 1-in-5 Jews in our communities who are Jews of color? Do we actively support Jews of color taking leadership positions? Do Ashkenazi Jews say “we Jews” when we really mean “white Jews?” Do we ensure our publicity materials and school textbooks feature Jews of color? If we are employers and landlords, do we give fair consideration to people of color as employees and renters? Do we challenge a criminal justice system that unfairly and disproportionately targets people of color?
  • Sexism and misogyny. Trump’s comments about women are despicable. But they reflect a culture that too often judges women’s worth by their appearance. How do we challenge that culture? Do we pressure Jewish women to “look pretty” so they can “find a husband?” Do we challenge gender roles that shut women out of our most cherished Jewish rituals? Do we raise up young girls to be scholars? Do our congregations consider women as rabbinical candidates? Do we challenge congregants who say they could “never pray with a woman rabbi,” or who judge the women who do serve as rabbis on the basis of their hair and clothes?
  • Business Ethics. Trump made jaw-dropping comments boasting how it was “smart business” not to pay contractors and skirt his tax obligations. How do we fare on that score? Do we see paying workers and supporting the public good as the mitzvot that they are? Do we take seriously the volumes of Jewish learning regarding business ethics, or subordinate those teachings to “more important” mitzvot like kashrut and Shabbat observance? Do we see supporting civil society and keeping “honest scales” as the holy obligations that they are?
  • Islamophobia.  While we’re right to challenge Jew-hatred and ensure our safety and the safety of our children, do we do what we can to make sure that doesn’t slide into bigotry? Do we criticize Muslim Jew-hatred and give a pass to the Jew-hatred that comes from our Christian neighbors? Have we made the effort to meet the Muslims who live in our towns, go to our schools, work in our offices?
  • Jew-hatred. Trump’s snide remarks about Jewish “negotiators” were rightly condemned. But how many times have we heard the same language used within the walls of our own homes and communities? Do we make the easy joke about Jews being cheap? When we hear our kids make these kinds of jokes, do we challenge our children to love themselves and take pride in their remarkable heritage of learning, personal and social ethics, and tzedakah?

One last thought. Donald Trump is, sadly, not the only one to make regrettable comments during this election season. While it pales in comparison to Trump’s despicable record, it was nonetheless disappointing that Hillary Clinton labeled half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” Racism, homophobia, and xenophobia are, indeed, deplorable. But there is a difference between labeling actions deplorable, and writing off people as deplorable. To take Judaism seriously, and to take the process of teshuvah seriously, means to reject the idea that people are irredeemable.  To her credit, Clinton has since apologized for the statement.

“Free will is granted to all,” wrote the Rambam, the renowned medieval Jewish commentator. “There is no one who can prevent a person from doing good or bad,” he continued. We ourselves decide “whether to be learned or ignorant, compassionate or cruel, generous or miserly.”

As the new year dawns, and the election season mercifully comes to a close, may we commit to making ourselves and our communities learned, compassionate, and generous. And having done so, may we commit to bringing that same spirit to our neighbors, or towns, and — God willing — our whole world.

A slightly different version of this article was first published in The Blogs section on The Times of Israel and reprinted with their permission.

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Rabbi Mike Rothbaum serves as Bay Area Co-Chair for Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, and lives withhis husband, Anthony Russell, in Oakland. He has been extensively involved with faith-based social justice organizations, and spoken widely at conferences and rallies, from Moishe House to the House of Representatives. His writing and speaking has been featured in Tikkun, the Huffington Post, KQED radio, CNN, and Zeek.

MORE:

Come Celebrate High Holidays with Tikkun and Rabbi Michael Lerner in Berkeley this Octoberby Staci Askelrod

An Autopsy of the Bernie Sanders Campaign by Dan Brook

Reflections on Yom Kippur and Mideast Peaceby Ron Hirsch

Minorityphobia: A Letter to American Minorities

Oct10

by: Nazir Harb Michel and Murali Balaji on October 10th, 2016 | Comments Off

Dear Fellow Minorities,

We are not writing this piece as individuals. We are not even writing this as Brown people in America or members of the Islamic or Hindu faiths. We’re not writing this as academics or researchers or activists.

Rather, we’re writing this as minorities to all our fellow minorities in America. But we also hope that those of you in the majority are paying attention because this concerns us all.

We Have To Stop The Circular Firing Squad of Inter-Minority Prejudice and Violence Right Now

As we are living through this nasty spike in anti-Muslim rhetoric and attacks, we need to keep in mind that the incidents are increasing, not decreasing, as we near the November elections. So far in 2016, there’s been an attack against Muslims in the U.S. every 13 hours. And it’s important that we realize as minorities that these attacks, which seem to target Muslim immigrants, aren’t shouldered by the American Muslim or Middle Eastern communities alone. They’re affecting other minorities too.


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Jacob Neusner: In Memoriam

Oct10

by: Shaul Magid on October 10th, 2016 | Comments Off

Jacob Neunser (1932-2016) died early shabbat morning of Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Ha-Shana and Yom Kippur.

The New York Times called him the most published individual in history. In his excellent book, Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast (NYU Press, 2016) Aaron Hughes suggests he is the greatest Jewish scholar of Judaism born in the United States. Whether either of these claims are true, and they are certainly reasonably so, he was surely one of the most towering figures in the study of Judaism in the past half century.


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Overcoming High Holiday Hypocrisy

Oct7

by: Gabi Kirk on October 7th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

During the High Holidays, Jews chant Ashamnu, the confession of our sins. We beat our chests and ask God for forgiveness, for we have been hypocritical, we have turned away from the truth, we have stolen, we have lied. We are responsible for our own wrongdoings, but collectively we are also responsible for the ills of our society. Many synagogues add specific contemporary sins to the traditional list – gun violence, global warming, poverty – but few synagogues, at this time of year or any other, admit the American Jewish institutional community’s role in upholding Israel’s military occupation, though we have had nearly 50 years to admit, atone, and change.

We have been hypocritical in supporting equality at home but injustice in Israel/Palestine. Growing up, I learned of Jews marching for civil rights for black communities in the American South, standing with Cesar Chavez and the Filipino and Chicano farm workers’ boycott, and working to end apartheid in South Africa. I was never told that Israel maintains a separate system of military law over millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, who are subject to separate courts and prisons with a nearly 100% conviction rate. When I learned how Israel “rescued” Ethiopian and Yemeni Jews, I was never told of the deep racial hierarchies present within Jewish Israeli society.


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The King is the Field – Chabad Insights on the Divinity of Creation

Sep29

by: David Seidenberg on September 29th, 2016 | Comments Off

During the High Holidays, we strive to fashion our heart to become a dwelling place for God in the physical, earthly realm – a dirah batachtonim. However, the earliest aggadic (storytelling) midrash, Genesis Rabbah (fourth or fifth century), taught that “the root/essence of God’s presence was in the lower creatures /`iqar Shekhinah batachtonim haytah.” (19:7)

If the Shekhinah, the indwelling presence of God, was essentially in all creatures, how did we arrive at the idea that the primary dwelling place of God was within the human heart? This is the journey I would like to share below.

According to Genesis Rabbah, even though the Shekhinah was interwoven with the physical world from the beginning, human sin drove the presence of God further and further away from the world. This alienation was “put into practice,” so to speak, in later midrashic texts. Midrash Y’lamdeinu, in opposition to Genesis Rabbah, taught in the sixth or seventh century that humanity was supposed to be the locus of God’s presence in this world, and that this is what it means for us to be “rulers batachtonim.” (Batey Midrashot 1, B’reishit 9) If Genesis Rabbah describes how sin generated the flight of Shekhinah from a world that was once full of God’s presence, Y’lamdeinu describes instead a world which was never the home of Shekhinah.


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Come Celebrate High Holidays with Tikkun and Rabbi Michael Lerner in Berkeley this October

Sep15

by: Staci Akselrod on September 15th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

A dictionary open to the definition of love. Source: Flickr (Il Mago di Oz).

Dear Reader,

Would you be interested in experiencing High Holiday services that combine a Judaism of Love and Justice with deep spirituality? Rabbi Michael Lerner, our spiritual leader, leads our community in a serious teshuvah process (which we understand as both inner transformation and societal transformation). He teaches that the prayers are only cheerleading for the process – the real work has to happen in our own lives in the ten days from Rosh HaShanah (which starts Sunday night, October 2) to the conclusion of Yom Kippur (on Wednesday, October 12th). This combination of services plus engagement in teshuvah is such an extraordinary experience that I’m willing to give you your money back if you attend all the services, do all elements of the teshuvah process that Rabbi Lerner lays out, and don’t feel that it was really amazing and transformative! And please tell your non-Jewish friends about this as well – you don’t have to be Jewish to get a huge amount of psychological and spiritual nourishment and even have a transformative experience by going through the process with us. True, some of the prayers are in Hebrew, but there’s enough English so that non-Jews who have come in the past have told us that the experience was just as powerful for them as it was for the Jews who participate.

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