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Archive for the ‘Judaism’ Category



Passover, Parenting and Pardons

May2

by: Kathryn Frey-Balter on May 2nd, 2016 | 1 Comment »

This year, I have exhausted Passover’s eight days writing love letters to President Obama.  My letters all close with the same refrain:  “Let my clients GO!”   Is it a prophecy that Passover’s final day – April 30 – coincides with our clemency deadline?

In 2014 the Justice Department announced an Obama initiative to invite inmates with no significant criminal history, a record of good prison conduct, no history of violence before or during the term of incarceration, who have served over ten years on a federal sentence for a non-violent offense to apply for clemency.

Obama’s clemency project seeks to right the wrong.  Some days it feels more like he’s hiding than seeking.

The more the clemency love is withheld, the more singularly determined we become to part the Red Sea of the Pardon Committee.  It started innocently enough – laws in the 1990s aimed at ending the war on drugs.   The inevitable result however, was the mass incarceration of a generation of young people, mostly of color, and not too many degrees of separation from Egypt’s enslaved Jews.  True, Israelites hadn’t profited from kilo quantities of cocaine, but they also hadn’t been born into slavery: the slavery of being in utero addicted to crack, the slavery of poverty, the slavery of, well, a history of slavery and oppression. 

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New Lessons from the Four Children

May2

by: Jeremy Sher on May 2nd, 2016 | Comments Off

(Source: Arthur Szyk, "The Four Sons")

Let’s turn back to the mysterious, riveting story of the Four Children, which we read every year at the Seder. The four children, or four kinds of children, approach Passover in four different ways, and we are told to respond to them differently, each in their own way: the wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask a question.

Whereas the most common interpretation may be that the wise child is the favorite, the Rabbinic authors buried a few treasures within this text that call that view into question. The Rabbis cared about people’s feelings and would not typically advocate, for example, cutting someone off from the people without at least processing the likely outcome of that. I don’t think any of the children is a favorite; I think they all have their strengths and flaws. Some of them are surprising.

We all know kids like these: the wise one with all the answers, the wicked one who disrupts everything, the simple one who isn’t sure what’s going on, and the one who is either too little or too simple indeed to form a question. The first point is that these are children — our children. Even when they act out, the Rabbis could not possibly have meant that we are to cut one of them off while smothering another with praise. All four of them are our future. If we want 100% of a future, instead of 75% or less, then we’d better figure out how to reach each one of them, so that when they grow into adults each of them too will be able to say, “This is what the Eternal God did for me, when I went forth from Egypt.”

The Wise Child

The Wise Child asks: “What are all the rituals, laws and customs which the Eternal One, our God, has commanded you?” You shall respond to him with the rules of Passover, down to the last detail, which is: There is no further eating after the Afikoman.

I always used to assume that the Wise Child was the favorite, the exemplar of how everybody else should ask. That does seem to be the p’shat, the literal meaning of the text. The child is called wise, which is a compliment, and shows interest in a correct observance.

The Wise Child’s question is a quotation from Torah (Deut. 6:20). Oddly, the recommended response to the Wise Child does not match the commandment given in Deut. 6:21-25 as to what to say. Are we to assume that the Wise Child already knows that “God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand”? Are the Torah’s words too elementary for the Wise Child? Or does the mismatch signal that something deeper is going on?

I am not convinced that the Wise Child is the rabbis’ favorite. (I’ve already tipped my hand; I don’t believe any of the children are favored or disfavored.) The Wise Child is praised for being interested in the laws. But the point of the Seder, as we are told repeatedly, is not what we do or don’t eat after the Afikoman, but that God redeemed us from slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. In this way, the Wise Child has somewhat missed the point. The rabbinic authors answer in kind, giving an overly specific answer to the Wise Child’s overly specific question.

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How the latest Bernie Sanders Israel Controversy Over Simone Zimmerman Misses the Point

Apr21

by: Liza Behrendt on April 21st, 2016 | 5 Comments »

In the war to silence criticism of Israel, the Palestinian voice is the ultimate target.

Last week, progressives celebrated Senator Bernie Sanders’ appointment of Simone Zimmerman, an activist opposing Israeli occupation, as the Jewish Outreach Coordinator of his presidential campaign. Their celebration would be short.

Right-wing blogs scoured her Facebook page for incriminating information, and institutions purporting to represent the Jewish community demanded she be fired. Just two days later, the Sanders campaign suspended her.

Celebration became outrage. The hashtag #IStandWithSimone trended on social media and thousands signed a petition demanding Zimmerman’s reinstatement. Articles and op-eds condemned Sanders and the Jewish institutions that pressured him, rightfully pointing out that Zimmerman’s politics on Israel represent a generational shift in the U.S. Jewish community. But most of the conversation failed to link Zimmerman with a broader Palestinian-led movement that is systematically silenced, especially those engaging in Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) to pressure Israel.


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Passover and Earth Day: 10 Plagues of Fossil Fuels

Apr18

by: Dan Brook on April 18th, 2016 | Comments Off

(Source: Eric Kounce)

Creation is being replaced with destruction. As Jews, we are tasked with remembering, conserving, pursuing peace and justice. On this first night of Passover 5776, which is also Earth Day 47, we recount 10 of the plagues of fossil fuels, which are negatively affecting all countries and most species.

1. oil drilling and coal mining
2. fracking
3. gas guzzling
4. subsidizing fossil fuels and oil corporations
5. overuse of plastics
6. wasting energy
7. using a finite resource as if it’s infinite
8. not putting a price on carbon
9. not boldly transitioning to safe, clean, renewable energies
10. condemning our children and their children and future generations to a world of climate chaos

We can no longer be fossil fools for cheap energy with high eco-costs to satisfy greed and the idolatry of profit. We should no longer be enslaved by the pharaohs of environmental destruction and their doomsday cult.

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Fiddler on My Mind

Apr5

by: Roslyn Bernstein on April 5th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Theatre Marquis. Photo: Shael Shapiro

Fiddler on the Roof has been on my mind these days, the plaintive strains of the violinist leading me uptown to the New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY), then midtown to experience the current revival of the musical on Broadway starring Danny Burstein, and finally back to the MCNY on March 28th to hear a lively panel on Reimagining Fiddler.

The lights dimmed and the actors who play Tevye’s rebellious daughters, Chava, Tzeitel and Hudel, appeared on stage, belting out Matchmaker, as the warm-up act for a panel moderated by the exhibit’s guest curator, Edna Nahshon, a Professor of Jewish Theater and Drama at The Jewish Theological Seminary. The lyrics were perfect, Sheldon Harnick at his best, with clever rhymes—”I’ll bring the veil, you bring the groom, slender and pale”—and puns at the end. The audience smiled when the sisters delivered the line: “Playing with matches a girl can get hurt.”

My memory flashed back to 1965 when I saw the original musical, one year after it opened in 1964, with Zero Mostel commanding the stage. Fiddler broke records and ran for over 3,000 performances.

The big question of the evening: Why was Fiddler such a sensation?

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You are Invited to Beyt Tikkun’s Liberation Seder Saturday eve April 23rd

Mar30

by: Renna Ulvang on March 30th, 2016 | Comments Off

This is Renna Ulvang, a therapist and spiritual counselor, and member of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls since 1999, inviting you to join us for an absolutely remarkable Passover experience (in Berkeley, Ca. Saturday April 23rd from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Our potluck seder at Beyt Tikkun is an incredible experience!

I love it because we not only observe the beautiful rituals of the traditional Passover seder, we go beyond the Haggadah’s invitation to imagine we were slaves in Egypt. We not only identify areas of enslavement within our own selves and lives but also in the lives of all the other human beings in our world.

Our Seder is not only a Jewish story, it is a human story of the possiblity of liberation from oppression. But it cannot happen without our mutual celebration as a community of world-changers, which we are, and which U are. So we are delighted to be able to reach out to you and to ask you to come and share this amazing evening with us.

I love this seder because there is wonderful food, music, readings, rituals, inter-connection, sharing, dancing, and having fun! So say goodbye to boring seders that do not seem relevant, this one IS relevant, today more than ever as the world sometimes seems hopelessly stuck. I love hearing and experiencing the way Rabbi Michael Lerner weaves together our familiar and treasured traditions with a vital, always new and refreshing sense that the world can be changed and transformed.

We welcome non-Jews and first time seder Jews as well!! This is a wonderful, non threatening way to “get into” the energy, meaning and spirituality of Passover!

For more important information (e.g. address, kosher for Passover foods to brings, etc.) please go to: www.tikkun.org/passover5777 ). Please tell your friends who may have never been to a seder or never been to one that spoke to their souls that they too should register and come!!

I hope to see you there!

Monotheism as a Moral Issue, Part Three: Loyalty and the Limits of Equality

Mar29

by: George P. Fletcher on March 29th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Genesis 1:26.

AND GOD SAID, LET US MAKE ADAM IN OUR IMAGE, AFTER OUR LIKENESS

Part III: Loyalty and the Limits of Equality.

The principle of equality has become the template of philosophical debate since the early 1970′s. The debate has largely taken place at Harvard, but with an intriguing Zionist influence. It began with John Rawls’ paradigm-shattering book, A Theory of Justice (1971). Almost two centuries after the writing of Immanuel Kant, the same humanistic theory burst on the scene but with an economic twist, namely the non-ethical concept of incentive or self-interested action. As is often the case, the fusion of independent physical or mental elements can produce a sudden spurt of energy – in this case, of Kantian moral thought merged with an economic version of self-interest.

Rawls’ book changed the face of American moral and legal thinking. Yet it undoubtedly has its roots in Genesis 1:26, the creation of Adam in God’s image, and the evolution of that idea in the work of Immanuel Kant. Rawls assumes that the principles of justice* binding on all humanity* should be based on the choice rational* people would make behind a veil of ignorance. All three asterisk indicate problematic terms – justice, humanity, and rational choice.

First, the concept of justice represents a middle point between Kant’s theory of morality (1785) and his theory of law or Right (1797). The theory of morality is based on the ability of a human being to prescribe a universal law for himself and for humanity, as I have discussed in earlier posts. This law is generally called the categorical imperative or the principle of treating human beings as ends in themselves, and never as a means to an end.

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All Disasters Are Miracles

Mar21

by: Rabbi Eliahu Klein on March 21st, 2016 | Comments Off

(A work of fiction)

Fifteen inmates showed up for today’s Jewish services. Seven inmates were Jewish, seven were a mixture of African American and seven were Latino. I, Jewish Chaplain Weitz, talked about the history of the Jews as it relates to the miraculous and enigmatic Purim story.

“Has anybody ready the Book of Esther in the Bible?” I announced to the attendees in the prison chapel. There were no hands today; I began to introduce the history of King Nebuchadnezzar who destroyed the First Temple in Jerusalem. How tens of thousands of Jews were sent into exile and were forced to live in Babylon. And how the story of Purim took place right before the return of the Jews under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah. McAllister, a black inmate, yelled out:

“Rabbi, with all due respect, this sounds like one more ancient story. I don’t want to hear another sob story. What’s the real meaning of the story Purim?”

I turned to him. “That’s a great question,” I said, “I believe it’s a narrative that shows how God manifests in many ways. In Biblical times people believed in miracles that broke the rules of nature. These revealed miracles manifested as clear as day; a miracle manifested and the rules of nature were broken.  There are other miracles, whereby one can’t tell that there was a miracle; however, one knows that a miracle did happen. This is called a concealed miracle. There is God revealed and God concealed.  God revealed is God revealing Himself as it were, to Moses on Mt. Sinai. God concealed is God during the Holocaust.”

As I was speaking I looked around the room and tried to gauge how my guys were taking all this in. I could tell something was missing. I could feel they weren’t getting what I was saying. There was silence. The dead silence of no understanding. The silence of dead souls yearning to be awakened.

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Monotheism as a Moral Issue, Part Two: God’s Image and Equality

Mar8

by: George P. Fletcher on March 8th, 2016 | 1 Comment »

Julius Schnorr.

Note: This is part two of a four part series by George P. Fletcher.

Genesis 1:26

AND GOD SAID, LET US MAKE ADAM IN OUR IMAGE, AFTER OUR LIKENESS

Part II. God’s Image and Equality

This text has an unappreciated relationship to our commitment to human equality. In my class on Biblical Jurisprudence I usually begin by asking the students whether they agree that human equality is a premise of modern jurisprudence and if so, how they justify our commitment, A subsidiary question is whether if the law is so committed, can override the principle with an argument for affirmative action or some other social good.

Virtually all of the students begin with utilitarian arguments. The principle of equality allegedly maintains peace among different segments of society. This is a dubious claim. Wage inequality, which results from and sustains hierarchy, has reached disturbing proportions in the United States. No one seems disturbed by our continuing to prevent released felons from voting in many states (a factor, by the way, that enabled George W. Bush to win the 2000 election in Florida and the nation).

The only argument I have ever found to support our intuitive commitment to equality is the biblical premise. Abraham Lincoln revealed his commitment to the Bible when he interpreted the Declaration of Independence in the Gettysburg Address. There is no moral claim in any other legal system as powerful as: All Men are Created Equal. Of course, we understand this now to mean all persons (with many disputes about when personhood begins and ends). No other legal system even comes close to using this religious language. The typical European legal provision reads: All persons are equal before the law. As we know from the history of slavery, the law can not be distrusted as the ultimate arbiter of our values.

Anchoring human value in God’s image generates an argument for Lincoln’s commitment to equality. If God is the infinite value, and we are created in God’s image, then we must be equal. And you might say: well how does equality fare for atheists? Immanuel Kant secularized the argument in his Foundations of Morality by distinguishing human beings and things. Things have value, human beings are ‘beyond price’. Kant generated this argument by building on the insight that human beings have the capacity to universalize the premises of their actions into universal laws of nature.

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The Everything, The Nothing, and Justice

Mar1

by: Jay Michaelson on March 1st, 2016 | 2 Comments »

In various mystical perspectives, there are two aspects to reality as we experience it: something and nothing. In Hasidic traditions, this is sometimes expressed as yesh (something) and ayin (nothing).

Since most of human experience is of yesh, there can be a certain mysterious allure to the ayin. Everything is empty! Sunyata! All is illusion! All is God! Indeed, any non-ordinary experience – a good drug trip, a beautiful view – can easily be associated with some verbiage about the numinous, the luminous emptiness, or whatever. The great rock critic Lester Bangs nailed it when he titled one review “I Saw God And/Or Tangerine Dream.”

I’m mocking the idolatry of ayin, but the truth is that transformative peak experiences are achingly beautiful, and do seem to give a glimpse – either of some non-thing transcending all that is, or at least of another way of being. I wouldn’t trade mine for anything.

Yet most every contemplative path also posits a return to the marketplace, a return to yesh. Many also insist, paradoxically, that the everything is the nothing; that everything is both empty and not-empty. Both-and is the coin of the mystical realm.

The forgotten Hasidic master Rabbi Aharon of Staroselse calls ordinary consciousness of love, sadness, pain, and shopping malls, simply “our point of view.” All of these things are experienced in the soul, mind, heart, and body, and are as real as anything we know. Our perspective is defined by a thousand cultural constructions, genetic accidents, and history. This perspective sees the world as yesh, as something.

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