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Archive for the ‘Judaism’ Category



The Young Friends Pleasure and Benefit Society

Feb15

by: Eileen Pollack on February 15th, 2014 | 5 Comments »

Until last May, I had never visited the cemetery where my mother’s parents lie buried. My grandfather died before I was born. My grandmother helped to raise me; I loved her dearly, but she died while I was living abroad, and I didn’t attend her funeral. All I knew was that the cemetery was called Mount Zion, one of those never-ending seas of graves you glimpse to one side of the BQE or the LIE as you are hurrying to LaGuardia.

“Promise me you’ll never go there,” my mother said. She seemed to believe that if I attempted to find it, I would end up lost, or dead, or both. But how could I live my life without once visiting my grandparents’ graves? And how could I die without knowing I had said goodbye to my beloved Grandma Pauline? Every time I traveled to New York, I vowed I would find Mount Zion. And every time, I had too much to do, or I chickened out.

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Torah Commentary: Ki Tissa- Text and Authority: Sinai and the Golden Calf

Feb13

by: on February 13th, 2014 | Comments Off

Another one of those periodic crises of authority that tend to erupt in the Orthodox world recently captured the attention of the greater community. In this episode, two Orthodox day schools allowed girls who wished to put on tephillin, the ritual prayer boxes traditionally worn by men, the right to put on tephillin during school prayer time. A salvo from the traditionalist camp was quick to follow, focusing not on the question at hand but on the question of authority, with the central argument being that decisions of this sort can’t be made at the local level, but rather require the input from those recognized as long standing authorities. In particular, in this response, the specific argument was that while everyone now has equal access to the full corpus of Jewish legal texts, by way of the internet and the Bar-Ilan database, it doesn’t mean that everyone had the rights of “authority”. I am not going to take sides in this argument, but I believe we get some insight into the problems of a concept like “authority” in both its presence and absence.

The central story of this week’s reading is the well known story of the Golden Calf. Just after all the miracles of the exodus, Moses goes up to Sinai to receive the Torah, and when he is delayed in returning, the people assume he’s dead, have a major freak out, and create an idol of a calf out of gold, which they proclaim the new god and leader of the people. When Moses makes his way back down the mountain with the tablets of the law, the “luhot”, he literally loses it, smashing the tablets. God reveals to Moses that the plan is to wipe out the people and start again, to which Moses regains his composure and advocates for the people. God accepts the appeal and Moses gets a second set of luhot. So was there any lingering result of the sin? We discussed one possible ramification, the idea of a dwelling place, which may have come about as a result of the people’s tragic error. This week we will look at another repercussion of the event, which may give us some insight into the motivations for what appears to us to be a very odd sin by the people given everything they had recently experienced. In other words, why did they make a golden idol of a calf?

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Weekly Torah Commentary Perashat Terumah: Art as Ultimate Failure

Jan31

by: on January 31st, 2014 | 1 Comment »

The world has seen some ugly battles fought recently over religion-related buildings. From the destruction of the Buddhist monastery at Bamiyan to the conflict over the so-called ground zero mosque, going back to Kristalnacht, the attempt at dehumanization of adherents to a religion frequently begins with a strike against the buildings associated with that faith. On the other hand, some of the most important architectural achievements of humanity across the globe, from Wat Phra Khao to Notre Dame, are a result of spiritual ardor manifested in stone. It would appear that religious structures can provide solace or evoke resistance. What does the Jewish tradition teach us about the role of buildings in spiritual life?

We will see that from the very start, from the Torah text itself, a conflicted reading of the importance or challenge of religious buildings per se is presented. The Torah text provides very lengthy and detailed descriptions for the building of the Mishkan, the portable temple carried by the freed Israelites in their journey through the desert. These details, with instructions regarding the building of the temple walls, roof, altars, ark, and other items related to the sacrificial service, are spread out over five perashiyot (Torah sections, as divided for weekly communal reading). We will see that this organization of the text itself teaches rather surprising and profound lessons about the values of sacred space and its rituals.

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AIPAC Keeps Its Skulduggery Secret

Jan28

by: on January 28th, 2014 | Comments Off

I have been thinking about that secret meeting Mayor De Blasio had with AIPAC, the meeting Andrew Sullivan brilliantly analyzed here. 

And the more I think about it, the happier the meeting makes me.

The reason is simple. Both De Blasio and AIPAC decided that the meeting should be kept top  secret. De Blasio kept it off his schedule and banned reporters from the room. AIPAC did the same.

And that makes me happy because it indicates that both the mayor and the lobby understand that the meeting was shameful.

AIPAC met with the mayor to receive his pledge of uncritical support for Israel, the decisions of its government, and the actions its lobby takes here. To put it mildly, no other country in the world would dream of asking a U.S. official to make such a pledge. And, if any did, it would be a scandal.

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Finding Fresh Water

Jan21

by: Jessica Fishman on January 21st, 2014 | Comments Off

The Shmaya Mikveh, pictured here, is Israel's only pluralistic, open mikveh.

During difficult times, new beginnings, or endings, people often look for a way to symbolically mark transitions. In her mid-twenties, Miriam had just gone through a difficult break up and was about to make aliyah to Israel from Los Angles. Wanting to start fresh, Miriam remembered an Orthodox woman who ran a pluralistic mikveh who had told her, “If you ever just want to have the experience, you can come and do a dip anytime you want. You don’t have to come only because you’re married.”

Miriam decided to visit the mikveh and told the woman that she wanted to spiritually cleanse herself for her big life changes. While explaining that the mikveh can be a symbol for starting fresh, the woman set out candles and meaningful passages. Miriam describes her first mikveh experience as beautiful and lovely. However, her second mikveh experience was not as welcoming.

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On Being at the Center of a Controversy within the U.S. Jewish Community

Jan5

by: on January 5th, 2014 | 54 Comments »

Recently, due to my writing on the issue of boycotts and Israel, I was asked by a prominent Jewish organization to make a public, political statement before being allowed into its building to speak about my book, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?

This request, as well as its troubling implications, are part of a sudden controversy which has arisen in the American Jewish community over what can, and cannot, be discussed regarding Israel.

My Story

I recently had the honor of being invited by the Israel Committee of Santa Barbara to be a keynote speaker at its annual, signature event this spring. The event is physically housed by Santa Barbara Hillel, which describes itself as a home for Jews open to all political and religious stripes, stating, “We are as diverse as the human race.”

At first, it was going to be my temporary home – a place in which I was to tell the narrative of my reconciliation with a Palestinian family. However, when a member of the Hillel staff found a political post of mine in which I attempted to argue that boycotts and sanctions against Israel are legitimate forms of nonviolent protest – and which understandably was misunderstood as my joining the BDS movement – I was no longer welcome.

Which is when the request, or pre-condition, came from Santa Barbara Hillel after it viewed my post as a violation of Hillel’s guidelines:

Make a political statement clarifying your position on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel, and you may enter our building. Otherwise, you are not allowed within our walls.


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Nostalgie de la Boue

Dec23

by: on December 23rd, 2013 | Comments Off

Joseph Epstein is a conservative writer, mid-70s, who has spent much of his literary life pissing off readers with liberal or left values. His newest piece in the Wall Street Journal“The Late, Great American WASP”—is a case in point, worshipping a bygone American WASP-ocracy that supposedly sacrificed the pleasures of mere domination in favor of power-wielding packaged with a sense of responsibility. While Epstein’s literary output has been polished to a smudgeless sheen, it still reeks of brownnosing, reminding me of the Francophone notion I borrowed for today’s title: nostalgie de la boue. Literally this is: nostalgia—homesickness—for the mud. It is meant to indicate an attraction to whatever is low, crude, degraded, to the romance of the wallow in our sensual nature without the trappings of civilization.

Why is Epstein so impelled to glorify a caste that could never include himself? He was born in Chicago, but if his parents weren’t born abroad, surely his grandparents immigrated here. He was brought up in a Jewish-American milieu he described a decade ago in an interview, seemingly completely unaware of his words’ embedded self-disgust:

[N]one of the positive stereotypes of Judaism adhere. We were not kids who had political idealism. Our parents did not talk about Trotsky and Stalin and the Party. I knew no one who took violin lessons. A few kids were forced to take piano and they hated every minute of it. We went to Hebrew school because were instructed to and we were bar mitzvahed. The only culture that was ever mentioned among the Jews of my parent’s generation was musical comedy. And you’d get these guys; these terrific brutes working in the scrap iron business and borax salesmen and they would go and sit there meekly with their wives and listening to Pajama Game. They’d come back and say “Gee we saw it in New York and the cast was better.” But there was no real culture. They were nice men, and I don’t mean to belittle them for not having culture. I’m glad to grow up without culture.


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Torah Commentary- Shemot: Moses and Emancipation

Dec19

by: on December 19th, 2013 | Comments Off

I. The Challenge

Whereas the stories within the book of Genesis fall into atomizable story units, when encountering the book of Shemot (Exodus) it is clearly organized with a longer arc of narrative, with the episodes being more syncytial and interwoven. The themes I wish to deal with in these pieces do not find their closure in one verse or one commentatory, one might say they are “deterritorialised” across the arbitrary perasha divisions. One major theme encompassing a large portion of the book can be summarized as “how can one change the world for the better even in the face of a powerful evil empire?”

Insight into how one individual, like Moshe (Moses, as he is known in English) was capable of standing up to the dominant world power, and changing the course of human history, is not limited to one episode alone. “Speaking truth to Power” can serve as a subtext for virtually every narrative in the text from the book of Shemot (Exodus). How can one learn this skill, become a Moshe in the continuing fight against injustice?

Michael Walzer’s approach towards the book of Exodus as a blueprint for liberation is a very satisfying approach; here I would like to show how the prelude to political emancipation is more deeply rooted in a spiritual and epistemological ability to transcend the given reality, beyond the positive Marxist approach of Walzer. Furthermore, this ability is not only valid for political struggle, rather, following the approach of the Sefat Emet in perashat Va’era, the story of the Exodus illuminates the path to freedom for the individual trapped in their existential despair and darkness. So the goal is, not only to hear about, or venerate the biblical hero Moshe, but to learn how to “be” him, to actualize him in our own lives. With this in mind, we will try to undestand the route by which Moshe, the Hebrew slaves, all individuals who are exposed to this narrative, come to free themselves from the injustice of political, historical, and personal bondage.

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My Problems with the Jewish ‘Fat Cats’

Dec18

by: Burton H. Wolfe on December 18th, 2013 | 8 Comments »

(Credit: CC-BY-NC-SA by Anatoli Axelrod)

“Fat cats” is a term that my father and my boss at B’nai B’rith headquarters used to describe the wealthy Jews who finance synagogue and Jewish organizational programs.

They would acknowledge the justification for part of my negative attitude toward most rich Jews, but they followed with the cautionary advice: “You have to respect the fat cats.”

We had a semantics problem. It was not that I was unable to see how beneficence resulted from the money donated by the fat cats. It was their obnoxious behavior in the way they doled out the money, the prejudicial restrictions entailed in who they picked to get the money, and what they demanded for payback, that caused my contempt for most of them. Quickly I add that I cannot and would not apply those characteristics to every last one of them, because then I would be guilty of what is known in reasoning and logic as a “sweeping generalization,” and that kind of dragnet can only be used with acknowledgment of individual differences. In fact, I have a long standing admiration for a few of the fat cats who were my friends in a prior decade; but they are long dead.

My contempt for most of the fat cats began at the shul (synagogue) that my family chose for membership, prayer, my barmitzvah, my sisters’ weddings, and funeral services. [I choose not to single out that shul by name because what I write here applies to all of the biggest and wealthiest synagogues in my experience.] The first time I picked up one of the siddurs (prayer books) used for services, I noticed the name of an individual emblazoned in big, gold letters on the cover: “Marvin Kogod” [I am using an assumed name that is not to be identified with any real person, living or dead].

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Nelson Mandela: A Jewish Perspective

Dec6

by: on December 6th, 2013 | 7 Comments »

Jews love and loved Nelson Mandela. He inspired us with his insistence that the old regime of apartheid would crumble more quickly and fully when faced with revolutionary love and compassion than when faced with anger and violence.

Mandela also challenged us to think deeply about whether the current situation in Israel/Palestine reflects the ethic of compassion that is so central to Judaism.

Credit: Creative Commons/Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Some people on the Left reject Mandela’s strategy. “How can one be openhearted toward one’s oppressors?” they say. “Fostering compassion toward oppressors will undermine the revolutionary spirit needed to defeat the evil ones.”

Yet Mandela showed us the opposite – that one can generate more solidarity and more willingness to take risks in struggle when one can clearly present one’s own movement as morally superior to the actions of the oppressors. Mandela’s anti-apartheid movement claimed this moral superiority through being able to respond to the oppressors’ hatred with great love. When Che Guevara said, “A true revolutionary is motivated by great feelings of love,” he was alluding to this same truth. And this is what the Torah teaches when it instructs us to “love the stranger” (the “other”).

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