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Day of Atonement 2018- Ritual, Personal, and Political Atonement

Sep18

by: on September 18th, 2018 | 3 Comments »

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward… (Walter Benjamin, Theses on History)

Zizek notes that the pile continues to grow skyward, why is there no resolution, why isn’t the debris cleared? What is preventing the pile from dissipating? Zizek proposes that one the one hand there can be resolution, for some catastrophes there must be no attempt at “resolution”, much as trying to make sense of or come to a resolution of events like genocide or slavery. This is why at the end of the book of Job, God essentially agrees with Job and never provides an “answer”, and even if Job rebuilds and creates a new family, it is not expected that things will have “returned to normal”. On the other hand, he proposes that Benjamin meant a kind of divine “emancipatory” violence that moves history forward, a political explosion that Zizek then tries to read as a form of ultimate love.

Traditionally, on Yom Kippur, when we think of repentance, traditionally we say that the day of Yom Kippur itself heals “religious” ritual sins, Sabbath violations, improper foods, etc, however, in order to heal sins of individuals against other individuals, rituals and prayers are inadequate, but rather a face to face request for forgiveness is necessary.

Yet, the traditional texts do refer to the matter of greater catastrophes. The Sefat Emet quotes an early Midrash, the Tana D’vei Eliyahu, as linking Yom Kippur to the sin of the golden calf. If one counts the days from the sin of the golden calf and the smashing of the first Luhot (tablets of the law) on the Ninth of Av, and the second 40 days in which Moses ascends back up on Mt Sinai, then it works out that Yom Kippur is the day the second set of Luhot were brought down. The midrash states that in order to prevent the earlier mistake, the People of Israel fasted and cried all night on the final night, were appeased, and the day, which corresponds to Yom Kippur, was fixed as a day of atonement for the generations.

The Sefat Emet, in his reading of this text, notes that the Temple service as described in the Torah is done specifically by Aaron the high priest, and the reason for this is that it was Aaron who sinned with the people and thus he leads the people in repentance with him and this complete unity of leadership and people caused the healing to be engraved upon their hearts and enabled the proper reception of the tablets of the law, of the divine covenant.

Let us remember, what was the sin of the golden calf? It was, as we wrote in the essay for Ki Tissa, a crisis of leadership, with Moses gone, Aaron was afraid that in the absence of a strong symbolic leadership, the exodus project might collapse. While Aaron’s intentions were good, it was a devastating political failure to pledge allegiance to an orange-gold symbol of hedonistic deviance, an idol image that was popular among the masses, EVEN if it seemed at the time to be “good for Israel”. This “red wave” did not make the Israelites “great again” and in fact ultimately led to great destruction.

This political error was a great catastrophe that the classical texts tell us is still unresolved, and in a sense lingers on in all the communal (political) errors made throughout history. The Sefat Emet states:

… In truth, the sin of the golden calf is preserved throughout the generations, however, every Yom Kippur we can atone a bit for this sin, we can enter the gates of holiness and alter our hearts…

In other words, aside from the ritual sins requiring absolution, and the interpersonal sins that require resolution, there is an aspect of Yom Kippur that demands a rethinking of sins and errors in the political sphere. We need to consider again, whether following a gold covered but ultimately corrupt symbol, even if it appears to be “good for Israel” at the moment, must be rejected and tossed into the too-high pile of debris accumulated over the centuries, for the sake of communal healing.

…This storm is what we call progress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Our Dreams Will You Know Us: Impeachment Edition

Aug23

by: on August 23rd, 2018 | Comments Off

“In dreams begin responsibilities,” wrote the poet Delmore Schwartz. What do our dreams reveal about our responsibilities to the body politic?

Everyone I know is ecstatic that two individuals have been definitively revealed as guilty of serious criminal action in direct service to the Present Occupant of the White House. As Michael Cohen’s attorney said, “If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”

The New York Times editorial sums it up nicely and links to the relevant details. Many experts are weighing in to say the grounds for impeachment have been met. There is powerful organizing to impeach this shameful excuse for a president: By The People is well worth following and supporting. You can find a recording of their latest online orientation on Facebook Live.

Impeachment is my dream. Or better yet, the speedier option of a Nixon-style resignation to avoid a long impeachment process. Frank Bruni dreams of Melania Trump as an undercover heroine.

What’s your dream?

This question of our dreams against the depredations of the state has engaged me for decades, ever since I read Doris Lessing’s 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, which braided personal and collective politics in an exciting way, new and complex and deep. The main character, Anna Wulf, works with the British Communist Party. In one of the four notebooks that make up the bulk of the novel, she records a dream she has heard recounted by fellow communists. Here’s how I summarized it in “Our Dreams and the President’s,” an essay published almost exactly 13 years ago (it’s short and I have an idea you may want to read the whole thing):

In The Golden Notebook, her masterpiece of disillusionment, Doris Lessing wrote about the dream of a fellow stalwart of the British Communist Party. The book was published half a dozen years after Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations to the 20th party congress in 1956 of Stalin’s terrible crimes. In the party worker’s fantasy, he goes to Russia, and is called from his hotel to see Comrade Stalin at the Kremlin. The Stalin he meets is a modest and humble man who asks for news of the British labor movement. The visitor, flattered beyond bearing, does his best. Stalin responds with kindly and helpful advice, then returns to his ceaseless labors.

I thought of this yesterday when a friend called long-distance to share her dream, that George Bush had been awakened from his complacency by the events following Hurricane Katrina, and had declared his intention to make t’shuvah (to use the Hebrew term), to turn away from distortion toward healing, to make things right.

I have no love for George Bush, but evidently even he has some shred of conscience, having been moved by our national shame to speak out against this president’s policies.

The point is that even with respect to someone as clueless and corruptible as Bush, people were able to dream of awakening and redemption. Of course, these dreams—whether of Stalin or Bush—did not come true. But it says a great deal about how things have changed that I have not heard a single person share the fantasy that the Present Occupant of the White House will awaken to the harm of his actions and enter the process of t’shuvah—redemption, repentance, reorientation—to transform his presidency.

As he seems unredeemable, even in dreams the body politic has to expel him. Impeachment or resignation are the sweet dreams. All the rest are nightmares.

In Ulysses, James Joyce’s alter-ego Stephen Dedalus says, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The legacy of our collective history weighs heavily in this moment: an Electoral College put in place to prevent direct democracy and protect slavery states; a money-driven electoral system that supports victory by the highest bidder; a Republican Party that enriches the wealthiest and treats the planet as expendable as it actively campaigns to suppress voting by people of color; a Democratic Party that seeks funding from fossil-fuel corporations, reinforcing our shameful corpocracy…. I’ll stop there. This system doesn’t allow us to impeach a president for willful stupidity, nauseating cupidity, or the other crimes of character so evident in every day’s news coverage. Even if it did, the foundation of honor among thieves is fear of exposing oneself, and I don’t see too many of the elected officials benefiting from the current system willing to risk their own cozy turpitude by speaking out.

So it’s up to We The People. We still have absolute power to break the chain of causality, stepping off this undemocratic, mercenary, and venal path. For some reason, I stopped asking the three questions that for years were my watchword. I think it’s time to revive them:

Who are we as a people?
What do we stand for?
How do we want to be remembered?

As the people who finally drew the line and made the dream of impeachment real.

“Politician,” performed by Los Lobos.

When Two Truths Collide, Part Two: Can You See Yourself as The Accused?

Aug17

by: on August 17th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

Something in our body politic is troubling me. I do not think it is possible to have a just society without understanding that every member of society bears the same potential to harm or heal. I do not think we can have just laws and processes without imagining how we would ourselves be treated as either the accuser of wrongdoing or the accused. Yet I hear so many people exempting themselves from these deep truths, advocating positions conditioned on understanding their own virtue as unimpeachable, on seeing themselves as incapable of serious wrongdoing.

The antidote I think we need is perspective, the ability to see our own virtue, accomplishments, or status as subject to change, to braid empathy and imagination with justice.

A few days ago, I wrote about conflicting views of how best to respond to abuse charges leveled against a respected person. As a case-in-point, I explored progressive responses to the charge that Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison had abused his former partner, Karen Monahan. Since then Ellison has won the Democratic nomination for state Attorney General. It remains to be seen how whatever unfolds will affect both him and Monahan, but whatever happens, that won’t end the discussion. I could have picked a different example in which any man long regarded as dedicated to equity and justice is publicly charged with abuse. The choice is appallingly plentiful, the debate ongoing.

To reduce the two perspectives I discussed to a few words, I’d characterize them as “Believe Women. Period,” leading to immediate calls for the accused to step down; or “Investigate Before Action,” in which charges are taken seriously, but the call for punishment is conditioned on obtaining full information.

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We, too, wandered lost in the desert; A Rabbi in solidarity work with migrants

Aug3

by: Rabbi Brant Rosen on August 3rd, 2018 | 1 Comment »

Some of Jewish tradition’s most cherished spiritual lessons derive from the narrative of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, guided by God’s presence as they make their way toward the Promised Land. Today, as we hear increasing reports of migrants risking incarceration, starvation, and death in the deserts along our southwest border, these sacred stories call out to us with a desperate immediacy.

It is all too clear that U.S. border policy is creating a crisis of death and disappearance in the southwest borderlands. It is unconscionable that our government is leaving migrants to die in the desert – and that humanitarian workers are now being criminalized for helping them. As a Rabbi and a Jew, my faith compels me to witness and to respond.

Image of car door among some trees, painted with sign: "No Mas Muertes, Bienvenidos"

Entrance to No Mas Muertes desert aid camp near Arivaca, AZ. Image courtesy of Patrice Clark.

No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes – a humanitarian organization based in southern Arizona – has documented how border enforcement pushes migration routes into some of the most remote, dangerous areas in Arizona’s deserts. As violence and hardship grow in parts of Latin America – in direct response to US foreign policy – and as pathways to asylum and other relief are cut off, growing numbers of people are crossing the border to reunite with their families and seek safety.

In 2017, 57 sets of human remains were found in Arizona’s West Desert, including 32 on the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge – a vast and remote stretch of land that shares 56 miles with the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet this number represents only a fraction of the people who have disappeared and died in the region; some estimate that 10 times as many people die trying to cross these deserts.

For the past three years, No More Deaths/No Mas Muertes has left water, food, socks and blankets for migrants crossing the Cabeza Wildlife Refuge, but outrageously enough, these humanitarian relief efforts have now been criminalized by the Trump administration. Earlier this year, Scott Warren, a humanitarian aid provider with No More Deaths, and two people receiving humanitarian aid were arrested by U.S. Border Patrol. Now Warren is facing federal felony charges, and he and eight other No More Deaths volunteers are also facing federal misdemeanor charges relating to their humanitarian aid work on the Cabeza.

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A Prayer of Boundless Love: Extending the Shema to Include All Beings

Jul5

by: Charles Burack on July 5th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

As part of my integral worship each morning, I recite the Shema, the central Jewish prayer. The opening verses of the Shema proclaim the People of Israel’s responsibility to affirm the unity of divinity and love the One with all our heart and soul and might. For many Jews, the initial verse “Shema Yisrael YHVH Elohaynu YHVH echad” means “Hear, O Israel, YHVH is our God, YHVH is one.” For some mystically inclined Jews like myself, the opening verse means the “Hear, O Israel, YHVH is our divinity, YHVH is Oneness.

YHVH is the holy, unpronounceable divine name that traditional Jews replace with Adon [Our Lord], and that modern scholars designate as the tetragrammaton (Four-Letter Name) and vocalize as Yahweh. Various Rabbinic commentators gloss YHVH as “the Eternal One” because it appears to merge three singular forms of the Hebrew word for “to be”: was-is-will be (hayah, hoveh, yehiyeh). The Sages also associate YHVH with the quality of divine compassion (middat ha-rachamim) – which is the “womb [rechem] consciousness” of divinity. Jewish mystics note that the numerological value (in Gematriya ) of YHVH is 26, which is equivalent to the sum of the values of the two central concepts in the Shema : love (a havah = 13) and one (e chad = 13). This spiritual equation “YHVH = Love + One” implies that divinity is fundamentally unified and loving and that love itself is the primary means for creating and sustaining unity.

While many mainstream traditional Jews understand the divine as wholly transcendent, many Jewish mystics affirm, along with the Zohar , that the Infinite One ( Ein Sof ) both fills and surrounds all worlds (memalai kol olmin v’sovev kol olmin). The divine is in All, and All is in It, and there is no place where divinity is not present.

Like many other members of the Jewish Renewal community, which integrates neo-Chasidism with progressive views and values and honors the insights and practices of other religious and spiritual traditions, I understand the Shema as enjoining “God-wrestlers” to experience the Oneness – of Being, Non-Being and Beyond – as divine. I like Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s translation of Israel (Yisrael) as “God-wrestler” not only because the Bible itself explains that it means “one who contends [struggles, wrestles] with God” (Genesis 32:29) but also because this gloss gives the word a more universal meaning that can speak to anyone, whether Jewish or not. Indeed, I am inclined to tell the students who take my Kabbalah courses, “If you are a God- or Goddess-wrestler, consider yourself an honorary Israelite.” Then I quickly add with a smile, “Most rabbis would not agree with that statement!”

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The Hidden Who Uphold The World

Jun30

by: on June 30th, 2018 | Comments Off

 

Rabbi Abraham Heschel, presenting Judaism and World Peace award to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A friend posted on Facebook, sharing the fatigue and demoralization she had been fighting as she sorted through old papers documenting her journey in the last few decades of the progressive movement in this country: the ideas appropriated without credit; the individuals whose own sense of entitlement blinded them to the injuries they inflicted; the surplus ego, the embedded pathways of patriarchy, and more, much more.

She touched my heart in the tender place of my own questioning, and I wrote back:

The challenge of remaining whole amidst the brokenness is formidable. The challenge of holding all these contradictions is fatiguing. It may not be much consolation to be seen as one who helps to shift the energies, inside and out, by speaking these truths, but you are such a one. There is a Jewish legend of the 36 just ones (the Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim) who by their existence uphold the world. It is not given to anyone to know who they are, but we are asked to live as if life itself depended on us, as if we were among the 36. Love and honor to you for answering this call, my friend.

You see, her words brought to mind the legend of the 36 Just Ones – The Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim in Hebrew – who by their righteousness uphold the existence of the world. In Jewish mysticism, the story goes that if at any time the total number of these pillars of existence were to fall below 36, the world would end, as together they constitute an ironclad argument to the Divine that humanity is worth the trouble.


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The Big Lie

Jun23

by: on June 23rd, 2018 | 4 Comments »

What is “The Big Lie” and why is the Present Occupant of the White House so committed and adept at deploying it?

When Hitler coined the expression “The Big Lie,” he meant it as an accusation against German Jews, charging them in Mein Kampf with falsely condemning Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff for losing World War I due to his strategic errors in the spring offensive of 1918, after which he was forced to leave his post.

Ludendorff retaliated by working overtime to blame defeat not on losses in battle under his command, but on Jews and Communists, whom he saw as a powerful internal enemies. As history shows, his Big Lie triumphed in the court of public opinion. As World War II ramped up, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels used the term to characterize the British relationship to public opinion, accusing them of telling a big lie and sticking no matter what.

Mostly, though, we hear the term in relation to Nazi Germany’s own propaganda, as in this characterization of Hitler from the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the present-day Central Intelligence Agency) during the war:

His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.


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REVIVAL Album Spreads Love and Hope

Jun22

by: Robin Kopf on June 22nd, 2018 | Comments Off

Just in time for LGBT+ Pride weekend in San Francisco and New York City, the live folk-rock show, REVIVAL, has released an album as of June 21st.

Part of the spirit of Pride is modeling a world that focuses more on love and less on fear and hatred. REVIVAL‘s story based songs do just this – they send messages of healing, spirituality, joy, faith, and caring for the world we live in.

REVIVAL started out as a performance by singers Lea Kalisch and Julia Ostrov, violinist Samantha Gillogly, guitarist Ugene Romashov, and percussionist Anna Wray, all based in or around New York City. The music and lyrics were written by Kristen Plylar-Moore in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and they began performing the show in late 2016.


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Nine Stops on a Long Road: One Jew’s Journey

May21

by: Judith Mahoney Pasternak on May 21st, 2018 | 8 Comments »

1. The Yom Kippur Transgression

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Religious Jews fast and pray all day, focusing on repenting the sins of the past year.

On the Yom Kippur before my sixteenth birthday, I was at the neighborhood drugstore-soda fountain, probably buying cigarettes.

I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was supposed to be at home, not to fast or think about atoning for anything, but to stand with all Jews by not publicly flouting the Yom Kippur practice.

It was in the decades after World War II. The Jewish High Holy Days were not yet school holidays even in New York State, with its large Jewish population. American Jews were still assimilating. The process had been accelerated by the war and the Holocaust, the genocide attempted and almost achieved by Germany’s Third Reich, yet those same events made us more than ever conscious of our Jewish identity. So it was that my mother, daughter of two militantly secular, even anti-religious, socialist-anarchist Russian Jews, kept her children home from school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a sign of respect for, and solidarity with, observant Jews. My visit to the drugstore was behind her back, sneaking out for something I needed, which is why I think it must have been cigarettes.

Suddenly, a voice behind me said, “Judy! What are you doing here?” It was a Jewish high-school classmate, and when I said I was getting cigarettes, she added, “No, why aren’t you in school?”

“It’s Yom Kippur,” I said. If I was breaking the rules, so was she.

“But Judy,” she protested, “you look so Catholic!”

She was mixing up religion and ethnicity. She meant I looked Irish, which I did, because I am. Half Irish, also half Jewish. Standing in the aisle at the drugstore, I explained that to my classmate. Then I went home and announced that for my upcoming birthday I wanted a gold Star of David and a chain to wear it on. I got it and wore it for years afterward, wanting never again to be taken for not Jewish.

 

2. My Mother’s Hagadahs

The Hagadah is the account of the Jews’ servitude in Egypt and escape – exodus – from it, traditionally retold during the Passover dinners called seders.

To be precise, I’m half Jewish by matrilineal ancestry, if not by religion, which gets me the Right of Return under Israeli law and would have gotten me death in Nazi Germany. The other half is Irish – my father was born in County Cork – and that’s the half I more resemble. My birth name was Judith Mahoney, and I’m blue-eyed and, through my teens, was fair-haired.

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Israel@70: Fixing the way we pray for the State

Apr17

by: Rabbi David Seidenberg on April 17th, 2018 | 2 Comments »

The traditional prayer for the State of Israel, more literally titled “A Prayer for the Peace of the State,” tefilah lish’lom hamedinah, was written in 1948 by the chief rabbis of what had up until then been Palestine, in a time of war. The state was under direct attack by the Arab armies, and there was little distinction between peace, survival, and victory.

As we approach Israel’s 70th birthday, it is time to make such distinctions. Israel and the Jewish people live in a much more complex reality, a democratic reality. A reality where the strongest military cannot create peace on its own.

This reality is one where the triumph of one party or policy can undermine the flow of justice and reverse the outlook for peace. It is a reality where praying for Israel must include not only praying for the well-being of the Jewish people, but also praying for the well-being of the region, and the well-being of the Palestinian people, many of whom are Israeli citizens, most of whom are in some way under Israel’s control. And it is a reality where praying for the well-being of mutual enemies must include praying that people on all sides be protected from their own hatred, not just from attack.

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