07 February 2014

David Rotem 2.0: A Response

J. Turrell, Space that Sees,  Israel Museum
Without question, Facebook and Twitter and Blogging can be helpful tools.

After writing what I thought was a measured response to Israeli MK David Rotem for his remarks about Reform Judaism, a couple of friends in Israel wrote me and offered to get directly to David Rotem my remarks.

And to understand the dimensions of this ongoing struggle for some in the Jewish community--over the legitimacy and authenticity of the diversity of expression of Jewish life--it's important to know that both people who conveyed my words directly to MK Rotem were Orthodox Jews.

One, a Modern Orthodox man and committed Pluralist who has lived in Israel for nearly 40 years; and another, a Haredi woman (and best friend of a Reform woman rabbi) who works with Rotem in the Knesset.

And then this morning:  I woke up to an email from a congregant who has been dialoguing with an Orthodox family member about this issue and my blog post and reported with pride that his Orthodox relative said, "Your rabbi sounds like my kind of rabbi."

I write this decidedly *not* to toot my own horn but to indicate that above all, what binds us together as Jews is not *how* we identify but *that* we identify as such.  At a relatively infinitesimally small number in proportion to the world who have embraced a singularly unique historical and spiritual narrative, we ought to stretch ourselves to love one another more sincerely.

From the moment my father and then grandmother told me so, I've always identified first and foremost as a Jew.  It needn't get more complicated than that.

So this is to thank my friends out there.  We're all in this together.

Shabbat Shalom.

06 February 2014

David Rotem: Give the Brother Some Love

I've never met Israeli Knesset Member David Rotem.  I don't think I'd recognize him if I bumped into him on the street--whether the long, arboreal pathways of Prospect Park or the frenetic tumult of Mahane Yehuda on a Friday afternoon.  He's a guy doing his thing and I'm a guy doing mine and that's just fine.

He spends his Saturdays in the synagogue (or so I presume) which is exactly where I spend mine.  He talks to my God in Hebrew and I do the same with his.  We both wear tefillin and tallit each day.  And we both keep Kosher (though, given some of his more recent outbursts, I guess it's safe to say he's more strict than I am about where I eat.)  I love Israel and though I'm not sure how he feels about Brooklyn, he's certainly welcome here anytime.  We're a tolerant lot.  I'll take the Vegas odds that we're both circumcised.  And we both wear glasses.

Here in New York there is a lot of tension of the rising income gap; over-testing of students in schools; perceived racial tensions in police tactics; a spate of pedestrian traffic deaths; union contracts and universal pre-K; diminishing library budgets; and always, the fear that New York remains exposed, like many great cities in the world, to the terror threat.

Jerusalem, to be sure, has no shortage of challenges.  A stalled peace process with Palestinians; a rising income gap across the country; affordable housing shortages and university budget cuts; diminishing water resources and environmental challenges; the integration of Haredi populations into the public sector; the threat of a nuclear Iran; a creeping al Qaeda presence in Sinai and the Syrian border of the Golan Heights; Hezbollah in Lebanon.

It's a big agenda in both cities.  Just thinking about it can take up your day.

So I'm not sure what the benefit is, exactly, in David Rotem declaring, among the many things he could be declaring these days, that "Reform Judaism is not Jewish."  Unless the benefit, from his perspective, is to foster a hermetic, exclusive, extreme, one-dimensional definition of Jewishness, which cuts against the historical reality of the ongoing development of the Jewish people for the past three thousand five hundred years.  I mean, it's his right to espouse that.  But he'd be radically wrong.

After all, we no longer sacrifice animals to God; or sit in the dark on Shabbat; or stone people to death for capital crimes (not to mention gouging out their eyes); we don't have Kings, Prophets and Priests (in the Biblical sense) and even though Mel Brooks stopped making movies, at least we still have Larry David.

One can argue, as the 12th century Maimonides did in Guide for the Perplexed, that God's demand of Israel's animal sacrifice was God's deployment of other cultures' idolatrous practices (the impulse to slaughter an animal being so primal, being so great) in order to teach Israel that the people ought to worship the monotheistic God of the Jewish people, not the pagan deities of other cultures.  One can (and many indeed have) further conclude that this Maimonidean maneuver is an example of the evolutionary adaptability to ever-changing Jewish civilization in an ongoing relationship to its God.  Or you can not conclude that.  And you can even vehemently disagree.

But the disagreement doesn't deprive one side of its Jewishness.  It just means that two Jews disagree on something:  a phenomenon, both in Jerusalem and Brooklyn, that's as old as the hills.

David Rotem, I'd guess, is not his real family name.  An Orthodox man born in Bnai Brak in 1949, with a name like "Rotem," which in Hebrew is a desert plant and remains a favorite among those who rejected the Diaspora in favor of an authentic new Hebrew culture linked inextricably to the land, is a modern construct.  So is the education he received at Hebrew University.  Without Napoleon and other European emperors granting Jews emancipation and citizenship in the late 18th and 19th centuries, Jews would never have been able to enter universities.  Without universities, there'd be no critical analysis of the meaning of history and ancient texts.  Without that, there'd be no philosophical or politically scientific basis for Zionism, not to mention the theological underpinnings of Modern Orthodoxy, Conservatism, and yes, David, even Reform Judaism.

Who were the Rotems before your own version of an intolerant Zionism?  Simple Jews, no doubt.  Just trying to make ends meet.  Like my people, with their new names, trying to survive from Minsk to Milwaukee to Brooklyn.   Your family found refuge in our people's ancient homeland, a commitment I honor and defend from the relative ease of the Diaspora each day.

But just because I don't observe God's law exactly as you do, don't drag us all down into your fundamentalist rantings of the same sectarian divisiveness that is tearing apart our Muslim neighbors as well.

We're meant to be a light unto the nations.  To prove that despite our difference, we can get along.  That's how we do it here in Brooklyn, in Tel Aviv, and even in certain neighborhoods in our beloved Jerusalem.

So don't waste your breath putting me down, turning "Reform" into a curse.  There are rockets aimed at you from the borders, internal divisions far greater than whose Shabbat is holier.  Your insults are pushing away your brothers and sisters who commit no sin other than merely respectfully disagreeing with precisely what it is God wants of us.   But we're in agreement over the bulk of the message and that ought to be enough.

Cain, who slew Abel, arrogantly challenged God with the outrageous and disingenuous question, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

We know the answer.  And so know this, dear brother, that I'm looking out for you.  Keeping you, dear brother, when I ask you not to make your brother the enemy.

I'm your friend.

The bulk of Jews have lived more years in the Diaspora than in the Land of Israel, a mind-boggling fact that begs the question:  how, despite the violence and bloodshed of Jewish history, did we survive?  The shul I daven in, dear brother, is the one that is built on the principle of tolerance, accommodation and good relations with our neighbors, and, when it's unavoidable, disagreement "for the sake of heaven."

So for heaven's sake, cease your vituperations.  Give the brother some love.

With internal and external threats, you need all the help you can get.

02 February 2014

Being Human Is Just Enough

I had never been covered by a noxious mixture of fecal and urine infused water before and so had no real sense of what that would be like--until last night.

Walking up Flatbush Avenue after an evening viewing of Spike Jonze's clever movie, "Her," I was standing in front of the Atlantic Center with my family when a geyser like spray of fecal urine water shot up from a small metal cover in the sidewalk, soaking me and one of my daughters in a totally disgusting shower of waste.  People stopped and gawked in shared disgust.  Someone offered a small bottle of Purell.  In order to ward off a brief spell of insanity, we considered laughing.  But then we just decided to head home, clean our clothes, and bathe.

Revelers crowded into Barclays for a Saturday night event; the restaurants and bars of Flatbush popped with pre-Super Bowl excitement.  I thought of the scenes in "Schindler's List" and "Les Miserables," when brief journeys through sewage were life-saving risks undertaken by heroic innocents.

What a contrast this all was with the strangely beautiful, alluring and anti-septic love on-screen between Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson.  Though ultimately having been superseded in intelligence by their operating systems, Phoenix and Amy Adams were an inspiring sight in all their fallible humanity, atop a roof, admiring a landscape, leaning on one another with their unavoidable physicality.

"Akavyah ben Mahalalel said, 'Reflect upon three things and you will not come into the grip of sin:  Know whence you came, where you are going, and before whom you will have to render account and reckoning.  Whence you came--from a putrid drop.  Where are you going--to a place of dust and decay and vermin.  Before whom you will have to render account and reckoning--before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He."

This evocative, rooted, centering rabbinical text from the 1st century remains one of my favorite calling cards for justice.  As the Sages also may have said, "Hold fast to life; hold your mortality closer."

Of course, this is a grown-up message.  My daughter I didn't inflict with the jaded wisdom of the Sages living under Epicurean and Stoic Roman systems.  In fact, the luxuriousness of the Roman system came in handy.  We each went our separate ways when we got home, took long hot showers, changed our clothes, and shook off this leveling event with a good warm meal.

For dessert we ate baklava from Jerusalem's Ja'afar Sweets, an Old City favorite, and read a couple stories from Shalom Auslander's Beward of God.  His short story, "Bobo the Self-Hating Chimp," seemed appropriate for the occasion, especially its opening lines:

"At 9:37 in the otherwise ordinary morning of May 25, Bobo, a small male chimpanzee in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo, achieved total conscious self-awareness.  God.  Death.  Shame.  Guilt.  Each one dropped like a boulder onto his tiny primitive skull."

Between chimps and operating systems, I guess being human is just enough.

01 February 2014

Invocation for EMB. 1.28.14

Delivered in Memory of Edgar M. Bronfman
"A Life Fulfilled:  A Tribute Celebration"
January 28, 2014
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center

(After a beautiful opening melody by Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl, I had the honor of delivering this Invocation in memory of my dear friend and mentor, Edgar.)

Good evening and ערב טוב

Tonight we gather as a community of those who have come together to express our love and admiration of Edgar M. Bronfman.

Son.  Grandson.  Brother.  Father.  Grandfather.  Great-grandfather.  Husband.  Fierce Friend and Advocate for the Jewish people, wherever they lived.  Defender of Freedom and Justice--Insistent Prophet of Learning, of Doing, of Joy.

נר השם נשמת אדם--The spirit of man, of this man, Edgar, is the light of the Eternal; and this memorial candle burns bright for Edgar, Yehiel, in whose name and memory Eternality abides.

Around the throne of this king, this man, this father, husband, brother, son, are the wrought and rendered works of a life so fully lived.  Achievement.  Generosity.  Justice.  Redeemed Captives and Revitalized Youth.  Learning and Questions and Heresies and Knowledge.  Ethics and Morality.  And no shortage of jokes.  Thank God for the jokes.

Tonight there is hallowed memory and laughter; there are tears of sadness and longing and an awestruck recognition of just how much on man can achieve.

With raw humility, goodness and kindness, his family laid his body to rest one month ago.  And tonight, as Edgar insisted, we join together as one to remember him with joy.  To celebrate the life of Edgar M. Bronfman.

זכר צדיק לברכה

May his memory always be a blessing.