Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
In a recent article published in the Jewish Forward (April 13, 2012), reflecting on the ever-widening cultural gulf between American Jewry and Israelis, the journalist and author David Hazony challenged the American Jew to learn Hebrew. Here is some of what he wrote:
“…there exists no greater threat to Jewish Peoplehood than the cultural disconnect between Israeli and American Jews. And unlike so many of our people’s other problems, this one actually is quite simple to solve – but only if American Jews decide they want to solve it… Growing up in American public schools, I studied French for six years. By 12th grade I’d read Moliere, Camus, Voltaire and Ionesco in the original. Later in life I was able to revive my French in a couple of months of a weekly conversation class, and after a number of brief visits to Paris I was getting by, or at least making a noble effort… such an education gave me something much deeper than just lingual training. It gave me an incredible amount of insight, appreciation, respect and fondness for French culture, French thinking, French joie de vivre…”
Then he says:
“American Jews have to learn Hebrew…there are at least two overwhelming reasons that they should. Leon Wieseltier covered one of them last year, in a jaw-dropping essay called ‘Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry,’ who said ‘American Jews…have inhumanely and un-Jewishly cut themselves off from the vast oceans of their own biblical and rabbinic past because they don’t bother to relate to Hebrew the way that Western countries until recently related to Greek and Latin – as a basic building block of cultural literacy. The assumption of American Jewry that it can do without a Jewish language is an arrogance without precedent in Jewish history. And this illiteracy, I suggest, will leave American Judaism and American Jewishness forever crippled and scandalously thin… Without Hebrew, the Jewish tradition will not disappear entirely in America, but most of it will certainly disappear.”
Hazony continues that
“…the time is coming very soon – if it has not already arrived – when one will not be able to fully participate in Jewish cultural life without knowing Hebrew. This is true in part because of the sheer quantity of cultural creativity, but also because of the trends: Israel is quickly growing in wealth, population and global influence, while American Jews are, in the optimistic view, marching in place. American Jews have much to contribute to Hebrew discourse and our collective Jewish future. Their tradition of tolerance and religious liberalism, their democratic experience and their philanthropic habits, to name just a few things. But they will do so only if they dispense with the ignorance-as-wisdom arrogance that locks them out of Hebrew-based culture.”
It is true that in the United States Jewish scholarship is available in English. It is true as well that English is spoken widely in Israel. Consequently, many American Jews have concluded that they do not need to speak or read Hebrew to get along. What is lost, however, is something deeper and more essential that goes to the heart of Jewish peoplehood.
The language of prayer and Jewish faith, of Torah, philosophy, mysticism, and literature, of Zionism and the Israeli experience is Hebrew – not English. If we American Jews are ever to be a part of the culture of the Jewish people, we must be able to converse in the language of our people.
David Hazony was spot on when he said, “Yehudei America: Limdu ivrit!” (American Jews: Learn Hebrew!) - one letter, one word, one phrase, one verse, one idea at a time!
Read the rest of Hazony’s article here.
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April 30, 2012 | 5:26 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
The day after the Rodney King verdict twenty years ago I received a call from long-time Temple Israel members, Lillian and Marty Epstein, that their son Howard (who was about my age) was missing. As soon as the rioting had begun, Howard flew from Oakland Airport near his family home in Orinda to attend to his business located in South-Central Los Angeles. He had owned and operated a factory there for a number of years and employed 20 workers. These were people he knew and about whom he cared. He knew all their families, and so, when the riots erupted Howard felt it his duty to be with them.
He landed at LAX in the late afternoon, rented a car, and commenced his 15 minute drive to his place of business. Along the way somewhere he vanished. By evening no one had heard from him. Given the tumult in the city, his wife, Stephanie, and parents were worried.
The following day, exactly 20 years ago today, the police contacted Lillian and Marty with the news. At a stop light Howard was approached by two men who murdered him at point blank range and then took everything of value in his car. The police were able to identify Howard only by tracing the car to the rental agency.
Howard had deliberately moved a couple of years earlier with Stephanie and their two small children out of Los Angeles because he felt the city was no longer safe and he did not want to raise his children in this environment.
When the rioting stopped, we honored Howard’s memory in a memorial service in our synagogue Sanctuary where he had become bar mitzvah. His family and friends described Howard as among the most kind, community conscious and caring of men, a true rachaman ben rachmanim, a compassionate son of compassionate parents.
I remember Howard every year at this time, and especially today, 20 years and a day after his tragic death.
Zichrono livracha. May his memory be a blessing.
April 26, 2012 | 6:50 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
An Arab Shepherd Is Searching For His Goat On Mount Zion
An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
and on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
the Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
to get caught in the wheels
of the “Chad Gadya” machine.
Afterward we found them among the bushes,
and our voices came back inside us
laughing and crying.
Searching for a goat or for a child has always been
the beginning of a new religion in these mountains.
On a roof in the Old City
laundry hanging in the late afternoon sunlight:
the white sheet of a woman who is my enemy,
the towel of a man who is my enemy,
to wipe off the sweat of his brow.
In the sky of the Old City
At the other end of the string,
I can’t see
because of the wall.
We have put up many flags,
they have put up many flags.
to make us think that they’re happy.
to make them think that we’re happy.
Not the peace of a cease-fire,
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill,
that makes me an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds –
Who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.)
Let it come
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.
April 25, 2012 | 7:41 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
In September I posted on my personal blog a link to a background paper recently published on the Palestinian Christian population. This study was an eye-opener for me and I recommend it to you (see link below).
In my own journeys to the Israel and the West Bank I was left with the same impression reported on CBS 60 Minutes this past weekend, that over the past 100 years  that the Palestinian Christian population is dramatically shrinking, and  that it is shrinking because of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank on the one hand and Muslim extremism on the other.
After reading this excellent paper by Ethan Felson at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) – “JCPA Background Paper – The Palestinian Christian Population” I was surprised to learn that both impressions are substantial distortions of the truth.
This paper is a careful analysis of the demographics and politics around this controversial issue. It is well worth reading and sharing with any Christian Ministers, Priests and Christian friends you might know.
April 24, 2012 | 8:00 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Who could have imagined 64 years ago that Israel would become as economically viable, politically and militarily strong, technologically advanced, and creatively cutting-edge as it is today?
Who would have dreamed that Israel’s Jewish population would grow from 600,000 souls in 1948 to 5.5 million today?
Who would have thought that after having had to fight seven wars, endure two Intifadas and bear-up against ongoing terrorist attack that the Jewish state would remain democratic and free despite little peace with its neighbors and no resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
All told, even with her imperfections and challenges, Israel is a remarkable nation, testimony to the spirit, will, ingenuity, aspiration, creativity, and sacrifice of generations. Today Israel is like none other in the world, more culturally, linguistically, and religiously diverse, more intellectually and academically productive. The depth and breadth of her accomplishments are nothing shy of breath-taking.
On the occasion of Israel’s 64th Independence Day, Jews the world over are well to take stock, celebrate her accomplishments, mourn and honor her dead, and ask what unique place the Jewish state holds in the innermost heart, mind and soul of the Jewish people.
This is no easy task. Permit me to offer some thoughts as I reflect on Israel’s meaning:
Israel is far more than a political refuge as envisioned by political Zionists. It is more than the flowering of the Jewish spirit as dreamed about by cultural Zionists. It is more than the fulfillment of Jewish memory and religious longing.
Israel starts with the land, with Jerusalem at its heart, for the land has been a key focus of Jewish consciousness for three millennia. The land of Israel is at the center of our history and is an essential element of our Jewish faith. But Israel is far more than land.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it this way in his moving volume Israel – An Echo of Eternity: “Israel reborn is an answer to the Lord of history who demands hope as well as action, who expects tenacity as well as imagination.” (p. 118) “The inspiration that goes out of Zion today is the repudiation of despair and the example of renewal.” (p. 134)
In this spirit the Zionists sought to create a new kind of a Jew, at home in the land, self-activated, self-realized, independent, creative, and free. They understood, however, the limitations of their state-building endeavor. Heschel said it this way: “The State of Israel is not the fulfillment of the Messianic promise, but it makes the Messianic promise plausible.” (Ibid. p. 223) In other words, the political state is not and cannot be regarded as an end in itself. Rather, the Jewish state represents a challenge and a promise that will rise or fall based on how our people and Israel’s government uses or misuses the power that comes with national sovereignty. With this in mind a Jewish state worthy of its mission must challenge our individual and communal ethics, our nationalism, our humanity, and our faith.
May Israel be an or lagoyim, a light to the nations, and may her citizens and all the inhabitants of the land know justice and peace.
[Yom Haatzmaut is celebrated on the 5th of Iyar which falls this year on Friday, April 27. We will celebrate at Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles during Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday evening beginning at 6:30 PM in song and poetry, led by our clergy, volunteer choir, quartet and instrumentalists. All are welcome.]
April 19, 2012 | 9:43 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Our sages debate the nature of the sin that was so grave that Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, died after they offered alien fire before God. The text says of their fate Vatetze esh mi lifnei Adonai va-tochal otam vayamutu - “And fire came forth from God and consumed them, and thus they died.” (Leviticus 10:2)
Some commentators conclude that Nadav and Avihu were guilty of excessive drinking, arrogance and disrespect of their High Priest father when they offered a sacrifice in the holy precinct in his place, based on juxtaposition of events and midrashic thinking.
Others, however, assert that Nadav’s and Avihu’s sin wasn’t a sin at all. Their death, they say, came as a consequence of their excessive passion for God (Hitlahavut) and of their yearning for unification with the Holy One and annulment of their individual selves into the greater Divine Self (Yihud – Bitul Hayeish).
These commentators based their view on their reading of Leviticus 16:1 describing the scene after the fact; Vayidaber Adonai el Moshe acharei mot sh’nei b’nei Aharon b’karvatam lifnei Adonai vayamutu (“The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of YHVH.”)
Noting the difference between the verbal Hif’il causative form b’hakrivam (“when they brought close their offering”) as opposed to the Pa’al activist form b’karvatam (“when they came too close”) Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (Prague - 17th century) emphasized that it was not that they brought an unauthorized sacrifice that sealed their fate, but rather, that they themselves entered into the holy inner precinct where God’s Presence “dwelt” and no Israelite except the High Priest Aaron was permitted to step foot.
Corroborating this view, Rabbi Abraham Saba, who fled Cordoba during the years of the Spanish Inquisition, and who in that tragic period in Jewish history suffered the loss of two of his own sons, said that Nadav and Avihu’s plight was similar to that of Rabbi Ben Azzai, one of the four Talmudic sages who entered into the garden of mystical speculation (Talmud, Hagigah 14b). In that famous legend it’s written that “Ben Azzai looked and died” because in coming too close to God’s fiery Presence, he was spiritually unprepared and perished.
Rabbi Horowitz is quick to say, however, that the souls of Nadav and Avihu (and by extension Ben Azzai) were not destroyed nor denied a place in Eternity; only that their souls and their bodies separated, as occurs at death.
For me, I prefer the view that Nadav’s and Avihu’s deaths were not caused by their sin, but by their soul’s yearning to be close to God. Their fatal flaw was in their naivete about the consequences. The inner sanctum is a place of great danger to any mortal being, which is why God warned Moses Lo tuchal lirot et panai ki lo yirani ha-adam va-chai - “You cannot see My face, for the human being may not see Me and live.” (Exodus 33:20)
Back to Aaron. His response following his sons’ deaths was as any parent who suffers the loss of a child. Vayidom Aharon - “And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:1-3). The sense of the Hebrew connotes an especially devastating silence. Vayidom is more than mere quiet and passive speechlessness, so says Professor Andre Neher (France, 20th century), who described Aaron’s silence as total “petrification.”
Moses, however, did not understand. He said to Aaron, allegedly quoting God, that “through those near to Me I show Myself holy.” We have to ask, what kind of a message of consolation is this to a man who just lost his children?
For the first time Aaron rejects Moses’ explanation. Dr. Neher explained this way: “We can accept God’s silence, but not that other people should speak in God’s place.” Not even Moses. In other words, avoid theological justifications for God when tragedy strikes.
For consolation Aaron turned away from his brother and directly to God because Moses didn’t understand Aaron’s suffering.
Rashi says that soon thereafter Moses “admitted his mistake and [to his credit] was not ashamed to say, ‘I didn’t know.’” The midrash elaborated emphasizing Moses’ humility and contrition, saying that “Moses issued a proclamation throughout the camp and said: I misinterpreted the law and my brother Aaron came to put it right.”
Despite Moses’ exalted position in Judaism, tradition ascribes to Aaron, the man who knew grief, to be the one who would set the laws of mourning for generations to come.
Among the most important mitzvot listed in the Talmud is Mitzvah b’shtika – The mitzvah of mourning and visiting mourners is silence mirroring the response of Aaron himself.
April 15, 2012 | 1:53 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
I have known Rabbi Larry Hoffman for 35 years as my teacher and friend – and like fine wine, he just gets better with age. Larry is as comprehensive a scholar and as keen an observer of the contemporary Jewish condition as there is in America today.
His most recent book (his 32nd) is One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation (published by Blue Bridge, 2011). Larry has read so much and seems not to have forgotten anything he has ever learned. An excellent writer, Rabbi Hoffman is a superb synthesizer of the vast corpus of Jewish material available.
This book excites even as it exhausts. Larry’s list is a veritable guide to among the greatest Jewish books ever written over the course of 3500 years. As he reviews each work in 3 or 4 pages, he shines a light not only on the importance of the book itself as a representative of an aspect of the Jewish whole, but articulates the most important ideas and developments each brought to the fore in their respective times and places. Throughout this work Larry asks serious questions about what we have been as a people, where our greatest ideas have come from, who we are today as a result, and what we must do going forward.
For those who might be worried about the viability of the Jewish people - Don’t! We are not an “ever-dying people” (as the Jewish philosopher Simon Rawidowicz once remarked). To the contrary, Larry’s book attests that the life of the Jewish heart, mind and soul is ever vital.
April 12, 2012 | 3:41 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
“The world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”
So said Rabbi Akiva, who regarded The Song as an allegory of the love between God and Israel.
On first reading The Song is a secular poem celebrating young, sensuous, erotic love, a “love stronger than death.” Read more deeply, it holds the Presence of an Ineffable Other.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Cook expressed the mystic’s longing with these words:
“Expanses divine my soul craves. / Confine me not in cages, / of substance or of spirit. / I am love-sick—/ I thirst, I thirst for God, as a deer for water brooks. / Alas, who can describe my pain? / Who will be a violin to express the songs of my grief? / I am bound to the world, all creatures, all people are my friends, / Many parts of my soul / are intertwined with them, / But how can I share with them my light?” (Translated by Ben Zion Bokser)
The Biblical Song of Songs is read on the Shabbat during the festival of Pesach.