Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
A new kind of Judaism is developing in Israel. Thousands of secular Israelis are turning to the classic sources of Judaism (e.g. Torah, Midrash, Mishnah, Talmud, Codes, Jewish philosophy, ethics, and mysticism) to gain deeper insight, wisdom and knowledge about our people’s essence and roots, and they are learning these texts not from Orthodox rabbis but from secular teachers.
What is emerging is a way of being a modern Israeli Jew that is more than the secular Zionism that emphasized the centrality of the land, the Hebrew language and political sovereignty, and which has nothing to do with the religious Orthodoxy that has alienated the vast majority of Israelis. It is a return, in part, to the Cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha-am that sought to inspire the flourishing of the soul of Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, but with a modern contemporary emphasis.
My synagogue group visited one of the centers of secular Jewish learning called BINA, also known as “The Secular Yeshiva,” located in the Neve Sha’anan district of Tel Aviv. As we entered we saw bookshelves filled with rows of beautifully bound religious books. That, however, is where the similarity with an orthodox yeshiva ends.
Most BINA students don’t believe in God, don’t wear kippot, tallitot, tzitzit, nor keep kosher. Women and men learn together, dress in shorts, jeans, tee-shirts, halter-tops, and sandals, and come from every segment of Israeli society and world Jewish communities.
BINA was founded by scholars from the kibbutz movement in the wake of PM Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. They pondered how a “religious” yeshiva student could murder the Prime Minister of Israel, and they determined to provide an alternative Jewish environment to attract young Israelis to learn about Judaism, counteract the extremism of the religious right, and close the gap between Israeli Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.
BINA volunteers spend many hours weekly helping the poor, children, the elderly, infirm, disabled, foreign workers, and migrants. The center is deliberately located in a depressed area of Tel Aviv so its students can work towards tikun olam (“restoration of the world”) as an integrated component of their learning.
A week before coming to Israel, I attended the annual conference of J Street in Washington, D.C., (J Street is a pro-Israel pro-peace American political movement supporting a two-states for two-peoples end-of-conflict agreement between Israel and the Palestinians) and was fortunate to join a small group of J Street leaders for dinner with Ruth Calderon, a new Yesh Atid MK, who had addressed our conference.
Ruth is an Israeli academic turned politician with a Hebrew University PhD in Talmud. In 1989, she established the first Israeli secular, pluralistic and egalitarian Beit Midrash for women and men. In 1996, she founded ALMA which brings secular Israelis to study Hebrew culture. She became famous when she hosted a television program on Channel 2 that discussed classic Jewish texts.
Ruth’s first appearance in the Knesset (January, 2013), where she introduced herself to her colleagues, took Israel by storm. It is considered the most unusual speech ever delivered by a new MK. Her 14 minute address went viral on Youtube with hundreds of thousands of views (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8nNpTf7tNo).
In that talk Ruth told her story, how she fell in love with Talmud, and that it is impossible to know one’s future without knowing one’s roots. She spoke about the importance in Jewish tradition of open and honest debate, of nurturing the values of inclusivity, diversity and tolerance in Israeli life, and that the state of Israel ought to provide equally of its resources to all religious streams and educational endeavors; not just the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities.
Ruth’s party, Yesh Atid, is committed to the principle of shivyon ba-netel (“sharing the burden”), that all citizens of the State have an obligation to serve in the military, work for a living, pay taxes, and that the here-to-for privileged status of the ultra-Orthodox has to end in order for both Judaism and democracy to flourish in the State of Israel.
In addition to BINA and ALMA, the Israeli Reform movement (i.e. “Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism - IMPJ”) has grown in recent years attracting thousands of Israelis from secular backgrounds to practice liberal religious Judaism.
The IMPJ includes nearly 50 synagogue centers throughout the country, with adult learning led by Israeli Reform rabbis and scholars, a system of schools and a youth movement, summer camps, pre-army mechinot, kibbutzim, and social justice projects addressing poverty, hunger, immigration, foreign workers, women’s rights, homosexual rights, racism, the environment, and religious pluralism.
According to recent polls 34% of Israelis now identify with the Reform movement, whereas only 23% identify as Orthodox.
BINA, Ruth Calderon and ALMA, the Israeli Reform Movement (IMPJ and IRAC), and other grass-roots efforts are transforming Israeli Jewish identity thus bringing hope for a more enriched, open, pluralistic, and democratic Jewish State.
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November 11, 2013 | 10:00 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
In 1968, then Attorney General Meir Shamgar (who would become President of Israel’s High Court from 1983-1995), determined that the “Absentee Property Law” may not be used in East Jerusalem. All Israeli governments complied, until now.
The “Absentee Property Law,” passed during the fledgling years of Israel (1950), allows the state to seize and assume ownership of lands abandoned by Palestinians after November 29, 1947 who left to live in Arab states, the West Bank or Gaza. In their absence their forfeited property could be taken over by the Absentee Property Custodian and title could be transferred to the State of Israel.
To accommodate East Jerusalem Palestinians after the 1967 War, the Knesset passed a law (1970) excluding them from exposure to the Absentee Property Law. [Note: East Jerusalem Arabs are not “citizens” of the state of Israel, though they are entitled to vote in municipal elections.]
Ir Amim (lit. “City of Peoples/Nations”) is an Israeli non-profit and non-partisan organization that has monitored East Jerusalem neighborhoods since 2004. Its mission is “to … engage in those issues impacting on Israeli-Palestinian relations in Jerusalem and on the political future of the city.” Among its chief concerns is the status of East Jerusalem Palestinian land.
My synagogue group toured one of East Jerusalem’s neighborhoods, Sheikh Jarrah, which is wedged between formerly Jordanian held-East Jerusalem and Israeli-held West Jerusalem (1948 to 1967) on the slopes of Mount Scopus very near to the American Colony Hotel and Old City.
After the 1948 war, Jews fled the neighborhood while many Arabs remained. In 1957, the Jordanian government moved 28 Palestinian families to houses in Sheikh Jarrah who had fled their homes in West Jerusalem during the 1948 War.
Founded in 1865, Sheikh Jarrah was once home to Jerusalem’s Muslim elite. At the turn of the 20th century, 30 large homes housed 167 Muslim families (about 1250 people), 97 Jewish families, and six Christian families.
In 1972, the Sephardic Community Committee and the Knesset Yisrael Committee went to court to justify Jewish claims of property ownership in Sheikh Jarrah using documents from the days of the Ottoman Empire. Based on a supportive Israeli court ruling, Palestinian Arab residents could remain as tenants as long as they paid rent to the Jewish community.
The Palestinians, however, also produced Ottoman Empire documents showing their ownership. Though the Absentee Property Law superseded Palestinian claims, there were no efforts to evict them from their homes based on Shamgar’s 1968 decision.
Beginning in 2008, Palestinians began receiving eviction notices initiated by Jewish settler groups. In August 2009, an Israeli court evicted two Palestinian families from two homes in Sheikh Jarrah, followed almost immediately by Jewish settler families moving in.
In applying the Absentee Property Law, Palestinians have no rights, no redress, no appeals, and receive no compensation. In contrast, relative to the same contested land, Jews have certain legal rights based on their Israeli citizenship.
In Sheikh Jarrah we met with Sara Beninga, a 30 year-old Israeli Jewish activist, and Salach Diab, a Palestinian resident, who told us the story of this small neighborhood. Sara has been the inspiration of the “Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement” (now called simply "Solidarity") formed in 2010. She is a bright, principled and passionate Israeli who believes that gross injustice is being done to the Palestinian Arabs living in this neighborhood.
From 2010-2012 every Friday afternoon, hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians gathered on the main street of Sheikh Jarrah to protest the government’s unfair policies and the Jewish settler land grab.
As we arrived, Sara pointed out settlers returning to the house they occupy yards from Salah’s house, and Salah showed us photographs of settler violence against him and his neighbors.
Daniel Seidemann, a founder of Ir Amim and an attorney who has advocated on behalf of the Arab residents of East Jerusalem neighborhoods for the past nine years, explains the nature and importance of this property conflict:
“After 45 years, you now have 2300 Jewish settlers [living] in existing Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, [and while] that’s negligible numerically, symbolically it’s nuclear fusion, because you take the two radioactive subjects of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, which are Jerusalem and refugees, and you fuse them…By insisting on a Jewish right of return to Sheikh Jarrah, Israel is opening the 1948 file and strengthening the Palestinian claim of a right of return to Israel.” (Reported by Sarah Wildman, visiting scholar at the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University).
Jewish settlers are clear about their larger goal; to prevent, through the establishment of facts on the ground in East Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank, an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement resulting in two states for two peoples with Jerusalem as the shared capital of each state.
I will continue this discussion of East Jerusalem neighborhoods and Israeli land policy in my next blog.
July 11, 2013 | 7:07 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
One of my hobbies is collecting quotations. Over the years I have gathered thousands of bits of truth, wisdom, insight, light, poetry, sayings, one-liners, and more extensive passages on virtually every conceivable theme. My ever-growing collection draws from the famous and the unknown, from ancient and modern Jewish and world literature, from family, friends and mentors.
I have posted above my desk six quotes in particular to which I refer whenever I need a hedge against spiritual and emotional fragmentation, fear, despair, and inordinate stress. None needs additional comment. All speak for themselves, and I offer them to you:
“Simplify, simplify, simplify.” (Henry David Thoreau, 1817-1862)
“Grant me [O God] the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” (Pastor Reinhold Niebuhr, 1892-1971)
“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” (William Shakespeare, 1654-1616)
“A rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is no rabbi. A rabbi who fears his community is no mensch.” (Mensch is German for “man.” In this context it refers to a compassionate, kind, just, courageous, purposeful, strong, and wise man, woman or child). (Rabbi Israel Salanter, 1810-1883)
“B’Yisrael ye-ush hu lo optsia – In Israel, despair is not an option.” (Yaron Shavit – b. 1958 - Chairman of the Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism in Israel (IMPJ), Tel Aviv Business Attorney and Consultant, Colonel in Reserve Duty in the Israel Defense Forces)
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” (Teilhard de Chardin, 1881-1955)
July 9, 2013 | 7:13 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
If you have ever wondered what is so significant about the Dead Sea Scrolls, arguably the most significant archeological discovery of the 20th century, and would like a handbook to explain it all, this book by Dr. John J Collins, Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale University, is for you.
The author has studied the more than 900 scrolls (some of them little more than fragments) for more than three decades. He tells the fascinating story of the discovery of the scrolls in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd looking for his lost goat, reviews all the theories about the small community at Qumran near the Dead Sea whose nearby caves kept the scrolls preserved for 2000 years, and describes the bitter battles swirling among Christian and western scholars since the scrolls were first discovered.
These scrolls are among the most famous archeological finds ever, and Dr. Collins explains why:
“The reason why the Scrolls…caught the imagination of the public is due to the fact that they come from a time and place of exceptional importance in the history of the Western world. As primary documents from Judea in the time of Jesus, they offer a window on the context in which Christianity was born, if not directly on the movement itself. More directly, they give us an unprecedented view of what Judaism was like before the destruction of Jerusalem and the rise of the rabbinic movement…before the church and synagogue constructed their official genealogies. The stakes, then, for both Judaism and Christianity are considerable, since the new discoveries potentially place official accounts in question and undercut the authority of religious authorities.” (p. 236-7)
A central figure that appears in many of the scrolls who was called “The Teacher of Righteousness” has inspired many Christians to believe that this was another name for Jesus, but there were a number of people at the time who were regarded as Messiah figures and there is no credible evidence that clearly identifies this figure as the Christian Savior. The question is, was this community Jewish or proto-Christian? Dr. Collins, a practicing Catholic, is categorical:
“As scholars have increasingly recognized in the last quarter century, the Scrolls are documents of ancient Judaism. Despite sensationalist claims, they are not Christian, and do not witness directly to Jesus of Nazareth and his followers. Nonetheless, they illuminate the context in which Jesus lived, and in which earliest Christianity took shape.” (p. 240)
The scrolls include portions of every Biblical book, except the book of Esther, along with many other manuscripts that have been found nowhere else. They are primarily sectarian documents (though some are apocalyptic) and delineate rules governing the behavior of those who lived in the Qumran community. Dr. Collins notes that the Essene sect, as they are known, came into being because of disagreements with other Jews on the exact interpretation of the Torah, the proper cult calendar and the state of the Temple cult in Jerusalem. It did not come into being because it believed in the coming of the messiah or the final battle between the sons of Light and the sons of Darkness.
Though not mentioned explicitly in Hebrew or Aramaic sources (nor, for that matter in the New Testament), the Essenes are known in Greek and Latin sources including Philo, Josephus and Pliny. Collectively, these ancient authors described virtuous cult members who refrained from animal sacrifices and spurned city life, who spent their time praying and copying texts, who shared common meals, eschewed ownership of property, held no weapons of war, rejected slavery, and were concerned about ethics. It is debatable about the degree of monasticism in the community, as suggested by the female skeletal remains in the Qumran cemetery, though some may have been married with children while others were celibate and misogynist.
As is the case today, there was great diversity in the Judaism of the era:
“Rival sects and parties hated each other with a perfect hatred. Nonetheless, there were also unifying factors— the belief in a single God, shared scriptures, widespread concerns about purity and correct observance,…shared ethnic identity. The people were arguably extremists who disagreed with the ruling priests in Jerusalem in particular around the setting of the Jewish calendar.“ (p. 179)
The Essenes vanished from history after 200 years and had little discernible influence on later Jewish tradition. The movement separated itself from the priestly traditions in Jerusalem and from the emerging Pharisaic rabbinic tradition that focused on interpreting the fine points of the Oral and Written Laws. In the end, the Essene cult was a small sectarian movement outside mainline Judaism and too extreme to have enduring appeal.
This very readable volume explains it all, and I recommend it both to students of the Temple period, early rabbinic Judaism and early Christianity, and anyone else who wants to understand what the Dead Sea Scrolls are really all about.
July 7, 2013 | 6:43 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Studies indicate that 70% of American adults and 30% of American kids are overweight or obese. When considering that staggering figure, how widespread today are common eating disorders, and the huge cost of medical care for those who suffer weight-related illnesses, it seems that most of us need to pay greater attention to our health.
When I was young I ate everything I wanted and could lose weight at the drop of a hat. But as I got older, the pounds accumulated and it became increasingly difficult to lose. Experts say that at age 30 if we change nothing in our eating habits or exercise routines, each year we will gain a minimum of one pound. By the age of 60, we will be 30 pounds heavier at least.
I raise this now because after I was diagnosed with prostate cancer four years ago, my wife and I decided that it was time for us to take control of our health, and make some changes in what we ate and how much we exercised (for those with eating disorders and food addiction, professional help is warranted).
I have developed a list of 10 things we continually strive to do to be healthy, most of which are recommended by experts. I am not always consistent, and maintaining my ideal weight is a daily struggle, but I work at this every day. Here is what we do. If any of this helps you, dayeinu:
1. Move more – We can build our strength and stamina to run, walk, swim or ride a bike one hour every day, four or five times a week. Some recommend walking a minimum of 10,000 steps daily. We can add steps by changing other habits. For example, I now never take an elevator unless I am climbing more than five floors, and even then I might take the stairs. I park my car far away from my destination to force me to walk the rest of the way. I rarely use valet unless it is raining or bloody hot.
2. Eat less – I do not fill my plate as I used to do, and I stop myself (most of the time) going back for second helpings. If I snack between meals I choose something healthy - almonds, vegetables, fruit, 100% whole wheat bread. I avoid eating anything white (milk products, sugar, or salt). Eating late at night anything other than fruit is a bad idea!
3. Avoid most saturated fats – They raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk for heart disease. This includes fatty meats and poultry, steak, hamburger, and beef sausage. Dieticians give the green light on lean cuts of meat (I eat almost no red meat anymore, and I don’t miss it), and skinless everything, as well as fish that is rich in omega-3 fats. If I consume milk products, it has to be non-fat milk (the only time I cheat is when I use whole milk in coffee), and I avoid most cheese unless it is very low fat. Dark chocolate, for me is a necessity, but I limit myself to a square inch or two daily. Scientists say that dark chocolate is actually a good thing, as is 3 or 4 cups of caffeinated coffee a day. Thank God!
4. Avoid trans fats – This is found in spreads of all kinds, packaged foods and mixes, frozen foods, fast food, breaded anything, baked goods, chips, crackers, breakfast cereals (except oatmeal and some cereals without sugar and additives), candy, toppings, and most dips (except low fat yogurt-based or guacamole).
5. Eat only 100% whole grain – In bread, cereal, cookies, and cakes.
6. Add no extra sugar or salt - Avoid all sugar syrups, all sugared drinks, and experts say diet sodas as well.
7. Eat lots of fruit, vegetables and fish.
8. Drink alcohol in moderation – I drink red wine because it is great for the heart and soul, an ounce of scotch (on occasion) and only light beer.
9. Drink water often – I do not use plastic containers as they are cancer causing.
10. Weigh yourself every day – I adjust my daily intake of food and increase my exercise routine if I find, to my horror, that I’ve gained weight (even a pound) from the day before. If I have lost weight I resist hard rewarding myself with more chocolate.
Losing weight requires not a small measure of self-discipline, will-power, patience, persistence, optimism, and self-forgiveness.
If weight gain is your problem (and clearly, say the surveys, it is for most of us) it is best to think long-term (months!!!) and delight in small successes. When you reach your goal, however long it takes, reward yourself by going out and buying new clothes.
July 4, 2013 | 12:56 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Twenty years ago the physician and Zen Master, Jon Kabat-Zinn, wrote a book he called “Where Ever You Go There You Are.” The book’s title has stayed with me and it has helped me to focus not only on why I do what I do, but also on why others might behave as they do.
We are who we are where ever we are, and that means that we carry with us trunk loads of emotional baggage – fear, trauma, anger, resentment, disappointment, as well as our loves, passions, joys, dreams, and hopes. Consequently, for better and worse, we often respond to situations not based on who or what stands before us, but rather out of the “stuff” we carry in our emotional trunks that have nothing to do with present circumstances.
The idea that “Where ever you go, there you are” begs the question – Can people really change their orientation in the world, or are we fated because of our personal histories to think, feel and behave as we have always done?
Judaism affirms that we can change and evolve, though slowly, incrementally and often with sacrifice and pain.
In this week’s double Torah portion Matot-Masei, our sages affirm this truth as they reflect upon Moses’ list of 42 places through which he and the Israelites passed during the 40 years of wandering (Numbers 33).
The book of Numbers as a whole (the 42 places act as chronological signposts) enumerates the people’s disillusionment and struggle, temptation, rebellion, and broken faith. If there is a common theme to Numbers, it’s that the people wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else than where they were.
Commentators asked why Moses enumerated these 42 places. The Malbim (1809-1879) suggested that because their experience in Egypt was so filled with suffering, it was necessary before they entered the Land of Canaan to exorcise, a little bit at a time in each of the 42 places, a measure of the pain, resentment, humiliation, and defilement that they bore. Then they would be able to meet God in a pure state in the land.
Their redemption from Egypt, therefore, was gradual and progressive spread out over 40 years. With this understanding of the Biblical narrative, the Talmud says that when we are brought before God for heavenly judgment, we’ll be asked Tzapita l’yeshua (“Did you anticipate redemption?") (Shabbat 31a). In other words, did you undo wrongs you committed? Did you do restore your relationships with family and friends, colleagues, community, the Jewish people, and God? Did you forgive? Did you act from fear or faith? Did you restore justice and mercy? Did you live with high moral standards, with kindness and integrity?
Rav Abraham Isaac Kook taught
“…we should feel that we are like a limb of a great organism….that we are part of a nation, which, in turn, is part of humanity. The betterment of each individual contributes to the life of the larger community, thus advancing the redemption of the nation and the universe.”
The end of Numbers finds Moses and the Israelites encamped on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan River near Jericho. They had not as yet entered the land, but, say the commentators, they did as individuals and as a community relieve themselves of the burdens and defilement, humiliation and degradation of Egypt, and so they could answer collectively “Yes” to the question, Tzapita l’yeshua – Did you anticipate redemption?
What about us? What fears, trauma, anger, resentment, and disappointment do carry with us that we need to release in order to encounter others as individuals and as a community appropriately?
The good news is that we can make choices. We do not have to do things the same way we have always done them. Nor do we have to presume the same responses of others that we’ve experienced before. We have the capacity to be self-critical and, by an act of will, transform who we are and where we are in our lives.
“Where ever you go there you are?” This is a true statement, but the supplementary questions are as important to ask and answer - Where are we? Who are we? And do we need to remain where we are if fear, distrust, pain, and resentment keep us in Egypt far from the Promised Land.
This is what I believe our Torah portion is asking of us as individuals and as a people this week, to break from the chains that keep us far from redemption.
May our journeys transform and uplift us.
June 30, 2013 | 6:37 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
"The 188th Crybaby Brigade – A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah," by Joel Chasnoff (publ. 2010) is a well-written, insightful, at times hysterically funny memoir of a young American Yeshiva bucher who sought to live the complete modern Jewish experience while shedding the Diaspora coat of victimhood. He made aliyah, enlisted in the Israeli army, did basic training, was chosen “Outstanding Soldier of the Platoon,” fought the Hezbollah as a tank commander in Lebanon, and got engaged to a beautiful Israeli woman.
One would think that he had arrived. But not so fast!
Joel’s army experience was not what he expected. He was, in fact, disheartened by the capricious, nasty, sadistic, and dehumanizing treatment of recruits by some of the commanders. Yet, after three weeks of training he reflected that
“…mandatory army service is the reason why Israelis are the way they are: aggressive, hotheaded, and stubborn on the one hand, and, on the other, unbelievably generous and community minded. It’s because these are army values. And since just about every Israeli comes of age in the army, these values become national values.”
When he finished his service, Joel and his fiancé Dorit sought out an Israeli Orthodox rabbi to officiate at their wedding, but upon inquiring into Joel’s family past, the rabbi said, “You are not a Jew!”
As Joel and Dorit sat there bewildered, the rabbi explained that though Joel’s mother had converted before he was born with an American Orthodox rabbi, she was instructed by a Conservative rabbi who “practiced an invalid brand of Judaism.”
Dorit was furious, and, pounding her fist on the desk, shouted, “A young man risks his life for the Jewish state, and you have the chutzpah to say [he’s not a Jew]… Rabbi, did your sons serve in the army?... You don’t mind if he dies for your country, so long as he doesn’t get married here.”
Joel was devastated: “It’s as if my entire identity just got kicked in the nuts, and then it hits me: As far as this country is concerned, I’m a Gentile….I was enraged at how Israel had stabbed me in the back.”
He then reflected about his identity and Israel’s dilemma:
“I was a Jew, through and through. I couldn’t reinvent myself if I tried…. I’m not the one [however] with the identity crisis. Israel is. I know exactly who I am, but after two generations in which Israel defined itself as a post-Holocaust haven from antiSemitism – in other words, the past – Israel now faces a much greater challenge: defining its future. In the meantime, the country has no idea who it is. It’s a democracy with no separation between church and state. It’s a sovereign nation with only one rigidly defined border: the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a Jewish state where observant Jewish soldiers have to choose between breakfast and prayers, where the most religious Jews don’t even have to serve in the army, and where the criteria for getting drafted aren’t enough to get you buried in the military graveyard. The country is confused. Meanwhile, at the top of the pyramid is this tiny group of rabbis who think they’re Kings of the Jews and therefore get to decide who’s in and whose out. But the Kings of the Jews are out of touch, because they fail to realize that Israel’s future, if it has one, depends on all the reject-Jews they’ve been pushing away from the table: the half-Jews and intermarried Jews, the queer and bi Jews, the women rabbis and young, freethinking Israelis who crave spirituality, not just restrictions, and the children of supposedly illegitimate converts, like me.” (p. 255-256)
The author articulates the central challenge of the Jewish people and State of Israel today. Who are we and what are we becoming? Are we stuck in the past governed by narrow religious definitions and extremist politics, or are we inclusive of all religious streams, expansive in our thinking and moving forward?
Despite his feelings, Joel decided to convert, but admitted:
“The stage in my life where I could innocently take for granted that I belonged to the Jewish people simply by virtue of being me-when I dunked in the water, that part of my life ended and a piece of me died. Even though I chose to convert, I’m furious at Israel for forcing me to choose, for humiliating me, for making me stand naked before three rabbis. I’m also furious at myself for going through with it, because by dunking in that pool, I accepted their claim that it is they, not I, who get to determine who I am.”
Joel and Dorit married and now live in Chicago. Their decision to leave Israel is a great loss for the State.
June 28, 2013 | 6:29 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
How to read the story of Pinchas, a shatteringly brutal tale of love and violence? That is the question in this week’s Torah portion, especially for the modern Jew?
The story begins this way:
“Now YHVH spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Pinchas, son of Elazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned my venomous-anger from the Children of Israel in his being zealous with My jealousy in their midst, so that I did not finish off the children of Israel in my jealousy.” (Numbers 25:10-11)
What did Pinchas do to attract God’s attention? Without due process he took his sword and in one thrust plunged it into the back of the Israelite man Zimri and through the belly of the Midianite woman Cozbi who were locked in an amorous embrace, and Pinchas killed them dead.
The Torah tells us that God credited Pinchas with having saved thousands who God was about to kill Himself, but Pinchas’ righteous rage kept God’s violence at bay. Then God rewarded Pinchas with “briti shalom – My covenant of peace.”
If this were the entire story many of us would despair its implications. Indeed, Jewish extremist rabbis in Israel have used this story in recent years to justify attacking Reform rabbis in the manner Pinchas attacked Zimri.
Thankfully, the midrashic and esoteric traditions explores deeper truths hidden in this grim tale that offer meaning and not despair.
Most rabbinic commentary justifies Pinchas’ deed as virtuous. There is, nevertheless, a mystical strain that regards Cozbi’s and Zimri’s love not as a great sin at all, but as a union so pure and beautiful that the world could not contain it.
For this understanding I’m grateful to Rabbi Jonathan Omer-man and Rabbi Yosi Gordon for bringing forward the reflections of some of our greatest mystic sages, Rabbis Isaac Luria, Chaim vital, Abraham Azulai, and the Izbeca Rabbi (“Learn Torah With…” – July 22, 1995). They have written:
“There are ten degrees of fornication in the world. At the lowest level, the worst, the will to sin is even greater than the desire to perform the act, and the person has to urge himself on to sally out into the world and sully it. At each ascending level, however, the protagonist’s will becomes progressively more powerful. At the tenth and final level, which is extremely rare, the desire is so powerful that no human will in the world would be strong enough to vanquish it. We must conclude that it was not a sin at all, but God’s will. Zimri and Cozbi, far from being wicked sinners, were a couple ordained from the beginning of creation.”
In other words, Zimri’s and Cozbi’s love was so high and exalted that it could neither be realized nor sustained in the real world, reminding us of the forbidden love of Romeo and Juliet and that of the maiden and her beloved in The Song of Songs 8:6-7:
Ki azah cha-mavet ahavah, / kasha chishol kin’ah.
“For love is fierce as death, / passion is mighty as Sheol;
R’shafeha rispei esh / Shalhevetya.
Its darts are darts of fire, / A blazing flame.
Mayim rabim lo yuchlu l’chabot et ahavah / Un’harot lo yish’t’puha.
Vast floods cannot quench love, / Nor rivers drown it.”
The Kabbalah teaches that Zimri’s and Cozbi’s soul-love defied the tragedy of their real life together, and they came back into the reincarnated life of Rabbi Akiva who built his famed academy.
In light of this, how might we regard Pinchas?
To the modern eye his reward of the “covenant of peace” seems unjust and wrong. Most traditional commentators, however, emphasize Pinchas’ motive as pure, l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. The Kabbalists said that though Pinchas sincerely sought Truth, he didn’t grasp nor understand Cozbi’s and Zimri’s love.
There are two slight variations in the text that give support to this view. The first is in the writing of Pinchas’ name (Peh-yod-nun-chet-samech) (Numbers 25:11). The yod is written unusually small suggesting that God’s holiest Name (Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh), which at times the yod stands alone for God, and Jews (Yehudim – Yod-heh-vav-daled-yod-mem) that begins with the same yod, are diminished when a Jew engages in violence, even justified violence.
The second variation comes in the vav of the word shalom (shin-lamed-vav-mem), meaning “wholeness.” The vav here is strangely broken in the middle suggesting that the wholeness of this covenant (briti shalom), indeed any agreement that’s reached by destroying one’s opponent, will inevitably be a flawed and incomplete peace.
Is it not true? Real peace cannot come from violence and war.
Lest we despair, Rabbi Omer-man reminds us of Zimri’s and Cozbi’s love, of its exalted purity despite transgressing tribal taboo, and that even in situations as dire as this one was “there is light [even] when we [believe we] can only see darkness.”