Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
There is a story told in the Rabbinic literature that “Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach one day commissioned his disciples to buy him a camel from an Arab. When they brought him the animal, they gleefully announced that they had found a precious stone in its collar, expecting their master to share in their joy.
“Did the seller know of this gem?” asked Rabbi Shimon. On being answered in the negative, he called out angrily, “Do you think me a barbarian that I should take advantage of the letter of the law by which the gem is mine together with the camel? Return the gem to the Arab immediately.”
When the Arab received it back, he exclaimed: “Blessed be the God of Shimon ben Shetach! Blessed be the God of Israel!” (Deuteronomy Rabba 3:3)
When my sons were young, their mother and I told them more than once that what they did, how they behaved, and the way they spoke to and treated others outside the home would reflect not only on them, but on us, their parents and on our family name. We reminded them to be honest, kind, modest, and to reflect those values always.
I often tell the story of Rabbi Shimon to students in my synagogue and remind them that what we do not only says much about who we are, but about our families and the Jewish people.
Until the modern period when communal values began to change broadly, the most respected Jew in the community was not necessarily the wealthiest and most politically influential, nor the celebrity, business maven, professional, or even the largest financial benefactor to community causes, as important as these people have been historically in Jewish communal life. Rather, the highest moral, ethical and religious virtues were expected to be emulated first and foremost by the Torah scholar. However, our sages understood that even the Torah scholar struggled mightily against the dominance of his yetzer hara (“the evil inclination”). [Note that almost all scholars before the modern period were men].
Here is Maimonides’ classic description of what is expected of the great Torah scholar:
“…When a person …is a great scholar, noted for his piety, people will talk about him, even if the deeds that he has committed are not offenses in the strict sense. Such a person is guilty of profaning the divine name (hillul ha-Shem), if he, for instance, makes a purchase and does not immediately pay for it, in the case where he has the money and the sellers demand it, but he stalls them; or if he indulges in riotous behavior and in keeping undesirable company; or if he speaks roughly to his fellows and does not receive them courteously but shows his temper and the like. All is in accordance with his status as a scholar. He must endeavor to be scrupulously strict in his behavior and go beyond the letter of the law. If he does this, speaking kindly to his fellows, showing himself sociable and amiable with the welcome for everyone, taking insult but not giving it; respect them, even those who make light of him; in all his actions until all praise and love him, enraptured by his deed – such a man has sanctified the name of God (Kiddush Ha-Shem). Regarding such a person scripture states: ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be gloried.’” (Moses ben Maimon, Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:11)
“Sanctifying God’s Name” (Kiddush Ha-Shem), as RAMBAM teaches, concerns the entirety of life including business ethics, one’s conduct in mundane affairs, one’s refinement of behavior and public demeanor, one’s kindness and humility before one’s fellows and God.
Except for the very rare individual, each of us is a continuing battleground between our two yetzers (i.e. good and evil inclinations) and we must choose between them. For so many of us, base instinct rules. We are driven by need, desire, greed, jealousy, envy, lust, anger, impatience, fear, and hate. Others have an easier time being kind and generous, and struggle less. But we all struggle.
The reason Torah study is determinative for the scholar and is so important for all of us is because we can find ourselves everywhere in the sacred text. Every instinct and virtue is addressed.
My friend, Rabbi Mark Borowitz of Beit T’shuvah in Los Angeles, rightly teaches that anyone who says that the Torah is irrelevant to his/her life is hiding something. To the contrary, it is there that we can discover our deepest selves, a sense of meaning and purpose that will sustain and strengthen us for noble ends.
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April 18, 2013 | 8:23 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Exalted One –
You call us to holiness,
To climb the ladder,
Higher and higher,
To reach as far as we might,
But never to rise above the angels.
You call us to purity,
To be as priests,
In this world,
Separate and apart,
Between our flawed humanness
And Your Transcendent Oneness.
How do we come near
To You Who dwells on High?
How do we discover
You, enthroned beyond stars?
How can we reach
You, larger than thought?
How can we know
You, Ineffable Truth?
What is the way to holiness
If we be so bound to earth,
And driven by need,
And broken by grief?
You call us to rise up
and bow low to You,
At Your holy footstool ,
To be enveloped in Your Glory,
To transcend our senses
Where sapphires glisten,
And angels praise,
And Torah letters shimmer,
And souls sing.
You say that Your teaching is not so distant,
Not across the seas beyond our reach,
Nor in the heavens above
Making it unattainable.
It is rather, close,
So very close,
In our hearts,
In our breath,
And upon our lips.
Almighty One –
You brought us out from Egypt
To renew us,
Redeem, free, heal, and restore us,
To ready us
As Your treasured people.
You led us into the wilderness,
Into silence and nothingness,
Into a blank slate,
And you painted a picture of our lives
And commanded us to be
Like paint upon a landscape,
And stranger loving.
If this is what You intend for us
And if this is the way to be holy,
It is so very hard!
But those who seek You
Will continuously strive,
And we will teach this to our children.
April 15, 2013 | 7:22 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
The State of Israel is the 100th smallest country in the world with less than 1/1000th of the world's population, yet her people have accomplished so very much even as she has struggled in war and been forced to spend more money per capita on her own protection than any other county on earth.
On Israel’s 65th birthday I pause to marvel in all she is and represents to the Jewish people.
I raise my glass to her accomplishments in literature, medicine, agriculture, the arts, science, and technology.
I tip my hat to her courage and survival.
Consider the following:
In the spirit of Yom Ha’atzmaut I celebrate her, despite her imperfections and challenges, with enthusiasm and the words of the Psalmist in my heart: “This is the day God has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118:24)
April 12, 2013 | 7:45 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
It seems that Natan Sharansky has successfully gained agreement between the Israeli and international Reform movement, the Women of the Wall (WOW) and the Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall (ultra-orthodox) that a section at the southern end of the Kotel beneath Robinson’s Arch will be designated by the government of Israel as being free for egalitarian liberal prayer on a footing equal to the area currently dominated by the ultra-orthodox.
The newly designated section will have its own entrance and will be allowed to host prayer and religious celebrations according to Conservative, Reform, Renewal, and Reconstructionist practice, meaning that women can pray alongside men, lead religious services, read from the Torah, wear tallitot, and sing aloud without concern of offending the ultra-orthodox community. (See complete story in the Jewish Daily Forward.)
The agreement will end police tolerance of the ugly insults by ultra-orthodox men and women against WOW including the orthodox screaming profanities, spitting on women worshipers, and police arresting women wearing tallitot, carrying Torah scrolls and reading from the sacred literature. Details are still to be worked out, but Natan Sharansky is to be congratulated on his “shuttle diplomacy” between the ultra-orthodox officials and liberal Jewish leaders that resulted in this compromise agreement.
This is a huge victory for religious pluralism and democracy in the State of Israel, but it is arguably only the beginning.
Other outstanding issues affecting non-orthodox Jews are still outstanding and need to be addressed. These include the need for the government to grant equal financial support for non-orthodox synagogues and institutions, equal pay for regional non-orthodox rabbis such as Rabbi Miri Gold (regional rabbi for Kibbutz Gezer who has not been paid despite the Supreme Court order that this occur), marriage equality for all Israeli citizens and the right to marry in the state without orthodox approval, and ending institutionalized preference for Orthodox Judaism.
In meetings yesterday here in Los Angeles with five members of the Knesset who were brought on tour of the Jewish communities of Chicago, Los Angeles and New York by the Jewish Federation of North America and the Jewish Agency of Israel (MK Avi Wortsman of Bayit HaYehudi, MK Yoel Razvozov of Yesh Atid, MK Hilik Bar of Avodah, MK Nachman Shai of Avodah, and MK David Tsur of HaTenuah), all five said they would support this historic compromise and bring their respective political parties, Bayit Hayehudi, Yesh Atid, HaTenuah, and Avodah along with them.
In my next blog I will report on the 90 minute frank, candid, and important conversation that we ten American Reform and Conservative Rabbis had with the five Members of the Knesset.
April 11, 2013 | 7:24 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
I try and return every phone call and email that comes to me within 24 hours. Sometimes it takes a bit longer if my schedule is tight or I have not checked messages. Sometimes, I confess, I deliberately do not return a call or email when I suspect that the incoming message is so nasty that to engage the sender would be pointless and toxic to my well-being. I receive such objectionable messages from time to time, usually in response to public positions I take in my writings. Other than these, I believe that each phone call, email and letter deserves a personal response as soon as I am able to do so.
It astonishes me that so frequently the individual is surprised that I call back so quickly, or even at all. Though most people I know do as I do, there are lots who clearly do not, and this is why I am writing today.
If you know people who habitually and/or selectively ignore calls and emails, please feel free to send them this blog, as it is meant for them.
I was taught from early childhood that when someone calls, you return the call. When someone gives you a gift, you write a thank you note. When someone does something nice for you, you express gratitude. This is simple derech eretz (lit. “the way of the land,” a Hebrew expression connoting common courtesy and mentchlechkite).
I believe that not to answer someone’s email, phone call or letter is rude, insulting and unacceptable, even when I am certain that something will be asked of me (e.g. to accept an invitation, to do someone a favor, to give to a charity or good cause, or to arrange a time to talk or meet). I also believe that saying “No” respectfully is always better than saying nothing at all.
There is an ethical principle involved. Judaism holds that if, for example, a beggar says hello and we ignore him we bear the guilt of inflicting upon him shame (bushah). It may be that the beggar offered us the only thing he has to give – a greeting. To deliberately ignore him is, in effect, an insult because such silence denies his dignity (kavod) and diminishes him as a fellow human being.
A story is told of the Chassidic sage Rabbi Meshulam Zusha of Hanipol (1718–1800) that one night he was staying at an inn. A wealthy guest mistook him for a beggar and treated him disrespectfully. The guest later learned about Zusha’s true identity and asked Zusha for forgiveness.
Zusha said, “Why do you ask me to forgive you? You haven’t done anything to Zusha. You didn’t insult Zusha. You insulted a poor beggar. I suggest you go out and ask beggars everywhere to forgive you.”
Zusha’s story raises the issue of how we should properly treat people we perceive as being “other” than ourselves (i.e. the stranger, or someone of a different socio-economic station, nationality, ethnicity, race, or religion).
It is possible to learn much about a person’s character based solely on the way he or she treats someone who is different. Is such a person’s behavior respectful and kind, open-hearted and generous, or is he/she dismissive, rude, condescending, and withholding?
The Baal Shem Tov taught his disciples to imagine that inscribed on the forehead of every man, woman and child is the sign of the image in which God creates the human being – B’tzelem Elohim (lit. “In the Divine image”).
In practical terms, seeing the divine image in“others” means at the very least acknowledging their presence, and returning phone calls and emails promptly regardless of what we imagine to be the reason for the communication. Again, my only exception is when I know that the caller will be abusive and disrespectful.
Not responding is common particularly in Washington, D.C. and Hollywood, places where power and politics define many relationships, and what you do is more important than who you are. It seems to me that this bad habit has become increasingly more common over the years.
Going forward, those of us who are guilty of this kind of behavior might change it, and that all of us should be teaching our children, grandchildren, and students by example that when we receive a communication from another person, the decent thing to do is answer it, even if our answer is respectfully “No!”
April 8, 2013 | 8:07 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Two important blogs have appeared in recent days shining a light on the desecration of the holiest site in Judaism, the Western Wall (Hakotel), at the hands of the Chief rabbi of the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz and the Jerusalem District Police Chief Yossi Pariente.
Not only are women not allowed to wear a tallit as they pray in this holy site, they are also barred from singing the Psalms of David and the Jewish liturgy aloud, and from reading from a Torah scroll. Now, there is a new controversy that threatens to prohibit women from saying the Mourner’s Kaddish at the Kotel.
Who makes those decisions? One man, who Susan Ester Barnes (below) rightly calls a “dictator,” the Chief Rabbi of the Kotel with the acquiescence of the Jerusalem District Police Chief.
According to Katharine Nasielski's blog (below):
“Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky met with Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. He told the rabbi in their meeting, “The Kotel must continue to be a symbol of unity for all Jews in the world and not a symbol of strife and discord.” According to Sharansky, Rabbi Rabinowitz ensured him that the restrictions would be stepped back, although we are still waiting for that statement to be made formally.”
These two blogs will bring you up to date. Communicate directly with Prime Minister Netanyahu your outrage that anyone controls the religious character of the most important religious site in Judaism.
"The Women of the Wall and the Dictator" - Posted by Susan Esther Barnes.
"Women Barred from Mourning at the Kotel?" By Katharine Nasielski.
April 3, 2013 | 10:45 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
Harriet Rossetto was a bright Jewish kid with success written all over her. Like other young women growing up in the early 1960s, she went to college, got married, had a child, and hoped to live happily ever after. It didn’t turn out quite that way, but today she is more fulfilled than she ever expected to be.
Harriet is the CEO and Founder of Los Angeles’ renowned non-profit drug and alcohol treatment organization called Beit T’shuvah (House of Return), the only institution of its kind for Jews in the US. She earned an MSW and then, as she describes her life at 45, she became unemployed and homeless, hitting rock bottom. From that despairing place one day she picked up an LA Times classified ad for a job as a Social Worker at the county jail. The ad specified the need for “a person of Jewish background and culture to help incarcerated Jewish offenders. MSW required.”
That turned out to be a fateful day. The job, working with Jewish addicts and cons, led Harriet to found Beit T'shuvah and meet her husband and partner, himself an addict and con, who would eventually be ordained Rabbi Mark Borovitz.
Harriet is brutally honest and self-revealing about herself, her struggles, her life, and addictions. She also speaks movingly of the central role her return to Judaism played in her journey, offering the essence of what she discovered this way:
“Judaism began to rest on a few core beliefs that helped me redefine my perception of myself, of others and of the purpose of life.
I matter. You matter. I have a holy soul. I am imperfect by design. My value is a birthright. Change is possible and mandatory. Right action is the bridge to wholeness of self.”
Harriet recognizes that her formerly negative view of life, that "nothing matters and who cared anyway, had been shifting: Everything [now] mattered, I realized. Everything. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: something sacred is at stake in every event.”
Hers and Mark’s quest turned out to be the classical Jewish mystical quest, to confront both the darkness and light in the individual soul, and to struggle towards the light and bring others along with them.
It is an irony that this child of middle class Jewish parents found her most natural home among addicts. She identified with them, struggled along with them, hit bottom like them, and became their teacher and guide:
“My qualification to be your life teacher is I have been where you are. I’ve seen it all. I know your torment, your war against yourself. I have battle-hardened experience and I still struggle every day. And I have learned how to live an integrated life. You will too. You are sure that whatever you’re addicted to is the only thing that will relieve the misery of your emptiness, the hole that aches. Without (fill in your own blanks) drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, food, money, power and prestige… there is no reason to get up in the morning….you will want to use again, and you might. But if you don’t, one day you will start to feel better. Alive again, in fact.”
Harriet teaches that, similar to other 12 step programs, “faith in a Power greater than oneself was necessary in order to stay sober. The addict has to learn how to live from within and stop seeking external solutions to internal discomfort.”
Unlike other 12 step programs, hers is based in Torah and Judaism:
“Torah is the Big book of Jewish recovery from human broken-ness. We believe if you can see yourself in every Parsha it is the Path to Shalem (wholeness) and Shalom (Peace of Mind.)”
Those accepted into Beit T’shuvah for treatment are required to live according to strict rules of the house. Prayer, meditation and learning Torah are essential components of daily life, alongside productive work, therapy and mutual support.
Beit T'shuvah is funded solely by voluntary contributions. No one is turned away because of inability to pay. Grateful parents and grandparents, foundations and friends support it because it works.
Harriet’s spiritual memoir is a moving tale of ongoing recovery; hers, Rabbi Mark’s, and all those who pass through. Her story, though unique and extraordinary, in truth is everyone’s story because each of us can locate ourselves somewhere along that continuum of addiction to non-addiction. We’re all broken somehow. All of us yearn for healing and liberation from our personal Mitzrayim (“Egypt” – lit. “the narrow constricted places” that enslave us and bow our heads).
Harriet’s book is one more thing – It is moving testimony to the capacity of each one of us to lift ourselves up, turn our lives around, one step at a time, one day at a time, one moment at a time.
March 31, 2013 | 2:19 pm
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
President Obama’s Jerusalem speech has been praised by most American Jewish Organizations for his eloquent support of Israel, its security, his respect for the historic Jewish attachment to the land of Israel, his tough stand against the Iranian nuclear threat, and his desire to help the parties resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
e I should be happy with this praise, but I am instead worried, not for what most of these organizations said in their press releases following Obama’s Middle East visit, but by what they did not say.
In reading the statements of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), and J Street, in all but the RAC and J Street statements something important was missing.
The AJC quoted Obama as “reaffirming the US supported goal of a negotiated two state-solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and calling “on the Palestinians to return to direct talks with Israel…” noting that the President praised “Abbas as a partner for peace.”
The ADL said that “The President conveyed a deep understanding of important challenges facing Israel, including the peace process…” and “that the peace process can only be achieved through negotiations without preconditions…”
AIPAC noted that both Obama and Netanyahu “share the view that direct talks should resume between the Israelis and Palestinians without preconditions, with the objective of two states for two peoples.”
The ZOA made no mention of a two-state solution because it does not support a two-state solution.
Here are the relevant remarks in the RAC and J Street statements that are missing from all the others:
The RAC, quoting Obama, repeated: “Israelis must recognize that continued settlement activity is counterproductive to the cause of peace and that an independent Palestine must be viable, with real borders that have to be drawn. I’ve suggested principles on territory and security that I believe can be the basis for these talks.”
J Street said: “[Obama] also laid out the moral case for peace with the Palestinians, based on full recognition of their national right to self-determination and their right to build their lives free of the daily humiliations of military occupation. The President also made it clear that peace is possible and that Israel does have partners in …Abbas and…Fayyad…who are committed to negotiations and to a peaceful solution.”
It seems to me that in their press statements the organized American Jewish community ignored most of the 20 minutes of the President’s 49 minute address that spoke directly and compassionately to the Israeli people about the plight of the Palestinians under occupation and their legitimate rights to a national home of their own side by side with Israel.
Here are a few of the most important lines of Obama’s speech that were not alluded to except by the RAC and J Street:
“[T]he Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes.
Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.
Peace is possible. It is possible. I’m not saying it’s guaranteed. I can’t even say that it is more likely than not, but it is possible.
Let me say this as a politician, I can promise you this: political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see. Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.
Today, as we face the twilight of Israel’s founding generation, you – the young people of Israel – must now claim its future. It falls to you to write the next chapter in the great story of this great nation."
What concerns me is the potentially obstructionist role that some in the organized American Jewish community might take (as has happened in the past) when President Obama and Secretary Kerry put concrete proposals on the table about borders, settlements, security, Jerusalem, and refugees. I hope that what is missing in their press statements are merely oversights. I hope as well that the organized American Jewish community will support President Obama fully in his efforts without second guessing him and without partisan rancor in order to help the Israelis and Palestinians find an end of conflict two-state solution without getting in his way.
If this occurs in this next year, come Pesach 2014 we will truly be able to say – Dayeinu!