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.]
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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.
April 11, 2012 | 7:51 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
It is not often that I agree with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but I do regarding his reaction to German Nobel Laureate Gunter Grass’s poem “What Must Be Said” that has taken media by storm in the past two weeks. In this poem printed in The Atlantic, Grass repeats the canard that Israel is the most dangerous nation in the Middle East because of its threats of a first strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. He charges hypocrisy given Israel’s own alleged nuclear capability. Netanyahu called such a comparison a “shameful moral equivalence.”
For good reasons Israel maintains a policy of “nuclear ambiguity.” The Jewish state is thought to have begun developing nuclear capability decades ago because of threats by her neighbors to destroy “the Zionist entity” and drive the Jewish people into the sea. Most Arab nations now accept the existence of Israel even if they do not have formal peace treaties with her. However, threats to destroy the Jewish state have not stopped. Today, Iran is the chief culprit.
Given Iran’s denial of Israel’s right to exist, we cannot ignore the significant differences between Iran and Israel when it comes to their each having nuclear weapons. First, Israel is a democracy and Iran is a military theocratic dictatorship. Second, Israel has never called for wiping any other nation off the map as Iran repeatedly does concerning Israel. Third, no other nuclear nation (e.g. Israel, Pakistan, India, Russia, or the United States) has ever threatened genocide against another people as Iran has done towards Israel. And fourth, no other nuclear nation has repeatedly denied the historicity of the Holocaust as has Iran, which leads a reasonable observer to conclude that fanaticism drives Iran’s foreign policy.
To complicate matters, a report in Haaretz this week reveals that there have been secret meetings between Israeli and Finnish officials on the issue of the International Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty conference scheduled for Helsinki in December, and that the Obama Administration wants to discuss a Middle East nuclear-free-zone at that gathering. Should this conference result in a demand to inspect Israel’s nuclear facilities, the ambiguity that is at the core of the Jewish state’s deterrent strategy would be destroyed. I would hope that the United States would push for an indefinite delay of this conference until such time as the Middle East stabilizes following the Arab spring.
All this being said, for Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai to take the step as he did last week to bar the poet Gunter Grass from physically entering Israel is an overreaction, and is unbecoming of the only democracy in the Middle East that values free speech. Alan Dershowitz, who does not make a habit of criticizing Israeli officials, made an exception with Minister Yishai when the Harvard professor wrote that Yishai’s decision was “both foolish and self-defeating,” and that the “ridiculous poem doesn’t pose any security threat to Israel that would justify his physical exclusion from the country.”
In truth, there are two main security threats to Israel. The first is Israel’s actual outside enemies who threaten harm, and the second is the anti-democratic trend promoted regularly by the current Israeli government. If left unchallenged, this official intolerance and demagoguery will chip away at Israel’s own democratic traditions and leave it just like the other oppressive nations in the region.
April 4, 2012 | 7:39 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
I offer 4 items to include in your Seders with suggested placement in the ritual. Why 4? Because the #4 and multiples (i.e. 40 - 400) occur repeatedly in Jewish tradition, cross-culturally and in the Seder itself The number “4” is symbolic representing sh’lei-mut (wholeness, completion, stability, continuity, and renewal).
Examples of “4”:
In Jewish literature the flood lasted 40 days and nights signaling at once a return to primordial darkness and to new beginnings. There are 4 matriarchs and 3 patriarchs (plus 1 if we include Joseph, as suggested by some commentaries) who embodied all human virtues and vice. Tradition holds that the Hebrews were enslaved for 400 years and wandered for 40 years before entering the land of promise, time-spans representing long periods that closed generations and ushered in new ones. Moses received the Torah including the Written Law (the Hebrew Bible - Tanakh) and the Oral Law (Rabbinic tradition – the Talmud and subsequent rabbinic law and lore) in 40 days and nights representing the complete Revelation at Mt. Sinai. There are 4 poles of a chupah symbolizing the beginning of a new generation and a fulfillment of the old. And the holiest name of God (YHVH) is composed of 4 letters. Mystics teach that this four letter Tetragrammaton represents the entirety of existence; the lower and upper worlds, the hidden and the seen, the concrete and the abstract, the physical and metaphysical, eternity and infinity.
The number 4 is significant cross-culturally, as well, suggesting the totality of existence: 4 directions, 4 seasons, 4 elements.
In the Seder we ask 4 questions, tell of 4 kinds of human beings and we drink 4 cups of wine symbolizing all the ways God inspired the Hebrews to be freed from bondage. For Jews, freedom is not the endgame. It is, rather, a necessary precondition for a covenantal partnership with God that will usher in the messianic era. In the “time to come” tradition teaches that the Jewish people will be gathered from the 4 corners of the earth to Jerusalem (Y’rushalayim, also known as Ir Salem, the city of wholeness, a city possessed of 4 quarters, like the 4 chambers of the heart).
4 suggested additions to your Seders:
1. Say a blessing for the people and state of Israel – place following the recitation of the 15 steps of the Seder ritual:
Eternal God, receive our prayers for the peace and security of the state of Israel and its people. Spread your blessings upon the Land and upon all who labor in its interest. Inspire her leaders to follow in the ways of righteousness. Awaken all to Your spirit. Remove from every heart hatred, malice, jealousy, fear, and strife. Let the Jewish people scattered throughout the earth be infused with the ancient hope of Zion and inspired by Jerusalem as the eternal city of peace. May the Jewish state be a blessing to all its inhabitants and to the Jewish people everywhere, and may she be an or la-go-yim, a light to the nations of the world. Amen!
2. Affirm that to be pro-Israel means to be pro-Palestinian - after Halachma Anya (“This is the Poor Bread”):
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a tragedy because it is a struggle between two rights. Therefore, to be pro-Israel must mean also to be pro-Palestinian, for as long as the Palestinians are an occupied people without a state of their own, not only are they not free but neither are the Israelis free. Peace will require painful concessions from both sides of this conflict for each people to find peace, security and fulfillment. Amos Oz has warned that those who refuse to compromise will be doomed to destruction for “the opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death.”
3. Include the olive on the Seder plate - read following Ba-shanah Ha-ba-ah Biy’ru-sha-la-yim (“Next Year in Jerusalem”):
The olive embodies our prayers for peace in the Middle East and in every place where war destroys lives, hopes and the freedoms we celebrate this night. Today, in the land of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar, and Ishmael, living olive trees bring sustenance and roots to their families. Where they are uprooted, let them be replanted, for the sake of life, for the sake of justice and peace.
Next year, wherever we may be, may we be whole and at peace.
4. Offer these words as the final statement in the Seder:
May I recognize my failure to understand those who oppose me.
May I be able to look at the face of my enemy and see the face of God.
May we all be instruments of peace.
(Rabbis for Human Rights, North America)
April 2, 2012 | 10:51 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
I am grateful to David Bedein, the Director of the Israel Resource News Agency, Center for Near East Policy Research at the Beit Agron International Press Center in Jerusalem for his comment and input on Marwan Barghouti’s crimes and demeanor at his trial for multiple murders. Mr. Bedein and have communicated privately. I also wish to express my appreciation to him for the way he communicated in both his comment and his private communications with me. He was more than civil and respectful, virtues which are too often lacking in public discourse.
In posting Uri Avnery’s piece which the journalist titled “The New Nelson Mandela” I did not intend to impugn Mr. Mandela’s integrity. However, by association with Marwan Barghouti I clearly did and I wish to apologize publicly to Mr. Mandela for this slight. He did not deserve it.
April 2, 2012 | 6:51 am
Posted by Rabbi John Rosove
A number of angry comments have been written in response to my recent blog “The New Mandela.” I feel it necessary to respond to them and make several points.
First, the article I posted titled “The New Mandela” was written by long-time veteran Israeli journalist and peace activist Uri Avnery, and not by me. I did say that I thought his analysis was generally correct and enlightening, which is why I posted it for those who would not have seen his piece otherwise. One may not like Avnery, nor agree with him, nor welcome his comments, but no one can question his love for the state of Israel and for the Jewish people. Uri Avnery is not naïve nor is he a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is an astute Israeli political analyst who has spent his life thinking and writing about all things Israel. Israel’s press is filled with such voices.
Second, I believe the point he was making about Marwan Barghouti being the “New Mandela” is that Nelson Mandela, in his early years, was also deemed a terrorist who was involved in actions that resulted in the killing of others, just as Barghouti has been so characterized. The fact that Mandela grew past his terrorism and became the remarkable leader that he did does not cancel out his early career. The same can be said of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Both were involved in what David Ben Gurion and much of the Jewish world at the time considered terrorist acts, and both became Israeli Prime Ministers. Menachem Begin, in particular, became a man of peace in the truest sense.
Third, yes - Barghouti was convicted of murdering Israelis during the 2nd Intifada as the commander of the Tanzim. He sits in an Israeli prison after being sentence to 5 life sentences. Yet, there is precedent for releasing people with blood on their hands from Israeli custody. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exchanged more than 1000 Palestinians for Gilad Shalit, and among those 1000+ were more than 300 Palestinians with “blood on their hands.” This was not the first time Israel has done so. Should Bibi have done so? Most Israelis said “yes” with deep concerns and fears about the real possibility that some of these released terrorists would kill innocent Israelis again.
Given Barghouti’s past position in support of negotiating a two-state solution non-violently to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (a position he supported during the Oslo period and which he now has returned to, according to many reports) the question is whether he should be released so that he might become the “New Mandela.”
And finally – I respect the strong and passionate feelings of Jews and Israelis for the state of Israel. I feel passionately myself. Yet, before I respond to anything anyone else says or does, I ask myself whether I am responding out of rage, fear and hate, or out of love and concern for the people and state of Israel. I would ask everyone else to do the same. We are, after all, a people that thinks and critiques and asks the hard questions. Let no one question another’s motives. Rather, critique the ideas thoughtfully. We all gain when we all do so.