Sometime during the 13th century, in a private study in Barcelona, an anonymous author sat and composed “Sefer HaChinuch” (“The Book of Education”). This systematic study of the Torah’s 613 commandments was beautifully written as a gift from a father to his son. In his introduction, the author lovingly states that he wrote this book “to inspire the heart of my boy, my son, with an accounting of the mitzvot.”
There are powerful moments when life’s experiences bring deeper meaning to the Torah and her classic commentators. It was Shabbat, June 5, 1982. I was nearing the end of my first year abroad in Israel, and I spent that Shabbat in Haifa with my family. A few days earlier, on June 3, Israeli Ambassador to England Shlomo Argov was seriously wounded in an attack by three PLO terrorists. Reactions in Israel ranged from shock to outrage, and the winds of war were brewing.
Like a good movie, Israel evokes a variety of emotions within us. In fact, the poster for the 1994 Israel Film Festival (IFF) reads:
It was Purim, 1985. The surroundings seemed so strange to me. From childhood, Purim always meant Megillah reading, noise from noisemakers, loud music, lively dancing, people dressed up in different costumes, lots of good food, exchange of Mishloach Manot gift baskets, and a little “l’chaim” to top things off. That was exactly the Purim I had in 1984, 1983, 1982…all the way back to 1964, the year I was born.
"Yes we can," Rabbi Daniel Bouskila said, invoking President-elect Barack Obama's ubiquitous mantra.
A book's opening chapter is crucial to setting the mood and aura for the remainder of the book's journey. Likewise, the opening scene of a film usually helps set the tone for what will ensue.
The Passover seder is both a reader's experience and a moviegoer's. We sit around the table and read the haggadah, and we also witness a host of rituals. But how does the seder leader creatively capture an audience and draw it into the experience from the beginning?
In the fall of 1989, I began the process of pursuing rabbinical ordination. Although I would eventually be ordained at Yeshiva University in New York, I did commence my studies as a Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) student, opting to do my first year at the University of Judaism (UJ) in Los Angeles (this was pre-Ziegler School, when the UJ served as a feeder school to JTS in New York).
Given the atmosphere in the Middle East today, it is hard to believe that just seven years ago, on Nov. 6, 1995, a Jewish funeral took place where the deceased was surrounded and eulogized by Jews and Arabs. Yes, this week marks the seventh anniversary of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin's funeral. Rabin was publicly eulogized (in this order) by Israeli President Ezer Weizman, King Hussein of Jordan, acting Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. A Jew, followed by an Arab, followed by a Jew, followed by an Arab, all standing together at one graveside in Israel, eulogizing one Jewish leader. Children born that year in the Middle East probably have a hard time understanding how such an integrated funeral was really possible, given the Middle East they have witnessed since they were born.
Was Rabin's funeral, which brought together Jews and Arabs for one brief moment, the first of its nature in the history of the Middle East?
Although it might seem a little early for Passover discussions, Jewish law does mandate that one should begin studying the Passover laws and details at least 30 days before the actual holiday. This is probably because no holiday requires more detailed preparation than Passover. Most of the preparations for this holiday tend to focus on koshering our homes, kitchens and utensils, and, of course, the menu for the big seder meal. What we often seem to forget is that the seder is not a meal, per se, nor a gathering to sing Hebrew folk songs, but it is an educational experience that requires no less preparation than koshering your oven or preparing your main dish.
So many people seem to be concerned with the question, "Who wrote the Bible?"
September 11, 2001.
This morning, America woke up to the same nightmare that my parents did on February 6, 1985. On that morning, my parents in Los Angeles heard the news that a suicide bomber had attacked an Israel Defense Forces convoy in Southern Lebanon. Reports of casualties varied from 50 injured to 100 killed. My parent's ultimate nightmare was that their son, who had enlisted in the IDF seven months earlier, was a part of the convoy that had been attacked.
As a Sephardic Jew representing a heritage of tolerance, intellectual honesty and tradition, my perspective on the recent "Exodus controversy" -- which is not rooted in anger, name-calling or popular "marketplace theologies" which have characterized certain responses in this city -- is that of the classical Sephardic Bible commentators, whose method has been described as "the persistent demand for logic."
Honesty, morality and ethical behavior -- these are the calling cards of Leviticus, and they are the centerpieces of Jewish behavior and identity. Amongst the mitzvot enumerated in Leviticus 19 (known by some scholars as the "Holiness Code") are respect for parents, charity for the poor, prohibitions against stealing and lying, a reminder to pay an employee's wages on time, the moral obligation not to take advantage of the deaf or blind, honesty and fairness in justice, prohibitions against holding grudges or exacting revenge, and the famous mitzvah to "love your neighbor as yourself."
Zionism. Remember that term? We don't hear it too often anymore. Many Jews seem uncomfortable with the term Zionism, saying it's "too strong" or it "breeds nationalism." Some of Israel's leading historians have gone as far as declaring this current period in Israel's history as the "post-Zionist era" - whatever that means. The virtual silencing of the word Zionism in our educational, religious or political vocabularies make the days when we enthusiastically took to the streets to fervently protest the United Nation's infamous "Zionism is Racism" resolution seem like ancient history.
Dr. Norman Lamm, the president of New York's Yeshiva University, once told me of a professor he knows in Israel who does not consider himself an observant Jew but who insists that his children maintain one halachic practice at home: "Birkat HaMazon" (the grace after meals). Lamm explained this peculiarity as the professor's belief that the Torah's commandment that we should give thanks for our food is an ethic that every child should be taught, so that at every meal they will never forget to appreciate the food on the table.
In Hebrew, a "scholar who lacks sense" reads as talmid chacham b'li sechel. In any language, it sounds like an oxymoron. I first heard this in reference to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel, who this week called Holocaust victims "reincarnated sinners," and Palestinian Arabs "snakes." I took great offense when I first heard people referring to Yosef in this way.