A View from Israel

This summer, I’ve had the unique opportunity of spending a little over three weeks in Eretz Yisrael. As I approach my final Shabbat here (the family returns to Seattle a week later), I wanted to share with you some of my observations.

The trip began with an intensive 10 day rabbinic “Metivta” seminar at the home of the Sephardic Educational Center in the Old City. We were privileged to learn with (amongst others) one of the brightest young minds in the Sephardic rabbinic world, Rav Yitzhak Chouraqui. Rav Chouraqui, originally from France, serves as a community Rabbi, Rosh Beit Midrash of Mimizrach Shemesh in downtown Jerusalem, and will be leading the new Sha’arei Uziel Beit Midrash program at the SEC. His classes were both challenging and inspiring. The gathering of Sephardic rabbis from around the Jewish world proved to be a most fruitful context within which to discuss both halachic and philosophical issues as presented by classical Sephardic sources.

Most mornings, Shahrit was at the Kotel; at the Wall, one finds a cross-section of Jewish society. It’s really heartwarming seeing Jews, men and women respectively, from the various streams of Jewish society, pray together in the same minyanim. Israelis and tourists, often only loosely connected to Jewish tradition, approach the Wall to pour out their hearts to their Father in Heaven. Non-Jewish visitors from all over the world standing in awe of this landmark, are living proof of the verse כי ביתי בית תפילה יקרא לכל העמים – “because My House is a House of Tefilah for all of the nations…” (Yeshaya Ch. 56) Tisha Be’av was truly something to behold, and gave me confidence that Jewish unity, crucial for the rebuilding of the Bet Hamikdash, may not be so unattainable after all…

One of the most astounding aspects of my trip directly connects to this week’s Torah portion, Perashat Ekev. Birkat Hamazon, the mitzvah of Grace after Meals, is derived from the verse, “…and when you eat and are satisfied, you should bless Hashem your G-d for the good land that He has given you.” In the text of Birkat Hamazon, we attribute the following qualities to the Land of Israel: “Eretz Hemda Tova U’rehava” – “a beautiful, good and wide land..”

Now, Eretz Yisrael is certainly beautiful. This past week we drove north to Haifa and then eastward to Karmiel. The weather was truly delightful, the Carmel mountains and Galil foliage a sight to behold. It’s a good land; many natural resources previously unknown are being discovered and harnassed. But a “wide land”? Security experts often stress the narrowness of the Land of Israel and the security implications that flow from this issue!

Being here for several weeks offered me new insights into the concept of Israel as a “wide land.”

When I first studied here back in 1983, driving to the north took 3 1/4 hours by car and close to four hours by bus. With the advent of Route 6, traveling from the Jerusalem area to Haifa takes about an hour and 50 minutes. The new multi-lane divided highway has revolutionized intercity travel. All through the ingenuity of the Israel Department of Infrastructures which has found space where none seemed to exist. Nowhere is this more evident than between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and within Jerusalem proper. The narrow highway that used to link the two cities has been expanded to a divided six-lane expressway! For the determined Israeli mind, the rocky hills of Jerusalem, once a formidable impediment to travel, CAN and WILL be overcome! The amazing Menachem Begin Expressway, searing through the hills of Jerusalem with overpasses and tunnels, has turned the once congested capital into a fast-moving, bustling tourist, commercial and religious center. These developments have not only made life far more convenient, but have fostered a unity between the disparate neighborhoods of Yerushalayim.

This, I think, is what our sages may have foreseen when they classified Eretz Yisrael as “a beautiful, good and WIDE land.” It’s the broad perspective of the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael that’s the hidden potential of Eretz Hakodesh, Eretz Yisrael.

Shabbat Shalom!

Breaking My Silence

This coming week’s Parsha, Shelach deals with the theme of leadership, particularly as it pertains to the relationship between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.  It’s June, 2015 and I find myself in a position of religious leadership in the Seattle Jewish community.  As Jews, the fate of the Jewish people, the Land of Israel and the State of Israel is always at the forefront of our minds. Yet, like the Children of Israel in Perashat Shelach, we, too, can be negatively swayed by our leaders: rabbis, professors, intellectuals to sign on to ideas, philosophies and organizations that, though sometimes well-intentioned, can easily mislead, misinform and demoralize us.

As someone concerned about the direction of our community, I’ve decided… to break my silence!

Some background
Last week, a number of members of the Jewish community were sent an invitation to “a lunch briefing for Jewish professionals, leaders, and clergy with Avner Gvaryahu of Breaking the Silence and Ben Murane of New Israel Fund”. It was to be held at Herzl Ner-Tamid.

Strangely, this event has now been rescheduled: Instead of being a lunch briefing for Jewish professionals, leaders and clergy, it has morphed into a community-wide event. Instead of being hosted by Herzl Ner-Tamid, it’s now at Temple Beth Am.

What Happened?
Others may be better-versed in the details, but suffice to say that there was a strong response within the rank-and-file and lay leadership of Herzl that insisted that the congregation cancel the event.

Those who brought their pressure to bear identified with the conclusions of Matti Friedman, who spoke eloquently at last week’s Thursday night talk at Temple de Hirsch.

During his presentation, Friedman, who identifies as politically liberal, articulated why “Breaking the Silence’s” mission and method falls outside the parameters of accepted “pro-Israel” activism.

His talk summarized the approach he’s taken in the press; referring to BTS’s “report” on last summer’s Gaza War, Friedman writes: “Professional journalists looking at this report, and at similar reports, should be asking (but aren’t, of course): Compared to what? IDF open-fire regulations are lax – compared to what? Civilian casualty rates are high – compared to what? Compared to the U.S. in Fallujah? The British in Northern Ireland? The Canadians in Helmand Province? .. If Israel is being compared to other countries in similar situations, we need to know what the comparison is. Otherwise, beyond the details of individual instances the broad criticism is meaningless.”

Particularly compelling is Friedman’s observation that despite the fact that BTS describes itself as an organization of Israeli veterans trying to expose Israelis to the nature of service in the territories, so that it can have a political impact on Israeli society, “.. it’s a group funded in large part by European money which serves mainly to provide international reporters with the lurid examples of Israeli malfeasance that they crave. They are not speaking to Israelis, but are rather exploiting Israelis’ uniquely talkative and transparent nature in order to defame them….. Any group genuinely fighting for the character of Israeli society should do so in Hebrew, which is the language that Israelis speak — and only in Hebrew. If you’re expending a great deal of energy and money translating your materials into English and speaking to foreign reporters, as we’re seeing Breaking the Silence do right now, I think it’s fair to ask what, exactly, you’re up to.”

Introducing NGO Monitor
NGO Monitor is a Jerusalem-based organization that has as its mission “to generate and distribute critical analysis and reports on the output of the international NGO community for the benefit of government policy makers, journalists, philanthropic organizations and the general public.”  The express goal of NGO Monitor is “to end the practice used by certain self-declared ‘humanitarian NGOs’ of exploiting the label ‘universal human rights values’ to promote politically and ideologically motivated agendas.”

NGO Monitor’s International Advisory Board includes, among others: Ambassador Yehuda Avner, Prof. Alan Dershowitz, Col. Richard Kemp, Prof. Elie Wiesel, Dr. Einat Wilf, Prof. Ruth Wisse and R. James Woolsey.

NGO Monitor’s Assessment of The New Israel Fund

This week’s BTS-Temple Beth Am event is sponsored by the New Israel Fund (NIF).

What does NGO Monitor have to say about the New Israel Fund?

“Founded in 1979, the Mission Statement of the New Israel Fund is to help ‘Israel live up to its founders’ vision of a state that ensures complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants. Our aim is to advance liberal democracy, including freedom of speech and minority rights, and to fight inequality, injustice, and extremism that diminish Israel’

“NIF’s funding guidelines declare that it will not fund organizations that ‘[p]articipate in partisan political activity’; ‘advocate human rights selectively for one group over another’; ‘[e]mploy racist or derogatory language or designations about any group based on their religion, race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation’; or ‘[w]ork[] to deny the right of the Jewish people to sovereign self-determination within Israel.'”

Despite the above assertions, the NGO monitor has found that NIF “continues to fund political advocacy NGOs that are active in international and divisive campaigns that contribute to BDS and the demonization and delegitamization of Israel.” (Italics mine)

As an example, notes the NGO Monitor, “a number of NIF-funded NGOs have been active in repeating unsupported allegations of ‘deliberate, systematic, and widespread targeting of Palestinian civilians”; “war crimes and crimes against humanity’; ‘grave violations of international humanitarian law,’ and similar claims regarding the 2014 Gaza war, as well as claiming that internal Israeli investigations fail to meet international standards. Such allegations are central in efforts to justify international intervention, including ICC prosecutions and unprofessional UN reports.”

In light of this week’s BTS event, it is relevant to cite the NGO Monitor observation “that NIF grantee ‘Breaking the Silence‘ makes repeated allegations of ‘war crimes’ and ‘violations of international law.’ Despite claiming to address Israeli society, BtS’ lobbying and media advocacy focus on international audiences, including appearances in Europe and the United States. (Italics mine)

NGO monitor goes on to report that NIF funded NGOs were featured centrally in the discredited Goldstone report, which focused on alleged Israeli “war crimes” in the 2009 Gaza war. The report referenced B’Tselem more than 56 times; Adalah, 38 times; and Breaking the Silence, 27 times.

Tough Questions
The advertisement for this week’s event asserts:

Regardless of one’s own perspectives on the Occupation, we are bound by Jewish values to hear these courageous young soldiers. And we must ask what we’re doing to ourselves when we resist painful topics and respectful discourse.

There is of course a distinction between education and informed discourse, on the one hand – and propaganda on the other.

Matti Friedman writes:
“The activists from Breaking the Silence aren’t journalists, and their report is intended not to explain but to shock. It’s propaganda. That’s fine if you understand what you’re reading, but I suspect most people don’t.”

In Praise of Our Land

Parashat Shelach is our annual opportunity to somehow rectify the transgression of the spies. Only Calev and Yehoshua resisted the peer pressure and refused to speak disparagingly about the land of Israel. Until we successfully rebuild the Bet Hamikdash, Tisha Be’av, the evening of the spies’ sin, will remain a day of mourning.

On Shabbat, I suggested that we do our part in addressing the sin by speaking positively of the Land of Israel.

At the conclusion of Tractate Ketubot of the Talmud Bavli (112a-b), the Gemara records activites of various sages aimed at evoking a love and respect for Eretz Yisrael.

ר’ אבא מנשק כיפי דעכו. ר’ חנינא מתקן מתקליה. ר’ אמי ורבי אסי

קיימי משמשא לטולא ומטולא לשמשא

R. Abba kissed the stones of Acco. R. Hanina fixed damaged roads. R. Ami and R. Asi moved (during their learning) from the sun to the shade and from the shade to the sun.

Rashi explains that R. Haninah had such love of the Land that he did not want any possible rumors to spread about the state of disrepair of its roads. R. Ami and R. Asi wanted to avoid complaining about uncomfortable weather in Eretz Yisrael, so they always moved their hevruta learning to a more comfortable venue.

Another example cited by the Gemara R. Hiyah Bar Gamda rolling in the dust of Eretz Yisrael, similarly conveys an intense love of the Land. So powerful is this value in our tradition, that Rambam in Hilchot Melachim 5:10 actually “codifies” these behaviors as exemplifying how the average Jew should relate to the Jewish homeland.

On Shabbat morning, Tosafot’s commentary on this Gemara caught my eye.

Tosafot writes:

רבי חנינא הוה מתקל מתקליה – פירוש שוקל אבנים ומוצאן קלות אמר עדיין לא נכנסתי לארץ ישראל כיון ששקלן ומצאן כבידות אמר כבר נכנסתי לארץ ישראל

R. Haninah used to weigh rocks and, when he would find them to be light, he would say, “I have not yet entered Eretz Yisrael.”Once he weighed them and found them heavy, he would say, “I have entered Eretz Yisrael!”

Tosafot goes on to support his interpretation by citing a Midrash Tanhuma to this effect.We should first note that what prompts this interpretation is difference in the edition of Tosafot’s text of the Talmud: our edition uses the expression מתקן מתקליה. Rashi, as do others, understands R. Haninah as engaging himself in repairs, as תקן, the root of מתקן indicates. Hence, Rashi’s explanation that R. Haninah fixed the roads. Tosafot, in contrast, has an edition that uses a ל at the end of the first word of that phrase, such that it reads מתקל מתקליה. For Tosafot, the word מתקל is the Aramaic equivalent of שוקל, he weighed. What did he weigh? Rocks and stones, to determine if he had yet entered Israel.

At first blush, this understanding has little in common with the others cited by the Gemara; the others either display a sage’s desire to praise Eretz Yisrael or to prevent its being disparaged; how does R. Haninah’s rock-weighing fit in? How is it, too, a way of praising Eretz Yisrael?

Rocks are heavy; they provide a solid foundation on which to build. It was only recently that some Israelis have begun to tile their floors with ceramic tiles; the vast majority still use “Balatot” – heavy square stone slabs.

The mishna in Berachot (fifth chapter) says אין עומדים להתפלל אלא מתוך כובד ראש – one should not begin his Amida until he has achieved כובד ראש, a serious attitude. The word כבד is associated with something important, serious.

Honoring parents is called כיבוד אב ואם. Your parents played a significant, “heavy” role in your life, and you should give weight to their contribution. When R. Haninah wished to determine whether he had arrived in Eretz Yisrael, he tested the rocks. Once he sensed that he was entering a land of great significance, he knew he had reached the Land of Israel. When one declares that he is entering a land in which everything has inherent signficance, is the greatest “praise” that Eretz Yisrael could ever hope to receive. It’s this appreciation of Eretz’s Yisrael’s foundational role in Jewish identity that prompted R. Haninah in the Midrash Tanchuma’s version of the story to kiss those stones.

The Fruit Aisle Got Me Thinking

I haven’t blogged in quite some time, but I plan to start again…Anyhow, here is a blog piece I wrote for my community here in Seattle in honor of the second day of Pesach:

Earlier this week, I am sure many of us were busy up until the last second making our final preparations for Pesach.  Our own family was no exception; at about 5:30 pm on Monday afternoon, I found myself in the fruit department of the Ranier Valley Safeway store. A man in his late thirties looks me straight in the eye, and in a booming voice declares: “Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ehad!! This is how you say it, right?”

“Yes, I guess it is how we say it…who are you?… Are you… Jewish?”

Apparently, the Shema-reciter is a descendant of Spanish Jews; according to him, his great grandmother was Jewish, as was his grandmother, and apparently – his mother…

“Do you belong to one of the congregations in town?” I asked.

“Beth Shofar…In Tukwila…. We’re a messianic congregation.”

Now, I did not know if he was in fact Jewish, as he claimed.. I figured that the most I could (and should) do (!) was to explain that Judaism and Christianity are fundamentally different religions.

He politely smiled, but was not particularly receptive to my words. I could see that he believed that being Jewish was consistent with a commitment to JC.

I posed the following question: “If you believe that the Torah is binding, will you be eating Matzah tonight?”

“No, I will not ….”

“Why not?”

At this point, things become a bit of a blur; I didn’t exactly understand what he said; something about JC eating the matzah for us, being our Paschal Lamb…You get the idea…..

As our mini-debate reached a crescendo, he assured me that I, along with the entire Jewish people, would ultimately “see the light” and embrace his belief in JC.

Incidentally, after the Hag, I checked and it seems that Beth Shofar had a Passover Seder. Not a lot of matzah or maror in this video, but a lot of bongos….Perhaps an echo of Miriam taking a drum in her hands after the sea split (!)  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVHA3HfiHTo#t=10

As my mentor and I we were about to declare a truce, a young woman with a bright cheery smile and pure wonderment in her eyes approached me and asked, “Are you Rabbi Meyers?”

I nodded. “How do you know who I am?”

“I saw your picture on the website.”

To make a long story short, this woman had contacted me several weeks earlier inquiring about conversion. We had a brief exchange and agreed to be in touch following Pesach.

The scene was somewhat surreal: a man of Jewish lineage urging me to accept the Christian messiah and an inspired non-Jewish woman seeking to become part of the Seattle Jewish community. Both on Erev Pesach 5774.

On Seder night, prior to the main mitzvot of Matzah and Maror, we recite a Hallel.  In the Sephardic Hagadah shel Pesach edited by Hazzan Azose, the Hallel is introduced by the words ונאמר לפניו הללויה – “…and we will recite before him, Hallelu-yah”. In other editions, ונאמר לפניו שירה חדשה הללויה, ” “…and we will recite before him a new song, Hallelu-yah”. According to both versions, though, before the blessing of גאל ישראל – He who redeemed Israel – we say וְנודֶה לְךָ שִׁיר חָדָש עַל גְּאֻלָּתֵנוּ ועַל פְּדוּת נַפְשֵׁנוּ– and we shall thank You with a new song for our redemption and for the deliverance of our souls.

Now what is the new song we are referring to here in the Haggadah? It seems to be the same old Hallel: the verses from Tehilim, from Psalms, that we say every holiday, and customarily recite on Rosh Hodesh! According to the text that introduces the Hallel with the phrase שירה חדשה, we do hear an echo of the daily blessing following the Shema שירה חדשה שבחו גאולים לשמך הגדול על שפת הים– the  redeemed ones praised Your great name with a new song at the edge of the sea…. And in keeping with the theme that in every generation – and especially on the seder night – each Jew must see himself as if he personally left Egypt, the שירה חדשה– the “new song” terminology strikes a familiar chord.  The Hallel of the Seder becomes our “Song at the Sea”……

But the term שיר חדשdoes not recall that blessing….Maybe the song is a “new song” because on the night of the Seder, the Hallel is split in half, one portion read before the main mitzvot of the evening, the other after Birkat Hamazon….?

I would like to suggest an alternate explanation of the concept of a “new song” on Pesach.

Back in 1965, Rabbi Norman Lamm delivered a sermon to his congregation, the Jewish Center in New York City. His words are as relevant today as they were then.  Rabbi Lamm distinguishes between two concepts: novelty and renewal. Novelty, he explains, “is the misuse of the inclination for newness for things, for gadgets…” Renewal, in contrast,  “comes about when we apply the desire for newness to man himself, to achieve new insights which result in the transformation of his soul and his spirit.” Whereas novelty is extrinsic, a question of packaging,’ Rabbi Lamm notes, “renewal is intrinsic; it is a matter of content. Novelty is the seeking of thrills; renewal is the thrill of seeking.”

We Jews seem to have an inner sense, a drive, towards renewal.  Only, quite often we misdirect it. Take the Jewish world over the last two hundred years.  With the advent of the Age of Reason and scientific inquiry, we Jews succeeded in unraveling three thousand years of Jewish tradition: Many of us bought into an approach, championed most notably by Wellhausen, that exchanged the awesome Sinaitic revelation recorded in the Torah for the four-editor theory. Modern Bible critics declared that the Torah does not record an immutable, Divinely-given Torah, but rather four different editors – the J, E, D and P editors, were responsible for the work’s final content and form. Many Jews subsequently traded in תורה צוה לנו משה מורשה קהלת יעקב- Moses commanded us the Torah, an inheritance of the House of Jacob – for a convoluted hodge-podge pastiche of sometimes redundant and contradictory passages. Instead of the profound depth and harmonizing approach of our trusted oral tradition – through our beloved Rishonim and Acharonim – we uncritically ingested the legal and moral anarchy of sundry academics for whom our tradition was never a Living Torah…..

To be sure, the numerous challenges raised by academic approaches to the Bible are serious and each deserves a thoughtful response.  Great Torah luminaries such as R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samson_Raphael_Hirsch provided such responses. In our modern day, Rav Mordechai Breuer developed an innovative response to the Bible critics, although some Torah personalities, like R. Shlomo Aviner, have issues with his assumptions and methodology http://www.ravaviner.com/2012/09/what-would-rabbi-mordechai-breuer-have.html In an unconventional use of modern media to illustrate the depth of the Torah to a new generation, Rabbi David Fohrman has launched http://alephbeta.org/ These are all examples of renewal; they are models of what can transpire “when we apply the desire for newness to man himself, to achieve new insights which result in the transformation of his soul and his spirit.”

The theme of renewal permeates our classical sources.  Rabbi Lamm cites the prophet Yehezkel, (Ezekiel) who “properly pleads for lev hadash ve-ruah hadashah (Ez. 36:26), ‘a new heart and a new spirit,’ not merely for new techniques and new objects. The halakhah declares that ger she-nitgayyer ke-katan she-nolad dami, ‘a proselyte has the status of a newborn child’ (Yevamot 22a). And, in the same spirit, Maimonides declares that the repentant person must experience the feeling of spiritual rebirth; religiously he is a new individual (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 7:7).”

The “new song” of the Leil HaSeder is really the text of the “same old Hallel” that we have come to know and love. On the Seder night, and for that matter, throughout Pesach, each Jew is being challenged to discover new purpose in his or her life as a Jew; on the eve of the Exodus, “Why be Jewish?” warrants new consideration.  Our task is to make the same old song …… a שיר חדש.

Congregation Ezra Bessaroth is in a unique position. Founded by Sephardic Jews from the island of Rhodes, EB provides the structure, the rootedness, the tradition.

In recent years, EB has welcomed in Jews from various backgrounds: Ashkenazic Jews, Ba’alei Teshuva/recently religious Jews, and Gerim, converts. The call of the day? Cross-fertilization!  What does this practically mean? That newcomers should respect the Rhodesli synagogue customs, including the text of the Tefilot and the proper pronunciation of those Tefilot, to name just a couple of examples. On the flip-side, long-standing members should both admire and revel in the pure inspiration and idealism of our new additions. Together, this Pesach, we can generate a Hallel that is truly a שיר חדש, a new song.

While some seek novelty, we must pursue renewal.

 

 

The Blogosphere Takes on Torah Min Hashamayim

You may wish to read my post on the EB blog about the last 10 days of activity in the blog world, a response to Zev Farber’s controversial posts in late July.  You can see my brief review here: http://ezrabessaroth.net/leadership/rabbi-s-blog/entry/what-makes-me-orthodox  Right after Shabbat, I came across an article by YCT student Ben Elton and then a flurry of comments/replies by various individuals, including R. Nati Helfgot of YCT.  You can follow that discussion here: http://morethodoxy.org/2013/07/26/living-by-the-word-of-god-guest-post-by-dr-ben-elton/#comments

RCA Statement on Torah Min HaShamayim

In recent days there has been much discussion regarding the belief in Torah Min HaShamayim. We maintain that it is necessary not only to assert the centrality of this bedrock principle in broad terms, but also to affirm the specific belief that Moshe received the Torah from God during the sojourn in the wilderness, the critical moment being the dramatic revelation at Sinai.  The Rambam and others have included this in in their various Principles of Faith but its centrality is so evident that an appeal to these Principles of Faith is almost superfluous.  The very coherence of traditional Jewish discourse concerning the authority of theTorah she-bikhtav and the Torah she-be`al peh rests upon this conviction.
When critical approaches to the Torah’s authorship first arose, every Orthodox rabbinic figure recognized that they strike at the heart of the classical Jewish faith.  Whatever weight one assigns to a small number of remarks by medieval figures regarding the later addition of a few scattered phrases, there is a chasm between them and the position that large swaths of the Torah were written later– all the more so when that position asserts that virtually the entire Torah was written by several authors who, in their ignorance, regularly provided erroneous information and generated genuine, irreconcilable contradictions.  Beyond a shadow of a doubt, none of the abovementioned figures would have regarded such a position as falling within the framework of authentic Judaism.

While we recognize and respect the theological struggles that are a feature of many a modern person’s inner religious life, the position in question is unequivocally contrary to the faith requirements of historic Judaism.

About the RCA:

The Rabbinical Council of America, with national headquarters in New York City, is a professional organization serving more than 1000 Orthodox Rabbis in the United States of America, Canada, Israel, and around the world. Membership is comprised of duly ordained Orthodox Rabbis who serve in positions of the congregational rabbinate, Jewish education, chaplaincies, and other allied fields of Jewish communal work

 

For more information contact:

 

Rabbi Leonard A. Matanky, President

Rabbi Mark Dratch, Executive Vice President

 

The Rabbinical Council of America

305 Seventh Ave

New York, NY 10001

212-807-9000

www.Rabbis.org