Spanish Citizenship for Sephardim: Recent Reflections

imageedit_2_6350066144Earlier today, I received a private message from a good friend of mine regarding my posting of Ezra Bessaroth’s role in facilitating the first step in helping those descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain obtain Spanish citizenship under the new law.

First, I want to praise my friend on his choice to message me privately and not engage in a back-and-forth debate on Facebook over this issue; he felt that this would unnecessarily expose me to public criticism. Here’s what he wrote:

Hi Rabbi. I didn’t want to write this on your wall because I didn’t want to even imply a public criticism of you, but I have to say I’m surprised given what I know about your attitude toward Eretz Yisrael to see you encouraging Jews to become citizens of Spain. Do you need see nothing problematic about that? Isn’t Spain the wrong country for Jews who want to add a second citizenship? Has Ezzy Bezzy made a similar promotional push (maybe you have) for its members becoming citizens of Israel (i.e. aliyah)?”

The point is well-taken.

Some background: When my good friends, Joe and Doreen Alhadeff, approached me with news of their involvement in promoting the new law – and having Ezra Bessaroth approved to attest to a person’s Sephardic ancestry – I asked myself whether I wanted at all to be party to encouraging Jews to become citizens of Spain.

Over and above the issue of promoting this path (instead of encouraging Aliyah to Israel) there’s the question of whether we should align ourselves with a campaign that tries to redress the wrongs of the past – specifically, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and all that this tragedy entailed. In June of 2014, Rabbi Marc Angel, himself a native of Seattle and a student of Sephardic history posted a critical piece on his blog. In part, it read,

How can giving a few passports to descendants of Spanish Jews undo the untold sufferings of Sephardic ancestors? How can even giving every living Sephardic Jew today a Spanish passport serve as atonement for the humiliations, persecutions and expulsion of our ancestors? Yet, how can we shut the door to genuine contrition and reconciliation? How can we allow past injustices to fester eternally, without finding ways to overcome those horrors?….It is fine for Spain to offer Spanish passports to Sephardim; but this does not in any way address the root problem or atone for the injustices committed against Spanish Jews of the middle ages. Spain needs to be at the forefront of civilization’s struggle against anti-Judaism, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism. Spain needs to be outspoken in its opposition to religious fanaticism where ever it manifests itself. Spain must become a moral voice for strengthening the lives of contemporary Sephardic Jews, most of whom live in the State of Israel or strongly identify with the Jewish State.

Why promote Spain at all without full teshuva?
Shouldn’t we first prioritize assisting Jews to become citizens of Israel?

My personal response to both questions: I, too, am troubled by the failure of nations – many of them European – to learn the lessons of the past. I too, feel that Spain should show its concern for Sephardim by supporting the State of Israel. For whatever it’s worth, though, I do feel that the public declaration of responsibility for the expulsion from Spain is of significance. Though it falls short of what we would like to see – in my view, it does have some incremental value. It may at least qualify as “Hirhurei Teshuva”….if not complete teshuva!

To my friend’s point: Last time I checked, there is strong basis for saying that we fulfill a Torah mitzvah by living in Eretz Yisrael…and not in Spain. As someone whose offspring and offspring’s offspring presently live in the Land of Israel, and who himself hopes one day to return even if the Mashiach has not yet arrived by that time….I personally spare no efforts in making it a priority to financially support pro-Israel causes as well as assist those who have been victims of Arab terror. I am also a proud trustee of the Samis Foundation, whose meaningful philanthropy works to address some of the core social issues in Israeli society. Our congregation stands at the forefront of the Seattle community in its Israel programming, even in the face of expressed disdain by so-called “progressive” elements in our community who would prefer to see us make room for organizations which overtly and covertly undermine the IDF and the Jewish state……

Our involvement in helping establish Sephardic identity for those interested in pursuing Spanish citizenship should not be seen in a vacuum, but against the backdrop of what I’ve written above. The messages delivered in our local Orthodox Jewish day schools, in synagogue shiurim, from the pulpit, in yearly programming – including scholars-in-residence throughout our community – are unequivocal. Anyone wishing to make Aliyah knows exactly where to go and would not only be fully supported – but publicly applauded for making the commitment! (One of my mechutanim is even a Nefesh B’Nefesh counsellor….I have her phone number and email!)

But alas, we live in a very complex age. With all the good work of our Jewish schools, only 5% of Seattle’s Jewish children are enrolled in day-school Jewish education. Intermarriage rates across the country are soaring, and the Sephardim of Seattle and elsewhere are not immune.

I reflect on my own decision, 35 years ago, to become more Jewishly connected. It started with a bowl of chicken soup at the Shabbat table of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Pritzker in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. It continued with Herman Wouk’s “This is My G-d” and Prager and Telushkin’s “Nine Questions.” It could have stopped there, with the soup and the interesting reading…..

For the Sephardim of Seattle and around the world, Sephardic culture plays a huge role in the formation and maintenance of identity. Do I believe that bourekas and bulemas are the essence of Sephardic Jewish identity? Of course not! But do these foods play some role in maintaining even a tenuous link to tradition …. that could eventually blossom into a deeper connection?

Absolutely!

Faced with the reality of the Spanish citizenship option for Sephardim, I think that the question for a community rabbi becomes: Is facilitating the Spanish citizenship process a potential portal of entry for less affiliated Jews to open their eyes to the past, to look at themselves anew as a link in the chain of Jewish history? Perhaps the applicants had not grappled with the devotion of those ancestors who resisted the Inquisitor’s threat of death and the commitment to living a Jewish life implicit in this sacrifice. How many unaffiliated Jews have truly meditated upon the evidence of a Divine hand guiding Jewish history both before and after the expulsion?

And so, I feel that the necessary research involved in uncovering the details of one’s Sephardic Jewish roots may well be an eye-opening experience that paves the way for some more profound introspection.

I’m comfortable being a partner in this process.

A Personal Sefira

On a weekly basis, we avail ourselves of a legal concept called “Shome’a K’eoneh.” This principle states that with mitzvot that are dependent on speech or reading, one can listen to someone else reciting a beracha, reading the megilah, etc, and be considered to have said the blessing or read the scroll oneself! In other words, the principle of “listening is like speaking” is a solid halachic concept. So tonight, when we hear Kiddush, it will be considered as if each and every one of us has recited the Kiddush personally.
 That’s why it is so surprising that regarding Sefirat Ha’Omer, the poskim are divided as to whether this general rule applies; in other words: does merely hearing someone else count the Omer mean that I, too have done the mitzvah? Some opinions say yes, it does – it follows the general halachic guidelines of Shome’a Ke’oneh; others say no – Sefirat Ha’Omer is different.
Question: What is the view of the stringent camp based on? Why would the leniency of “Shomea K’eoneh” not be available here?
Rav Avigdor Nebenzhal offers the following observation: The mitzvah of counting the Omer is not the mere recitation of a day; it is a process of moving from the impurity of the servitude of Egypt to the ultimately redemptive moment of receiving the Torah on Har Sinai. Each day of the 49 day cycle is a step towards our new, pure commitment to G-d and His Torah as the guideline for our lives as Jews. One person’s challenges are different than that of another. I don’t have the same issues to “work on” in my own personal quest for Torah as you. As an example, let’s say what is holding me back from being more “invested” Jewishly is that it’s difficult for me to get up in the morning to recite Tefilat Shahrit; I am always rushing and consistently miss my morning obligations. That’s a different kind of personal challenge than that of my friend, who has no such issues! So my “counting” is going to be a fundamentally different spiritual process than that of my fellow Jew. For him to count – and for me to listen – would simply not make the grade! It would be an empty, rote act, of questionable benefit. That, says Rav Nebenzhal, is why the more stringent camp requires me to utter a personal “sefira”!
May the weeks that lie ahead succeed in bringing each and every member of our Jewish community a closer connection to G-d and His Torah, and to a greater sense of personal development and fulfillment.
Shabbat Shalom!

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.