Responding to Anti-Semitism

Responding to Anti-Semitism
By Rabbi David Zaslow

Anti-Semitism, like all prejudices, is an equal opportunity yetzer ha-ra, “ evil inclination.” Today it afflicts people on the far left as well as the far right. This has, in fact, been the historical pattern of prejudice against Jews. Before World War II Stalin and the Communists claimed that the Jews were capitalists trying to take over the world. Hitler and the Nazis claimed that the Jews were communists trying to take over the world. The language is a little different today but the beliefs coming from both extremes of the political spectrum are the same.

Two years ago our synagogue put in an alarm system and cameras surrounding the building because of threats we perceived to be coming from anti-Israel activists in our town. For the past 15+ years I have seen an uptick in anti-Semitic attitudes arising from the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanction) movement that we’ve heard so much about especially on college campuses throughout the country.  Threats from the radical left really doubled in 2015, mostly as threats to the safety of Jewish students on college campuses. According to AMCHA, nationally there were 467 anti-semitic incidents in 2015, and 618 in the election year of 2016. In 2017 so far 97 incidents have been reported. From news reports in recent days it seems that another 200+ threats and incidents have yet to be recorded for this new year. There has been a clear increase in the number of incidents of threats, grafitti and cemetery desecrations in the last few months. And there was a clear underreporting of incidents in recent years because the incidents were focused on Israel rather than directly on Jews and Judaism, as we are witnessing today.

As a rabbi I don’t care where the prejudices are coming from –  hatred is hatred, and hatred breeds more hatred. Yet it’s important to understand the roots of anti-Semitism. As Easter is approaching many of us recognize that the Passion story told on Good Friday in almost all churches squarely puts the blame for the crucifixion of Jesus on the Jewish people – the New Testament clearly says of the Jewish people that Jesus’s “…blood is upon us and our children.” The scapegoating of Jews can be traced farther back to the story of Esther that we’ll read about on Purim. Haman was upset by immigrant Jews who were living in the Persian Empire.

In the book of Exodus Moses was being trained by God to realize that the emancipation of the slaves from oppression was not enough. More than seven times God expresses concern to Moses about the liberation of the Egyptians from their oppressiveness. The liberation of the oppressor and the liberation of the oppressed go hand-in-hand. This is the very same teaching that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. adopted in the civil rights movement. He taught that it wasn’t enough for African-Americans to be freed from oppression, but that white Americans needed to be also freed from being oppressive.

On May 17, 1956 in NYC at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City Rev. King declared:

“Let us not despair. Let us not lose faith in man and certainly not in God. We must believe that a prejudiced mind can be changed, and that man, by the grace of God, can be lifted from the valley of hate to the high mountain of love. Let us remember that as we struggle against Egypt, we must have love, compassion and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realize that as we seek to defeat the evils of Egypt we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves.”

In a wonderful book written for Christians called Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, the authors offer these wise words:

“Peacemaking doesn’t mean passivity. It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice. It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.”

I can’t begin to tell you how inspiring these words are to me. We must act on behalf of of the immigrant who wants to come to the United States to be part of a democratic society. We must act on behalf of minorities who are mistreated; on behalf of the LGBT community; on behalf of transgender youth; on behalf of our police who risk their lives to serve us; on behalf of African-American young men; on behalf of women’s safety and rights; on behalf of our environment; and on behalf of our own Jewish community that is now being threatened much more than in the recent past. But let’s not settle for easy scapegoats. Let us analyze the situation today with nuanced analysis rather than simplistic, easy answers that we get from the internet.

In the past three months I’ve been chanting the words from King David to a melody by Rabbi Menachem Creditor – olam hesed yibaneh, “the world is built from love.” Olam hesed yibaneh does not mean that we are not to be activists, but it means that our activism must be informed by prayer; must be informed by kindness; must be informed by compassion and love. This is what Moses taught. This is what Martin Luther King taught. This is what the Dalai Lama teaches. And this is what I am trying to practice myself.

Peak Experiences

Peak Experiences
by Rabbi David Zaslow

Just as there are certain times in our lives when we have peak experiences, so there are certain times of the year when nature affords us the opportunity to have exalted spiritual experiences. In Judaism, we think of lifecycle events as turning points that represent a pinnacle in our lives. Brit milah, naming ceremonies, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and memorial services all represent times when our physical existence reaches to the heights of our souls. In our communal history we can think of Mount Sinai as the “peak” experience (pun intended) of the Jewish people.

A few years ago Debra and I were performing a wedding in Vermont. When we checked into the hotel in Burlington the concierge pointed out that we just missed the peak of the autumn leaves by two days. In New England the change of leaves from the green of summer to the yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn is measured and marked with precision. Autumn foliage, in that region, is a tourist attraction. Scientists can tell you the exact day that the trees in a particular town or forest are at their peak. From Canada to New England, and south into New York and Pennsylvania, the changing of the leaves makes a descending wave, leaving in its wake some of the most gorgeous colors exhibited by nature anywhere in the world.

Although we missed the peak in Burlington by two days, the autumnal scenery was spectacular anyway. The next morning as we drove south to the wedding  on Highway 100 we passed through the very woods where Robert Frost wrote some of his most famous poetry. Later that day as we checked into our hotel in Pittsfield the desk clerk informed us that the peak colors would be arriving on Wednesday. We told her that sadly we were only staying through Monday.

So there we were in Vermont – two days late for the peak in Burlington, and leaving two days early for the peak in Pittsfield. So, I figure that somewhere on the drive from the north to the south we must have driven past the elusive “peak.” Of course we were so busy enjoying the beauty of the ride that we never said “oh, look, this must be the peak.”  No road signs announced, “You are now having a peak experience, don’t take this moment for granted. Soak in the colors in front of you, behind you, to your left, and to your right. You won’t see colors like this again until next year.” No, Debra and I were so busy enjoying the experience that we never knew it was happening.

What a metaphor for life! While traveling from north to south each of us is certain to pass the peak. The concierge in the north might tell us we missed it, and the desk clerk in the south might warn us that if we check out too early we’ll miss it there as well. Yet if we’re living life fully, in joy, with gratitude to God and each other, does it really matter if we’ve marked the peak?

Certainly, rituals are markers help us recall our communal peak experiences, which is part of the beauty and power of our Jewish tradition. But what matters most is our ability to simply be in the moment when the experience is happening, whether we know the exact moment of the peak or not.  Maybe now, as you are reading these words you are at a peak in your life because of the deep inner work you did during Yom Kippur last week. There is no need to capture it or even note it – just enjoy it and give thanks! May the Holy One bless you to enjoy the colors of autumn, and the opportunity to dwell in the Sukkah in the days ahead.

Hatikvah: Singin’ the Hope

Israel: Hatikvah – Singin’ the Hope
by Rabbi David Zaslow

Dedicated to the holy work of Evan J. Krame

At the Reb Zalman Shabbaton on May 4, 2014 I spoke of the PTSD that impacts most of the Jewish community around the world. From the pogroms in Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, to the Holocaust that took one third of the Jewish population, to the ethnic cleansing of Jews from their ancient homes in places like Iraq, Iran, Syria, and throughout North Africa which occurred after World War II. These massive population movements and traumas cannot have anything but a negative impact on the soul of the second, third, and fourth generations born after these events.

This trauma impacts the way we see ourselves. Two thirds or more of the Jewish population really want very little to do with “organized” Judaism, and I have great empathy and compassion for this segment of our population. In my early 20s I was part of the post Holocaust generation that rejected the stiffness, formality, and lack of spirituality in the synagogues we grew up in. I ran as far away from Judaism is possible. I was fortunate to have found a way to back to my faith and heritage when my daughter was born in 1981. But many of my friends remained, and remain, alienated from the rich heritage of our spiritual practices and culture.

In fact, it is so sad to see a small segment of this population not just passively alienated from the traditions of their birth, but actually antagonistic to it. This, many of us believe, is a direct result of the PTSD suffered from the traumas of the twentieth-century – and this PTSD plays itself out in a number of ways. Right now I just want to deal with the issue of Israel. The United States, European nations, and Israel share a common heritage that can be called “Western democracy.” I like to call it “the best of the West.” Naturally, there are flaws, and terrible errors  made through bigotry and corruption in all Western democracies. America, for all its greatness, was born out of the yearning for religious freedom for Anglo-Europeans, but was built upon the genocide of many Native American tribes and the enslavement of millions of Africans. Yet as we reach “toward a more perfect union” we acknowledge that our “union” is not perfect. We’ve come a long way in dealing with civil rights, but as recent news events have shown we have a long way to go. And, we will go “toward” that “more perfect union.” From women suffrage, to the union movement, to the civil rights movement, to the environmental movement, to the gay-rights movement it clearly is two steps forward even when there is one step back.

Israel is no different. Would you like a laundry list of all the errors that this nation has made in its 66 years? Just ask any Israeli of any religion and they’ll gladly fill you in.  But right now let’s just say that Israel, too, struggles to better itself every day. People protest, people go to court, people form activist political groups of every sort, and have the right to redress their grievances to the government. That’s all Israel promises. Not perfection. But a process of elections and judicial access. Who are the people who are most critical of Israel? It’s Israelis themselves! That’s their civic duty. But their criticism comes as insiders; as citizens who love the nation and simply want to see it get better and better.

A word of caution to outsiders who criticize Israel. Don’t be an outsider! Love Israel first, come inside, and then your comments and critiques, lawsuits, civic activism will have an impact. And another word of caution: before your criticize, express your gratitude. Say what you like about Israel first. Sing Hatikvah with the rest of us, not because Israel is perfect, but because Israel needs your voice of hope in song, anthem, prayer, and protest alike. Now, I realize that this is challenging for those of us who are struggling with the real effects of PTSD. And I’m telling you from my own experience the best way to begin healing PTSD is to breathe, pray, sing, and express gratitude. Be part of the community you disagree with. Debate, yes, but stand up for all that is good in Israel. Be grateful for its diversity, its environmental movement, its gay-rights movement, its unbelievable religious tolerance and diversity, and its unbelievable technological genius that is helping change the world. Don’t let Israel’s flaws steal from you your sense of gratitude and love.

So long as still within our hearts the Jewish soul is true,
So long as still towards the East to Zion looks the Jew,
Two thousand years of hope not lost to be free in our land –
To be a free people in our land. The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

Max and Mutte: A Poem

 

Max and Mutte
by Rabbi David Zaslow

In 1958 I was about to meet Max and Mutte.
My mother told me,
“If you see numbers on their arms,
don’t look. Don’t ask. Don’t say a word.”
I was twelve but I understood.
There was something sacred there.
A sacred object carved on flesh
that I dare not look upon.
Enter with humility.
Like Moses, go barefoot – avert the eyes.
But Mutte knew that it was time
for her to talk.
It was thirteen years after that Event.

They were released, stateless,
and lived in camps for the stateless
another five years.
Five more years
until, in 1950,
they came to America.
Mutte,
everyone calls her Mutte, mother.
Even my mother calls her Mutte –
rasied Christian, married Max
and converted to Judaism.
They kept her in a special camp
because her eyes were blue.

Today her deep blue eyes
draw from Miriam’s well
and from the flames
of that unspeakable Place,
Today, in remembering,
Mutte speaks easily.
Max, God rest his soul,
never uttered the Amidah
without remembering,
but not so easily.
Mutte speaks easily though.
She knows the inner meaning of memory.
It is not something from the past,
it is her air.
The air of a German blue sky
and the rising smoke filled with ashes.
She permits us to to breathe
this air today,
so that we might remember,
and know it when we see it
in Rochester, or Brooklyn, or Ashland.
To know it when we see it
and not deny it, or run from it.
To know it when we see it,
and to never permit it to be forgotten.
To know it when we see it,
and never let it lose its sacred meaning.
To know it when we see it,
and never let it happen again.
Never again. Never again.
With God’s help,
through our eyes;
with God’s help through our voices,
never the silence again.

Mutte says, “The question
is not ‘Where was God?’
The question is ‘Where were our friends?’”
Never again?
Mutte says, “Don’t say
‘God willing.’
Ask, ‘Am I willing?’”

Passover: Our Festival of Leaping

Passover: Our Festival of Leaping

by Rabbi David Zaslow

The Jewish Exodus story was used as a template for the first Europeans who came to America in search of religious freedom. Subsequently it was used by the first Mormons who fled Illinois in search of their religious freedom and the promised land for their people. In our time it was the freedom story used by Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement. The Passover story teaches that there are many levels of freedom. One person is free on the outside and bound on the inside. Another is bound in chains yet free in her soul. Passover in Hebrew is “pesach” and the word has its etymology in the leaping or skipping movement of lambs. The translation “Passover” is the simple definition but “The Festival of Leaping Over” might be a more accurate translation for our springtime liberation festival.

Leaping implies that the obstacle is still there. The journey from here to there, from slavery to freedom is one that we all make, and sometimes we don’t eliminate our obstacles, we simply leap over them. Maybe the term “a leap of faith” comes from this notion. How do I get out of my chains, habits, negative attitudes? How to I remove myself from the forces of the Pharaoh that are within me?

In Hebrew Egypt is “mitzrayim” which means “tight, narrow places.” So, the spiritual question that we ask ourselves during this season is “how do I get out of my private Mitzrayim?” The answer may be in our biologies. Birth requires the infant to make his first major journey. From the womb into the world of gravity the infant must travel through her first narrow place. From birth on, movements and changes will not be so easy. Yet the remembrance of our birth will shape our destiny; will be a determinant factor in the way we handle problems and challenges throughout our lives.
Pesach, the season of our liberation. All the stories in the book of Exodus come into play during the springtime. We want to get outside. We want to be free. We yearn to fall in love. The festival of Passover is a marker for what is already happening biologically and in nature. The seder dinner is not just a reenactment of a historical event, but a dress rehearsal for what we are each going to do in our lives the morning after the celebration.

During Yom Kippur we dwell on our sins. We chant “ahl chayt – I have sinned.” We take inventory of all that is inside. We mark each internal item with a label, “keep,” “discard,” “change.” We make new vows, dissolve the old ones, and methodically make a file of all transactions. Not so during Passover. Pesach requires action NOW. The angel of death will ride over our homes at midnight. Quick. Clean the house. Quick. Take the lamb of our innocence and streak its blood (our own anguish) on the doorposts. Quick. The dawn is coming. We leave in a hurry. No time for inventory and careful filing or analysis. Now is the time to make the leap, to make the skip.

Have a problem? Skip it! Have a old habit that you want to change? Skip it! Have a negative behavioral pattern? Skip it! The concept of the “Almighty with an out sretched arm and a Mighty hand took us out of Egypt” is an extraordinary template for new possibilities. So, when the moment comes at midnight of the next full moon when our people collectively hear G-d’s voice say “make the change,” there is only one response – LEAP! Blessings to each of you for a kosher and transformative Passover.

Pentecost: A Poem

Pentecost: A Poem
by Rabbi David Zaslow

Passover and Easter: two moon linked sisters
who long ago stopped speaking to one another:
linked to the fullness in our hearts
and the fullness of God’s grace.
The moon of Sister Miriam desires freedom –
to rescue her people from the cruelty of Pharaoh,
by the outstretched, mighty hand of Adonai:
a hand of salvation reaching down from heaven,
and passing through my nation,
and down through yours,
and then to each and every one of us – so may it be!
The moon of Mother Mary desires to give her light
so that each man and woman might know
the power of the resurrection,
and the soil of death that holds the seeds of rebirth within:
a resurrection reaching upward,
passing through all nations and up to God Almighty!
Two celebrations: two women: Miriam and Mary,
who don’t even know they have the same name –
one in Hebrew and one in Greek –
yet inexorably linked to a single full moon.
And then we each begin to count:
we both count to fifty –
beyond the forty days of Moses on Mt. Sinai
and Jesus in the wilderness.
We go beyond, one cycle further:
to fifty, Shavuot, the Pentecost.
Ours to the revelation of Torah at Sinai.
Yours to the revelation of the Holy Spirit.
Freedom and resurrection. Revelation and revelation.
Twelve tribes and twelve disciples.
One moon, two traditions.
Two covenants, One God.
Shavuot and Pentecost: two cousins
who have just begun to speak.
And King David is singing to us
from his tomb today:
“Teach us to count our days
that we may open our hearts to Your Wisdom.”
Some of us, thank God, are listening

In the Groove

In the Groove
by Rabbi David Zaslow

To be in the groove
means that the needle
rests in total stillness
while the record around it spins.
The turntable turns,
the record revolves,
but the point of contact
requires total stillness.

To be in the groove
requires a complete balance
between stillness and movement,
between diamond and vinyl.
For the needle to do its work
of reading the engraved cuts
within the grooves, it must be still.
Just like us – to hear
what the Holy One has engraved
in the groove of nature,
in the groove of our lives,
we can’t be turning.
We can’t be moving
to get out of the way,
or to get somewhere else.
We have to remain in place.
Totally in place.
Perfectly in place.

It is difficult to be still
when I want to weep
for those whose lives are lost.
It is difficult to be still
when I want to pray
for a future free of fear.
So I say my prayers,
chant the Amidah,
say Kaddish,
and then enter the stillness
like a needle in the groove.

Light Within Darkness: Hanukkah and Christmas – An Interfaith View

by Rabbi David Zaslow

adapted from the book “Jesus: First-Century Rabbi”

 

Hanukkah and Christmas are two wondrous winter holidays that celebrate the light of God. The spiritual power of these festivals comes from the fact that they celebrate light at the darkest time of the year. For Jews the candles on the menorah represent freedom. After all, the success of the Maccabees in the second century BCE, Hanukkah represented one of the first successful recorded struggles for religious freedom. Today our menorahs are lit as a symbol for all people who struggle to overcome prejudice. Parallel to Hanukkah Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus as representing the birth of a new light that came into the world. Christianity and Judaism, represent two paths celebrating the same light through two uniquely different stories.

The time has arrived when Christians and Jews are beginning to have a new understanding of each other – the darkness of old prejudices is rapidly making way for the light of truth. Do we need to criticize each other’s faith in order to explain our own faith? I hope not. Do we need to “spin” descriptions of our own beliefs when comparing them to each other’s beliefs? I hope not. The word of God in each of our great religions needs no interpretative spin. What we need are more passionate, joy-filled discussions and dialogues with an underlying celebration of what we have in common.

To a Jew, Jesus can at most be a brother; a fellow Jew at the highest spiritual level who was martyred like millions of other Jews; a teacher of a group of devotees who wanted to see the prophetic dream of peace and justice fulfilled in this world. He was a healer in the lineage of Elijah and Elisha before him; a mystic like the Baal Shem Tov after him; an incredible storyteller in the tradition of the Pharisees. He was a good son, a good Jew, and what in Judaism we call a mensch, someone who lived up to his potential.

Yet to a Christian this can never, and should never be enough. To a follower of Jesus he is much more. He is one with his Father. He is the anointed one, the messiah who was spoken of in the Jewish prophetic writings, and he is the incarnation of the God  – both Savior and Comforter. Without him salvation had not been accessible to the Greek and Roman gentiles. With him comes a covenant with the Living God. Through him there is hope for the coming of the Kingdom of God both in this world and in the world to come.

Herein lies the mystery: one Jesus, two understandings. The Jesus believed in and worshipped by the Church is the province of the Church. To a Christian he is seen as both messiah and Savior. To a Jew the messiah is an anointed person and God is the Savior. On these points we will probably always differ. But the historical Jesus, Jesus the man, the Jewish man, the rabbi – he belongs to both of us. Once free of missionary pressure the Jew may learn to see historical Jesus as he was – a Torah observant Jew and a martyr who died because of his fidelity to God and Judaism. But the Christian’s relationship is not based on the historical Jesus. It is primarily with the theological Jesus – the Christ who is mysteriously one with the Father and the the Holy Spirit. How can these two positions be reconciled?

Do they even need to be reconciled? I do not think they can be, nor do I think they should be. The contemporary mindset does not hold onto contradictions very well. We don’t have much room in our minds for mystery and paradox as we once did. We want answers. We pose our questions in black and white, either/or. A pastor once said to me, “Either Jesus is the Savior or he is a fraud.” I asked, “Why? Where did you come up with such a clear either/or choice? Maybe he is Savior to you and ancestor to me, and we’re both right.”

I don’t propose to minimize Jewish and Christian differences. On the contrary, I think it’s time to celebrate our differences. A healthy ecosystem is one where there is eco-diversity. Many of us sense that the same principle holds true between our faiths as well. In a most profound and mysterious way, we need each other. Certainly our theologies differ when it comes to describing Jesus. But this holiday season in particular, the light that seems to be entering the hearts of the faithful is one in the same – the light of tolerance, respect, and celebration of each other’s paths.

Jews and Christians celebrate the same moral light as well. We have a passion for justice and equality based on the prophets that is identical. We have parallel problems and challenges that face us both. We love and serve the same God.  As the prophet Isaiah called out to us, come let us reason together! Though our sins be as scarlet the Holy One of Israel will make them white as snow! May our menorahs and the lights upon our trees shine forth in two directions –  into the world to be a model for others, and into each of ourselves as well.

Breakthrough and Interiorization

by Rabbi David Zaslow

In poetry, when an innovation in the use of metaphor or rhythm is first discovered, it is called the breakthrough. After a breakthrough there will others who will do the work of interiorization. For instance, in the late nineteenth-century, the British Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins made a breakthrough in the use of alliteration and rhythm. Yet it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that Dylan Thomas was able to interiorize the breakthrough made a century before. Until Dylan Thomas, Hopkins was treated as a kind of novelty poet since his brand of alliteration uses consonance and assonance in an aggressive manner – it and takes some getting used to. Here’s how the process of breakthrough and interiorization works.

In the poem called Inversnaid Hopkins wrote: “This darksome burn/ horseback brown/ His rollrock highroad roaring down/ In coop and in comb the fleece of his foam/ Flutes and low to the lake falls home.” Put the poem’s meaning aside for a moment – what a stunning and original use of sound! In Hopkins’ famous The Windhover he wrote “I caught this morning morning’s minion/ kingdom of daylight’s dauphindapple-dawn-drawn Falcon/ in his riding/ of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding ….” Along comes Welch poet Dylan Thomas who imitates and develops the novel style that Hopkins created. In his classic A Child’s Christmas in Wales Dylan Thomas writes: “All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.” Beautiful, yes? Can you hear the alliterative connection between these poets? One built upon the work of the other!

The same principle of innovation and emulation is true in religion. In the eighteenth century the Baal Shem Tov made a breakthrough in the Jewish approach to prayer that is still being interiorized today. In the 1960’s Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi made two breakthroughs that continue to transform the Jewish world. The first had to do with the full empowerment of women. The second had to do with an innovative approach to the relationship between Judaism and other religions. Reb Zalman’s breakthroughs are being interiorized, imitated, and developed in Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogues throughout the world. Sadly, Reb Zalman and the Jewish Renewal sometimes don’t not get proper attribution, credit, or financial support for the courageous work that is being done on behalf of Judaism. Our shuls tend to be financially poorer because we have chosen the path of creativity, experimentation, and innovation.

Reb Zalman calls Renewal “the research and development department of Judaism.” From explorations in prayer, chanting, drumming, and liturgy you can see the impact of Reb Zalman’s lifetime work in synagogues everywhere. The Havurah is honored to carry on the breakthrough work of Reb Zalman, especially in the areas of joyful services, education, egalitarianism, and ecumenism. In one of his most popular song lyrics, Steve Allen wrote, “This could be the start of something big.” When it comes to Judaism, you really are part of something big!

Four Holidays, Four Levels of Consciousness

By Rabbi David Zaslow

Each of the four holy days in our High Holiday season goes deeper and deeper, higher and higher into the hidden realms of the psyche. We begin with Rosh Hashanah, the new moon, and a new year. It is a day of awe as we envision ourselves as being written, God willing, into the Book of Life for a good year ahead. Ten days later it’s Yom Kippur, also a day of awe but on this day the awe is mixed with wonder – we wonder if we will be sealed in the Book of Life for year of health, prosperity, and joy. If we are honest with ourselves we will recognize how fragile our existence on this plane really is, and we simply have to admit that we just don’t know what the year will bring.

The third holy day is really a holy time, seven days of Sukkot, the week of Thanksgiving and the joy of being able to be in community together in our beautiful sukkah. Finally, on Monday evening October 8th. we’ll come together to celebrate Simchat Torah when we’ll read the last words from the book of Deuteronomy and the first words of Genesis and the single breath – all endings and beginnings are connected. The end of one year is the beginning of the next year, the end of one cycle in our lives is the beginning of the next.

Just as Rosh Hashanah marks the time of return, return to ourselves to God, so Yom Kippur marks the time of wonder through an honest assessment of our personal live. We ask ourselves, “have I lived up to my potential this past year?” By the time we get to Sukkot time of return is over, and now it’s the time of being – simply and profoundly accepting ourselves for who we are, knowing that the year ahead is filled with possibility. And when we get to Simchat Torah we hopefully will have arrived at the end of an amazing, awesome inner journey. And what is the end? Joy, simple and magnificent joy. Joy that foretells the good year that lies ahead of us.

The deepest secret is that four  holy days are really one. Awe, wonder, thanksgiving, and joy are all aspects of the singularity, of the One God. On the surface they seem so different like ripples on the sea, but beneath the waves the singularity of the ocean becomes apparent. The season is a movement of return to simple being, and even this movement is part of the greater singularity. There is no being unless there is leaving and returning. There is no joy without the deep, inner work of Yom Kippur which sometimes elicits our deepest and holiest fears and tears.

Judaism is a nature-based faith. Just go outside. There you’ll find the true synagogue. There you will be able to read the true Torah. There you’ll be able to hear the voice of God in every fallen leaf, in every seed ready to crack open to the promise of the spring. As outside, so inside. As above, so below. As you, so me. As us, so God. As nature, so emotion. As spirit, so body. As we chant in the Adon Olam hymn:

וְעִם רוּחִי גְּוִיָּתִי, יהוה לִי וְלֹא אִירָא
As with my spirit my body too. Adonai is with me, I shall not fear.

Each of these four holy days are steps that we take individually and as a community. May we all reached the level of pure and magnificent joy, and come together on Simchat Torah night to dance and chant with the Torah in our arms, saying “L’chaim! To Life.”

Responding to the Death of A Mass Murderer

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Last night President Obama reminded us that Osama Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader, but a mass murderer of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Of course, there is no “right” way to respond to the death of such a tyrant. The issue of “rejoicing” over the fall of an enemy like Osama Bin Laden is complex. Many of us are not rejoicing over his death, but celebrating a renewed hope for peace. Rather than celebrating his demise, some of us celebrate the bravery and success of our Navy Seals, and wish to express our gratitude to those who executed this mission and returned unharmed. Many of us are not happy that bin Laden was killed, but are happy for what his death represents in terms of the demise of Al Queda that we hope will follow.

The somber reality of Bin Laden’s death becomes blurred with naturally positive emotions that are embedded in the gestalt of the situation. The Holy One created us with a three-layered brain, and when we look at brain anatomy the response to the death of a mass murderer is even more fascinating. At the level of the brain stem, what Dr. Paul MacLean calls the Reptilian Brain, we respond to a tyrant like Bin Laden in a fight or flight mode – it’s hunt him down and kill him first before he kills again. On hearing of Bin Laden’s death the brain stem responds with relief and a sense of “yes,” which emulates a sensation that feels very similar to joy. But it is not really joy, it is actually a relief that the danger may be over. It is very much like the indigenous hunter’s celebratory sense of victory – not a joy that an animal has been killed, but a sense of relief that the hunt is now over.

In the higher regions of the brain, the Neo-Cortex, we reason that with this death there will be a better chance that terrorism and religious extremism will go into rapid decline. The higher brain functioning helps us rationalize and apply logic to any emotional situation. Mediating between the lower and upper level of the brain, the Limbic Brain responds emotionally, i.e., from the heart. A situation like the news of Bin Laden’s death releases in most of us an odd mixture of fear, anxiety, excitement, hatred, revenge, and the odd sensation that seems to imitate gladness. Again, it is not necessarily gladness that the criminal has been killed, but an adrenaline induced relief that he will not be able to strike again.

If we were family members of a loved one killed on 9/11, certainly a sense of relief and “joy” that justice has been served is a healthy response. As a nation we saw this sense of relief played out at the gates of the White House, at the Philadelphia ballpark last night, in our own towns and cities today, and among some of our Twitter and Facebook friends. An emotional response to the relief of our nation’s pent up anger over 9/11 is natural. If the emotional response is limited and kept in check, it may even be healthy.

Last night our President’s body language displayed relief and a sense of victory without gloating. His words indicated that he believes, as many of us do, that a measure of justice has been served by this carefully executed military action to capture Bin Laden. On a personal level, who is not human enough to have experienced some of each of these emotions in the past twenty-four hours? Who among us can really judge how our fellow citizens are reacting to this news?

Collectively, many of us sense an overriding national unity coming from the news of Bin Laden’s death – an interfaith unity that is the seed of hope for a future free of tyrants, free of mass murderers, free of extremists who hide behind their religions to justify evil. As our cousins in Arab nations are putting their lives on the line for freedom in what some have called the Arab Spring, I am personally trying to lift all my conflicting emotions up to the Holy One. Yes, at the level of my inner reptile I am relieved and “glad” that Bin Laden is dead. I confess I even cheered (limbic brain) last night, and yes, I am making a more sober (neo-cortex) assessment of the whole situation today.

Today in our Omer count it is malchute sheh b’gevurah, the day when we take our G-d given strength, power, and discernment and connect it to the earth and our sense of grounding. Neither can it go unnoticed that Bin Laden was taken out on Yom HaShoah, the day we remember our six million. Regarding Osama’s soul, G-d will have to decide if redemption is even possible for a person who has caused so much destruction. Regarding our response to his death, let us all rededicate ourselves toward making peace in the world – toward being the peace we want to see in the world.

In Psalm 97:10 King David speaks to each of us when he says, “you that love the Holy one, hate evil!” Yes, it’s okay to feel enmity toward those who do harm. It’s unnatural not to hate evil. And on the flip side, it’s dangerous to permit hatred to turn into bigotry. Actions like killing of Osama Bin Laden must not be in the service of vengeance or arrogance, but in the service of G-d’s will, freedom, human rights, and justice for all. Let us not rejoice over Bin Laden’s demise, but celebrate the hope that peace may now be a bit more possible.

The Beginning of the Beginning

by Rabbi David Zaslow
August, 2012

Judaism is not merely a religion, but a nature-based montage of spiritual practices we call mitzvot intended to elevate consciousness, and to help each of us to realize our own Divine essence, and unique destiny. Every lunar cycle is associated with some festival or holy day that helps each of us along our own unique journey toward self realization. To communicate directly with God one needs to go no further than taking a walk in nature. In reality, one needs to go no further than where we already are: sitting in our homes, sharing a meal with a loved one, or doing our daily prayers. God is in the synagogue, but not just the synagogue; God is is in nature, but not only in nature. Judaism celebrates God as being Omni – Omniscient, Omnipresent, and Omnipotent. No limit. No image. No form. Rather, God is imminent and all things at all times.

As we enter the month of Elul, our consciousness shifts with the season. We sense the early urgings of the oncoming Autumn. Our consciousness moves inward, and we begin the process of self reflection that marks the beginning of the high holiday season. As we enter Elul we are not just at the beginning of a new season, but at the beginning of the beginning. So, we ask ourselves “what am I beginning? What am I beginning to begin?”

I hope that the notion that consciousness is embedded in nature, in the season, will inspire each of us to follow the lead that God is showing us in the natural world around us. Our task is to begin to begin. Begin to go inward, and reflect upon the past year, and the new year ahead of us. Elul is coming. Soon we will sound the shofar each morning as a wake up call reminding us that God is as near as the next breath.

Time is a Mystery

by Rabbi David Zaslow
August, 2012

Time is a mystery. Time is precious. Time is a precious mystery.  The unusual word “anamnesis” describes memory as an actual recall of a past event. When I say “actual” I mean that the event in the past is experienced as if it were still occurring in the present. To our Christian friends this sense of anamnesis is experienced at every mass. In Islam it is experienced during the Hajj. In Judaism this sense of actualizing the past is experienced on Friday night when we recite the kiddush over wine, and at our Passover seders. 

With the month of Elul upon us this looking back and looking forward is a natural tendency in each of us. The Romans even thought of the sensation of looking at the past and the future as a god Janus was their god with two faces – one looking into at yesterday and one looking at tomorrow. From Janus we get the name “January,” the month that begins our civil calendar. At this time of year each of us is yearning, longing, and hoping. Yearning and longing for something in the past, and hoping for something wondrous in the future.

May the memory of all that is been miraculous and wondrous in your life be the Ruach spirit that guides us gently into the horizon of 100,000 tomorrows. May the teachings of all our rebbes be the guiding energy that links us in the deepest ways to our communities and to the Shekhinah. May God to bless each of with an incredible, miraculous, transformative, and healing Days of Awe. May the Holy One bless us to remember that memory is a living force; that memory does not die; they life is really light; that life is eternal; that light linked to life makes all our remembrances actual, really actual. May we remember that when we remember it is God’s guiding force moving through each and everyone of us, and that this force is especially discernible and available in the season we call the Fall, in the days we call the Awesome Days. 

The Shot Heard ‘Round the World…Again!

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Beloved 85 year old Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca is an active Catholic. Last week he’s told by the reporter who wrote his biography that his mother was Jewish. I get called by the NY Times for my reaction. A small story that’s shaking up the baseball loving corners of the Jewish, Catholic, and old timer Baseball worlds.

At the same MOMENT the call comes into me from the NY Times (believe me, this is not a daily or weekly occurrence in my home) Devorah and I visiting with her cousin Bruce who was a pretty major UPI baseball and football sports photographer for the SF Giants and the Oakland Raiders. Ok, so what’s the big deal? Me and my cousin are discussion religion (he dislikes “organized religion) since he’s a professed athiest. His religion is the photo-shoot and his synagogue is behind home plate where he can get the best shot.

The call comes in to get my reaction to Branca finding out he’s Jewish. “Excuse me Bruce, I have to take this call from the NY TImes.” OK, I’m name dropping to Devorah’s cousin and I know it, but this “coincidence” is all pretty funny. Plus how often do I get to proclaim outloud “I Have to take this call from the NY Times?” This may be part of my fifteen minutes of fame and I do not want to waste it.

Now, the story beneath the story. Ralph Branca is famous for pitching what is called “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” In the final game of the 1951 pennant series Bobby Thompson of the NY Giants got a home run off Branca thus winning the series for the Giants. To us Dodger fans it was one of the worst moments of our lives (the others being when the Dodgers moved to LA and when JFK and MLK was shot). Believe me, his grief at giving up that home run was inconsolable. The moniker “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World’ has haunted him for 6 decades. I mean, it wasn’t just giving up a home run, it was giving up the entire pennant; giving up “our” chance to play the NY Yankees in the World Series. Sounds trivial to a non-baseball fan, but to a baseball nut this is still one of the most famous moments in baseball history. For real! Ask anyone who knows baseball…sixty years ago this October 3, and that one pitch by Branca will never be forgotten. It haunts him to this day. He is 85 years old.

85 and VERY actively Catholic. Was G-d punishing him for giving up that home run? Was this the “cross” he was destined to bear? Was this all a test of his faith? These are questions Branca has asked all his life. And now…now he finds out he’s Jewish. That his mother hid their family’s Judaism from him? That his aunt died in Auchwitz. That his brother suspected they were really Jewish. That the family should have known. Is this part of the “cross” he still bears? Is this part of some Divine plan to inspire the tens of thousands of lost Jews to somehow reconnect to their faith? Poor Ralph Branca. I davvened for him this morning. He must be shaken up to some degree. Jews want to reclaim him. Catholics don’t want to let go. Old time baseball fans are watching and going “wow!”

Here is what Jewish storytelling scholar Penninah Schram wrote to me this morning from NY: “May G-d use this little story for healing!” Here’s what I say, “Amayn!”

Click here to read the original story in yesterday’s NY Times
Click here to read the follow-up article that I was called to give my reaction

Peak Experiences

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Just as there are certain times in our lives when we have peak experiences, so there are certain times of the year when nature affords us the opportunity to have exalted spiritual experiences. In Judaism, we think of lifecycle events as turning points that represent a pinnacle in our lives. Brit milah, naming ceremonies, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and memorial services all represent times when our physical existence reaches to the heights of our souls. In our communal history we can think of Mount Sinai as the “peak” experience (pun intended) of the Jewish people.

Last month Debra and I were performing a wedding in Vermont. When we checked into the hotel in Burlington the concierge pointed out that we just missed the peak of the autumn leaves by two days. In New England the change of leaves from the green of summer to the yellows, oranges, and reds of autumn is measured and marked with precision. Autumn foliage, in that region, is a tourist attraction. Scientists can tell you the exact day that the trees in a particular town or forest are at their peak. From Canada to New England, and south into New York and Pennsylvania, the changing of the leaves makes a descending wave, leaving in its wake some of the most gorgeous colors exhibited by nature anywhere in the world.

Although we missed the peak in Burlington by two days, the autumnal scenery was spectacular anyway. The next morning as we drove south to the wedding  on Highway 100 we passed through the very woods where Robert Frost wrote some of his most famous poetry. Later that day as we checked into our hotel in Pittsfield the desk clerk informed us that the peak colors would be arriving on Wednesday. We told her that sadly we were only staying through Monday.

So there we were in Vermont – two days late for the peak in Burlington, and leaving two days early for the peak in Pittsfield. So, I figure that somewhere on the drive from the north to the south we must have driven past the elusive “peak.” Of course we were so busy enjoying the beauty of the ride that we never said “oh, look, this must be the peak.”  No road signs announced, “You are now having a peak experience, don’t take this moment for granted. Soak in the colors in front of you, behind you, to your left, and to your right. You won’t see colors like this again until next year.” No, Debra and I were so busy enjoying the experience that we never knew it was happening.

What a metaphor for life! While traveling from north to south each of us is certain to pass the peak. The concierge in the north might tell us we missed it, and the desk clerk in the south might warn us that if we check out too early we’ll miss it there as well. Yet if we’re living life fully, in joy, with gratitude to God and each other, does it really matter if we’ve marked the peak?

Certainly, rituals are markers help us recall our communal peak experiences, which is part of the beauty and power of our Jewish tradition. But what matters most is our ability to simply be in the moment when the experience is happening, whether we know the exact moment of the peak or not.  Maybe now, even as you are reading these words you are at a peak. No need to capture it or even note it. Enjoy the colors of autumn. But since you’re here, try just saying “barukh Hashem, blessed is G-d!”

 

Noah’s Ark

by Rabbi David Zaslow

My friend and teacher Avraham Sand cites Tatiana Rona: “Do as Noah did and build an ark. An ‘ark’ in Hebrew is taiva – which means also a ‘word.’ Your ark shall be your words of meditation and prayer. Enter into your ark and let the waters lift you up, rather than drown you with everything else.”

Rebbe Nachman taught that when Noah built the ark, he built the prototype for the Torah. Torah is the “word” of the Holy One, what the Greeks and Christians later understood as the “Logos.” We don’t just read Torah, we enter Torah as we would enter Noah’s ark. Torah keeps us afloat when all else in our lives is being flooded. It rescues us. It holds us above the waters. On the deepest level Torah is our ark. Every word we speak is an ark that we build. It can rescue or keep afloat those around us.

Rebbe Nachman also taught (in the name of his teacher, the Baal Shem Tov) that the “window” Noah was commanded to build atop the ark is from the word which means “light,” and which is related to the word zohar meaning “radiance” and “opportunity.” So as we build our arks out of our words, may our words keep us afloat, and may each word be radiant and travel across all the realms as radiant opportunities.

This week, let us build many radiant arks for one another. When you hear a kind word from a friend he/she is building you a radiant ark. When you speak a kind word you are building a radiant ark. Through this kind of sanctified speech we will help create many opportunities in each other’s lives. The mitzvah this week is for each of us is to build many arks with our words by speaking kindly. Suppress negative speech, critical judgements, and gossip. Join Noah and build your own ark.

Noah’s name means “comfort.” When you build an ark with your words the Holy One will bring out the comfort, the inner Noah, that is already deep within you. Noah’s name is a cognate of the words which mean “rest.” Every Saturday we yearn for what we call Shabbat menucha …Shabbat rest. But at the deepest level this rest is the not just the cessation of work, but the deep “comfort” of knowing that all our work is done – there is nothing more to do but to bask in the light of the arks built this week.

G-d, Boys, and Brooklyn

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Good evening and welcome. I was born in 1947, and moved to Ashland to complete my graduate studies in 1970. When I first arrived here, at the height of the hippie movement, new friends would ask me “what’s your sign?” And I would answer “Jackie Robinson with Israel rising.” You see, my birthday is December 23, 1947 which is almost in the exact middle of when Jackie Robinson became the first black baseball player to play in the major leagues on April 15, 1947, and when Israel was reborn as a nation on May 14, 1948. These two events as distinct as they are from each other shaped my childhood, and influenced our nation as well.

This evening I want to speak about how Jackie Robinson changed not just baseball, not just major-league sports, but America itself. I’m not alone in the belief that April 15, 1947 marks the beginning of the civil rights movement that came into its maturity in the 1950s culminating in the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the mid-1960s.

How can a sport like baseball, and a team like the Brooklyn Dodgers, affectionately known as the Bums, be credited with having sparked what soon would be called the civil rights movement? It’s simple really. Social change does not begin in the ivory tower of academia. It does not occur because of postulates, theories, and suppositions made in doctoral dissertations. Rather, good doctoral dissertations and academic studies are reflections and analyses of what is going on in the lives of everyday people.

Often, sports, entertainment, science fiction, and religion are well ahead of the academic curve. Sometimes entertainment is a reflection of the current situation in society, but sometimes entertainment is at the cutting edge of social change. Sports like it’s literary and entertainment counterparts do the same. If segregation is the norm in society, then sports and entertainment will reflect that segregation. But sometimes, just sometimes, the commercial interests of the business of sports intersects with an urgent need for social transformation. That is exactly what happened to major league baseball after World War II. Branch Rickey knew they had to build up attendance at Ebbets Field or the Bums would be doomed to continue playing second fiddle to the great dynasty we know as the New York Yankees. And he knew that the secret to success would come from the untapped talent in the Negro League.

Not coincidentally, Branch Rickey’s personal Christian religious faith gave him an abiding belief in the equality of all people – Black, Asian, Hispanic, and those Anglo- Americans of European descent. So when he met with Jackie Robinson to discuss the possibility of him coming onto the Brooklyn Dodgers he didn’t ask this great athlete if he had the courage to fight for his right to play baseball, but if he had the courage not to fight. Both men knew that every despicable racist epithet imaginable would be hurled at Robinson, and that those first years would be torturous for Robinson. But they knew that he represented not just himself, but all people of color, and that his success and acceptance as a ballplayer would be measured not by a belief in civil rights, or theories of social justice, but by his performance on the field.

Robinson performed brilliantly as an infielder, at-bat, and holding the record for stealing home twenty times in his short ten year career in the Majors. What a metaphor, the first Black player in professional baseball holding the record for “stealing home.” Jackie was truly the catapult that hurled the Brooklyn Dodgers into history when in 1955 they finally defeated the great Roman Empire of baseball, the dynasty of dynasties, the team that gave us both Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio – the despised and fantastic New York Yankees.

Okay, so what is it with me in baseball? Big deal, I was born between when Jackie Robinson came into the major leagues and the birth of Israel. Truth be told, it’s a pretty personal thing to me, as it was to so many kids who were born in the wake of World War II and grew up in one of the boroughs besides the Bronx. Brooklyn hosted a huge immigrant population, a population of Irish, Italian, Jewish, Gypsy, Puerto Rican, and black first and second generation families who themselves identified with the seemingly hopeless struggle of the Dodgers to defeat the Yankees. In a way, identifying the Dodgers as “Dem Bums” was to identify yourself with the struggle to make it in America.

In the mythic decade of 1947 to 1957 the Long Island Expressway hadn’t been built yet, and urban flight to the suburbs hadn’t begun. Brooklyn was home, a city unto itself. Many of its oldest citizens still believed that building the Brooklyn Bridge, linking Brooklyn to Manhattan, was actually a mistake, and that Brooklyn should have never left its status as a separate city in the late eighteenth century.

It wasn’t so much that the Dodgers were bums because they couldn’t beat the Yankees, but that there was a little bit of the bum in every one of us, or should I say in every one of our parents and grandparents. If Brooklyn was our holy land, then Flatbush was Jerusalem and Ebbets Field was our holy Temple. Yeah, we were all monotheists, but rabbis and priests alike who visited this holy shrine worshiped the likes of Robinson, Da Duke, Pee-wee, Campy, Oisk, Gil Hodges, and Johnny Padres. We were not just fans, we were fanatics. True believers. Orthodox, ultra Orthodox. Missionaries. Crusaders!

In 1947 my brother, Jerry Stern, was twelve years older than I was. His new baby brother was like his little monkey, his little parrot, his 10 pounds of clay that he could shape it will. My first words of English, and this is no family legend, were the names of all the players on the Brooklyn Dodgers. My brother would bring me around to his teenage friends and show me off like we would a new iPad today. He would say Peewee and I would respond Reese. He would say Duke and I would respond Snyder. He would say Carl and I would say Erskine. He would say Jackie and I would dutifully respond Robinson. By the summer of 1950 rumor has it that he could do this forwards or backwards with me. He would say Furillo and I would say Carl, he would say Hodges and I would say Gil. He took me to my first games at Ebbett’s FieldI, and ingrained in me the ethos of civil rights. It sounds so naïve today, but in the early 1960s white Americans were asking the question to each other, “do you believe in integration?” We asked the question as if there really could be two possible legitimate answers. I was one of those kids in the 1960s who asked that question, and one of the ones who answered in the affirmative when asked.

Is it a coincidence that when my daughter graduated from college she moved back to Brooklyn after having grown up breathing the rarefied air of Ashland Oregon? And just last month she gave birth to my granddaughter, Amaya Zahar, my first grandchild with a Jewish mom an African American dad. How cool is that? My granddaughter born in Brooklyn, born in the wake of the civil rights movement, born just one mile from Israel Zion Hospital where I was born, and 1 mile in the other direction from Ebbets Field, where my conscience as an American was born and shaped.

So where does G-d come into all of this? The question really is, where is G-d not in all of this? Someone once asked a rabbi, “why do you always answer a question with a question?” The rabbi responded, “why do you ask?” G-d was everywhere in Ebbets Field when Jackie first stepped up to the plate on April 15, 1947. G-d was everywhere in the hearts of every Brooklyn kid, and dad, and big brother who rooted for the Bums, who usually ended the year with a broken heart, who said Hail Mary every time the Duke got up to bat. Even the Jewish kids knew how to say chant Hail Mary in Latin. Gd was in the incredible sense of common unity felt between every fan from every ethnic group imaginable that lived in Brooklyn after the war. The cries of “please Lord” or “Sweet Jesus” or “Ribbono Shel Olam” echoed like the sacred notes of the synagogue choir invoked on the Day of Atonement.

Where was G-d not in Brooklyn in those days? Robert Moses broke our hearts when he wouldn’t let Walter O’Malley build a new stadium for the Dodgers in the late 1950s. We boys wept when the Dodgers won the World Series in 1955. We were stunned into catatonic silence when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958. We never forgave O’Malley, but the truth is we now know they tried to keep the Dodgers in Brooklyn.

For years we had no team to root for. Certainly we couldn?t root for the Yankees, or our National League rivals the Giants. We tried St. Louis but that didn’t really fit. The Cubs, the Red Sox – now those teams had some resonance to us (they were also bums), but they were in Chicago in Boston. Who could we root for?

Robert Moses got his dream and saw a stadium built in Queens, Shea Stadium. Many of the Brooklyn ballplayers who didn’t want to move to Los Angeles played for the Mets. They became the people’s team, a team we could root for. And today their new stadium is a veritable tribute in stone to number 42, Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Ebbets Field. I haven’t seen the new stadium yet. I’m going back to meet my granddaughter for the first time in two weeks. So, don?t dare tell my daughter, but maybe I’ll take my granddaughter there this coming Memorial Day. Maybe I’ll teach her her first words in English. I’ll say Jackie and she’ll say Robinson. I’ll say Pee-wee and she’ll say Reese. I’ll say Roy she’ll say Campanella.

Oppressor and Oppressed

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Rev. Martin Luther King used to teach that the liberation from racism was not just for Black Americans, but for white people as well. The religious leaders in the Civil Rights movement had the vision to understand that redemption is not just for the victim, but for the victimizer as well; not just for the oppressed, but for the oppressor too. This level of wisdom can help us understand the Purim and Passover stories as well as current events in our troubled world. In classical rabbinic commentary, Pharaoh was portrayed a stubborn despot whose heart was redeemable. Haman, on the other hand, is the archetype unredeemable evil whose name must be drowned out with shouts of protest. Why was Pharaoh redeemable and Haman not? Because as Pharaoh kept changing his mind between each plague he displayed doubt – an expression of humility. Haman (like Hilter, Stalin, Mao, Osama, and Sadaam) never even doubted his right to order genocide.

The job of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam was to liberate the Jews – this is obvious. But a closer reading of the Torah reveals that God wanted to be worshipped by the Egyptians too. God proclaims in Exodus 14:4 that “I will be honored over Pharaoh, and over all his army, that the Egyptians may know that I am the Lord.” There is a Midrash that postulates that Pharaoh repented in Exodus 15:11 after he saw his army drowning in the sea. He cried aloud “Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods?” Judaism teaches that world redemption does not mean that everyone will be Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. Rather, everyone will follow the same high standards of ethical behavior: no murder, no terrorism, no suppression of minority rights, no lies about another’s history, no theft of truth. As God says in Exodus 9:16 “I have raised you up, to show in you my power that my Name may be proclaimed throughout the earth.”

This was a difficult notion for Christians to come to grips with, beginning in the eleventh century when they crusaded through Europe destroying Jewish and Muslim communities on their march to “liberate” the Holy Land from the infidels. They believed, as some still do, that the whole world must convert or be damned. At that time Islam was in a golden age of moderation, intellectualism, and tolerance for its minority subjects. Sadly, today Muslim extremists believe exactly what the Christian crusaders used to believe – that the whole world will eventually submit to Islamic law. They believe in their own form of violent, totalitarian exclusivity, and teach a twisted, anti-Semitic version of Jewish history in their schools. For example, they teach that Joseph was really a Muslim.

They have rewritten Torah stories and teach that Abraham brought Ishmael to Mt. Moriah, and not Isaac. A Muslim friend of mine actually was taught that our Torah is a “distortion” of an original Torah. These fundamentalists teach that their never was a Jewish Temple built by Soloman, and that if there was one it was a mosque. Finally, many people in the Muslim world are actually taught that the Holocaust was a hoax. Moderate Muslims, of course, reject this kind of twisted history, but too many citizens in Muslim lands believe it.

I heard this kind of distortion first hand just a few weeks ago from two wonderful Muslim students on my son’s tennis team. One nineteen year old girl from Bangladesh told me Jews were really Muslims at a lower level of spirituality. Another exchange student, who never met a Jew before he met Ari, told me that all of Israel (not just Gaza and the West Bank) is “really” Muslim land. Tragically, just coming to agreement about simple facts has become an obstacle to peace. Nevertheless, the goal of the Passover story is to liberate both the Jews and the Egyptians, and this should not be forgotten. I was honored to speak gently but clearly to the kids on the tennis team about a Judaism and a history they were never told about.

The world is at a tipping point: Will more nations move toward freedom and pluralism, or hold onto antiquated systems of governance, xenophobia, and sexism? As Americans we can hardly imagine what it must be like for a great people like the Iranians to live without the right to protest. We can hardly imagine what it must be like for Tibetans to realize that they are now a minority in their own homeland. We can hardly imagine what it must be like for Kurds and moderate Muslims who want democracy in Iraq to live with the fact that the insurgency is not just against the Americans, but against pluralism. We can hardly imagine what it is like for a Palestinian worker to be stopped at Israeli checkpoints everyday – checkpoints that were never needed before the terrorists became so active after Rabin made peace with Arafat. Pharaoh is the archetype of dogmatism, stubbornness, and short sightedness. But he is also the archetype of negativity that can be transformed. The prophet foresees the day when their will be a highway connecting Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. It is written in Isaiah 19:25 “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.” May we each blessed in our work of drowning out the name of Hamen, redeeming Pharaoh, and preserving Israel’s pluralism, security, and gratitude to God.

Highway of Holiness

Sermon delivered to Trinity Episcopal Church
by Rabbi David Zaslow
September 10, 2006

In one of your prophetic readings this week (Isaiah 35:4) the prophet Isaiah instructs us on how to walk on what he calls the Highway of Holiness where “…the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like deer, and the tongue of the voiceless ones shall sing…..” Compare this to what Jesus’ brother James is saying in one of this week’s readings: “Pure religion, undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, [and] to keep himself unspotted from the world (James 1:27).” He doesn’t offer us a creed to profess, or a series of theological ideas to memorize – but, rather actions, moral directives: take care of people in need.

The whole idea that James’ expresses is a perfect example of classic Jewish thinking – beliefs are fine, but they must be rooted in moral behavior. This is reinforced in another of your weekly readings. In Psalm 146: 1-9 King David invites his own soul to praise the Lord? How? By taking care of the hungry and freeing the oppressed. Listen to his words: “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul…Happy is he who has the God of Jacob…Who executes justice for the oppressed, Who gives food to the hungry. The Lord gives freedom to the prisoners. The Lord opens the eyes of the blind; The Lord raises those who are bowed down….” The connection is clear between Isaiah, James, King David, and Jesus – if religion is to be authentic it must be rooted in action.

Today, on the Jewish calendar, we are on the 17th. day in the month of Elul. Elul in Judaism is a 30 day period of deep, introspective reflection parallel in function to Lent in the Christian tradition. It is almost as if Judaism is a witness to the transformative beginnings of Autumn when the leaves fall, everything turns inward and a very special miracle occurs – the trees let go of their seeds. As the trees let go of their leaves and seeds, so we let go of our own. We shed those inner leaves which are no longer providing nourishment to our beings, and we cast our seeds that allow us to move into the next phase of our lives.

Christianity is a witness to emergence – the visible emergence of those very seeds dropped by each of us in the Fall. But now they have spent their season in the dank, darkness of the rainy season, and only in springtime are they able to open, sprout, and grow. Advent and Lent transform grief through the promise of the upcoming resurrection. Elul, and what we call the Days of Awe, transform grief through the promise of forgiveness and new beginnings. Elul culminates in the Jewish New Year, called Rosh Hashannah, which this year will fall on September 22. Some would say that Judaism and Christianity have opposite theologies. I suggest that we have balancing theologies – we need each other to stay centered and steady. We are witness to the transformative power of the Autumnal equinox, you are witness to the rebirth and resurrective powers of the vernal equinox. This morning I am honored to share with you some key concepts from Jewish theology about the nature and process of repentance – a process that religious Jews throughout the world are engaged in right now. This is the precise historic “action directive” that Isaiah, King David, James, and Jesus were involved with in their day at this time of year. After all, what holds us back from walking on that Highway of Holiness everyday of our lives? Sin – the sense of separation from God. What gets us back on that Highway? Teshuvah, repentance.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook was the Chief Rabbi of what would later become the nation of Israel until his death in 1935. A brilliant scholar and mystic, Rav Kook struggled valiantly to bring together religious and secular Jews who were returning to the Holy Land from all parts of the world. Rav Kook wrote a book that was published by Paulist Press called “The Lights of Penitence” one of the most remarkable and beautifully written books I have ever read on the process of repentance, what we call Teshuvah in Hebrew. Rav Kook removes from the idea of penitence all negative connotations and makes it something desirous to experience. He does not use metaphor to decorate language, but to reveal deep spiritual truths and principles based on the Torah. His words and teachings are exquisite:

“The currents of penitence rush along. They are like the streams of flame on the surface of the sun, which in an unceasing struggle to break out and ascend endow life to countless worlds and numberless creatures. One is powerless to absorb the multitude of varying colors that emanate from this great sun that shines on all the worlds, the sun of penitence. They are so many, they come with such a mighty sweep, with such wondrous speed. They come from the Source of Life itself…the individual and collective soul, the world soul, each soul…cries out like a fierce lioness in anguish for total perfection, for an ideal form of existence, and we feel the pain, and it purges us….”

The Rebbe makes us want to repent and return to God as he describes how natural the process of Teshuvah really is, rather than something to be avoided: “At once the person senses negativity and…he/she is converted into a new being. Already he experiences…a complete transformation for the better….The higher expression of penitence comes about as a result of a flash of illumination of the All-Good, the Divine…Who abides in eternity.”

Rav Kook is so careful to emphasize that the act of penitence is not just some chore to accomplish during the Days of Awe, but actually has the most beneficial impact on the body. He makes the Hebraic link between soul, mind, and body when he writes, “Penitence is the healthiest feeling of the person. A healthy soul in a healthy body must necessarily bring about the great happiness afforded by penitents, and the soul experiences therein the greatest natural delight. The elimination of damaging elements has beneficent and invigorating effects on the body when it is in a state of health….How we need penitence, how vital it is to illumine the horizon of life!”

Finally, the desire to return and to permit God to transform our lives may come after years of practice, self-discipline, therapy, and spiritual practice – or it may come in a flash. Rav Kook teaches, “Sudden penitence comes about as a result of a certain spiritual flash that enters the soul. At once the person senses evil and the ugliness of sin and he is converted into a new being; already he experiences inside himself a complete transformation for the better…the higher expression of penitence comes about as a result of a flash of illumination of the All- good, the Divine, delight of Him who abides in eternity. The universal soul, the spiritual essence, is revealed to us in all its majesty and holiness, to the extent that the human heart can absorb it.”

Let’s take a deeper look at the process of repentance. The word “repent” comes from a Latin word that means “to feel pain.” When we make a mistake there is no way to obtain forgiveness and reconciliation with God without feeling the pain that we brought upon others and to ourselves. However, revisiting the pain is just the beginning of Teshuvah – a transformative process leading to the feeling of regeneration, renewal, and spiritual rebirth. The word teshuvah in Hebrew means both “return” and “answer.”

Teshuvah comprises of a “return” to who we really are, and to what we really are at our godly essence. But teshuvah is also is our “answer” to God’s call for each of us to come home to the land of the soul. Following is a simple, four-stage description of the teshuvah process:

1) Confession: From the thought that we are sinning we acknowledge our mistakes and errors beginning with words charged with regret, heartbreak, grief and sorrow.

2) Repentance: We take an nonest inventory of our soul, what we call heshbon ha-nefesh, and make a plan of action for change of destructive behavioral patterns.

3) Forgiveness: This is the Divine response to our confession and acts of repentance. The sense of God’s forgiveness gives us the courage to carry out the program of change we established in our lives, and to be on guard that our behavioral patterns are forever changed.

4) Atonement: This is the final stage in the Teshuvah process. Atonement, from the Anglo Saxon word meaning at-one-ment is parallel to state of sublime, joyous, ecstatic unity that we experience after completing our inner work. The Holy One blesses each of us with after we are forgiven…we feel at one with the Creator and creation.

What makes us human is that when given free will we make mistakes. So, the Creator has given us this profound process to rectify errors. After making a wrong choice, we repent, get “washed clean,” and begin again. According to Jewish tradition with every mitzvah we fulfill, the world gets a little closer to the days of Messiah. So, why on earth, would G-d have even permitted us to sin? Created in His image why are we not simply born to be sinless?” To make us human, the rabbis respond. To give us the true sense that we are not robots, but fully human, full partners with G-d in creation. We are born good, we sin, we do teshuvah, and we end up being better for the experience – even though it hurts.

May we all have the courage to improve and enhance the good that is within us during the Days of Awe and every day of the year. May we each recognize the spark of God that is the soul itself. May we wake up tomorrow morning and really recognize our true selves, our godly selves. The Kingdom of G-d is, indeed, at hand. But it will not happen by G-d’s actions alone. It is up to us to reach the heights of our human potential by taking the first step on that Highway of Holiness. So, what is a church or a synagogue? Simply a rest stop along the way.

Israel’s Obligation to Arabs

by Rabbi David Zaslow and Rabbi Victor Gross
Spring, 2009

As the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel assures its citizens (Jewish and non-Jewish) the same rights and protection under the law. The question is not about Israel’s obligations to Arabs – that is clear. Under its constitution, Israel is obliged to treat its citizens fairly – which it valiantly tries to do under extraordinary circumstances.

In the Torah G-d commands us to treat strangers the same way we treat ourselves. We’re commanded to love our neighbors. In Torah the intimate link between brothers is clear – between Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, and even Moses and Pharaoh. Each has a unique covenantal relationship.

Einstein said, “no problem can be solved with the same consciousness that caused it.” The relational problems between Arabs and Jews cannot be solved from the same level of consciousness that has existed for centuries. Both Arab and Jew must recognize their collective history and awaken to G-d’s promises as outlined by the prophets. Until people recognize, as Pogo did, that “they have met the enemy and they are us” they will continue to exist at the level that bred the problem.

We await the day when our cousins, the children of Ishmael, welcome us to our ancient homeland so we can coexist in peace. We look forward to the day when all shall live in peace, each under his/her own vine and fig tree, when none shall be afraid.

Why I Support AIPAC?

by Rabbi David Zaslow

In the past year and a half I have approved of the insertion of a series of full-color brochures for our synagogue newsletter which are produced and paid for by AIPAC. AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) is the leading lobby organization in Washington, D.C., and its mission is to foster support for Israel by American elected officials. It is a non-partisan lobby group, and it’s supporters include liberal and conservative elected officials (e.g. Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama, John McCain, and everyone in between). Identical inserts have gone into hundreds of synagogue newsletters throughout the nation.

Why is such a lobby group respected by both Left and Right? Because it provides highly accurate, objective facts without partisan spin. AIPAC has a mission to support any elected Israeli government: left or right, Likud, Kadima, Labor, etcetera. When our elected representatives ask for “just the facts” about Israel, AIPAC has a reputation of delivering accurate and unbiased data.

A few members of our wonderful synagogue have expressed concern about the perception that our synagogue is supporting a Washington lobby group. I want to make clear as a shul we officially support no lobby group. As the most recent insert stated, “the views of AIPAC do not represent any official position of the Havurah.” But AIPAC’s unconditional support for Israel does represent my personal viewpoint, and that’s is why I have been honored to authorize the inserts for our readers.

In a perfect world I wish we didn’t need lobby groups at all, but our elected officials have become dependent (for better or worse) on lobbyists to provide them with information. Like it or not, that’s our system. There is a feminist lobby and a tobacco lobby; a pro-life lobby and a prochoice lobby. There is a Wisconsin cheese lobby and there may even be a “bring the Dodger’s back to Brooklyn” lobby – which I would also support!

Israel, as we are all aware, is under many kinds of attack. Kassam rockets have been fired into Israel on a regular basis from Gaza since 2000 (more than 500 in the past year alone killing innocent Israeli civilians in cities like Sederot and Ashkelon). Large quantities of arms are continually smuggled into Gaza from Iran through the Egyptian border with Gaza. There is a new buildup of short range missiles in southern Lebanon. Plus, verbal rockets of slander get fired against the very existence of Israel every day in much of the Arab press. Israel, like any nation, is imperfect and deserves appropriate criticism for aspects of its policies. Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism, but criticism of Israel using standards that are not applied to any other nation on earth need to be carefully reviewed for prejudice…and that’s the job of AIPAC.

When the United Nations declared that “Zionism is racism” under Resolution 2279 in 1975 AIPAC stood up and explained that if Zionism is racism then any nation’s independence must also be considered racist. If France or Jordan has the right to exist then so does Israel. After sixteen years he U.N. finally revoked its absurd resolution – but the damage had already been done.

In recent years Jimmy Carter wrote a book with the inflammatory title “Palestine – Peace Not Apartheid.” Profs. Walt and Mearsheimer wrote a frightful book which distorts the reality of the Israel lobby. A teacher’s union in England tried to get away with boycotting of Israeli scholars when no other scholars are boycotted from terrorist-sponsoring nations like Syria or Iran. Mainstream American denominations (e.g., Presbyterian) divest themselves of stocks from companies that do business with Israel but not from companies who do business with regimes like those ruling China or Egypt. Other denominations (Episcopal and Methodist) are currently debating whether to adopt this kind of Israel-only divestment scheme.

AIPAC is not a partisan political organization. It is simply an effective lobbying group that stands up for Israel on behalf of all of us who want to see peace in the Middle East. It answers the Carters, Walts, and Mearsheimers of our country with cool, factual data. It’s okay to wish we didn’t need lobbying groups (I certainly wish that), but it’s not okay to say Israel should not be represented by lobbyists when there are foreign lobbies for most every other nation on the planet. If there is going to be a strong Egyptian and Saudi lobby surely there should be a strong Israeli lobby as well. If we are going to criticize and exaggerate the power of the Israeli lobby without a word about other powerful lobbies then we are coming very close to anti-Semitism. I am thankful to G-d that AIPAC exists to defend the spiritual homeland that we, as American Jews, so dearly cherish, and that most Americans cherish as a dear ally. In the spirit of education I hope you appreciate the value of the AIPAC newsletter inserts. To learn more about AIPAC.

Moral Equivalency

by Rabbi David Zaslow

I recently responded to an internet posting where a well known, peace activist, rabbi, and colleague of mine made a case for morally equivalency between the actions of Hamas and those of the Israeli military in Lebanon last summer. Many of us hear fallacious comparisons (Zionism is racism, Israel practices of apartheid, etc.) in discussions about Israel these days, especially in progressive circles, and learning the facts is important if we are to engage in civil and productive debates and discussions.

The rabbi made a series of crucial flaws in his argument. In any civil and criminal judicial rulings there is never equivalent comparison between the actions of the perpetrator of a crime and the self-defense of the victim. This, of course, does not get the victim totally off the hook for any defensive action he/she takes, but it places the defensive actions under a completely different lens. Let’s say that the victim of a robbery clobbers the robber with a stick to protect his/herself. His/her level of culpability is not the same as the robber, and a district attorney could not prosecute as long as reasonable restraint within the definition of self-defense was shown.

In acts of war the response of the victim to aggression and/or invasion is judged on an even more lenient scale. Last year Hezbollah violated the basic rights of a sovereign nation through terrorizing and invasive acts of war. The Israeli response was, by all mainstream news sources, reasonable and moderate. Israeli soldiers stood in front of its population to protect them from aggressive acts while the Hezbollah aggressors hid behind its civilians as a shield. This was a no-win situation for Israel whose military held back, leafleted civilian areas before bombing, made mistakes (as tragically happens in war), and by most accounts was not able to prevail against Hezbollah because it was not willing to be even more aggressive.

No one wants an end to war in the Middle East more than Israel. I do not believe for a second that all things are equal in the Middle East. There is no cycle of violence there. Rather, there is a cause and an effect. Hezbollah, Hamas and company (those who refuse Israel’s existence and/or a two-state solution) are the root CAUSE of the ongoing bloodshed while Israel has to constantly adjust its strategy in SELF DEFENSIVE responses. Has Israel made errors along the way? Yes, of course. So did the Allies during World War II, but mostly the Allies were RIGHT and mostly the German and Japanese governments were wrong. There was no moral equivalency between the actions of the Allies and the actions of the Germans and Japanese even though by today’s standards of military engagement we decry acts like the bombing of civilian centers like Dresden. The same is true today between Israel and its neighbors. There is absolutely no moral equivalency between what Hamas and terrorists do offensively and what Israel does defensively. Let us not apply a double standard against Israel that we are unwilling to apply to any other nation in equal measure.

Do most Jews and most Israelis all want a peaceful, two-state solution? Yes! So, let us put the pressure on those CAUSING the violence and not invent a false equivalency between the perpetrators (Hamas, Hezbollah, etc.) and those trying to defend themselves (Israel). The facts are so clear to 80% of Americans (liberal and conservative) and to 96% of Israelis – there is a primary aggressor and a primary victim in this whole mess. Comparing the situation to European victimization of the Native Americans – Israelis are the Indians in the Middle East. Ironically, so are the Palestinians, but they are victims of their own leadership and of other Arab countries, not of Israel’s existence.

Any nation not willing to recognize Israel as a nation after sixty years is a part of the problem. Any Palestinian sheikh or political leader still holding onto an absurd notion of a literal right of return of Palestinians into Israel (not to the future Palestinian state) is a part of the problem. Many of us may not be aware of the new far left-wing call for a single, binational state (instead of a two-state solution) which is now adding to the problem since it would certainly mean the end to the Jewish state of Israel. Fuzzy thinking and inaccurate accusations of moral equivalency only adds to the problem. Indignation against Israel’s faults while ignoring the far more grievous faults of the Palestinian leadership only adds to the problem. Certainly some of Israel’s more foolish policies (home demolition, certain settlement policies, cultural prejudices, missing opportunities for interfaith dialogue, etc.) have added to the problem but is clearly not the root CAUSE of the problem.

Just as Israel generally (and quite imperfectly) affords equal rights for its Muslim, Druze, non-religious, and Christian citizens, so we would expect that a viable Palestinian state would assure security for it’s future Jewish and Christian citizens. If some of the settlements end up in a future Palestine will the Jewish settlers be permitted to live in their homes? Would Jews even be permitted to live in Palestine? At this point it seems unlikely. Muslim extremists are triumphalists as well as historical revisionists. Today Christian Palestinians are being subjected to a slow ethnic cleansing from their homes by Muslim Palestinian extremists (look at what has happened in Bethlehem in the last four decades). Sadly, that is hardly reported. Almost every Arab nation is now almost completely Yudenrein (Jew-free) as they used to say in Europe. There is no moral equivalent for that kind of bigoted, criminal behavior in Israel. Israel is an imperfect society where prejudice against Arabs (Arab Jews as well) is all too real. But the level of prejudice in Israel, as obnoxious as it is, is not equivalent to what is happening to minorities in the Palestinian territories.

A number of years ago I had the honor of staying in the home of Rabbi Dovid Zeller z”l for Shabbat. As many of you know he lived in the settlement of Efrat, and he was the quintessential model of what a real settler stands for in the territories – he loved the land of his ancestors (Judea and Sumaria) AND he worked so hard to bring all the people (Jews, Muslims, Druze, and Christian) who love the same land together toward a lasting and dignified peace for everyone. He was a Zionist AND a pluralist. I learned the following from one of his wonderful neighbors that Shabbat. Trading land for peace is trading a tangible (land) for an intangible (peace). Once land is traded then who is to say the intangible (peace) will be given in return. First we have to see evidence of peace (the intangible commodity) or at least a series of sincere peaceful gestures from the Palestinian leadership. In the case of Anwar Sadat z”l it was clear to every Israeli that his gestures of peace were deep-seated and sincere.

Israel is correct to be cautious when it comes to trading the one tangible commodity they are in control of (land) for something as intangible as peace. It’s been said many times before – if Hamas laid down its weapons there would likely be a chance for peace. If Israel laid down its arms there would likely be no Israel. In 1978 Abba Eban said that Arafat “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” The same can be said this past year about the Palestinian leadership concerning the unilateral Israeli pullout from Gaza. This was a perfect opportunity for Palestinians to come together and demonstrate their willingness for form a just and civil government willing to live at peace with its neighbor. Sadly, the factions within the Palestinian world (those willing to make peace with Israel and those unwilling to make peace with Israel) are now at war with each other.

Israel and America are the scapegoats for both the internal religious reformation and the culture clashes that are going on within the Islamic world. Israel is the victim of a terrible form of xenophobia, scapegoating, and anti-Semitism that exists within many Middle Eastern nations. The irony is that the Palestinian people are equally victimized by these other nations, but this is rarely the focus of many peace groups. Just compare the way Lebanon treats Palestinians in its nation (no voting rights, no land ownership, restricted work policy, etc.) to Palestinians who are Israeli citizens. Israel is a convenient scapegoat for the following myths: if there were no Israel there would be peace in the Middle East. If there no Israel the Palestinian people who have a safe and secure nation of their own. If extremists on both sides would only stop being violent there would be peace. The actions of the terrorists and the responses of the Israeli armed forces are morally equivalent and has led to a cycle of violence.

Missiles fired on S’derot do not help the Palestinian cause. The inability of Fatah to control the extremists is not helping the Palestinian cause. Palestinians electing Hamas to its government is a signal for war, not for peace. Blaming Israel for the bankrupt Palestinian economy does not help the Palestinian cause. Blaming Israel for erecting a security wall and fence when the CAUSE of the barrier is terrorism, does not help the cause of peace. Unlike the Berlin wall which was created to keep the citizens virtual prisoners in East Germany, the security barrier in Israel was created to keep terrorists out, and to protect Israeli citizens – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim alike.

Some powerful groups within the American peace community (e.g. ANSWER which has been in control of most of the larger anti-war protests in America) are clearly anti-Semitic and unwilling to condemn Palestinian terrorism, and this adds to the problem. Blaming Israel for checkpoints when the CAUSE of the checkpoints is terrorism does not help the cause of peace. America has terribly frustrating and inconvenient checkpoints at every airport, yet we would never accuse the American government of harassment. No, we realize that our airport checkpoints are a response to terrorism, and NOT the cause of terrorism. The same is true in Israel.

If Israel trades land for peace in the future, that is their right as a sovereign nation. But let us not think for a moment that Judea and Samaria were not the homeland of our people, or we fall prey to the replacement theology that is inherent to Wahhabist and extremist Shiite theology today (e.g., Isaac was not the son on the altar at the Akeidah, Moses and King David were Muslims,, there never was a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, Jesus was a Palestinian, etc.). I know all to well from my firsthand connection to Saudi funded Wahabists that this form of replacement theology is widespread in much of the Muslim world. Just as I do not accept replacement theology from the Christians I may respect and work with, I am not going to accept it from Muslims either. It is historical revisionism, and it is dangerous for us to let statements of Christian or Islamic replacement theology be spoken with no response. The “old” Testament is not replaced by the “new” Testament, Isaac was not replaced by Ishmael, and there really was Solomon’s “Jewish” Temple where the Dome of the Rock now stands. There is plenty of land in G-d’s kingdom for all of us to live together – Elder and Younger Testaments, Isaac and Ishmael, Israel and Palestine, the Dome of the Rock AND Solomon’s Temple.

In summary: it is incorrect to say that the self-defensive measures that Israel took last summer against an illegal terrorist militia (Hezbollah) rises to a level even comparable to the homicidal, xenophobic, and Islamofacism of Hamas…a group that named itself honestly for what it stands for – violence. Look at what the Muslim extremists are doing to themselves in Gaza, in Lebanon, and Iraq. Islamic extremism is the root CAUSE of the problems in the Middle east and in almost every single conflict around the globe. This is the sad fact that too many good folks in progressive circles are slow to comprehend. Let us face this fact quickly and try to come up with visionary, creative, messianic, and realistic solutions instead of blaming Israel for its measures of self-defense.

Once we deal with the ROOT CAUSE of violence in the Middle East (Islamic extremism) then the effect (Israel’s defensive military actions) go away. If we all stand as one against terrorism, Islamic extremism, and recognize that this is the primary cause of violence in the Middle East we will be building a foundation upon which real peace, real shalom/saalam can stand.

Critics of Israel often point to the unequal military might between the Israelis and the Palestinians. From a micro-viewpoint this certainly true. However, take a look at Israel from a macro-viewpoint and you can see what a small nation Israel is compared to twenty-one Arab nations (and a dozen more non-Arab Muslim nations not even on this map) geographically, militarily, and economically. The Middle East is roughly the size of the United States and Israel is roughly the size of Kentucky. The economic might of oil rich nations cannot be underestimated, and the military might and threat to Israel by nations like Syria and Iran certainly cannot be underestimated. It is incorrect to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict outside of its full geopolitical and historic context.

Comparative Proportionality

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Recently I posted the following response to two esteemed colleagues of mine…teacher’s whose Torah insights I study and often quote. Yet, regarding the dangers of Islamic extremism to Jews, Christians, and to mainstream, peace-loving Muslims, we have important disagreements.

One colleague wrote, “Are there some Muslims who claim the authority of God to kill and destroy? Yes. Are there some Jews who claim this? Yes. And Christians? Yes. What do we do about this?” A second colleague wrote in a separate posting, “Yes, there is obviously a grave and dangerously threatening element in the Islamic world, just as there are a number of other extremely dangerous “isms” and powers threatening us in the world today.”

1) DISPROPORTIONATE COMPARISONS: The above statements are prime examples of why I disagree with my colleagues on the question of Islamic extremism. I believe that the good rabbis are repeating a popular mistake of making implied comparisons that are disproportionate to the facts. I plead with my esteemed colleagues to consider that all things are not equal concerning all “isms” or when comparing the extreme wings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For example, when we think of “Jewish terrorists” we have to dig back more than a decade to name criminally insane individuals like Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir, both of whom acted alone. They certainly emerged from extremist religious environments where hatred was tolerated and spread, but certainly not where murder, terrorism, or assassination was ever preached from the bimah. I know of a very small number of religious Jews in Israel and America whose bigotry appalls me. Yet, I know of no Jews who claim “God’s authority” to “kill and destroy.” Israeli self-defense, properly or even improperly executed is something completely different from carrying out the demands of Islamic extremists who openly and publicly call for the destruction of an entire nation (Israel) and the conversion of the world to their brand of Islam. Further, we cannot forget that the vast majority of victims of Islamic-extremism are moderate, normative Muslims from every branch of Islam.

I have heard the preaching of Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah where he calls for the death, murder, assassination of Israeli civilians. I have heard first hand the late spiritual leader of Hamas, Ahmed Yassin, justify suicide murder against Israeli children – while teaching his own children how to strap bombs on their bodies to carry out Hamas’ evil deeds. Whether we approve of Jewish settlements or not in the disputed territories there simply are no Jewish or Christian militias who preach and demand the kind of sociopathic, homicidal behavior we hear from Hamas and Hezbollah. Am I preaching prejudice against Islam here? G-d forbid! Am I preaching fear of Hamas and Hezbollah? I certainly am! They are to be both feared and militarily defended against.

When we compare two insane, psychopathic Jewish criminals (Goldstein and Amir) who acted more than ten years ago to the literally tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands? a few million?) of Muslim terrorists commanded to be violent by literally dozens of well funded and well armed militias (e.g., Hamas and Hezbollah) we can hardly make a proportional comparison to Jewish extremists with any degree of intellectual integrity. Fact: there is a massive amount of worldwide terrorism sponsored and/or condoned by Jihadists that has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians (mostly Muslim) in the last fifty years.

Fact: there are NO Jewish terrorists sponsored by well funded militias or nations. And if there are Jewish terrorists, G-d forbid, they are almost definitely criminally sociopathic individuals acting under no denominational, sect, or leader’s command. Fact: there are Muslim nations (e.g. Iran) who officially sponsor and fund terrorism and/or military jihad in the name of Islam. Fact: there is no Jewish nation or even synagogue that sponsors or funds violence of any kind against Muslim, Christian, or Bahai civilians in the name of Judaism. When we go to airports and get our bodies and possessions searched and scanned it is not because of the threat posed by Jewish or Christian extremists. It is, however, because of the ever-present threats of war and violence made by Islamic extremists.

2) TERMINOLOGY: When scholars and Christians speak of the far right wing of Christianity (e.g., David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan, etc.) they often use the term “Christian Identity Movement.” There is not an iota of disparagement to liberal, mainstream, or conservative Christianity intended by the use of this term. It is simply a term that describes how a series of cults are trying to hijack Christianity for their own evil intentions. That is the context in which terms like Islamic extremism, Islamism, Jihadism, or even Islamo-Fascism arise from. I’m less concerned with the politically correct terminology than I am with the impact of Muslim extremists preaching death and murder in their mosques against other Muslims, gays, Jews, and anyone they perceive to be agents of Satan.

I would however, be quite concerned if these terms led people to believe that all of Islam or Arab culture condoned extremist hatred. I don’t see that happening in our nation or in Isreal. To our shame, many Americans were prejudiced against German-Americans and Italian-Americans during World War II. To our greater shame we rounded up Japanese-Americans and put them in internment camps during World War II. Since 9/11 I have been satisfied to see a somewhat “eager to learn” attitude by most Americans concerning Islam and Muslim-Americans. I live in a fairly conservative, Anglo, fundamentalist Christian region of the country, and yet most people get the difference between Muslims and Muslim extremists, and they generally go out of their way to distinguish Islam from Islamic extremism in their public statements.

3) WORDS MATTER: Certainly words matter. But because the term “Islamo-Fascism” is not a term directed at normative Islam, or most of Islam – this doesn’t mean the phenomenon does not exist. I have personally not heard the term misused to apply to Islam in general, and neither have I heard the term “Christian Identity Movement” misused to apply to all of Christianity. If I used the term “German fascism” it certainly does not mean that most German people are fascists But it would foolish not to use such a term for fear of its misuse.

Over the past decade many of us have had to learn many “terms of art” to describe both the brilliance and the shadow side that exist within the Islamic world. In our world today it is incumbent on all of us to learn the unique differences within that world, and to be able to distinguish their normative denominations (e.g. Suni, Shia, Sufi) from the armed extremist militias (e.g. Hamas, Hezbollah) from the extremist philosophical schools (e.g. Wahabism, Salafism on the Suni extremist side, and the Shiite extremism that arose from the Ayatollah Khomeni’s revolution in Iran in 1979).

4) THE FILM “OBSESSION:’ I have studied and fact-checked many of the major points made in the film “Obsession.” I have not found factual errors. The film interviews a moderate Muslim, a former Palestinian terrorist, the daughter of a Palestinian martyr, and other pundits – none of whom seem to have an ax to grind with Islam. The film begins by clearly stating that the subject is Islamic extremism and NOT Islam.

Did the film “scare the hell out of me” as one of my colleagues suggested in his posting? Yes, and I am as thankful for the wake up call. If, in the late 30’s, a “shockumentary” like “Obsession” woke people up to the world that was ahead of them many lives might have been saved in the 40’s. The good rabbi wrote that the film “…has no intention of presenting a balanced portrait of Muslims and Islamic culture….” He is correct since that was not the aim of the film. The rabbi then goes on to write that the film “…is meant to terrify Jews and Americans to such a degree that they will be more likely to support the Cheney-Bush program, including bombing and invading Iran (and possibly other Muslim countries as well).”

Wow! Where did he come up with that conclusion? The version of “Obsession” that our synagogue presented had no such explicit of implied meaning. There is not even a hint of getting Jews to support the bombing or invasion of Iran in the film. The Muslims who attended the presentation of the film in our synagogue were just as stunned by the facts and video clips of Jihadist clerics shown in the film as were the Jews, Christians, and members of the peace community who came.

5) ALL EVILS ARE NOT EQUAL: My colleague writes that there are other “isms” and “powers” that threaten the world. Of course there are, but not to violent degree that Islamic extremism threatens us in this day and age. I am a philo-Christian and yet do not hold back criticism of Replacement Theology within the Church (the Church is the true Israel) where it exists. I am also a philo-Muslim and do not hold back criticism of the Replacement Theology (e.g., the Jews never had a Temple in Jerusalem, Joseph was really a Muslim, there was no binding of Isaac, etc.) within Islam either. And I certainly do not hold back criticism of any religion where violence is preached from the pulpit. Today the pulpits where most of the violence is being preached comes from a significant minority (some estimate at between 15-25%) of mosques worldwide where radical Islamic theology (Wahabist, Salafist, Ayatollist, etc.) is promoted or at least tolerated. The Crusades ended hundreds of years ago. The genocide against Native Americans ended more than a hundred years ago. Colonialism ended eighty years ago. Racism, sexism, corporate greed, and consumerism are all too present in our society, but none of this compares to the immediate danger posed to all humanity by Islamic extremism. The greatest danger to the world today is no longer European colonialism. Corporate greed fed by consumerism is clearly a “power” to be tamed, but Islamism is a “power” that has declared violent and aggressive war on us. It cannot be negotiated with or tamed, but must be defeated and transformed as happened with Nazi Germany and Shinto Japan sixty years ago. In these two cases, America proved that is was not acting out of corporate greed, or ethnocentric and racist motives – our greatest enemies (Japan and Germany) became our greatest allies within a decade after the War. The same will be true, G-d willing, with all the Arab and Muslim nations. But first, the forces and groups behind the hatred and scapegoating of Israel, the West, moderate Muslims, and women must be soundly defeated.

The technologies used by the Jihadists include child abuse and forms of terrorism that have changed the very definition of war. Am I using scare tactics here? I don’t think so. Many of us are simply as scared as our fathers and mothers were before World War II. In 1938 the well intended Chamberlain naively declared “peace in our time” because of his pact trading “land for peace” with Heir Hitler. Mein Kamf literally means “My Struggle” and is the German equivalent of the word “Jihad” which literally means “struggle.” For G-d’s sake, let us not be fooled into inaction again as we were before World War II.

Jihadist theology, from whichever Shiite or Sunni extremist sect it comes from, is especially cruel to peace-loving Muslims. The greatest number of victims of Islamo-Fascism (call it what you want) are Muslims. In Gaza, in Syria, in Saadam’s Iraq, in Lebanon, in Iran, in Indonesia, in Sudan, in Chechnyia, in the Philippines, in Somalia the aberrant versions of true Islam are at war with moderate Muslims and the rest of the non-Muslim world. Their ideology is rooted in the most vile form of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia that has arisen since the Nazi era. There is a moderate, decent, quiet majority within Islam that is courageously working toward a pluralistic reformation within their faith. They deserve our full support. Confused and misguided (even when well intended) outside analysis of the ever-present danger of Islamic extremism only slows down that reformation from fully taking shape from within the Islamic world so that military intervention from Western nations will not be seen as necessary.

My synagogue produces programs on an ongoing bases that aims at demonstrating the innate brotherhood and sisterhood of Sarah and Hagar’s children. I wish I could believe in the potential for pacts with Hamas and Hezbollah, but I do not. In Torah it is just as much a mitzvah to hate evil as it is to love our neighbors. We can, and must, do both at the same time.

Please, Hashem, may the Israeli hostages kidnapped by Hamas and Hezbollah last year be returned to their families today! May the words of your prophets that give us so much hope for the reunion of Isaac and Ishamael, Jacob and Easu be fulfilled speedily in our time!

Martin Luther King Day Invocation

Martin Luther King Day Invocation
Delivered by Rabbi David Zaslow at South Medford High School Sunday, January 14. 2007

“Mee Kamokha b’ayleem Adonai.” This was the song that Moses sang to the children of Israel after they had crossed the Sea. The people thought that they were free – they didn’t realize they would have to wander in the desert forty years before they could enter the Promised Land. And even before the wandering began they were tested at the Sea which in Hebrew is called “The Sea Which is the End.” By faith alone they crossed, and the waters parted – not by might and not by power, but by the Spirit of the Holy One.

We shall overcome. How? With the technology of non-violence that Rev. King taught us to use. With the knowledge that it is by the Spirit of G-d alone that peace and justice can be achieved. Rev. King taught us all how to never let despair rule over hope. We shall overcome. Why? Because we refuse to be ruled by that which divides us. We give ourselves wholeheartedly to that which unites us: Black and Latino. Asian and White, Jews and Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindu, Native peoples, peoples of all faiths, and people of uncertain faith.

We shall overcome. Overcome what? We shall overcome war, poverty, the ongoing racism that is endemic throughout the world. We shall overcome the reemergence of anti-Semitism that is once again scapegoating the Jews in the disguise of anti-Zionism. We shall overcome the unbalanced criticism and targeting the nation of Israel. We shall overcome sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and the destruction of our planet. We shall overcome religious extremism and secular extremism as well.

We shall overcome that within ourselves that creates enemies where there needs to be dialogue – between Suni and Shia, between liberals and conservatives, between people of good faith on both sides of difficult issues, between ourselves and ourselves.

G-d, Adonai, Allah, Great Spirit, Divine Knowing of the Universe, Melekh HaOlam bless us today as one, bless us as we honor the prophet of our generation who taught us the real meaning of shalom – wholeness and how we need each other…who understood the deep meaning of the Biblical story of Moses and Pharaoh, of Israel and Egypt – that by liberating Black Americans from their oppression White Americans would be liberated as well from their racism as well. Bless us today as we honor the Moses of our time who is still taking us to the Promised Land of hope, justice, liberty, and freedom. Let us cross the sea together now and sing together the words of Moses: “Mee Kamokha b’ayleem Adonai….Who is like you Lord among all that which is worshipped?”

Faster Than You Can Say Jackie Robinson

by Rabbi David Zaslow, dedicated to Richard Seidman
December, 2006

I was born December 23, 1947 in the midst of an historic snowstorm that immobilized New York City, and at the exact midpoint between three great events: when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, when my teacher Reb Zalman received rabbinic ordination from the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe at 770 Eastern Parkway, and when Israel was reborn as a nation. I was raised in the final decade of the Brooklyn Dodgers before Walter O’Malley devestated a generation of fans by moving our beloved team to Los Angeles for the 1958 season. This single fact, as unimportant as it may seem in the history of the cosmos, has had a profound impact on my life.

As a kid the sense of betrayal I experienced, along with millions of other fans, remains one of mythic traumas of my childhood. When my parents separated in 1965 it really hurt, but somehow the loss of the Dodgers years before had prepared me for disappointments that would come later in my life.

Just ask anyone who lived in Brooklyn in those years what the sense of loss was like when the Dodger’s moved (we still say the mourner’s kaddish every spring). Over the years I’ve gotten over my childhood hurts and disappointments, but I still dream about the return of the Dodger’s to Brooklyn. My Christian friends speak about the second coming of the messiah. Me? I half kiddingly tell my Christian friends that I’m waiting for the return of Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn. In fact, whenever I teach about Jewish messianic expectations and prophetic fulfillment, I speak about the return of the Dodger’s and the rebuilding of Ebbets Field as proof that the Messiah will have arrived. Religious eschatology and our hopes for the Brooklyn Dodgers are really not so different.

I remember the endless comparisons that we New York kids used to make between teams like the Dodgers, the Giants, and the Cardinals. But the most contentious battles would erupt when we compared individual players on the Dodgers and our arch rival – the dreaded, indefatigable, incredible New York Yankees. Endless debates comparing batting averages, and arguments about the relative greatness of pitchers, first basemen, outfielders, and short-stops. It’s true, we Dodgers never had the likes of Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio, but the Yankees never had Jackie Robinson. Jackie was the first of all firsts, the Moses who led the people out of the Egypt of racism, and every one in Brooklyn knew it – whether they knew it or not. Jewish, Italian, Irish, Puerto Rican, and Black kids – we all shared Jackie Robinson. He represented all of us – he was the little guy, the immigrant, the outsider, the bum of bums. He was Brooklyn, not Manhattan.

Truth be told, there is no way to compare Robinson to DiMaggio – my two childhood heroes just don’t compare. They both played the same game, but they were simply two one-of-a-kind players. Statistics can’t tell you who they really were. Certainly batting averages will never tell you the real story behind Jackie Robinson and what he did for all Americans, of every color. When a single drop of Messiah’s anointing oil landed upon only one baseball player, it landed on Jackie Robinson. Ruth was the Babe and DiMaggio was the Clipper, but no one was Jackie Robinson – no one ever will be.

An aside: Besides a few million of us in Brooklyn (and half the kids on Staten Island and in Queens) guess who were the saddest people on earth to see the Dodgers leave Brooklyn? Yankee fans! They won’t admit it, but it’s true. In the world of baseball, rivalry runs deep but respect runs deeper.

Reflections on Hamas

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Reprinted from Washington Jewish Week which printed this Op Ed on
February 2, 2006

The Palestinian people have just elected officials with the level of consciousness of Torquemada in the 16th. century who no more represented real Christianity than Hamas represents real Islam. Nevertheless when I met with Hamas in a small group meeting with Sheikh Yassin in 1998 I was profoundly impressed that while their theo-politics was based on xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and theocratic totalitarianism I found their leaders to be candid and honest. Sheikh Yassin was not duplicitous, compromising, or trying to be polite to his audience of 23 American Jews. He was candid and frank – no Israel; Islamic law must rule; no two states!

What impressed me even more was the group’s idealistic dedication toward social services and the care of the people. I sensed then, as I do now, that the PA’s corruption is just too much for the average Palestinian who have seen literally billions of dollars stolen by Arafat’s family alone. I sensed very little corruption in the Hamas organization who hosted our visit. After all, they are not just a political party, they are a religious group rooted deeply in ideals. I think that’s what Hamas leader Khaled Mash’al might have meant when he said on Al-Jazeera TV after the elections, “We are committed to…the resistance and adhere to its weapons… As for recognizing [Israel] and amending our Charter – Hamas is not the kind of movement that succumbs to pressure…we will not recognize it, no matter how much time passes….” The statement that “Hamas is not the kind of movement that succumbs to pressure” can be understood in terms of religious idealism rather than secular pragmatism that seeks compromise. With Hamas, as with any idealistic, religiously based group, the word compromise is not in the dictionary. The results of the Palestinian election seems to be a protest vote by the people against Fatah’s corruption, but I fear the people are playing with fire. I urge everyone to read the Hamas Charter to learn what Israel and Middle East is up against now. I urge everyone to listen to what they say in the next few weeks and take them at their word – they are not duplicitous politicians like we’ve grown accustomed to who say one thing and then change their minds.

After all my years of study, prayer, hope, disappointment I have come to a sad conclusion. It almost doesn’t matter what Israel does. She can stay in the territories, withdraw from most of the territories, come to an Oslo-like agreement again, keep the status quo. The religious factor is usually skipped over or ignored by many secular peace groups. Why? Because they just don’t get the power of fundamentalism. They get the abuse of it, but not it’s real power. Here’s my sense on Hamas – they are the real deal. They love Allah. They would die for Allah. They will continue to kill for Allah. They are idealists: visionaries, bigots, misogynists at the level of consciousness of the Crusaders in the twelfth century – they envision a whole world that will eventually become Muslim, or subject to Islamic rule. And at the same time they deliver the goods to the people. They are not duplicitous. And they will NEVER NEVER NEVER change their belief that Israel cannot exist. So, sadly, the next move is not on us. Sharon did a brilliant move by getting out of Gaza. He, in effect, said, “Ok, it’s up to you. Stew in your corruption. Elect fanatics. Become democratic. It’s in your hands.”

His next move would have been unilateral withdrawal from a big chunk of the West Bank and I would have supported him 100%. Maybe Kadima will do that now. But, bottom line is that Sharon was intellectually withdrawing from the notion that there is something that Israel can do. Israel can do very little. The Palestinian people must have an uprising from within and demand gay rights, women’s rights, a union movement, pluralism, the right to assemble, the right to protest, and egalitarianism. If they do it, there will be peace and two States. If they do not do it, they will stew in their own self-hatred and continue to scapegoat the Jews. Sharon was saying “Never again” in a new way. I agreed with him. The good news is that the media and many world leaders are describing Hamas in more accurate terms – a terrorist organization with no desire to compromise. What we all need to realize is that they are more than a terrorist organization too – like the Nazis before them they have goals, dreams, ideals, and a visionary view of fulfilling their charitable obligations through effective social service programs – and that’s what’s so alarming

Sha-alu shalom Yerushalayim – for Israel, for Ishmael, for the whole world. I have great hope for the ultimate reunion of Isaac and Ishmael but it just might have to wait a while.

L’shalom – Toward peace,
Rabbi David Zaslow

Jacob’s Voice

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Blind Isaac on his deathbed touches his son Jacob and says, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” Esau is the stronger brother, the hunter. Jacob, his twin, is a man of books and dreams. The two of them are an archetype of the twin parts of ourselves. For three thousand years this one line from Torah has been a shibboleth for people of Israel whenever we were on the verge of big trouble. Friends, Israel is on the verge of big trouble. We need to chant it again. By speaking with the “voice of Jacob” we never let ourselves become bitter or bigoted people. We hold onto our dream of a world where there is no hunger, oppression, or war. By having the “hands of Esau” we recognize that their are forces gathering bent on destroying Israel, and we must be prepared.

As a child I heard these words each Passover: “In every generation there are those who try to destroy us….” I never thought I would see the day when that terrifying line had meaning during my lifetime! “That was for my parents generation!” How naive I was to believe that I’d be part of the first generation in history when some monstrous power did not want to annihilate the Jews. The time has come for us to balance the dreams of our prophets with the reality of what Israel faces as a result of the Palestinian election of Hamas, and the recent proclamations by the President in Iran. The murder of athletes in Munich was just a beginning. Dozens of airline hijackings in the eighties – just a beginning. Terrorist attacks by Hamas escalated one-hundred fold after Rabin tried to make peace, and that was just a beginning. September 11 – just a beginning. The Taliban in Afghanistan were just the beginning. Arab (mostly Muslim) genocide against Blacks (mostly tribal or Christian) in Darfur – just a beginning. In almost all the local wars around the world there are Muslim radicals involved – just a beginning. Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh’s assassination – just a beginning. Violent riots and dozens of people murdered in response to a cartoon in Denmark – just a beginning. Islam is at war with itself, and at war with the world. For the time being the terrorized, victimized, silent majority within Arab countries – the moderates, the women, the mystics, and my friends – are losing.

Wahhabi(1) ideology explicitly teaches that the world is divided into two parts. Dar el-Harb is the house of War – that part of the world controlled by non-Muslims (i.e. Europe, North America) which will someday be controlled by Muslims in its vision of world domination. Then there is Dar el-Islam, any land, especially Israel, that was once controlled by Muslims which must be “returned” to Muslims immediately. James Woolsey, former CIA Director under Clinton warns us,(2) “Wahhabi ideology is…totalitarian to a unique degree in its repression of women. In 2002…religious police in Saudi Arabia forced some young girls fleeing a burning school back inside to their deaths because they were not properly veiled. This is a fanaticism that knows no bounds….Christians, Jews, and other Muslims, followers of other religions, non believers – are under absolutely no obligation to accept the Wahhabis’ and their apologiests’ claims that they represent ‘true Islam.’”

American Sufi leader Sheik Muhammead Kabbani and a few other courageous Muslims have been warning us about Islamic extremism for a long time. Woolsey writes, “We must get over this reluctance to challenge the perpetrators of…theocratic totalitarianism….[whose] objective is to unify first the Arab world under theocratic rule…then those regions that were once Muslim (e.g. Spain), then the rest of the world. Such totalitarianism seems crazy to most of us; we thus tend to underestimate their potency….the Salafists’(3) theocratic totalitarian dream has some features in common with the secular totalitarian dreams of the twentieth century, e.g. Nazis’ Thousand year Reich, or the Communists’ World Communism. Salafists…exhibit fanatic hatred of Shiite Muslims, Sufi Muslims, Jews, Christians, and democracy….The underlying Salafist ideology being spread by the Wahhabis is fanatical and murderous, indeed explicitly genocidal.”

May Hashem bless us hold onto our dream as we awaken to what is really happening in our world. Just as the leaders of the Crusades and Inquisitions did not speak for true Christianity, so these new Crusaders do no speak for true Islam. When peace loving Muslims speak out on behalf of Israel or for brotherly relationship with Jews they are risking their lives, so let us be courageous as we stand by them. They are in what will probably be a long battle for the heart and soul of their faith. In the meantime, let us speak with the voice of Jacob and not be afraid of using the hand of Esau as we exercise our obligation to protect ourselves. Peace for Israel, Ishmael, and the world – That’s the dream! May the wall protecting Israel be even stronger – that’s the sad reality.

(1) See BBC article by Roger Hardy

(2) See Woolsey’s The Elephant in the Middle East Living Room

(3) See Frontline’s Bruce Livesey’s The Salafist Movement.

(4) See also Professor Michael Doran article

Peace: It’s Simple!

Rabbi David Zaslow

The day the Palestinian leadership declares an end to terrorism…the day the Palestinian people demand an end to their corrupt government…the day the Palestinian people declares themselves to be pluralistic, egalitarian, and democratic – on that day the Palestinian people will have their dreams fulfilled for a homeland and prosperous lives for its people. Does it seem naive that the solution should be so simple? Does it seem unfair that the responsibility for the misery of the Palestinian people is almost entirely in their own hands?

I have studied this conflict for decades. I have meditated, debated, spent Shabbat in Palestinian homes, prayed with Muslim friends, studied even more, and searched for a fair and objective understanding of the root of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Israel has made some foolish decisions along the way since its rebirth in 1948, and for decades I have condemned some of the unfair housing policies and cultural double standards that Israeli citizens (both Jewish and Muslim) of Arab descent have had to endure by the early Euro-centric Israeli leaders. I have publicly decried the counter-productive nature of most home demolitions, and other forms of collective punishment, in response to terrorist attacks.

But any objective analysis yields only one result – the misery of the Palestinian people has almost entirely been caused by 1) a corrupt Palestinian leadership which results in a lack of social service institutions; 2) a lack of democratic institutions (free speech, freedom to assemble, union movement, and free elections) in order for the people’s voices to be heard; and 3) the lack of religious tolerance, pluralism, and egalitarianism in otherwise medieval cultural structures (very few rights for religious minorities, women, and children).

There is no cycle of violence between Palestinians and Israelis. There is a cause and an effect. The Israeli’s have not brought violence upon themselves, and they have not incited terrorism. The few foolish policies of the Israeli government have no moral equivalency whatsoever to acts of terror perpetrated against civilians. The day the terrorism ends is the day the future of the Palestinian people begins. Let us be pragmatic in our political affiliations and opinions, but let us be visionary in our hopes for the future. The prophets spoke unambiguously of the destiny for both Palestinians and Israelis. Grounded by my faith I am certain of the eventual outcome – Israel will be secure. Palestinians will have a homeland. Freedom, democracy, and a women’s movement will sweep the Middle East soon. Actually, it is happening before our eyes right now. We just need to reach the tipping point for freedom, egalitarianism, and pluralism to take hold.

We live in a culture that is often so self-critical that we look for moral equivalencies where there are none. We ask, isn’t Hamas angry because they really have been harmed by Israel? Didn’t colonialism disempower the Arab world? Aren’t Western values corrupting Arab cultures? The answers are simple: no, no, and no. Hamas has no duplicity in their agenda. They represent Islamic fundamentalism that is at the level of consciousness where Christians were at the start of the Crusades. They will accept nothing less than a one-state solution – a Muslim state in place of Israel.

Western colonialism certainly cast a shadow upon the third world. But as colonialism ended between 1918 and 1950 newly freed nations like India opted for democracy and have prospered. Nations like Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Libya opted for tyranny and have suffered. Finally, the only Western values that are “corrupting” Arab culture are ones that we hold dear: freedom, choice, and equal rights. These are threatening to the old patriarchal, hierarchical models of clan culture in most Arab nations. The violence and propaganda war against Israel is pure scapegoating. Jews are blamed for what most Arab citizens want for themselves. Keep hope alive for real shalom!

A Fullest Emptiness

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Late morning, May 11, 2005, lower Manhattan. Rachel and Debbie are inside Century 21, shopping for deep discount designer clothing. I’m across the street standing in front of the World Trade Center, or what once was the World Trade Center. I weep and davven there, praying and gripping the metal fence like a caged wolf on the outside wanting in. I want in – to walk the halls of this vast empty, urban canyon. I want in – to walk between what remains of the substructure and foundation descending three, four, five stories below ground level. I want to walk, if it is possible, within the essence of memory itself – to the very place where heaven meets hell on earth.

The cavern left by the removal of debris from the Twin Towers is the fullest emptiness I have ever experienced. Years ago at the Grand Canyon I was awed by the emptiness that defines the span between the majestic canyon walls. But the site of the Twin Towers is different. This is not majestic. It is not an empty emptiness like the Canyon, but, rather an emptiness filled with ghosts, memories of steel, concrete, and glass that once was, no longer is, and yet somehow remains. The air itself, the sky itself, seems to remember what was once there. The Towers remain – they remain and live in memory, catastrophic memory. They remain in the empty chairs in thousands of homes where children who call the name of a dead parent are answered only by memory, family stories, legends, home videos, CNN reports, and scrapbooks. And if I listen, listen between the voices of life on the streets around me now, I can hear, actually hear the emptiness itself.

A few nights earlier, I was in a Brooklyn bar listening to some great live jazz when I realized how much good living, holy living, really is like the needle of a record sitting in the groove. But what I hadn’t realized until I arrived at the site of the Twin Towers was that as a record in a record player turns, the needle is perfectly still. To be in the groove means to stand in total stillness while the record around you spins. The turntable turns, the record revolves, but the point of contact requires total stillness. To be in the groove requires a complete balance between stillness and movement, between diamond and vinyl. For the needle to do its work of reading the engraved cuts within the grooves, it must be still.

Just like us. To read what Hashem has engraved in nature, in our own lives, or in the emptiness of what once was the Twin Towers, we can’t be turning. We can’t be moving to get out of the way, or to get somewhere else. We have to remain in place. Totally in place. Perfectly in place. It is difficult to be still when I want to weep for those whose lives were lost. It is difficult to be still when I want to pray for a future free of terror. So I say my prayers, chant the Amidah, say kaddish, and then enter the silence. Silence in lower Manhattan is not an oxymoron. It is an honor.

I’m sure there are other great canyons, but there is something singular about the Grand Canyon. I’m sure there are many places of great emptiness where life has been destroyed, but there is something singular about the Twin Towers. Each of us contains within us something singular as well. Our fate is to find out what it is, and then face it with thanksgiving and hope, and then stand before ourselves and our God in silence.

In the Groove

by Rabbi David Zaslow

From the earliest days of sound recordings people noticed something poetic about the way the needle stayed inside the groove as the record went round and round. In the 1930’s jazz musicians coined the term “being in the groove” to describe the sensation they experienced as they played – when the music seemed to have a life of its own, and everyone felt they were part of something bigger than themselves. In the 1960’s hippies applied the metaphor of “feeling groovy” to the state of feeling like the world was harmonious and whole.

A few years ago I visited my daughter, Rachel, in her Park Slope, Brooklyn apartment. On the first night she whisked me off to a local club called Barbes so we could get a seat for what she promised was going to be a great jazz jam. She told me that the guitarist was a young French virtuoso named Stephane Wrembel who played Django Reinhardt and gypsy-style music like no one else. “Yeah, yeah,” I thought, “like no one else? In Brooklyn? And what does my little girl know about great jazz anyway?” So I said, “OK, honey, whatever you want to do. It’s your Brooklyn now. I’m your guest!”

We arrived an hour early to secure a good seat and started drinking Brooklyn Lager. (They never had a micro-brewed beer when I lived there; the best you could do then was Schaeffer). May 8, 2005, at 9 PM: there I was on 9th Street on the corner of 6th Avenue, deep, deep in the old country where I grew up. The musicians arrived: Stephane, the young virtuoso; a female guitarist from Spain, maybe 20, whose last name was Cohen; another guitarist from London, a guy maybe In his mid-twenties; a bass player; and washboard master David Langlois. Washboard? Master? What was that homemade concoction of an instrument on his lap, anyway?

They started playing “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and within seconds (okay, two minutes) the groove was set. They followed with an unbelievable improvisation on “Bei Mier Bist Du Shayne.” Sometime during the first set I died and went straight to jazz heaven. And the music got better by the minute. (So did the beer). For three hours I experienced the jam of jams. I looked at Stephane and thought, “Who is this rebbe…this reincarnation of one of the great guitar tzadikkim? No one’s fingers move that fast without Divine intervention! And what about this percussionist who transforms finger tapping on metal and wood into exalted solos?” Gevaldt, they were good!

The next morning Rachel had to go to work at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. On the way she dropped me off at 770. 770 is not just a number – it’s an entire universe. 770 Eastern Parkway is the home of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement. This was the very place where Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman were ordained in 1947 – the same year I was born, Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, and Israel was declared a nation. It was a good year by all measures. The basement of 770 has been transformed into a huge synagogue where davvenen and study go on around the clock. Arriving at 11 AM I thought I’d be one of a few latecomers. But, no this is 770! Around the clock this shul is filled with men and women coming to make a deep connection to the Divine. By the time I arrived, the shul was populated by lean and pale-faced yeshiva students whose average age was maybe eighteen. Everyone was dressed in black and white – what a metaphor! Was I the only one in color there? I had just walked into the nineteenth-century world of Jewish men deep in Eastern Europe. It was Brooklyn outside but Lubavitch, Russia inside.

I put on a borrowed tallit and t’fillin and within seconds I was deep in ecstatic prayer – rocking and swaying back and forth; my eyes flying through the pages of the siddur – and then satori struck! Zap! The groove I was in the evening before was the same as the groove I was in during davvenen. My body rocked the same way during my davennen as it had rocked during the Stephane Wrembel jazz jam. Ecstatic jazz and ecstatic prayer were part of some secret, hidden oneness that only I was blessed to behold that morning. If I called out to everyone, “Hey, holy brothers, there’s a bar up the street that has this incredible jazz every Sunday night…” they would have tossed me out of the shul. And if I had gone to the bar and told the Django fans that there was this great synagogue down the street where the praying is as good as jazz, they, too, would have tossed me out.

Right now, I don’t care who tosses me out of their bars and shuls. I am just thankful to G-d to have seen that there is only one groove – one groove and many paths: the groove of great jazz on Sunday night at Barbes; the groove of great davvenen at 770 Eastern Parkway; and the groove of being with my daughter in Brooklyn on a beautiful week in May.

If you have RealPlayer you can listen to a 3 hour concert of the guitarist
Rabbi David wrote about at

Guitarist Stephane Wrembel’s website.

Time Flies When You’re Having Fun

by Rabbi David Zaslow

In 1990, a group of us brought Reb Zalman to Ashland to lead a Shabbaton (weekend retreat). Rabbi Aryeh had founded the Havurah just five years earlier in 1985. Looking back as our community is getting ready to host Reb Zalman once again it’s hard to believe that it was that long ago – Reb Zalman was 65 at the time, I was 42. The Havurah was 5. Last summer Reb Zalman celebrated his 80th. birthday, the Havurah is about to celebrate it’s 20th. birthday. And this summer it will have been 10 years since I was ordained!

I started thinking about time a few weeks ago when I took my first 10% senior citizen discount at Señor Sam’s restaurant. I’m 57 and I was actually eligible for the “senior” discount two years ago, but I smugly denied my age each time I approached the counter to pay my bill. The cashier would ask, “Senior discount?” And I’d say, “Me? Are you talking to me? Of course not! I’m not eligible. Thank you very much!” A few weeks ago, however, Fate caught me by surprise. You see I had ordered lunch and as I was getting ready to pay I realized that I was short on change in my pocket…about fifty cents short. My bill was $5.13 including tax, and as I glanced down in embarrassment I received what I took to be a heavenly sign.

Actually, it was a very small sign by the cash register that announced “10% Senior Discount: 55 and over.” I thought, “Hmm, 10% off from $5.13 is exactly what I have in my pocket. Okay Hashem I surrender. I’m taking the ‘senior’ discount!” I must admit that I have avoided the senior discounts there for the last two years out of fear that I was signing onto something I wasn’t ready to agree to yet. Oddly enough, saving the fifty-cents was so much fun I went back there twice in the next few days just to tempt Fate a bit more. I told Hashem, “Okay, have it your way. I’m getting older, but I might as well enjoy every discount I can along the way” To date, I’ve saved $3.75.

In the Tenakh (Bible) time takes on a transcendental character too, just like at Señor Sam’s. The sense of time in the Bible is mystical and profound. Mary Ellen Chase, a great Protestant scholar wrote in “Life and Language in the Old Testament” that “The Hebrew language had no word for hour, and those who spoke and wrote it no idea whatever of such a period of time….To the ancient Hebrews a thousand years might, indeed, be as yesterday; or each of the six so-called days in which God created the heavens and the earth might mean to them an incalculable expanse of time. Nor must the events of their history be understood as in any sense dated by them, placed in any secure niches of time. These events are forever in their consciousness, constantly in their hearts and before their eyes, in their present as well as in their remote past. In other words, the happenings of their history were timeless to them….”

And King Soloman reminds us in Ecclesiastes 3:1 that “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” So now is the time of senior discounts. In five years I’ll be 62 and I get a discount at the Varsity. In eight years I’ll get them everywhere. May Time bring us more and more joy, and may we enjoy G-d’s discounts along the way!

The Power of Doubt

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Israel, 1990: Our Havurah tour group was boarding the bus to meet a renowned mystic in Tsfat who would reveal the hidden kabbalistic secrets of creation. Debbie, Judy, Claire, and Bill were staying behind in Tiberias where they would relax in the sun, be with the kids, or just enjoy the touristy boat ride across the Sea of Galilee. Debbie gave me her blessing to enjoy the teaching in Tsfat.

As I was saying good-bye, five year old Ari looked up at me with a gigantic tear falling down his cheek, and said, “Daddy, I don’t want you to go, I want you to stay with me today!” Oy, what should a would-be kabbalist do? How could I miss what was going to be the teaching of all teachings, the revelation of the secrets of creation itself? On the other hand, how could I say “no” to my son wanting to be with me? In less than a flash of an instant I said to Ari, “Okay, I’ll stay!” Bruce and Aryeh looked at me like I was crazy. Our little group boarded the boat for the ride across the Galilee.

To battle my doubt and despair at having stayed behind I went to the front of the boat, took out my guitar and the few remaining Havurahniks that stayed behind started singing “Hiney Ma Tov ” as we got underway. Suddenly a dozen members of a Christian choir from Spain joined in with exquisite harmonies. We spoke no Spanish. They spoke no English, but we all sang together in Hebrew. It was what we call in Yiddish a gevaldtik moment – powerful and inspiring. It was a taste of heaven! We kept singing as our Christian friends celebrated the place where Jesus walked on water, and where on a spiritual level we all felt as if we were walking on water at that very moment.

Last March Debbie and I stayed with Rachel in Brooklyn. From great jazz to the shul where Reb Zalman was ordained in the late 1940’s, all the way to the Twin Towers site – this trip was special. Except for one thing – I was dying to see a Broadway musical like Hairspray or the off-Broadway Elvis review called All Shook Up, but Rachel and Debbie would have nothing to do with my sentimental desires to relive my childhood. No, for these two urban sophisticates our night on Broadway was going to be meaningful – a drama! A drama? We’re in Manhattan for one evening and we’re going to a drama? Who was I married to? What kind of child did I raise?

They dragged me to Doubt, the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning play by John Patrick Shanley, that deals with an accusation of child molestation against a priest. From the opening scene when Father Flynn delivers a brilliant sermon on the nature of doubt, I was riveted. For the next ninety-minutes everything would get turned inside out. A priest who was kind, progressive, and who sincerely loves kids is accused of molesting a boy by a nun who had no proof, only what she called her inner “certainties.” She was the kind of nun that my Catholic friends hated when they were growing up: strict and arrogant. Yet it was that very arrogance that gave her the courage to stand up against the priest, and the whole Church establishment if necessary. But is Father Flynn really guilty? Is Sister Aloysius crazed in her arrogance? I’m not giving anything away, but the audience will never find out anything with certainty. You will be given the gift of doubt itself. Whatever opinions you have about the priest or the nun, your own sense of certainty will be shaken. The play is nothing less than a parable of life itself and will, I believe, become an American classic.

I had doubt about staying with my family at the Sea of Galilee in 1990. I had doubt about seeing a drama with my daughter and wife in 2005. Yet it was the very energy of my doubts that permitted me to transform my own self-centeredness into two special experiences. And isn’t that what the High Holidays are really all about? We come to shul with doubt about our own self-worth, about out ability to really change, about the power of God to forgive. So, we work with the doubt – we shape it, we battle it, we let it shape us, observe the battle within us, and then at one amazing moment we surrender control to something greater than ourselves. For just a moment in one of the services (we never know which one), in one of the prayers (we’re never told in advance) we let go of the reins and let Shekhinah guide us for a change. Literally, She guides us for a change! As the popular saying goes we “let go and let God.” May the High Holidays be sweet, profound, healing, and transformative for each of us and our loved ones. May we hold on to our doubts as long as necessary, and may we know when to let go!

The Work of Autumn

by Rabbi David Zaslow
October, 2004
The spiritual work of autumn is to examine our inner lives. Springtime is all about changing the world. From a Jewish spiritual viewpoint we’d be better off holding elections in spring rather than autumn. Why? Because focusing on politics right after Yom Kippur can be a diversion from the inner work we need to do. An election in November can make us believe that we don’t even need to do inner work. We fool ourselves into believing that if the world was in better shape then we’d be better people. The teachings of Judaism, however, tell us that if we were better people then the world would be a better place.

The worldly, activist work of Passover is to topple the oppression of Pharaoh and deal with all the outer forces of liberation. The work of autumn is to deal with ourselves. The secret is for each of us is to learn when to focus on inner work, and when to focus on politics. Both inner and outer work depend on מוּסָר mussar, the Jewish ethical approach to everything we do. On Yom Kippur a few years ago I told the following story about Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, one of the great luminaries in Europe before the World War II, and a founder of the modern Mussar movement.

Rabbi Kagen, also known as the Chofetz Chaim, hosted many teachers and businessmen from throughout the continent. Once a travelling businessman noticed how sparse the Rabbis’ home was, and said, “Rebbe, you are such a great teacher, you could have anything you want. Where is your furniture? The Rebbe turned to his guest and said to him, “Where is your furniture?” The businessman said, “Rabbi, I’m on the road, I don’t have any furniture with me. I’m just passing through.” The Rebbe turned to his guest and said, “Me too. I’m just passing through as well.”

Judaism upholds the paradox of two contradictory views of the world. The other-worldly view of Autumn affirms that we are all just travelers passing through. The worldly, activist view of Spring and Passover affirms the necessity of toppling the oppression of Pharaoh. The secret is for each of us is to learn when to focus on inner work, and when to focus on politics. But always, the thread that holds these two views together is mussar

In a profound way we are all just passing through. We are the spawning salmon; the migration of geese; the trees whose season is over; the plants in our yards that are destined not to survive the winter. After Yom Kippur we each die a spiritual death. What need did the Rebbe have for furniture? He knew that his entire life was simply and magnificently an act of “passing through.” The root of the word עִבְרִית “Hebrew,” eevreet, means “passing through” or “crossing over.” The Jews are the “passing through” people.

In this season we empathize with all those who are suffering from hunger, poverty, and war. A piece of their pain is our pain. We feel a little bit of the pain of the families whose loved ones have been murdered by terrorists. We feel a little bit of the pain of the families of our soldiers who died fighting for freedom this past year. With empathy for others, something within us changes – we become better people, and our “passing through” gains meaning. Atonement occurs. Attunement occurs. At-one-ment occurs. This is the deeper meaning of autumn.

Modes of Spiritual Practice

by Rabbi David Zaslow
August, 2004

Their are three primary forms of spiritual practice, and every religion utilizes all three in various combinations during worship. Within each religion are denominations that emphasize one or two forms of practice over the other. In fact, I believe, that the particular recipe of spiritual practice is the what defines a denomination. The three forms are:

1) Liturgical: a fixed body of chants, prayers, readings, and songs interspersed with specific rituals (standing, sitting, bowing, etc.). The liturgical approach is fixed in order to create consistency and a sense of safety for the each member of the congregation.

2) Ecstatic: an ecstatic experience of G-d is accomplished thorough a combination of movement, breath, and voice. It may contain a prolonged chant, or a chant in combination with a movement. It is unpredictable in length, and the actions of the participants are unpredictable. Some leap, somersault, circle, spin, or wave hands. But the result is the same: a sense of union with the Divine.

3) Contemplative: through one of many meditative practices (quiet chant, repetition of a syllable or word, silence, privately talking to G-d, walking, etc.) each religion uses some form of meditation in it’s approach to G-d or Reality. Sometimes the meditation uses some liturgy (I.e. chant); other times it silent and aims at emptying. In fact, the contemplative tradition itself has several categories: the emptying forms (i.e. Zen); the visualization forms (i.e. Lurianic Kabbalah and Tibetan Buddhism) and mindfulness (Tich Naht Han’s teachings, Japanese tea ceremony, putting on t’fillin, etc.)

Denominations can also be distinguished by their level of formality. Within Judaism, for example, some synagogues are casual, somewhat unpredictable, spontaneous, and informal (I.e. in hasidic and Renewal communities) even though they are following a fixed liturgy. Other groups are more formal and fixed (I.e., services begin and end at fixed times). But all our synagogues use some combo of the liturgical, contemplative, and ecstatic.

During Shabbat or any Jewish holiday, you will probably find yourself attracted to different forms of worship at different times. For example during Yom Kippor afternoon you might need more silent, contemplative time whereas the evening of Yom Kippor it is the predictability of the chanting and fixed melody of Kol Nidre that is just what your soul needs. Honor your instincts to shift and express yourself in words, chant, movement, and silence. If you are sitting in a group, for example, and you need to be alone in silence simply cover yourself in your tallis (prayer shawl) as a personal tent and mishkan (sanctuary). Or, if during the ecstatic chants or songs you are drawn to stand up and move, please do so on your own. As you are inspired by others around you, so you will inspire others as well. Measure for measure – as the congregation is an expression of many individuals, each in his/her own mode of worshop (liturgical, ecstatic, contemplative) all at the same time, so the multiplicity of the Divine’s thirteen attributes will pour down on each of us in a single and unified stream. The result of this kind of worship will be a heightened sense of the deep interconnection between self, community, nature, and G-d. May we all be blessed this year with great davvenen (prayer), deep listening, and profound personal transformation. And from these sacred personal states may each of us affect the world around us for life, health, peace, and good. Amayn!

Israel and the Rise of the “New” Anti-Semitism

by Rabbi David Zaslow
June, 2004
Someone recently said to me, “Everyone who criticizes Israel these days gets accused of being anti-Semitic.” I told him, “That’s not true. The most intense criticism of Israel can be found in Israel itself. Israel is a thriving pluralistic democracy founded on Torah values. Self-criticism is not just a right, but a moral obligation.” What’s the difference between legitimate and passionate criticism of Israel and the kind that gets labeled by non-partisan watchdog groups like the Jewish Anti-defamation League as anti-Semitic? It’s simple: if the criticism is offensive due to hyperbole (i.e. Israel is fascist state, Sharon is like Hitler, Zionism is racism, the Israelis are rapists, etc.) then the comments are justifiably called anti-Semitic.

Secondly, if a double standard is being applied to Israel that is not applied to any other nation, then the statement should be subjected to scrutiny. For example, there are dozens of nations that call themselves Christian, and dozens of other nations that call themselves Moslem. There are a handful that call themselves Hindu or Buddhist nations, yet none of these nations are accused of being “racist” because they proudly wave the banner of their particular religious majority. Yet there are those who proclaim that “Zionism is racism” simply because one tiny sliver of a nation proudly proclaimed itself to be a haven for Jews fleeing persecution after the Holocaust.

Many of us grew up at a time when much of the world’s anti-Semitism came from the far right. Ideas about the Jews controlling the media and the banking system, and other conspiratorial fantasies, were plentiful. Much of the current wave of anti-Semitism is coming from the far left, and statements claiming Israeli “racism” and “Nazi-like brutality” are plentiful. Left or right, it really doesn’t matter – extremism, hyperbole, and false accusations are destructive forces. Extremist Arab propaganda would have the world believe that Israel is the root cause of the conflict in the Middle East.

As Haim Harari recently wrote, “The millions who died in the Iran-Iraq war had nothing to do with Israel. The mass murder happening right now in Sudan, where the Arab Moslem regime is massacring its black Christian citizens, has nothing to do with Israel. The frequent reports from Algeria about the murders of hundreds of civilians in one village or another by other Algerians have nothing to do with Israel. Saddam Hussein did not invade Kuwait, endanger Saudi Arabia and butcher his own people because of Israel. Egypt did not use poison gas against Yemen in the 60’s because of Israel. Assad did not kill tens of thousands of his own citizens in one week in El Hamma in Syria because of Israel. The Taliban control of Afghanistan and the civil war there had nothing to do with Israel. The Libyan blowing up of the Pan-Am flight had nothing to do with Israel…”

The bottom line is that Israel, like America, is despised by Middle Eastern extremists for its pluralism and democracy. The last thing Al Qaida wants to see is a thriving union movement in the Middle East, or a thriving ecology movement. Imagine the welcome that feminist ideas or gay rights are receiving right now in Saudi Arabia or Iran. The claim that Israel (code word for “Jews”) is the root of all evil is simply a smokescreen for the fear of the internal transformation that the Arab and greater Islamic world is now going through a transformation not unlike the Reformation and Age of Reason that Europe experienced a few hundred years ago.

May those who are working for change within Islam itself be strengthened, blessed, and protected. May those who are working for peace, pluralism, and democracy in the Middle East prevail.

“The Passion” A Preview

by Rabbi David Zaslow
March, 2004

The paper known as Nostra Aetate issued by the Vatican in 1965 created a revolutionary shift in the attitude of the Church toward the Jewish people. Pope John XXIII wrote, “Forgive us the curse which we unjustly laid on the name of the Jews. Forgive us that, with our curse, we crucified Thee a second time.” After the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 many Evangelical churches became Israel’s most vocal supporters, and courageously remain so today in the face of growing anti-Semitism that is sweeping across Europe. Sadly, Mel Gibson’s father is a member of a small, break-away Catholic denomination that has rejected the new position of the Church toward the Jewish people. They remain dedicated to the position that the Church has replaced Israel and that the covenantal relationship of the Jewish people to God has been severed. This replacement doctrine has been rejected by most mainstream and evangelical churches who have worked hard in recent decades to teach the spiritual validity of the Jewish covenant.

Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion” is apparently magnificent in its presentation the gospel of Christianity, yet I understand that it cleaves to the mythic depiction of the Jewish people turning Jesus over to Pilate for crucifixion. The citizens of Jerusalem are portrayed as an angry mob representing the Jewish people, and the Roman Empire is portrayed as passive, bewildered, and not primarily responsible for Jesus’ death. Historically, this is far from the truth. But just as the film has the potential to stir up old wounds, myths, and stereotypes so it also has the potential to heal old wounds if it inspires honest dialogue.

For two-thousand years translational errors, and a lack of telling the Passion story in its correct historical context have caused certain groups to blame the Jews for Jesus’ death. Today, almost every pastor I know in our Valley teach that the death of Jesus was caused “by all of humanity” and that he “willingly gave his own life.” This, of course, is a higher level, modern interpretation of the text – for most of two-thousand years it was the Jews who were blamed for the crucifixion who were labeled throughout Europe as “Christ-killers” and the traditional of European Passion plays performed before Easter often led to anti-Jewish violence.

Most of the popular English translations of Christian Scriptures do seem to place the blame for the death of Jesus on the Jews. For example if Acts 2:36 is taken out of historical context is seems clear that “all the house of Israel” was responsible for the crucifixion. Paul writes, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God has made that same Jesus, whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ.” The same is true with many other passages as well (i.e. Matthew 27:20 & 25, John 19:6, etc.). The uneducated reader gets the sense that the “multitude” that handed Jesus over to the Romans represented all the Jewish people rather than a tiny minority of priests who were working for the Romans, and who themselves were disliked by the general Jewish population.

An objective knowledge of first-century Judaism is also crucial for understanding the Passion story. The theology of the priests and the Sanhedrin (Jewish court) was seen by most first-century Jews as narrow minded, and serving to further the Roman occupation. According to the Talmud, the Sanhedrin at that time was “bloody,” corrupt, and despised by most of the population. The puppet judges, priests, and scribes of the Roman Empire who were threatened by Jesus were also threatened by all the authentic Jewish teachers of that period. Thankfully, most American pastors and priests ceased blaming Jews for the crucifixion decades ago. However, in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East the historical reality of Jesus’ life is not always taken into account when the Passion story is told.

According to the Roman historian Josephus the streets of Jerusalem were lined with Jewish martyrs who were crucified during a century of Jewish revolts. Somewhere between 50,000-100,000 Jews were crucified along with Jesus during that period, and more than a million Jews died of starvation or in battle against the Romans. The New Testament was written for people who knew the historical context, but today this context is lost without the commentary and courage of our pastors. The film, I am told, may accurately portray the teachings of the gospel, but it does not do justice to historical reality. The first-century sect that opposed Jesus’ teachings were known as the Saducees. This sect, in fact, was opposed to the teachings of most of the local rabbis who represented the general population. According to Jewish records the Saducees were the Temple leaders and had been corrupted by the Roman Empire in the decades preceding Jesus’ birth. Too many people for too many centuries have been mistaught that the “some” of the Jews (the Saducees) represented “all” of the Jews.

The curse in Matthew 27:25 is especially misunderstood, and has misled readers of the Gospel accounts to believe that the Jews have been eternally cursed for the sin of killing Jesus, a sin called Diecide (the killing of God) by early Church leaders. In the second century Justin Martyr wrote, “Those who slandered Him [Jesus] should be miserable….Jews suffer because they are guilty of not having recognized the One with whom they had to do in their own history. When he appeared, they killed him. Not knowing this One, the Logos, Jews fail to know God.” In the fourth-century John Chrysostom wrote, “It is against the Jews that I wish to draw up my battle… Jews are abandoned by God and for the crime of Deicide, there is no expiation possible.”

The Roman occupation was not passive, but brutal. Yet a New Testament reader may not get this crucial fact. Thankfully, many American pastors are now including historical context and alternative translations to the Greek text of the New Testament when they deliver their Easter sermons. I pray that Christian leaders everywhere will use this opportunity to advance the truth of the gospel, but also use the film as a starting-point to discourage anti-Semitism. If this is done, I believe, God’s will can be accomplished. From the last few decades of interfaith dialogue Jews and Christians are beginning to learn to not confuse the two ways Jesus is approached – historically and theologically. The Christian teaching that Jesus died for all of humanity needs to be understood by all of us who share our love and service to God with our Christian brothers and sisters – this is the theological Jesus. Conversely, Jewish sensitivity to the way the Passion story is told needs to be understood by our Christian friends, and this is where more learning about the historical Jesus is needed. The greatest gift of the film that I anticipate is patience, compassion, dialogue, learning, and greater understanding between Christians and Jews. That certainly will be the case for Havurah members and our friends at Trinity Episcopal Church since we plan on studying the film together this month.

Sermon at Trinity Episcopal Church

by Rabbi David Zaslow,
March 28, 2004

שָׁלוֹם עֲלֵיכֶם, Shalom Alekhem, peace be unto you. The major theme of the Jewish festival of Passover is liberation: we were slaves but the mighty hand and outstretched arm of the Holy One set us free. Each year for the past 3,300 years Jewish people have gathered in their homes on the full moon in the month of Nissan to retell the story of our Exodus, and to make of that ancient story relevant to our lives today. When the youngest child in the household asks the formulaic four questions beginning with “why is this night different from all over nights,” a chain reaction of responses is set in motion. Each person at the seder table shares his and her own a personal response to the Exodus story.

Hebrew, by its nature, promotes interpretation, storytelling, and the extension of the plain meaning of the text into all its metaphorical and allegorical possibilities. For example, the word for Egypt in Hebrew is actually not that of a particular nation, but rather it means “tight, narrow, and restricted places.” The word mitzrayim implies that enslavement is not only caused by the external and oppressive forces of a regime like that of the ancient Egyptian empire, but that there is an internal source of enslavement as well. So, from ancient times to this very day Jewish people ask each other at the seder table, implicitly or explicitly, “What are the tight and narrow places that are holding you back from becoming the free, creative, joyous, and liberated person that God would have you be this year?”

Another interesting word to study is the word “Pharaoh.” We all know, of course, that pharaoh was the title for each of the various a monarchs in ancient Egypt. But the word in Hebrew can be translated as “a mouth of that speaks evil.” So on Passover week we examine the subtle ways in which our mouths and speech get us into trouble. And knowing how difficult it is to change old, negative behavioral patterns, we ask for God’s intervention and aid in liberating of us from our old ways that enslave us, especially concerning the ways we speak to and about each other. Bottom line – Passover, to each Jew, must be a modern, relevant, and challenging story to each of us and not merely the retelling of an ancient Bible story, no matter how beautiful that story might be.

The prophet Isaiah 43:18 is told by the Lord: “Do not remember the former of things, or consider the things of old. I’m about to make new; now it springs forth. Don’t you see it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Is the prophet asking us to forgo the retelling of the Exodus story at Passover each year? No, but he is informing us in no uncertain terms that God does not need us to tell the old story unless its purpose is to make us new. Don’t we see it? All our old stories – national, tribal, religious, and personal – can become subtle idols at that we adore and worship, unless we permit our stories to touch us, heal us, and transform us. Only in this way will we discover that the wilderness of our lives has a way, a path, an invisible highway for us to follow, and that there is indeed a river flowing in the desert of our lives.

So here are the questions that we might ask ourselves this year: “Am I telling the same old story this year as I did last year? Am I telling my story as an excuse not to move forward toward my own liberation? Or am I telling my story and permitting God to make me new?”

The Christian story of Easter is the story of resurrection. It is not just Christ’s life that is central for you, and not just that he died for you. But it is in the resurrection that you are given the secret to God’s promise to make you new. If you only retell the passion story as a remembrance of things of old, if you only share the story of Jesus’ life as a history lesson, you are not doing the work that Easter requires of you. To find your way in the wilderness and make a river in your desert God asks each of you to explore the meaning of the resurrection in your own personal lives. What dream of yours has been crucified? What part of your life is on the cross with your Savior? What part of you has already died but has within it the promise of reawakening, of spring’s renewal, of resurrection?

Do you see the parallels in our two stories? They’re both springtime stories: ours is the story of liberation of the people to be interpreted and told as a story of personal liberation; yours is the story of the resurrection of Christ to be interpreted and told as the personal promise by God of your own reawakening. In Philippians 3, Paul says “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection in the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Paul is not content with the story of things of old, or with the telling of resurrection of Jesus as a historical event. No, he strives toward his own resurrection; not just a resurrection after he dies, but a resurrection of things dead while he is yet alive.

Do you see what Paul is saying here? Precisely what the Prophet Isaiah was trying to say. Take your story and transform it into a living process; take history and make it present; take the enslavement or the crucifixion of others and make it personal and relevant. In Psalm 126, King David sings: “When the Holy One brings about our return to Zion, we will have been like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter, and our tongues with joyous song. They will say among the nations: ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us and we rejoiced. Turn again our captivity, O Lord as the streams is in the Negev. Though now he walks weeping carrying his bag of seed – he will return with joyous song carrying his sheaves.” May all of us who now sow in tears realize that soon we will reap in joy!

After our Passover, and after your Easter, with God’s blessing and with all the introspection and inner work that we are doing to make this season meaningful, may we meet each other in the street and be as dreamers who share a common dream. May our be mouths be filled with song and laughter! May we each return to the Zion of gratitude, happiness, health. God’s promise is that though we sow in tears, we are like the earth that has received the waters of the winter rains that have just passed, and through the rains, our tears, our joy is made possible. The equinox has passed, the full moon we both await is coming. It is almost Passover, almost Easter. We are readying ourselves for liberation and resurrection. Time will not wait for us. As the angel of death passes over our homes at midnight, may we mark our doorposts with the blood the lamb and be ready, in an instant, to be set free. God bless this church, our community, our nation, and our planet in this moment of renewal, liberation, and resurrection. Have a zisen (sweet) Pesach, and a transformative Easter.

The Two Wars in Iraq

by Rabbi David Zaslow
November, 2004

There are really two wars in Iraq – a physical war and a spiritual war. Our sages teach us that events in our world are mirrored in the spiritual realm, and visa versa. Regardless of our political affiliations, I’m sure that we all pray for the safety of our soldiers, for their safe return, and for an end to terrorism. Since Biblical times the nation of Iraq (known then as both Mesopotamia and later as Babylon) was the quintessential archetype for the “place of confusion” for the Jewish people. The nation we call Iraq today was known in Biblical times as “Bavel,” and means both “confusion” and “withering.” In fact, the English word “babble” meaning “confused talking” comes from the Babylonian superpower that challenged Israel’s right to exist as a nation twenty-five hundred years ago.

In Genesis Chapter 11 a story is told that “the whole earth was of one language…. And they said, ‘Come, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach to heaven….’ And Hashem said, ‘Behold, the people are one…nothing will be restrained from them which they have schemed to do….So the Lord scattered them abroad…and they left off the building of the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel, because Hashem did there confuse the language….” Herein lies the secret for understanding the inner meaning of Babylon: it is a form of arrogance and confused thinking when any of us think we can “reach to heaven” with our material possessions and creations. The rabbis of the Talmud taught us to see Babylon as an archetype that could be applied to every generation.

The mystics in Jewish tradition teach us to take the archetype of Babylon one step further – right to our own personal lives. Babylon becomes the place of the confusion that each of us experiences in our own lives: spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, and politically. For instance, when we build towers to “reach to heaven” through an intellect separated from G-d we are, so to speak, serving the gods of Babylon. When we seek material possessions or power devoid of Torah ethics we are living in the confused world of Babylon. Yet, paradoxically, the land of Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia) was also a place of origin for the Jewish people. The Garden of Eden was partially on that land, and it was in the city of Ur where Abraham and Sarah heard the call to “go forth” to a land that G-d would show them. Later in Jewish history we were taken into captivity after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Solomon’s Temple. He took tens of thousands of Jews as slaves to cities like Baghdad and Falluja which became the places of “confused” identity for our people. Why? Because as horrible as our enslavement was we were permitted to set up what became the greatest academies of learning in Jewish history. Even today the most popular edition of the Talmud is called the Babylonian Talmud.

In recent weeks the battle for the Iraqi city of Falluja has been at the top of the news. More than twenty-five hundred years ago, during the rule of the Babylonian empire the city of Falluja was one of the greatest centers for Jewish learning, and was known as Pumbeditha. It was there that we learned how to analyze and interpret – intellectual skills that later became a hallmark of Judaism. It was, in fact, in Babylon that the Jewish people gained detailed secular learning in subjects ranging from music to astronomy. Most scholars agree that Torah trope1 was developed in Babylon. Most agree that the names of the Hebrew months, and even the names of the archangels were learned in Babylon. What a paradox! Something bad (captivity) was transforming into something good (learning) – something that would help preserve the Jewish people for the next few thousand years.

I’m sure this transformation was “confusing” to our people, just as many of us are confused today when we hear the news. Yet, I believe that the Bible teaches that something good will also come from all this “confusion.” On the spiritual plane the second war in Iraq is a world war against both confusion and arrogance, and it could be that something incredible (peace and justice) will be coming out of all the pain and fear we are now experiencing. There seems to be a Divine message that arises out of the war in Iraq: whether you are conservative or liberal; whether you were for the war or against the war – do not be arrogant! Do not be confused! Rabbi Simon Jacobson recently wrote that “The real war – which is going on now for thousands of years, tracing back to the battles between Ishmael, Isaac, Esau and Jacob – is an ideological one: between matter and spirit, between the Divine and the universe – a war to make our peace with G-d and to discover unity between our natural lives and our Divine mission statement….Saying up is down and down is up, that’s Babel. Making absurd comparisons of Sharon to Hitler or Bush to Saadam, that’s Babel regardless of who you voted for.

Isn’t “saying up is down and down is up” what we hear from commentators and representatives from both the Left and Right today? From exaggerated claims and scandalous comments made by members of all the political parties, to the near paranoid conspiracy theories one hears – this is all part of Babel; all a part of our personal exile into Babylon; in the inner land of confusion. Babel is a description of the archetypal energy that exists in every one of us, in every culture, and in every nation. It is the force that divides people through confusion. The opposite of Babel is shalom, the Hebrew word that comes from a word root meaning “wholeness.” Shalom means that the whole, both sides of an issue, must be accounted for, and that people representing each side of an important issue actually need each other in order to fulfill G-d’s will in our world. Babel is “babble” because it divides and polarizes people in ways that are counterproductive and destructive. Shalom brings people together, even people who disagree – especially people who disagree! That is why shalom is so important in our era and why Babel must be corrected and transformed.

The archetypal struggle between Israel and Babylon is a struggle between those of us willing to wrestle with the complex, in-between, grey areas of truth, and those of us who confuse complex issues with nasty language, half-truths, hyperbole, and sloganeering. Let us be very, humble and maintain hope for the great redemption and cultural transformation that is happening before our eyes. It is written in Isaiah 63:1, “Who is this coming from Edom2, with sullied garments from Basra3? For a day of vengeance is in My heart and the year of My redemption has come.” To those of us on the political left – our garments are sullied! To those of us on the political right – our garments are sullied! Isaiah’s words imply a profound, world karmic balancing when he speaks of G-d’s “day of vengeance,” and yet the message is ultimately of hope as he quotes G-d speaking of “the year of My redemption.”

The metaphor that Rabbi Simon Jacobson,4 uses is that Esau has “two faces:” a face of sanctity since he is the twin of Jacob and the son of Issac and Rebecca, and a face of materialism. Just as Issac and Ishmael represent the struggle between Jews and Muslims in the world today, so Esau and Jacob represent the struggle and ultimate reunion between Europe, America, and the West with the Jewish people, and all other minorities who identify themselves with Jacob. European nations have always had “two faces” when it came to the Jewish people. At times we were welcome in the countries where we lived after the Diaspora, at other time we were the victims of pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and ultimately the Holocaust.

During Talmudic times (two thousand years ago) the rabbis associated Edom with the Roman Empire, or any nation or individual who exalted materialism over spirituality, military might over reason, and personal gain over justice. Yet at the end of the Jacob and Esau story5 the two brothers seem to reconcile their differences, and they form a kind of truce or peace treaty. But the story has a dangling conclusion because their is implied a future reunion6 of the brothers which never took place during their lifetimes. There are many of who sense that the world is still awaiting the complete reunion of these two brothers, and that current events on the world scene may be pointing to such a reunion very soon.

It could be said that the repentance of Esau takes place whenever force (the aggressive and materialistic side of Esau) is used for a moral, G-dly purpose, such as the defeat of fascism during World War II, or in the Cold War against communist tyranny during the second half of the twentieth-century. According to Rabbi Jacobson, Esau today is represented by Western culture, and in particular by Christianity. We know from history that the West certainly has two faces: the shadow side of Christianity produced the Crusades, Inquisition, the near genocide of Native Americans, colonialism, the brutal enslavement of Blacks, and the Holocaust. Yet the other face of Esau has been the incredible side of Western culture that has produced all the Torah-based institutions and values we associate with our democratic systems of justice and governance: freedom to dissent, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, egalitarianism, pluralism, etc.). My teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, may his memory be a blessing, taught that in preparation for this reunion the Jewish people should call Esau “Uncle Esau,” so as to welcome him back to the family. The suggestion made me laugh when I first heard it, but Reb Shlomo was serious – Uncle Esau, hmm!

In every instance where there is a successful struggle for civil and human rights in America (women’s rights; the union movement and worker’s rights; minority civil rights; environmentalism; handicap access, etc.) Uncle Esau takes one step closer to coming home. This submission to Holiness and Justice by Power represents the true reunion of Esau to his brother Jacob – of Christianity and Western culture to all minorities as symbolized by the Jewish people. The archetypal struggle between Isaac and Ishmael and Jacob and Esau is being played out before our eyes. America represents Esau in the process of redeeming himself and returning to Jacob. Europe, as portrayed by Rabbi Jacobson, represents the side of Esau that is still struggling with its own brutal past of religious and racial intolerance, and a very spotty record in regard to the Jews. President Saadat of Egypt, may his memory be a blessing, represented the possibility of healing between the Issac and Ishmael. May their arise in all the Middle Eastern nations, and among the Palestinians, Muslim leaders of such vision and courage once again!

Right now, regardless of our personal opinions about the war in Iraq, our soldiers need our prayers and gratitude; the citizens of Iraq need our prayers. President Allawi7 needs our prayers for the success of the upcoming elections. President Karzai8 needs our prayers for the success of the burgeoning and vulnerable democracy that is emerging in Afghanistan. Our president needs our prayers. Regardless of our personal political positions I hope that all of us can pray for the speedy capture of al-Zarqawi and Osama Bin Laden. I hope that all of us can pray for the emergence of democratic, visionary, and moderate leadership for the Palestinians. And we need each other’s prayers. We need to davven for each other especially when we disagree with each other – and not in a patronizing way, not in a haughty, arrogant, self-righteous way. We need to all humble ourselves before the Living G-d, and declare “May Your will be done!”

During the past few years I have heard comments about Israel from people with otherwise progressive political ideas that have deeply troubled me. Not because their comments were critical of the state of Israel – after all, the obligation of the citizen of any democracy is self-criticism. If you want to hear criticism of Israel you need go no further than Israelis themselves. They are the only nation in the Middle East blessed with a constitution that assures and protects pluralism, egalitarianism, diversity, freedom to dissent, freedom for all religions to assemble, and for the inalienable right and obligation to criticize and protest.

The comments that have troubled me have been based upon beliefs that are utterly confused, utterly from the spiritual realm of Babel! How can bright, emotionally sensitive people display such a dangerous confusion of emotion and reason; a confusion of facts with slogans? In this past year alone I have heard Israel accused of practicing ethnic cleansing, slave labor, racism, apartheid, Naziism, all sorts of brutal human rights abuses, genocide, and a holocaust against the Palestinians. All of us have reason to be critical of this or that Israeli policy under this or that Israeli Prime Minister. In fact our holy Torah commands us to be bold and courageous in the face of power when their is injustice in anyplace in the world. But slander, exaggeration, hyperbole, gossip, mockery, absurd comparisons, making statements of moral equivalency where there is no equivalency – these are symptoms of Babylon; these are the battles we must wage in our own communities in the second war in Iraq; and the war each of us must fight within ourselves against arrogance and confusion. Anyone who equates President Bush with Saadam Hussain, or Ariel Sharon with Hitler, is under the spell of Babylon.

Someday, G-d willing, Saadam Hussain will stand trial under a fair system of justice in a newly democratic Iraq. I hope that during his trial the handful of Jews who remain in Iraq, out of hundreds of thousands who once thrived there, will be able to come into the courtroom just to read the words of the prophet Isaiah9 who wrote, “That thou shalt take up this proverb against the king of Babylon, and say, ‘How hath the oppressor ceased! The golden city ceased!’” But even more, I hope and pray for a time of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation for all the children of Jacob, Ishmael, and Esau in the Middle East – for the long awaited reunion of the children of Abraham.

Little by little this seems to be what is unfolding on the world scene right now. Our own inner work is simply to defeat our own confusion so that we can make the correct political decisions along the way. We need to be willing to form new alliances, and always follow the idealistic vision of our Torah – the vision that guided Rev. Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights movement; the vision that Moses followed when he confronted Pharaoh; and the vision that our father Jacob followed when he and his brother wept at their reunion. The Holy One is offering all the children of Abraham (Jews, Christians, and Muslims) a vision of justice and reconciliation once again. We, who are the living embodiment of Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Sarah and Hagar, have arrived at a pivotal moment in history. We seem to be enacting the final scene on the world stage that could lead to the messianic era of peace and justice that we all yearn for.

In Psalm 137 it is written, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion….If I forget you, O Jerusalem, May my right hand forget her skill…” The Psalmist calls us to remember Jerusalem, to remember, and not to be confused, and not to permit the fear and anger to guide our lives. Let us work for peace, pray for peace, and support our friends in Israel today who are living and dying for nothing less than peace. Let us support all our friends in all the nations of the world who are risking their lives for democracy, justice, pluralism, and freedom. Right now there are Muslims ready to die (and many probably will) for a reformation of their religion; and for true pluralism within their cultures; and for democracy within their governments. Let us keep these courageous children of Ishmael and Esau in our prayers, and pledge them our support. After all, they are our cousins! Ishmael was beloved by our father Abraham and Esau was beloved by our father Issac – we should do no less.

Finally, let us never forget the words of prophet Isaiah what he wrote10 regarding Israel, Egypt, and the nations that were once part of the Assyrian Empire (the land where the modern nations of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq are situated today) during the 9th. and 8th. centuries BCE. Let us raise this seemingly impossible prophesy as a banner of hope for all the children of Abraham: “In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will serve with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be one of three with Egypt and Assyria – a blessing in the midst of the land, whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, ‘Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance.’” May the Holy One bless each of us to have the courage to begin building that highway today – some of us through diplomacy and dialogue, others through music and art, and some through prayer. Please G-d, may Israel be seen for what it has the potential to really be – “…a blessing in the midst of the land.”

1The ancient system of musical notation used when chanting from the Torah
2In the book of Genesis Edom is another name for Jacob’s fraternal twin brother, Esau.
3Basra is an ancient port city in southern Iraq – close to Kuwait, and close to Abraham and Sarah’s home in the city of Ur.
4meaningfullife/gulfwar/Two_Faces_of_Esau
5Genesis 33:1-4
6Genesis 33:14
7The current, interim leader of Iraq
8The newly, democratically elected president of Afghanistan
9Isaiah 14:4
10Isaiah 19:22-25

The Deeper Meaning of Shalom

by Rabbi David Zaslow
January, 2004
Contrary to popular opinion the Hebrew word shalom does not mean “peace,” at least not in the English sense of the word. It comes from a Hebrew root-word that means “wholeness.” And what is wholeness? In the Hebraic way of thinking, wholeness is the joining together of opposites. That’s why we say “shalom” when we greet friends and when we are wish them farewell. In the most opposite of situations (coming and going) we use the same word, “shalom.” There is a hidden connection to all our comings and goings; they are wondrously linked together. When I come from somewhere, I am going to someplace else. When I realize this, I feel “wholeness,” and that is the source of peace – the knowledge that all my opposing energies are somehow linked and part of a single whole. True peace must have wholeness as its foundation.

If I am a political left-winger I am only flying with one wing. If I am a political right-winger I am only flying with one wing; yet it takes two wings for an eagle to fly. It takes the integration of two opposing positions for there to be real “shalom.” The word dialogue comes from the Greek “dia + logos” meaning “across words,” or “across reason,” or “speech that goes back and forth.” It’s easy to have a left wing or a right wing “peace rally” with people who already agree with us. But this is not the wholeness that is implied in the word “shalom.”

In the Hebraic view, shalom brings the binary mind together, integrating the left brain modality of thinking (linear) and the right brain modality (intuitive). When I say hello to someone I say “shalom.” When I say goodbye to someone I say “shalom.” What is more opposite than coming and going? Hello and goodbye? Shalom is the most radical union of opposites imaginable. Shalom brings together people who disagree with each other so that each will listen deeply to the “other” side. It is the people you do not agree with who have the greatest gift for you – the gift of the potential for wholeness.

The peace movement I belong to is not liberal or conservative, it is both liberal and conservative. It is not left wing or right wing, it flies with two wings. It is not religious vs. secular, rather it integrates the genius of both science and spirituality. The peace movement I belong to refuses to create an “other” out of the people with whom I may disagree on a particular issue. To the contrary, the peace movement I belong to is one of dialogue: tough dialogue, heart-wrenching dialogue, gentle dialogue, but always dialogue – speech that goes back and forth – with each side constantly challenging, refining, and purifying the “other” until we recognize that the “other” is none “other” than a reflection of our own selves.

Reb Shlomo Carlebach z”l taught about Psalm 122 when he said, “A prayer for peace: Because of my brothers and sisters – not just me, but for the whole world, let there be peace! Do you know why there is no peace in the world? Because the world is into force. First they force war on each other, now they want to force peace upon each other. But it doesn’t work. Peace by force isn’t peace. Peace is the most non-force in the world.”

May God’s blessings flow upon everyone who is part of this unnamed and unnameable movement, wave, energy, and heavenly blessing that comes from God, the true Source of Shalom. In Jewish liturgy we celebrate God as the “Former of light and Creator of darkness, Maker of peace, and Creator of the whole.” Created in that image, may this wholeness manifest in our lives and within the world. Amayn!

The Shifting Paradigm Within Islam

by Rabbi David Zaslow
December, 2003

1. God Has a Plan

If you accept the idea of Divine Providence then bear with my thesis for a moment even if you disagree with some of my conclusions. G-d spread the Jewish people out throughout Europe during the Middle Ages on a special mission. After the folly of the Crusades Jews witnessed how the Protestant Reformation created diversity and some degree of “people power” that was not being given by the Roman Catholic Church. And we witnessed how the Catholic Church benefited from the Reformation as well.

And then we witnessed a flowering of consciousness in the 16th Century which ultimately led to the great secular antithesis of religion called the Enlightenment. People got the idea that humans could take care of their own problems without the intervention of a divine power. And so, secular humanism was born; the Enlightenment arose; and the Industrial age began.

We Jews didn’t intend to be in the middle of all that social upheaval. We Jews didn’t mean to be influenced by the Reformation or the Enlightenment, but we were. Just as we were influenced by the genius of the outside world during the Babylonian exile twenty-six hundred years ago, so we were influenced by European social evolution in our own time. As a result of both these social upheavals (the Reformation and the Enlightenment) we have today, thank G-d, our own Reform, Conservative, Renewal, and Reconstructionist movements. The 16th. Century kabbalistic revival and the 18th. century Hasidic revolution arose from these European social paradigm shifts as well.

So what did the Ribbono Shel Olam have in mind after the Shoah? Maybe to send Jews back to the Middle East in order to plant the seeds of Reformation and Enlightenment. What the Muslim world has not gone through YET is a process that ultimately led to what is best in the West: pluralism, egalitarianism, and democracy. In the 20th century alone America had a woman’s suffrage movement, union movement, civil rights movement, woman’s movement, gay rights movement, and ecological movement. Six major civil rights struggles and our Constitution was flexible to accommodate them all. Lots of lawsuits, but a judicial system that was eventually able to come to the proper conclusions.

Certainly school desegregation was 100 years late, but our culture survived because p’shat (simple) readings of Constitution were challengable at higher levels. So “all men are created equal” eventually became “all black and white men” and then finally “all men and women,” and soon “all men, women, gay, or straight.”

2. Hatred of Jews Today

Jews are hated in Israel not for anything Israel has done. This foolish Israeli policy or that foolish policy are up for critique. But these policies are not the cause of the current intafada. Arab anti-Semitism today is based on a filtered and flawed view of reality. The Jews have come to the Middle East with the seeds of pluralism and democracy. Hamas knows it. Islamic Jihad knows it. Osama knows it. They are afraid that the union movement, and feminism, and gay rights movements are coming their way. And they are correct.

B’ezrat Hashem (with G-d’s help) these civil rights movements are coming to Saudi Arabia, and Syria, and Libya, and everywhere else. Fear of globalism is a cover for what’s happening under the surface. Sure folks blame McDonalds and Office Depot, but the abuse of corporate power was NOT the cause of the destruction of the World Trade Center. That was the excuse.

The cause that Osama stands for is anti-pluralism. And who is bringing pluralism into the Middle East? Jews and Americans, of course Osama may say that Zionism is a form of colonialism, but this is just an expression of the primitive way his mind is scanning the shifting paradigm.

Scapegoating the Jews is ancient. And it’s happening before our eyes. The desperation within the Arab world is really hatred against their own outdated paradigms of hierarchical, patriarchal, and dictatorial systems of governance. When this kind of hatred of your own “father” (i.e.. your own leaders) goes unconscious the Shadow comes alive. “It’s the fault of the Jews” they cried in Germany as their own economy faltered due to the punishing treaty they were forced to sign after World War I.

“It’s the fault of the Jews” some Arabs are screaming now due to the punishing effects of post colonial regimes established by the British and the French, and the punishing regimes maintained by their own leaders after the colonialists left. But their rage at the primary, core, energetic level is against their own fathers. Like all good unconscious behavior (seen in racists and bigots throughout history) the sick mind ingeniously finds someone else to blame it on. In Palestine and Israel its the Jews who are being blamed for the failure of the Palestinian fathers.

Look at some numbers for a moment. In 1993 about fifty-percent of the Palestinians were willing to finally share the land in the two-state solution that they rejected in 1948. Twenty-percent were uncertain. And between ten to twenty-percent outright rejected any kind of peace or two state-solution. Who were these ten to twenty-percent? Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Aksa Bridgade, Hezbollah, and the other various terrorist organizations.

These groups represent Islamic fundamentalism that CANNOT ever have Jews owning a nation in the Middle East. It’s impossible because on a p’shat level the Koran says so. ALL of Palestine is Dar el Islam. Jews were and are to the fundamentalist in the realm of Dar el-Harb, the House of War.

When I met with the spiritual leader of Hamas in 1998, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, he was not a duplicitious character like Arafat. He was clear, honest, and straight-forward: ISRAEL CANNOT REMAIN A NATION. Who’s doing the suicide bombings? Not the fifty-percent of Palestinians who want a peaceful, two-state solution! Not the twenty-percent who are uncertain! But this huge minority of 10-20% represented by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah.

Just think of America. We have a one-half of one-percent fringe between our extreme Left and Right. This tiny minority represents Ruby Ridge, Waco, the folks who bomb abortion clinics, the eco-terrorists who spike trees and burn the homes of rich people, animal rights terrorists who set fires in research labs, etc.

One-half of one-percent and America can barely keep track of them. Imagine if America’s fringe represented fifteen-percent. With this kind of huge minority it would probably be impossible for us to keep the peace. Even if a Palestinian moderate wanted to keep the peace, I think it would be nearly impossible at this stage in their social evolution. Socially they are at the level of Europe during the Crusades: pre-Reformation, pre-Enlightenment, pre-democratic, and pre-pluralistic.

The real martyrs among the Palestinians will be those willing to give their lives for peace by COMING OUT WITH THE TRUTH in public: that the murder of civilians by terrorists is a crime against Allah; that Palestinians are destined to live side-by-side with Israel; and that democratic and pluralistic institutions are the road to freedom for the Arab peoples. Arafat has already quietly killed hundreds of so-called collaborators since 1993 as an appeasement to Hamas in order for him to stay in power. Just before Passover he killed eight more “collaborators,” and who really knows what they were doing?

I DO JUST A LITTLE. I know a Sheikh from the West Bank. He came to the United States recently and offered prayers and teachings in several synagogues. When he returned to Israel he was warned that he couldn’t go home to his West Bank village. Why? Because Fatah had him on the collaborator list. You can read all about this courageous Sheikh in Yossi Klein Halevi’s book “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden.” Halevi was forced to change the name of the Sheikh in the book to Ibrahim in order to protect his anonymity. Today, baruch Hashem, he is being protected in an Israeli city by Orthodox rabbis. What an irony, but I think G-d’s fingerprints are all over this.

3. The Religious Factor

Rabbi Menachem Froman works from the premise that beneath the politics this is essentially a religious war, a battle between two fundementalisms: the Jewish notion of eretz Yisrael, that all the land is ours. The other is that of Dar el-Islam, the Islamic notion that all the land is Muslim. The solution according to the rebbe? To lock fundamentalist Jews and Muslims in a room until they come to a solution based on Koran and Torah.

Rabbi Froman suggests that the problems with Oslo stem from the fact the religious factor was disregarded. The fundamentalists on both sides were not brought to the table. The result has been treaties made by secular pragmatists like Arafat and Rabin. But the solution, according to Froman, must include the idealists—the fundamentalist. Afterall, the ones doing the terrorism are not the pragmatists, but the religious idealists who CANNOT have a two-state solution.

I, personally, have come to believe that their is merit in his argument. The religious extremists might drive you crazy at the bargaining table with their rigid readings of Torah and Koran on land issues. But they are the ones that destroy the peace treaties when one is signed without their consent. Bring them to the table! Let us support Rabbi Froman’s yeshiva that he has been collecting funds for – one where the idealistic eretz Yisrael kids and the idealistic Dar el-Islam kids can fight it out over texts.

4. The Hope

As hopeless as things seem when hearing the horrific reports of suicide bombings every day, I am very hopeful for the long-term future. I get my comfort for the words of our prophets. Isaiah 19:21 reads, “In that day there shall be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian shall come to Egypt, and the Egyptian to Assyria, and the Egyptians shall worship with the Assyrians. In that day shall Israel be the third with Egypt and with Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the land; Whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.’”

Blessed be Egypt? Egyptians are G-d’s people? Blessed be Syria? Syria, the work of G-d’s hands? These are radical words, and profoundly reshapes the notion of the ultimate relationships that are being forged in fire today in the Middle East. It is not easy to recognize the blessing within a curse, but we have no other choice. We are Jews, and that’s part of our job.

On a practical level I will continue to call for the democratization of the nations that surround Israel. I will help in any way I can to encourage free elections, the right to dissent, the right of a free and critical press, the rights of workers to unionize, and the rights of women to organize in Arab nations. I humbly submit that only with democracy will the citizens of these nations be allowed to make a lasting peace with Israel and have economic prosperity for themselves.

Shalom

by Rabbi David Zaslow
December, 2003

Contrary to popular opinion the Hebrew word “shalom” does not mean “peace,” at least not in the English sense of the word. It comes from a Hebrew root-word that means “wholeness.” And what is wholeness? In the Hebraic way of thinking wholeness is the joining together of opposites. That’s why we say “shalom” when we greet friends and when we are wish them farewell. In the most opposite of situations (coming and going) we use the same word, “shalom.” There is a hidden connection to all our comings and goings; they are wondrously linked together. When I come from somewhere I am going to some place else. When I realize this I feel “wholeness,” and that is the source of peace – the knowledge that all my opposing energies are somehow linked and part of a single whole. True peace must have wholeness as its foundation.

If I am a political left winger I am only flying with one wing. If I am a political right winger I am only flying with one wing, yet it takes two wings for an eagle to fly. It takes the integration of two opposing positions for there to be real “shalom.” The word dialogue comes from the Greek “dia + logos” meaning “across words” or “speech that goes back and forth.” It’s easy to have a left wing or a right wing “peace rally” with people we already agree with, but this is not the wholeness that is implied in the word “shalom.”

So what is the Hebraic view of shalom? Shalom brings the binary mind together, integrating the left brain modality of thinking (linear, logical, and rational) and the right brain modality (spiritual, intuitive, and creative). Shalom brings people together who disagree with each other in order to listen deeply to the “other” side. It is the people you do not agree with who have the greatest gift for you – the gift of the potential for wholeness.

The peace movement I belong to is not liberal or conservative, it is both liberal and conservative. It is not left wing or right wing; it flies with two wings. It is not religious vs. secular, rather it integrates the genius of both science and spirituality. The peace movement I belong to refuses to create an “other” out of the people with whom I may disagree on a particular issue. To the contrary, the peace movement I belong to is one of deep dialogue: tough dialogue, heart wrenching dialogue, gentle dialogue, but always dialogue – speech that goes back and forth – with each side constantly challenging, refining, and purifying the “other” until we recognize that the “other” is none “other” than a reflection of our own selves.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught, “The Baal Shem teaches that when people are happy they clap their hands. This is because joy is spreading throughout the entire body. But do you know what it is that I’m really doing when I’m clapping? A person is bringing the left and right to love each other. Let me explain. The right usually tells the left ‘Listen, you know you’re a leftist. I don’t want to have anything to do with you.’ And the left (hand) says to the right, ‘Who needs you? You’re so boring. You’re always doing something good. Who needs you and your mitzvot. I have no strength for you.’ So the right doesn’t speak to the left and left doesn’t speak to the right. But when clapping hands, the left comes close to the right and says, ‘Hey, you’re precious after all.’ And the left says to the right: ‘I love you.’ So let’s sing and pray that the Holy One stirs the eyes of our people so that we recognize that we are only one, a holy and sanctified nation. Then we’ll all see there really is no right or left, but just the music; music and the dance.”

May G-d’s blessings flow upon all my brothers and sisters who are part of this unnamed and unnameable movement, wave, energy, and heavenly blessing that comes from G-d, the true Source of Shalom. In Jewish liturgy we celebrate G-d as the “former of light and Creator of darkness, Maker of peace, and Creator of the whole.” Created in that image, may this wholeness manifest in our lives and within the world. Amayn!

The Interplay of Light and Dark

by Rabbi David Zaslow
December, 2003

What’s the darkest night of the year? You might guess the winter solstice on December 21st! But that’s the shortest night of the year, not necessarily the darkest. Each year, on the sixth night of Hanukkah, we mark the new moon of Tevet. Hanukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev, near the end of the lunar month. The sixth night of Hanukkah is the evening of 1st of Tevet.

During the days surrounding Hanukkah we contemplate the interplay between light and darkness. The autumn has passed, and we are in the middle of the winter. In an exquisite paradox our rabbis teach us that although it is light that permits us to see, it is in the darkness that we can see the farthest. During daylight we only see what is near, but as soon as night comes we can see the stars, which are light-years away from us. This paradox has a very profound application during Hanukkah, since it is through our past mistakes (the darkness within our past) that we have learned to see the greatest distances.

We don’t need candles in the daylight and we don’t need Hanukkah in July. Our tradition teaches us that the darkest time of the year is not the season to make confessions and resolutions for a new year. That work is done during the season of the autumn equinox (September 21st, which falls near Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur). The shortest and darkest days of the year, around the winter solstice, are given to us by the Creator so that we can go deeply inside ourselves and be thankful for all the transformations that have already occurred.

During Hanukkah we celebrate how our past negative traits (the darkness) are being transformed (the candle) into something that will turn out for the good (the full light of the upcoming spring). The month of Kislev is a time to integrate the shadow that is within each of us. What happens when we light a candle in the darkness during Hanukkah? We make shadows! We have enough light to see what is near us, and we preserve enough of the darkness so that we can see the lights in the far distance.

For Hanukkah to have real meaning it has to be more than eating latkes, giving gifts, or even telling the marvelous stories of the miracle of the oil and the world’s first battle for religious freedom. For Hanukkah to have meaning it must be personal. The word for “the oil” in Hebrew is הַשֶׁמֶן ha-shemen. It contains the same letters as the word for soul, which is נְשָׁמָה neshamah. Oil has something to do with soul. The word for “wick” in Hebrew is פְּתִילָה petillah, which contains the same Hebrew letters as the word for “prayer,” which is תְּפִלָּה t’fillah. Prayer is a conduit for the soul the same way a wick is a conduit for the oil. Prayer is not an end in itself, any more than the wick is the goal of the candle.

Prayer is the means to an end, and the end is a connection to the Divine. In the same way, the wick transports the oil to the flame and permits the flame to be continuous and steady. Only when we light the wick does it draw up the oil in a continuous flame. Only when we ignite our prayers with passion does the light burn continuously, seemingly on its own. And as anyone who loves to pray knows, a good davven lasts for eight days. That’s the real miracle of Hanukkah, available to everyone of us.

The Kites We Fly

by Rabbi David Zaslow
November, 2003
I was eight years old in 1955 when Hurricane Diane struck the East Coast. I lived in in a little beach community called Sea Gate, in Coney Island, Brooklyn. The day of the storm was dark, and the rain soared downward and even sideways across our front window. I was sick that week and was home with little to do but watch the wind on the beach as the sand was tossed high into the air like hair wildly brushed. I saw the turbulent tides of the Atlantic form high swells that jumped onto the beach as if trying to reach my house.

That day I built my first box-kite. I concentrated with all my might as I meticulously glued each piece of long, thin popsicle-stick wood and plastic skin together. I neatly wound the string and knotted the end to a stick that was to be my spool. The spool was a kind of steering devise that I could tug and turn, commanding my kite to perform all sorts of amazing aerial acrobatics. I was so proud of my checkerboard blue and red masterpiece. On August 19th, the rains were over, the sun was bright and reborn after the storm, and the air itself felt alive. The winds calmed down to a gusty 25 m.p.h., and I figured it was perfect weather to fly my box kite on the beach, even though I was still a little feverish. I swaggered in the wind to the beach, holding my kite close to my chest.

Every kid knows that normally he/she has to run to get his kite aloft, but that day when I let go of the kite the wind instantly took hold like some gigantic magnet. A gust pulled my kite and unwound hundreds of feet of string from the stick in mere seconds. Up and up, it was like a rocket on a straight line toward heaven. And then…the unthinkable. The kite, my first box kite, the kite I had made by hand, snapped from the stick and continued out across the Atlantic. I felt insulted, shocked, and angry. The wind seemed to know what it was doing, and how it would affect an eight-year old boy who was flying his first box-kite.

Hurricane, rain, beach, kite, string, spool, and child. We have all faced hurricanes – moments of grief, loss, rebirth, change, and transformation. We have all built kites – our jobs, hobbies, and relationships, and we tie our kites to a very thin string and knot them to the spool of our hearts. King Solomon chanted a poem that we read each autumn on Sukkot that says “To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.” If we try to fly a kite when the winds are too strong…snap, it will likely break away from us. Everything has its own time.

In a way all of our personal spiritual practices, our prayer and meditation, are as delicate as a box kite. We protect ourselves by practicing in communal gatherings, in the privacy of our homes, or surrounded by the beauty of nature. But like a kite on a string, we are all so vulnerable. Take away the beauty of nature and replace it with the fury of nature– and snap, the kite will break loose. Take away the elegance of a synagogue service and we find ourselves struggling to do the inner work that each holiday calls forth.

The festival of Sukkot that just passed is a reminder of the how delicate our dwelling places really are, and how subject we all are to the winds and rains of life. Yet it is those very rains that make spring possible. So, may the Holy One bless us all to make our kites well, but to know when to fly them… never in strong winds the day after a hurricane on a beach in Brooklyn.

The Accent of Faith

by Rabbi David Zaslow
October, 2003

I remember being at the film “Schindler’s List” with an Israeli friend who pointed out that everytime Hebrew was spoken a different accent was used. Jews from German pronounced a Hebrew word one way, Jews from Poland pronounced the same word differently. But my Israeli friend pointed out that the accents in the movie differed within the same family, and she did not think it was a “continuity” error on the part the film’s director, Steven Speilberg. Rather, she thought, that it was a subtle statement that all Jewish people are unified, even when there are differences in accent. A personal story: I remember in Brooklyn that some of us with heavy accents pronounced the word “oil” as “earl.” My dad, for example, would be in a restaurant and say, “Pass the earl and vinegar.” Then in the early 60’s a pop song came out called “Duke of Earl.” And how did my father pronounce the title of the song? He’d say “Duke of Oil.” Like any good teenager I pointed the contradiction out to him. “Dad,” I said, “You say ‘Oil’ when you should say ‘Earl’ and you say ‘earl’ when you should say ‘oil.’ Can’t you get it right?” He laughed and jokingly said, “Mind your business. It’s my accent!” I got the point, and today I get the point at an even deeper level than my father may have intended. A spiritual journey has an accent. One of us may prefer rituals and formal services, another prefers deeds of loving kindness. Each mitzvah is part of the accent of our souls. Some of us prefer communal prayer, others prefer to perform g’milut hasadim (deeds of loving-kindness). Some prefer quiet meditation, others prefer ecstatic davvenen (prayer). There is no right or wrong about our choices, there is no better or worse since these choices are not in the category of morality. A spiritual accent is simply the way we filter the Divine commandments and shape them to suit our own individual and communal needs. Each accent has its own innate beauty. But the secret to deepening our spiritual path is to keep reformulating the way we speak and to permit our metaphorical accent to take on new shapes and sounds. In Judaism this means to continually take on new mitzvot and add them to our repertoire of Divine responses. In this way we better ourselves, better the world, and make deeper and deeper connections to the world of the soul. The world we live in is but one dimension within many worlds. There are worlds above this world, worlds below this world, and worlds within this world. Some call these worlds realms, others call them dimensions, and some prefer to call them levels. The labels are but metaphors pointing to the depths of reality. Not just the simple reality of our day-to-day lives, but the totality of reality which encompasses everyday existence and the transcendental. Studying Kabbalah we learn (Mee-malay kole ole-meen v’so-vayv kole ole-meen) that G-d “fills all worlds and surrounds all worlds.” There is no “outside” G-d to worship and believe in. There is no artificial split between the transcendence of G-d and the immimance of G-d. Worlds within worlds. Dimensions within dimensions. It is all part of a single fabric. May Hashem bless each and every one of us to fix the personal fabric of our souls where it needs to be fixed. May we blessed with the courage to adjust our behaviors in ways that put us more and more in touch with the Divine.

Our Fragmented Sense of Time

by Rabbi David Zaslow
September, 2003
As I think about my father’s life, the distance between 1930 and 1963 seems vast. So many stories took place within those years: the Great Depression, World War II, the 50’s, and the start of the 60’s. Yet, in an odd way, the distance in time within my own life between 1970 and 2003 doesn’t seem so vast in comparison. Historically, of course, there have been huge changes within the past three decades: the cultural changes brought about by the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and feminism, all the way to the technological revolution as we entered the age of personal computing and the Internet.

But I’m referring to my subjective sense about the passage of time. My father’s life seems to have passed slowly. My life seems to have passed quickly. There’s nothing “true” about what I’m saying. After all, thirty-three years is thirty-three years whether it’s 1930 to 1963 or 1970 to 2003. But it’s our personal, subjective sense of time that gives our memory its reference points. I remember when I came to Ashland in 1970. I remember when my daughter was born in 1981 and when my son was born in 1983.

Today Rachel is a college graduate working in the “old country,” in Brooklyn. Of all places, she picks Brooklyn! I was off to college in 1965 during the first major East Coast blackout. She’s out of college and in Manhattan walking back to Brooklyn during the last blackout in August. I remember leaving for college in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1965, and here I am thirty-eight years later preparing to drive my son to for his first day of college in Lewiston, Idaho.

So, what does all this temporal measuring and sentimental reminiscing have to do with the upcoming High Holidays? Everything, I suspect. Everything. After all, what is autumn all about if not for returning and remembering? If not for looking back and looking forward? If not for the most personal, personal examination of successes and missed opportunities? The High Holidays aren’t just for the big stuff, for our major sins of commission and omission. The High Holidays are not necessarily about the macro-dramas of our lives. More often, they seem to be about all the small stuff that, when collaged together, form a picture – a picture of our fragmented lives during the year that has just passed.

In autumn the leaves begin to fall, and internally we begin to fall as well. The days grow colder, and we grow colder as well. Nature returns to its Source and we return to that same Source as well. The four-step program of Jewish time follows the rhythm of nature: the public gratitude we express to Hashem on Rosh HaShanah; the private yet communal inwardness we experience during Yom Kippur; the outwardness we live during Sukkot, and the synthesis of the inner and outer during Simchat Torah. Together all four holidays form a single picture, a mirror of our lives.

By taking the time to experience all four of the high holidays we are saying, “Yes” to the Creator. “Yes, create a new person within each me. Yes, let me examine the past so that I may be present in this moment. And may my presence in this moment give me the courage and momentum I need to reach my tomorrow.” May the Holy One bless each of us with good memories and changes that are as natural as the seasons themselves.

Freedom in This Season

by Rabbi David Zaslow
April, 2003

As we know, there are many levels of freedom. One person is free on the outside and bound on the inside. Another is bound in chains and free in her soul. Passover in Hebrew is פֶּסַח pesach and the word has its etymology in the leaping or skipping movement of lambs. “Passover” is not really the correct translation for Pesach. “Leaping Over” might be more accurate. Leaping implies that the obstacle is still there. The journey from here to there, from slavery to freedom, is one that we all make. Often we don’t really eliminate our obstacles, we simply leap over them. Maybe the term “a leap of faith” comes from this notion. How do I get out of my chains, habits, negative attitudes? How to I remove myself from the forces of the Pharaoh that I grew up with? How do I get out of my private Egypt, which in Hebrew is מִצְרַיִם mitzrayim, meaning tight, bound, and narrow places?

The answer may be in our biology. Birth requires the infant to make his first major journey. From the womb into the realm of gravity, the infant must travel through her first narrow place. From birth on, movements and changes will not be so easy. Yet the remembrance of our birth will shape our destiny; will be a determinant factor in the way we handle problems and challenges throughout our lives. I do not like the term “birth trauma” as much as “birth template.” Birth and death are the two most powerful experiences in our lives. They bookend both beginning and end. All issues in between (i.e., during life) will be placed upon the template of what we remember from birth and how we anticipate death.

Pesach is the season of our liberation. All the images in the book of שְׁמוֹת Sh’mot (Exodus) come into play during the springtime. We want to get outside. We need to get outside. We want to be free, liberated. We yearn to fall in love. The festival of Passover is a marker for what is already happening biologically and in nature. The seder dinner is not just a reenactment of a historical event, but a dress rehearsal for what we are each going to do in our lives the morning after the celebration.

During Yom Kippur we dwell on our sins. We chant עַל חֵטְא ahl chayt, confessing that we have sinned. We take inventory of all that is inside. We mark each internal item with a label: “keep,” “discard,” or “change.” We make new vows, dissolve the old ones, and methodically make a file of all transactions. It is a careful, a care-full process.

Not so during Passover. Pesach is a care-free, an almost care-less process. It requires action quickly. We need to act NOW. The angel of death will ride over our homes at midnight. Quick. Clean house. Quick. Take the lamb of our innocence and steak its blood (our own anguish) on the doorposts. Quick. The dawn is coming. We leave in a hurry. No time for inventory and careful filing or analysis. Now is the time to make the leap, to make the skip.

Have a problem? Skip over it! Have an old habit that you want to change? Skip over it! Have a negative behavior pattern? Skip over it! Don’t analyze. Don’t think about your problems too much: just make the change. The words from the Torah describe God as having taken us out of Egypt “…with an outstretched arm and a mighty hand.” What a metaphor! It means that we’re not alone. If we take the first step, God will lead us to freedom. In the springtime there is “nothing to do” to make liberation happen. It just seems to happen by itself. Something invisible in the universe will take care of it. Not all the time. Not during the autumn, but yes, now, during the spring, this is possible.

A wonderful Christian once asked Reb Zalman if Jews were saved by grace or works? The Rebbe answered, “From Yom Kippur to Purim (autumn through winter) we’re saved by works. From Passover to Rosh HaShanah (spring through summer) we’re saved by grace.” It’s a funny answer, but it’s true. Judaism sees a balance between our actions (works) and God’s actions (grace). We need both grace and works. We’re the ones who make the preparations for a long winter, storing up food and supplies. But during springtime? We feel the hand of God’s grace descending. If we wait, the bounty of the land and trees will feed us like living angels of the Holy One.

It’s not a choice between grace or works. It’s both, each one in its time and proper season. Doing it yourself: that’s the “works” of autumn. Leaving it to God: that’s the grace of Springtime. Liberation is not something to strive for. It’s built into the hard drive of the seasons, of our biology. There’s nothing to do, just BE! So, when the moment comes and you hear God’s voice say “make the change,” LEAP.

Spirituality, Culture, & Religion: Confessions of a New York Jew

by Rabbi David Zaslow
December, 2002

Okay, I admit it. I’m prejudiced! I’m a New Yorker and everything New York is Jewish and everything out of New York is not-so-Jewish. So Italians from New York are Jewish even if they’re Catholic, and Jews in Los Angeles are not-so-Jewish even if they’re Jewish. Bagels from New York are Jewish. Bagels in Ashland are round chunks of chewy bread with holes in the center. No self-respecting New Yorker would ever buy a jalapeno bagel. My wife, my holy Devorah, outed me last month as an ethnocentric, bialy-centric New Yorker who has a very distorted view of the size of America. I remember a map they sold in New York called “A New Yorker’s View of America.” New York was huge (pronounced “youge” please) and the rest of America was all shrunken. I should have bought it!

I used to hear my parents talk about the “old country” with sentimental yearning. When they would say something in Yiddish and I’d ask them to translate, they’d fumble for words and finally proclaim, “You just can’t translate this into English. Words have a different meaning in Yiddish.” Of course, they meant that Yiddish was better than English and it would be degrading to try to explain some nuance of translation to me in such a cold and intellectual language as English. I never understood. Now, after 32 years in Ashland, Oregon, I get it. There are things a New Yorker can say that just cannot be translated. I understand Tony Soprano even when he isn’t talking. Body language, food, posture, it’s all part of the language. To me, New York is my old country. Okay, New Jersey too. Philadelphia but not Pennsylvania. Not Connecticut at all. Yonkers? All right, Yonkers but not Brewster. White Plains? All right. White Plains too.

So what is it about the culture we grew up with that gets into our bones so deeply? I don’t want to analyze this too deeply. See, my love for the Brooklyn Dodgers and hatred for the Los Angeles Dodgers is really quite objective and based on facts. I don’t want some two-bit sociologist writing a paper on the “relativity” of the teams we root for. It may be true for other teams, but the Dodgers, the Brooklyn Dodgers, are mythic not relative. In fact, the Dodgers are still in Brooklyn – that’s how deep my faith is. And Jackie Robinson lives! Maybe not on the physical plane, but in a higher dimension for sure. So when the Dodgers actually do return to Brooklyn (and the Giants return to the Bronx for that matter), and they will, it won’t be a shock to New Yorkers. Okay, it will be a shock to Yankee fans, but it won’’t be a shock to most other normal humans (pronounced “yu-mans” please) from the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island, or Brooklyn.

So, “this is the bit,” as my high-school boxing coach Enrie Spanokos used to say. It’’s dangerous to confuse culture with morality. There’s nothing innately good or bad about living in Minnesota, Tucson, Miami, or Brooklyn. Tribal wars are started over the confusion of morality and culture. Religion is a system to organize spirituality, and each religion is like a culture. This group stands. That group sits. This group sprinkles with water. That group dunks in water. This group is ecstatic. That group is passive. There’s no good or bad about it. It’s all about personal preference. It’s all about style.

This is not to say that style is not important. Believe me, I’d rather be dead than eat a jalapeno bagel. But jalapeno bagel eaters (perish the thought!) do not have to repent on Yom Kippur. They should, but they don’t have to. Religion is the culture that organizes spirituality, but the essence of any great religion is its spirituality, not its particular ritual practices (i.e., we do Shabbos on Saturday, Christians do Lord’s Day on Sunday). Now, don’’t get me wrong, I do not want to merge spiritual practices any more than I want to merge bagels. But beneath the religion, beneath the culture of the religion, is spirituality: a deepening connection to God, a living connection to the ancestors, a connection to history, and a sense of profound hope for the future. It is the sacred task of each religion to develop a path that will lead its followers to some degree of direct experience to that which is understood as the Divine. As the new paradigm unfolds before us it seems crucial for all all to bear in mind that the path is simply the path – it is not the destination.

Gabi Meyer recently taught us about the difference between the map and the land. I may like my map, but my map is not the earth itself. Judaism is my map. Judaism is my culture. My synagogue is my culture. I am devoted to my culture for sure, but the culture is not my goal. My personal connection to God is my goal. My person to person connection to each of you is my goal. If my Judaism helps me to get to God, then it is a good religion. If the Havurah helps me reach these goals, then it is a good organization. And, last but not least, if the Brooklyn Dodgers can get me to a game in Ebbets Field, then it is, indeed, the best team that has ever lived.

A Covenant Beyond Reason

by Rabbi David Zaslow
Spring, 2002

In the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) there are three kinds of mitzvot (commandments from God). The first are called mishpatim or “judgments.” These are the logical, universal, moral commandments discovered by all peoples in all spiritual traditions. Honor your mother and father, do not murder, do not steal, love your neighbor as yourself – all fall into this category of logical, ethical commandments. These commandments can also be thought of as what Thomas Jefferson thought of as “natural law,” or the Torah which is universally discovered by observing the most efficient systems within nature and human society.

Over time all cultures, and religions come to the same conclusion that murder and stealing are negative, counter-productive, and therefore prohibited behaviors. In Judaism gossip can be deemed to be a metaphorical form of murder if the words “kill” someone’s reputation. Good people of all faiths, I am sure, would agree that murder and stealing in their common or metaphorical forms are against their will of the Divine.

The second category of mitzvot are eidot, or “memorial rituals.” For example, in the Torah God commands the Jewish people to make a seder (festive meal) in the springtime to commemorate the exodus from Egypt. The Festival of Passover is a family oriented retelling of the exodus story. During the holiday of Purim the Jewish people retell the story of Queen Esther. During the holiday of Hanukkah the story of the miracle of the light is retold. In other words, these not universal commandments, but strictly tribal reenactments to help those who are Jewish remember their history.

Certainly there are moral and ethical elements to these memorial rituals. For example, on Passover week learn about the importance of physical freedom; on Hanukkah we learn about the necessity of religious freedom. But these ethical teachings are a result of performing the memorial rituals. Every culture, religion, and society creates its own unique memorial rituals based upon local and cultural history.

The third category, under which britt milah (the covenant of circumcision) falls, is the most mysterious. This category is called hukkim which we translate as “statutes.” These include kosher dietary laws and circumcision. What are they for? There is no clear answer. Why do we do them? There is no clear answer. The best we can do is rationalize. We do these mitzvot to show our love for God. We call it the practice of bittul hanefesh, (lit. “negation of the soul”) to put the rational mind aside so that the heart and soul might open.

There are be clear and precise reasons for this kind of mitzvah (commandment). They can be studied, debated, and rationalized but no one can claim to be able to explain it them logically as one can explain the mishpatim (judgments) and eidot (memorial rituals).

Britt Milah

The ancient rite begins with God’s desire to make a covenant with it the patriarch Abraham. The token, or sign, of this pact is the willingness of Abraham to make a sacrifice. In the words of the Torah, Genesis 17:10-11, “This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.”

A modern person might ask, “Why do we take this commandment literally? Why not invent a ceremony that would satisfy our modern sensibilities?” Interestingly, the Torah written 3,300 years ago seems to anticipate our need for reason, or at least an answer to the question, what is the inner meaning of circumcision? In Deuteronomy 30:6 the Torah says, “And the Lord, your God, will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your seed, to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul…”

It almost seems as if God is trying to explain the profound impact of the ritual as means of increasing compassion and empathy. In other words, the intent of the ritual is much more profound than just the technical procedure of removing the foreskin. In abstaining from non-kosher foods we may not need a clear reason, but must we cause needless pain to our sons with such a ancient ritual?

Jewish tradition says, “Yes.” When administered sensitively the britt ceremony is the most incredible father/son bonding experience. It is not a means, as some critics have suggested, of reproducing patriarchy, male privilege and entitlement. On the contrary, it seems to be a means of reproducing male love and compassion. Our mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters experience the awesome spiritual bonding power of blood every month. Men have this opportunity only during circumcision.

There is nothing moral or immoral about the choices we make about circumcision. This is not a moral mitzvah! It is a spiritual practice that is purposely not based on logic. The ritual is not necessarily about aesthetics, good medicine, or even the power of tradition.

Father/Son Bonding

The britt can be a once in a lifetime chance for the souls of father and son to bond in the deepest way imaginable. As a rabbi, this is the intention that I bring into the rite. I suggest to the fathers that they consider holding the hands of their sons during the circumcision, and to ask God to bless their sons with love, peace, health, and joy. I tell the fathers not to deny that there will be some pain, and to see themselves carrying that pain for their sons.

I sometimes teach the fathers the story of Abraham binding his son on the alter and ask them to practice the kind of trust in God that Abraham had in that awesome moment. I suggest that they imagine the britt milah ceremony as a reenactment of that event. I encourage the dads to make contact with their own emotions and to let the tears come on behalf of their sons, and for all the pain their sons will experience in their lives. I encourage the dads to cry and to let those tears be a kind of prayer or offering for all children. This is the essence, I believe, of making a covenant, a spiritual pact with the Holy One.

A Personal Story

In 1984 our son Ari had a beautiful, natural, home birth. Our daughter Rachel was born in the same bed and into the same loving environment three years earlier. My wife Devorah and I were resolute about our decision not to circumcise our son. We felt like pioneers braving the obstacles of both family and Jewish tradition. We reasoned that if we made such an effort to create a loving welcome into the world, how could we inflict unnecessary pain upon this beautiful soul just because of what seemed to be an archaic tradition?

How we all change! In 1988 I had a spiritual awakening. I was forty-years-old when I “heard the call,” and soon I was on the path to becoming a rabbi. At first my personal spiritual practices and study were not a contradiction to having an uncircumcised son. Afterall, my original reasoning against the ritual still seemed true.

But little by little something inside me was changing. Not a sense of returning to tradition. Not a sense of tribal loyalty. Not even a sense that our decision not to circumcise was a mistake. But a sense that there is a difference between a circumcision and a britt. A britt is a covenant or partnership with the Divine. I was experiencing this covenant myself firsthand. I no longer saw Jewish rituals as symbolic. They were, when conducted properly, not symbols but part of a spiritual technology for covenenting with God.

Shabbat candlelighting was no longer a quaint representation of an ancient fire ritual. The wine was not a symbol but an actuality. Candles and wine were signals to G-d that our family was ready for Sabbath. And when we sang the Friday evening song to welcome angels into our home it wasn’t because it was symbolic. We sang it because we were actually welcoming real angels. We blessed our children because we were connecting the souls of our children to Shechinah (the feminine name for the Divine Presence of God).

We arranged for Ari’s belated circumcision when he was six-years old. My change of mind was strictly spiritual. I believed that G-d’s covenant was a real energy pact. I believed that Elijah was an animate energy force, and that his chair at a circumcision was not just symbolic. And if there was a psychological benefit for Ari to have his penis look like mine, then that would be an added benefit.

The next morning, while lying on the living room floor together I told my son, my only son, that had I done this when he was eight days old there would have hardly been any pain. I told him that I didn’t do it then because I didn’t want to cause him any pain. I asked his forgiveness for causing him so much pain now.

His answer still gives me shivers, “Of course I forgive you Daddy. But why didn’t you do it then? I wanted you to do it when I was eight days old!” My mind went numb. I thought, “What did he mean by ‘I wanted you to do it then?’ Dare I ask?” With tears streaming down both our cheeks we sat together in silence. Six years late, but the father/son bonding experience was extraordinary.

Selected in the anthology “Best Jewish Writing of 2002.” Originally published in Tikkun Magazine, Spring 2002.

Darkness and Light

by Rabbi David Zaslow
December, 1999
In Isaiah 45:7 the prophet utters the words he hears from Hashem, “I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil. I, Hashem, make these….” Isaiah then continues with his own words, “Woe unto him that strives with his Maker….Shall the clay say to him that fashions it, “What are you making?”

These passages are speaking to the riddle of good and evil. How can God who desires good permit evil to exist? The answer is resolved (sort of resolved) in our tradition with the idea that the riddle is really a paradox; something we simply have to live with, struggle with, and ultimately permit to be an unresolved mystery. Unsatisfying, isn’t it? When we see good people suffer and evil people thrive, something arises in me that just wants to “strive with my Maker.” But “woe unto me” when I do. I get myself deeper into despair over all the unnecessary suffering in the world.

Yet, here’s another paradox: Every time I tempt the “woe unto me” by “striving with my Maker” I use the very force of evil that Isaiah warns us about, and I seem to come out a level higher. It’s as if God is tempting me NOT to take these words too literally, but to strive like Abraham does on behalf of Sodom, or as Moses does on behalf of Israel.

In fact, our tradition applauds using the forces of rebellion, the forces of seeming independence from God, in order to trump God’s hand. And every time this is done in the name of goodness and humanity, God folds the cards and declares we’ve won. Freud contended with God against the lack of compassion for the mentally ill. Jonas Salk contended with God against polio. The Jewish people contended with God after the Holocaust and forced Great Britain’s hand for an independent Israel. And Einstein contended with God against the mysteries of the universe itself.

Martin Buber taught that evil is simply the lowest rung of goodness. He taught that out of evil itself can come great good. He invited us to take a look at our own lives. Does goodness come by itself? No, it comes in contrast to our mistakes, our sins. When we err and see it for what it is, the good that comes out of it is even greater than the good that exists where there was no prior sin. Does this justify the sin? Buber says no. But we will make mistakes. And what matters is what we do with them. Sin, transformed, creates an extraordinary light. How the world deals with our relationship to the earth; how nations at war deal with their enemies; how we deal with each other – striving in these areas may catapult humanity into the greatest renaissance of peace ever known.

A millennium of peace, the messianic age– a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. God continues to tell Isaiah what will someday happen: “Drop down you heavens from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness. Let the earth open and let them bring forth salvation. And let righteousness spring up together.”

During the Hanukkah season we light candles, not curse the darkness. During the darkest time of the year we tell not only stories of good triumphing over evil, but stories of evil itself transforming. Our tradition teaches us that the darkest time of the year is not a time to make confessions and resolutions for a new year. That work is done during equinox, not solstice. The darkest days are days for going deeply inside ourselves and being thankful for all the transformations that have occurred; celebrating how our past negative traits have been used for good in our lives when we were willing to face the shadow, own it, repair the damage, and then move on.

May the new year, and the new millennium, bring God’s promise of blessing and joy to each of us. May we each have the courage to light the menorah next week with the knowledge that only because of the darkness can we even appreciate the light. Only because of our suffering can we appreciate our joys. Only because of our mistakes can we appreciate our transformations.

As we enter a new era, the mystery remains. Good people are still suffering. Nations are still at war with each other over things as trite as land, power, and material wealth. And I’m going to spend Hanukkah striving with my Maker. How? By loving my neighbor as myself just a little bit more. By loving my incredible wife and children even more. By lighting the candles each night and meditating on their meaning.

A Jewish Renewal Approach to Prayer

by Rabbi David Zaslow

How many of us are saddened that in our childhoods we learned the words to our Jewish prayers, but we rarely knew what we were saying? And today how many of us feel left out of services because we simply can’t read the Hebrew words quickly enough, or at all? Early in our Jewish educations we learn to pronounce the Divine Name as Adonai. In these times, when talking about the Lord many Jews prefer to use gender neutral names like Hashem (which literally means “The Name”), the Eternal, or the Holy One. The ineffable Name of God is called the Tetragrammaton (the Four Letter Name) and contains both masculine and feminine attributes of the Holy One. It is sometimes mistransliterated as “Jehovah” and translated in the masculine as “Lord.” The Holy Name is spelled with the Hebrew letters yod, hey, vav, and hey. Yet very few of us have ever been taught the inner meaning of this Name in relation to the structure of our services. Further, what does it mean when we repeatedly read in the siddur about God’s Name alone being exalted and praised?

The kabbalists of the sixteenth-century who lived in Safed used the image of Jacob’s ladder to describe the order of prayers in the siddur. Further, they helped us identify the psycho-spiritual reasons for this order, and it is a joyous endeavor to learn about it. They taught that each of the four letters of God’s ineffable Name represent the four rungs of life: body, emotion, intellect, and spirit. In turn, the order of prayers in the siddur follow these organic levels, and the petitioner is like one who climbs a ladder from earth to heaven. All siddurim follow a very similar pattern and order of prayers. Siddurim also include the innovations of these same kabbalists who created the Kaballat Shabbat and the Havdallah services, and who are responsible for some of the most beautiful liturgy in the siddur.

In the weekday morning service, for example, we wake up and begin with the rung of prayers concerning the body known as the B’rachot HaShachar, thanking the Holy One for permitting us to awaken, and for the proper functioning of our various body parts, including breath. This represents the lower hey of the Name representing the bodily level of life. Next, we move from acknowledgment to emotion-filled praise. This second rung in the service is known as the P’sukei D’Zimra, and many of the psalms are located there. This section represents the vav in Hashem’s Name and represents the emotional level of life. The third rung of the service is the Kriat Shema, which begins with the Barachu and continues with the blessings surrounding the Shema. On this level we move from praise to declaration. When the Shema is recited we declare that Adonai, whose Name mirrors the four levels of our lives, is an indivisible unity. This third section stands for the upper hey representing the intellect.

The fourth rung in the service is called by several names: the Amidah, Shemonah Esray, T’fillah, or just simply the Prayer. Our rabbis teach that if we climb the first three rungs of the ladder with concentration and joy we now can enter the gates where we can truly pray (i.e. ask the Creator to attend to our personal needs as sentient beings). This fourth rung corresponds to the yod of the Divine Name and represents soul level of life.

Through an inspired series of 18 benedictions we can actually feel what has been described as oneness or cleaving (d’vaykut) to the Holy One. A careful study of each level of the service reveals an exquisite internal four-rung ladder within each individual rung. In fact, each major prayer within each rung contains its own mini four-rung ladder. The effect of this knowledge during prayer can be kaleidoscopic, and is an emotionally thrilling experience. Prayer then becomes like a journey inside of a crystal, only this crystal is the essence of God’s own Being in whose image we are continually being created.

The image of Jacob’s ladder is not the only metaphor that has been used to describe the deep infrastructure of the prayerbook. In his Meta Siddur, Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank writes, “The dynamic metaphor of climbing a ladder conveys that the davvenen is intended to facilitate a symphony of prayer states. Another possible metaphor (considered by Rabbi Yaakov Emden, and that I heard from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) is that of entering the Temple, visiting the Holy of Holies, and exiting the Temple. One may, nowadays, consider the recapitulation of the stages of evolution. I like to imagine blending all three metaphors: as one ascends the rungs of the ladder and enters ever deeper into the Temple, one finds oneself changing into a more and more evolved, complicated being.”

The relationship between the petitioner and the Holy One is traditionally compared to that of a parent and child, or between King and servant. Our sages ask us to think of the prayer service in the same way we think of a child needing something from his or her parent. The clever child doesn’t just ask for what he or she needs. First the child acknowledges how good it is to be alive, and to be in such a wonderfully designed body (Birkat HaShachar). Next, the child lavishes praises upon the father or mother (P’sukei D’Zimra). The loving parent now suspects that the child wants something, but is deeply flattered since the child is so sincere. Secretly, the parent wants the child to have what he or she needs, but also realizes how important it is for the child’s inner development to go through this process.

The child then makes the ultimate declaration that his or her parent is the only father or mother he will ever have (K’riat Shema). The father or mother joyously and humorously asks, “Okay, so what do you want? How much is it going to cost?” This, of course, invites the child to be direct in his or her petition. The child feels so at one with the parent, and the parent feels so at one with the child, that the asking and the receiving becomes the natural expression of their deep love for one another. So, it is with us as petitioners before the Living God. When we finally reach the point of asking (in the Amidah) our sages suggest that we should sincerely feel that we are as deeply connected to our Heavenly Father as we are our earthly parents.

Today, even as less masculine or hierarchical comparisons are being explored, the four-level infrastructure of the prayer service itself remains unchallenged. As a ladder for entry into the Heavenly realm each rung, and the rungs within each rung, have organic function. The rote recitation of prayers with congregants standing and sitting like actors taking cues is not what the sages of the Talmud ever expected from us as we talk to the Creator of the Universe. Prayer, they all taught, must have intention, or kavannah. The words must be said slowly enough to be both understood and felt, and may even be said in the vernacular if that makes comprehension easier.

From the introduction to “Ivdu et Hashem b’Simcha” a prayerbook for Renewal edited by Rabbi David Zaslow (shalomrav@aol.com)