Tag Archives: Temple Beth El

Faith – Israel’s Future

(My deepest appreciation goes to Micah Goodman who shared with me this paradigm for thinking about Israel at the Shalom Hartman Institute – July 2016).

In April of 1903, a Ukranian boy was found killed in the town of Dubossary.  Soon after, a Ukranian girl committed suicide by poisoning herself and died in a Jewish hospital.  The anti-Semitic newspaper Bessarabetz linked their deaths to the infamous blood-libel, claiming the children were killed so that their blood could be used to produce Passover Matzah.

At the urging of the Russian Orthodox priests on Easter Sunday, a mob poured out of the churches in Kishinev and over two days attacked the Jewish community with a viciousness that cannot be described.  Dozens of people, including infant children, were hideously murdered.  Dozens more women were gang raped and hundreds of houses destroyed.

The Hebrew poet Chaim Nahman Bialik was asked to visit Kishinev not long after and instead of submitting a report on the pogrom, he instead composed a poem called “The City of Slaughter.”  But Bialik’s reaction was not what one would typically expect. Instead of saying that the victims died in the sanctification of God’s name, he instead claims that their lives were taken in vain.  Bialik rails against the Jews for what he saw as their cowering passivity, their refusal to stand and fight.

Come, now, and I will bring you to their lairs
The privies, jakes and pigpens where the heirs
Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,
Concealed and cowering — the sons of the Maccabees!
The seed of saints, the scions of the lions!
Who, crammed by scores in all the sanctuaries of their shame,
So sanctified My name!

A young journalist named Vladimir Jabotinsky translated Bialik’s poem into Russian and from that inspiration became one of the most influential Zionist voices leading to the creation of the State of Israel.

Jabotinsky was born in 1880 in Odessa, which at the time was one of the most sophisticated centers of Jewish life in Europe.  As Zionist scholar Arthur Hertzberg explains, Jabotinsky “was raised much more on Russian than on Jewish culture.”[1]  At the age of 18, he skipped his last year of high school to become a foreign correspondent for one of the Odessa newspapers.  After a few months in Bern, he made his way to Rome, where he spent three years studying in the University.  He became a skilled orator and a talented writer, and he balanced both talents in his journalism career and his support for the growing Zionist movement.  Eventually Jabotinsky learned to speak eleven languages and could write in seven.

For Jabotinsky, Zionism represented the resuscitation of the Maccabees, the reclamation of the Jewish people’s ability to defend themselves.  The creation of a Jewish state, he thought, was necessary for the very survival of the Jewish people.  During World War I, Jabotinsky foresaw that the Ottoman Empire would collapse, and so single-handedly pushed the British to allow the creation of three Jewish battalions, where he himself enlisted as a private and rose to the rank of lieutenant.  Following the war and the periodic Arab riots and revolts of the 1920s, Jabotinsky lobbied for a rapid mass immigration of Jews to Palestine, a position rejected by Chaim Weizmann and the Zionist elite.

There was another young journalist named Theodor Herzl who built a very different vision of Zionism.  Twenty years older than Jabotinsky, Herzl was a young foreign correspondent who had also been raised in an assimilated household.  He was assigned to cover the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French military, who was framed on charges of treason.  Covering the trial, Herzl was astounded when he heard cries of protesters outside the courthouse chanting, “Death to the Jews!  Death to the Jews!”  Despite all the claims of the enlightenment, Herzl had an epiphany that Europe would never accept the Jews.  He believed that if the Jews could actualize their dream of a homeland, and become a “normal” nation among the family of nations, then anti-Semitism would disappear.

Herzl wrote a book called Altneuland, meaning “Old-New Land”.  The book begins with the main characters, Friedrich Lowenberg, a young intellectual from Vienna, and his friend Kingscourt, who tired from European bourgeois decadence, and decide in 1903 to retire to the Cook islands in the South Pacific.  On their way, they stop in Jaffa, and find Palestine a pathetic, destitute, and backward land.  Twenty years later, on their way back to Europe, they stop again in Jaffa and find a thriving utopia.  The land is filled with technologically advanced industries, a booming economy and a growing, diverse population.  The Arabs enjoy equal rights with Jews, and people from all over the world live together in a free, sophisticated, harmonious society.

Building this utopian Jewish society, in Herzl’s imagination, would erase anti-Semitism.  The Arabs and the Jews live together in harmony because the Jews brought them a prosperity they never imagined they would enjoy.  As my teacher this summer Micah Goodman explained, in Herzl’s mind the Jews will want Zionism because it will allow them to leave Europe.  The Arabs will want Zionism because it will bring them the richness of Europe.

Herzl died on July 3, 1904.  Jabotinsky died on August 4, 1940.  Neither lived to see the birth of the State they both worked so hard to create.  But each of their voices continue to echo throughout the land.

Tal Becker is the principal deputy legal adviser at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and is a senior member of the Israeli peace negotiation team, including in the last round of talks mediated by US Secretary of State John Kerry. I had the privilege of studying with him during my weeks at the Hartman Institute this summer.  He explains that Israel sits in a Middle East today that can be divided into four groups:

  • There is a growing Shia Crescent, led by Iran and includes Hizbullah, Iraq, Lebanon, Assad, and now has a partner in Russia.
  • There are the Global Jihadists – the Sunni extremists like ISIS and Al Qaeda, each of which hates the other but both believe in an anti-Shia global agenda.
  • There are the Political Islamists, which include the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and their sponsors in Qatar, which have a nationalist character to their ideologies
  • Then there are the Old Guard Sunni countries which have not yet fallen – Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, who spend their time shoring up their own defenses against the threats they perceive from each of the first three groups.

Israel, he says, is essentially a Jewish old guard sunni country.  Looking around at the violent chaos and convulsions in the Sunni / Shia Islamist struggles, which have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, Israel’s senior objective seems to be to do whatever is necessary to prevent the rise of extremists from within and on Israel’s doorstep.

This is the echo of Jabotinsky.  Jabotinsky believed that the key to the saving the Jewish people was to build an army that would make us strong.  He believed that Zionism was about restoring Jewish honor and pride by promoting self-sufficiency and an ability to defend ourselves.  As Micah Goodman taught us, Jabotinsky believed in Isaiah’s vision of a world where the wolf would dwell with the lamb, but he believed it’s far better if you are the wolf.

But Becker asks a fundamental question: if your agenda is only prevention, is that enough to inspire people to send their children to the army?  Don’t we need a more expansive vision of what Israel should be than simply the largest Jewish ghetto in history?

This is the vision of Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum.  Raised in a religious Zionist home, during her time in the army, Tamar came to appreciate the books that could be found on a different bookshelf in a Jewish home.  While studying philosophy at Hebrew University, reading the works of the great thinkers Buber, Rosenzweig and Heschel, she pondered the fact that the great voices of Jewish thinking were all dead and gone.  It was at that time that Tamar told her teacher Professor Eliezer Schweid:  “I want you to know that I am dedicating my life to the renaissance of the Jewish community in Israel.”  Tamar studied for the rabbinate with the Masorti movement, the parallel to the conservative movement in Israel, and after a short stint as an associate rabbi in Westchester, New York, returned to Jerusalem to create Tzion: A Native Israeli Community.

Tamar speaks with a prophetic voice that is riveting and inspiring.  She shared with us this summer that her deepest pain is to see an Israel that focuses solely on its survival.  Like Herzl, she laments that “what should have been the habitat for the renewal of the Jewish soul is a place focused solely on survival.”  She implored us to re-read the words of the great Israeli statesman Ahad Ha-Am, who warned that if we save the Jewish body without saving the Jewish soul, we will create the scariest Jewish ghetto in history.”  Israel, she says, must be a body that is strong enough to survive with a soul that is still hopeful enough to dream.  Israel, she says, is a test for Jews and Judaism.  “A Jewish national project with … no imagination or dream will result in our children turning their back on this project.”

I spent the better part of two months in Israel this summer, two weeks touring with members of our congregation and four weeks in study at the Shalom Hartman Institute.  And throughout my time in nearly every conversation I could feel the tension and the pull of the dreamers and the skeptics, the descendants of Herzl and the descendants of Jabotinsky.

On the one hand, I found a state of Israel at its most cynical.  The government negotiated a plan to build an egalitarian section of the Western Wall that would be open to all who wanted to pray in Judaism’s holiest site free from the restrictions of the Haredi rabbinate, only to see the administration renounce the deal they had negotiated because of pressure from the Chief Rabbinate and the ultra-orthodox.  I saw so many friends I admire shrug their shoulders in despair as they lamented the fact that Mahmoud Abbas, who is now in his 11th year of a five-year term as President of the Palestinian Authority, will not negotiate a peace agreement, and even if he would, has no power or ability to deliver it.  I saw an Israel that seeks to understand how 19 families control 60% of its wealth, how the small minority of ultra-orthodox dictate the religious lives of the larger Jewish majority, and who struggle to imagine a future in the world’s most dangerous neighborhood.

There is a painful irony in Israel today.  Goodman explains that 70% of Israelis think that we have to leave the West Bank because the occupation not only threatens Israel’s future demographically but morally as well.  And 70% of Israelis think we cannot possibly give up the West Bank because that will return Israel to indefensible borders and will invite the horror and chaos of the Middle East into the heart of the State.

But just when we feel overcome with a sense of despair, we can be inspired by what Herzl and Jabotinsky and all my teachers at Hartman share as their primary value – Emunah – faith.  They believe in the future of the Jewish people.  They believe that in strengthening Israel’s body, we can redeem Israel’s spirit. They believe that as Tamar taught me, Emunah will be the spiritual training system that will empower us to rebel against the natural stress of survival to find meaning and reason to survive.

And here is where I found that faith come alive. Last summer I visited the City of Lod, which lies adjacent to Ben Gurion airport and was once an Arab city whose Arab population was mostly expelled during Israel’s war for independence.  Today, Lod is a mixed city of Israeli Arabs, working class new Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, and a growing number of religious Jews.

There is a community center in a depressed area of town, adjacent to a rutted field and the ruins of an 19th century inn.  The community center is run by two women, a Muslim woman Faten and a Jewish woman Yafit, who despite all that divides them, have built a close friendship. In the roughest section of the city, they have not only built a model of coexistence, but of collaboration and integration. “We don’t agree on most things,” Faten said, “but I’m not going anywhere and neither is she.  So we have to deal with each other, we have to know each other, we have to figure out how to understand each other so we can live together in peace.”

It is the same faith in the future for Israel we find in Faten and Yafit that I also found in my extraordinary teachers at Hartman this summer. It is the same faith that drove Herzl and Jabotinsky in years gone by, and is the faith that will sustain Israel in these turbulent and difficult times. It is a faith that despite all the obstacles we face, we are strong and resolute, idealistic and hopeful.  We still believe we can plant in that rocky and arid soil a sapling of hope that will sink deep roots and grow tall and strong, a living and vibrant Tree of life that will not only blossom with the wisdom of Torah and tradition, but provide shade for all who seek to sit together in peace.  Im Tirzu, Ayn Zo Agadah – as Herzl said, If you will it, then it is no dream.

[1] Arthur Hertzberg, The Zionist Idea. New York: JPS, 1959, p. 557.

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We Don’t Need A Superhero

Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Morning

October 3, 2016 – 1 Tishri, 5777

Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

By Rabbi Daniel Levin

 

Over last spring break, my sister came to visit and my son suggested that we all go see a movie together.  “Let’s go see Batman vs. Superman!” he said.  And so we did.  In Imax.  In 3-D.

In the film, Superman is blamed for destroying Metropolis after his previous battle with General Zod. People are conflicted about whether Superman is a hero of hope or an alien threat.  Billionaire socialite Bruce Wayne, also known as Batman, sees Superman as a potential threat to humanity and becomes obsessed with him. He decides to build a Kryptonite weapon to use as a defense against Superman.

Meanwhile the evil Lex Luthor, who has manipulated Batman into his fight against Superman, kidnaps Superman’s mother Martha, and demands that Superman kill Batman or else.  In the midst of their epic struggle, when Batman has nearly overpowered Superman with his kryptonite weapon, they realize both of their mothers are named Martha and understand they are really on the same side.  Together, they fight to defeat Lex Luthor, who has fashioned a superpowered monster, but at the end, the monster is destroyed. Then, in its dying breath, the monster kills Superman … or does he???

In a spirit of shared suffering, I have related this story to you in this abbreviated fashion.  This movie stole 151 minutes of my life that I can’t get back.  I love my son, and it is because of that love that I have chosen this Rosh HaShanah to forgive him for bringing our family to see this film.

But I can’t really blame him.  The film grossed $166 million dollars in the opening weekend.  The fact is people love superheroes.  We always have.

Back in the 1930s, two creative Jewish high school friends, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster began to invent a comic strip called Dr. Occult, a supernatural “ghost detective” who would battle vampires, ghosts, and sorcerers.  Soon, Dr. Occult was dressed in blue tights and a red cape and began to demonstrate supernatural powers.  They called their new character: Superman.

Arie Kaplan, who chronicles the group of Jews who created the comic book industry, notes that Siegel and Shuster created Superman as adolescents in the midst of the Great Depression and as Hitler was rising to power in Germany. “The Superman narrative is … rich in Jewish symbolism. He is a child survivor named Kal-El (in Hebrew, “All that is God”) from the planet Krypton, whose population of brilliant scientists, is decimated. His parents send him to Earth in a tiny rocket ship, reminiscent of how baby Moses survived Pharaoh’s decree to kill all Jewish newborn sons. In the context of the 1930s, the story also reflects the saga of the Kindertransports – the evacuation of hundreds of Jewish children, without their parents, from Austria, Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia to Great Britain. Angst-ridden adolescent fans, Jewish and not, shared Siegel and Shuster’s feelings of helplessness and yearned for a super-savior.”[1]

Comics scholar Peter Coogan defines a Superhero as “A heroic character with a universal, self-less, prosocial mission; who possesses superpowers – extraordinary abilities, advanced technology, or highly developed physical and/or mental skills… The superhero’s mission is to fight evil and protect the innocent.”[2]  As superheroes evolved, they came to hide their superhero identities with alter-ego personalities: Superman was mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent, Batman was billionaire orphaned playboy Bruce Wayne.  The messianic overtones to the message seem clear – even the average person you would least suspect could potentially be the savior of the world.

And wouldn’t that be great? Wouldn’t it be great if we could be protected from all that we fear by some perfectly altruistic selfless superhero?  Wouldn’t it be great if someone with superpowers could rescue us from our scary, corrupt, and broken world and just fix it once and for all?

It’s something we’ve dreamed of forever.  When our people were enslaved in Egypt, there appeared from out of nowhere the perfect Jewish superhero – Moses.  It was as if he came in from outer space, wandering into Pharaoh’s palace as if he belonged there.  A savior.  He even appeared to have superpowers.  He could turn his staff into a snake, he could strike the waters of the Nile and turn the river into blood, he could hold his arm over the waters and caused the sea to part.

But as they journeyed through the wilderness the Israelites were taught that Moses was not a superhero.  Moses was not their God.  He was just like them, fully and profoundly human.

There is a midrash that talks about the moments before the revelation at Mt. Sinai.  Moses had returned to the mountain to get God’s instructions.  The midrash imagines that God had wanted to give the Torah right then and there, but Moses was in the way. “God thought: When I am revealed to them and say: ‘I am YHVH your God,’ they will ask, ‘Who is speaking? God or Moses?’ Let Moses, therefore, descend and then I will proclaim:  “I am YHVH your God.”[3]  God is afraid that the Israelites will think that Moses is God, but Moses isn’t God. He is simply one of them.

The Israelites in the wilderness are vulnerable and scared.  They feel powerless against all the threats they face to their survival. Stamped in their consciousness is one word – slave – a person who cannot make his own decisions, a person who cannot control her own destiny.  As slaves, their lives were in Pharaoh’s hands, for after all, Pharaoh was a God.  And so now they wonder if their lives are in Moses’ hands, and they wonder if Moses is their God.

The fact is in many ways we are those same Israelites wandering in the wilderness.  We also feel vulnerable and scared.  We worry that our destiny and our future is not under our control.

And so we look for superheroes.  We look for superheroes who will come and save us, superheroes who will protect us from evil, who will right the wrongs of our world and make us safe.

So often this is what we expect from our leaders.  We expect our president to be a superhero – who can come into office and instantaneously fix everything that’s wrong with America and the world.  We expect that the president can single-handedly make our adversaries stop hating us, lead us into battle and painlessly vanquish our enemies, restore us to prosperity, protect us from those who would seek to hurt us, and ensure that the injustices in our world and our country are made right.  We expect the president to be free of fault, to be of pristine morality, to live with altruistic integrity, to be constantly of good humor, agreeable, never given over to anger or frustration. We demand that our president be all-knowing, all-powerful, and clairvoyant.

We want our president, we expect our president, to be a superhero.  And in order for the president to be a superhero, then it only follows that whoever opposes the president must therefore be a villain – these days a supervillain.

If the superhero is the one who makes you feel safe, then the supervillain is the one who makes you feel afraid. Robin Rosenberg writes in her book What is a Superhero? that there are lots of different kinds of villains. A villain may be simply a straightforward criminal, or maybe a person who is out for revenge to hurt those who hurt him. A villain can be seemingly heroic, who, with a warped sense of altruism, employs evil means for what may seem a worthy goal, and sometimes a villain is a sadist, who takes grotesque pleasure in wreaking death and destruction.[4]

To be sure, there are supervillains in our world.  Want to see a supervillain in action – look to Bashar Assad in Syria, dropping barrel bombs on innocent civilians, attacking aid workers who seek only to help the humanitarian crisis, deploying chemical weapons on his own people.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdati is another supervillain. The founder of the Islamic State or ISIS, he employs gruesome and sadistic means to cultivate fear and effect control over portions of Iraq and Syria.  He twists the teachings of Islam to inspire others to commit hideous acts of terror and violence in ISIS’ name throughout the world.

The list of villains is long.  And in some ways they are winning.  Not because they tactically can do much damage to any of us, but because they have succeeded in making us afraid.

Terrorism works because it attacks people seemingly at random – a pizza restaurant, a dance club, a random street corner, with no immediate justification or rationale.  Terrorism succeeds when we recoil in fear at the prospect of doing what should be simply part of a normal day. As Daniel Gardner writes in his book The Science of Fear, “Terrorism is vivid, violent, unjust, and potentially catastrophic.  It presses all of [our] buttons.”[5]

Ironically, despite our growing fear of terrorism, the likelihood that any of us here today will be hurt in an act of terror is infinitesimally small.  The University of Maryland reports that in the twenty years from 1995 to 2014, the number of Americans killed by terrorist attack in the United States was 3264, the overwhelming majority killed on September 11, 2001.[6] The number of people killed in automobile accidents in the United States in the same period was 785,195.  In 2013 alone, almost 57,000 people died from the flu and pneumonia.  A recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine reported that “Americans were more likely to die in an accident involving a bathtub (one in 950,000), a home appliance (one in 1.5 million), or a deer (one in two million).[7]

We must not be naïve.  Forces like ISIS are truly evil, and we must do all we can to vanquish that evil.  But we have a choice with what we do with our fear.

One option is to tell ourselves to be afraid.  We can, if we choose, succumb to the fear that a terrorist seeks to instill.  We can listen to those who would seek to be our leaders who tell us that we need to be afraid, afraid of our neighbors who practice Islam, afraid of refugees fleeing their war-torn country, afraid of immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East, or south Asia.  We can criticize and mock those who do not foment our fears as not sufficiently patriotic or as somehow in cahoots with our enemies.

Fear is natural and useful. As Rabbi Donniel Hartman explains, “fear instinctively causes us to go into defense mode, to shift our attention to our own needs, and protect ourselves from the real or supposed dangers that threaten us.”  Moral behavior, however, is based on the ability “to see others, their pain, their needs, and to respond.”  But then fear becomes dangerous: “At times,” he says, “fear does not merely shift our vision from the ‘other’ to ourselves, it also changes the way we see the other. Fear can lead to anger, anger to hatred, hatred to vilification, and vilification to denigration.”  Fear he says, can be like an infectious disease, depriving us of the ability to hope.  “Hope,” Hartman says, “cannot be constructed from the building blocks of fear. Its foundation must be the reaffirmation of our vision of both the world as we want it to be and ourselves as we ought to be.”[8]

We cannot conquer our fears by waiting for a superhero to tell us what we should fear and how he and he alone can make us safe.  That’s what villains do.  Villains do everything they can to make us afraid.  Like Lex Luthor in Batman vs. Superman, villains use lies and deception and half-truths to divide us from one another, to make us afraid of one another, and to seize power through that division and fear.

We do not need leaders who pretend to be superheroes.  The fact is there are no superheroes.  We don’t need leaders who pretend to be Pharaoh, who think they are gods, infallible and all-powerful.  What we need are leaders who bring us together to face our fears with courage and hope and faith. What we really need are people like you and me to refuse to be cowed by fear, to come together each and every day to do the right and good and loving thing, even when we are scared, even when we feel vulnerable, threatened, and weak.

This is the truth that Sebastian Junger uncovers in his book Tribe.  In this extraordinary little volume, Junger seeks to uncover why veterans returning from war have such a difficult time adjusting to civilian life in America today.  He explains that throughout the centuries and in a variety of different cultures, we learn that a healthy society is one in which people come together as a tribe, and take mutual responsibility for each other, working for the common good.

Junger writes that “Today’s veterans often come home to find that, although they’re willing to die for their country, they’re not sure how to live for it.  It’s hard to know how to live for a country that regularly tears itself apart along every possible ethnic and demographic boundary…  To make matters worse,” he writes, “politicians occasionally accuse rivals of deliberately trying to harm their own country – a charge so destructive … that most past societies would probably have punished it as a form of treason. It’s complete madness,” Junger writes, “and the veterans know this.”[9]

Junger explains that it is a platoon’s tribal bonds of love and sense of collective responsibility that is the source of its strength. “A modern soldier returning from combat goes from the kind of close-knit group … back into a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good.”[10]

We don’t need superheroes to save us from our fears.  We need each other.  We need to know that we can rely on each other, that we can depend on each other. We need to be willing to sacrifice for each other, and in turn, trust that there will be others who will sacrifice for us.  We need to turn away from the politics of derision and division, to replace our own selfish cares and concerns with what is in our collective interest and the collective good.

Junger writes that “The United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the United States herself, which means that the ultimate terrorist strategy would be to just leave the country alone…[11] But that isn’t the way it has to be.

In the year 5777, our nation and we as individuals face monumental choices.  What kind of a society do we want for ourselves, and what kind of leaders do we want to lead us?  But even more importantly, we must also ask ourselves what kind of citizens ought we to be, how will we face the challenges that lie ahead, and how will we confront all that rightly causes us anxiety and trepidation and fear?  In making those choices, let us choose not to give over to fear but instead to cultivate hope.  Let us choose to reject selfish care and concern and realize that our strength lies in how we choose to break down the barriers of division and fear.  In this New Year 5777, may the sounding of the shofar call us to embrace the truth our people has taught for centuries, the truth embedded in the motto of this great nation – E Pluribus Unum – Out of many, We shall be One.

[1] “How The Jews Created The Comic Book Industry,” by Arie Kaplan. Reform Judaism Magazine, Fall 2003, Vol. 32. No. 1.

[2] What Is A Superhero? Robin S. Rosenberg and Peter Coogan, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 3-4.

[3] Exodus Rabbah 28:3

[4] Op. Cit. Rosenberg, pp. 107-111

[5] Daniel Gardner, The Science of Fear. New York: Dutton 2008, pp. 282-283.

[6] https://www.start.umd.edu/pubs/START_AmericanTerrorismDeaths_FactSheet_

Oct2015.pdf

[7] https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2016-08-15/how-safe-are-we

[8] “Fear and Hope: The Core Emotions of our Moral DNA” by Donniel Hartman.  Delivered at the Shalom Hartman Institute July 10, 2016, Jerusalem, ISRAEL.

[9]  Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. New York: Twleve, pp. 124-125.

[10] Ibid., p.93.

[11] Ibid, pp. 127-128.

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The Framework With Iran – Dayenu?

Yesterday, the president announced that “together with our allies and partners, has reached a historic understanding with Iran, which, if fully implemented, will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

As I prepare to sit down with family and friends for our seder meals, I don’t know what to feel.  Part of me wants to feel some sense of joy or relief.  The leaders of the strongest nations on the planet, each with different and competing agendas for their own place in the world, came together united to prevent Iran from developing the most fearsome weapon humanity has devised or known.  The Council on Foreign Relations’ Michael Levi wrote that “The nuclear limits – particularly those on the Iranian supply chain – are surprisingly strong and significant.”[1]

William J. Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and former deputy secretary of state summed up the challenge facing negotiators.  “In a perfect world,” he wrote, “there would be no nuclear enrichment in Iran, and its existing enrichment facilities would be dismantled. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We can’t wish or bomb away the basic know-how and enrichment capability that Iran has developed. What we can do is sharply constrain it over a long duration, monitor it with unprecedented intrusiveness, and prevent the Iranian leadership from enriching material to weapons grade and building a bomb.”[2]

There has been much commentary as to whether such an arms control scheme can work.  Will Iran try to deceive the monitors?  Will such monitoring effectively prevent Iran from moving forward on their designs toward a nuclear weapon?  At the AIPAC conference in early March, I heard Ambassador Brad Gordon remind us that inspectors are just that: inspectors.  Even if their inspections turn up evidence that Iran has decided to break provisions of the agreement, what can they do?  How fast can the world’s leaders come together to address that eventuality?  It took years of careful diplomacy and negotiations to impose the sanctions regime that brought Iran to the table.  How long would it take to impose such sanctions again, and how long would it take for their effects to be felt in Tehran?

We are not fortune tellers, sooth-sayers, or clairvoyant prophets with a crystal ball into the future.  We will have to see what the deal looks like with meat on its bones.  For example, as Michael Levi writes, it is unclear how Iran will reduce its stockpile of Low Enriched Uranium from 10,000 kg to 300 kg. Will Iran ship the material out of country? Will it blend it down to LEU that’s enriched to less than 3.67 percent? Will it convert the LEU into fuel?”  It is also unclear as to the pace and method of sanctions relief.  Which sanctions will be removed first?  How quickly will Iran’s economy realize the benefits from normalizing its banking relationships and energy sales?

But what worries me more, frankly, is what happens next.  Iran used its nuclear ambition to gain economic concessions from the west.  We have already seen that despite the pressures and constraints on Iran’s economy, they have still found the resources and willingness to project what Prime Minister Netanyahu aptly described as “tentacles of terror” throughout the region.  Iran projects power into Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and now Yemen.  Despite UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for the complete disarmament of militia groups in Lebanon, Iran has armed Hizbullah with what some claim is an arsenal of nearly 100,000 missiles.

In 2006, Hizbullah launched more than 4,000 missiles at Israel.  It is estimated that Hizbullah now has double the arsenal, and according to Col. Aviram Hasson, Iran is a “train engine that is not stopping for a moment. It is manufacturing new and advanced ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. It is turning unguided rockets that had an accuracy range of kilometers into weapons that are accurate to within meters.”[3]

Iran’s military continues to state its goal of “wiping Israel off the map”.  According to a Kol Yisrael report, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, head of Iran’s volunteer Basij Force, reaffirmed during a recent conference the goal of Israel’s destruction is non-negotiable. Can Iran achieve this goal?  No.  Israel is too strong and possesses its own nuclear threat.

But the nuclear threat does not completely deter aggression.  Despite America’s massive nuclear capability, we still have fought wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan that have claimed the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of lives in the war zones themselves.  Even without nuclear capability, Iran has used its proxies to project its power throughout the region.

There are many countries in the world who possess the technology Iran seeks to hold who do not have a nuclear bomb.  Canada produces 16 percent of its electricity with nuclear power, but possesses no nuclear weapon. Spain produces nearly 20 percent of its electricity with nuclear power, but possesses no nuclear weapon.  And of all the countries in the world whom you would expect to want a nuclear weapon, since they alone have experienced the horror of what those weapons can impose, Japan possesses no nuclear weapon.

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote on Wednesday that he believes that this agreement may help create “the conditions for Iran to become a normal country.”[4]  But I can’t help thinking that normal countries do not threaten to wipe others off the map.

The biggest problem with the deal is that it fails to address the underlying real threat that Iran represents, which is a desire to foment belligerency, extremism, and war throughout a region over which it seeks to expand its hegemony.  A “good deal” would not simply have blocked all paths for Iran to build a nuclear bomb, but would have blocked all paths for Iran to pursue its hegemonic aims.  A good deal would have tied sanctions relief to Iran pulling back its weaponization and military support for proxies like Hamas, the Houthis in Yemen, and Hizbullah.

Sadly, the real threat that Iran poses to Israel and the region is only bolstered now by the billions of dollars Iran will eventually realize from sanctions relief.  Iran has strategically used its investment in nuclear technology to strengthen its position to project its power into a region that has much to fear from it.

I wish I could look at the framework for the agreement with Iran and say, “Dayenu – it’s enough for us.”  Sadly, I don’t really think it is.  But the Holy One did not stop with taking us out of Egypt. It wasn’t enough. We needed the sea to split for us, we needed to be satisfied in the desert, we needed Shabbat and to be led to Mount Sinai.  I pray that the Holy One will continue to help us be defended from our enemies, and that we will soon open the door for Elijah to see the blessings of peace fill our homes and the world we all share.

[1] “Five Thoughts on the Iran Nuclear Agreement” by Micahel Levi.  Council on Foreign Relations,  April 2, 2015.

[2] “The Fruits of Diplomacy With Iran” by William J. Burns.  The Washington Post, April 3, 2015.

[3] “Iran Is Placing Guided Warheads on Hezbollah Rockets” by Yaakov Lapin. The Jerusalem Post, March 31, 2015

[4] “A Nuclear Deal With Iran Is Not Just About Bombs” by Nicholas Kristof. The New York Times, April 1, 2015.

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First Steps Toward Justice For The LGBT Community

Following are the comments I offered at a Panel Discussion Sponsored by Temple Beth El and the ADL called “Moving Forward Together”.  It is my hope that this panel discussion will be a first step toward civil rights and justice for all, irrespective of sexual orientation.

 

I want to tell you why I’m here tonight.  I’m here because it’s time for our world to change.  It’s time for what we think of as the way it is to be the way it used to be.  It’s time for us to Move Forward Together to a world in which justice and fairness and love triumph over ignorance, injustice, and fear.

When Gandhi began his famous Salt Marsh on March 12, 1930, he left his home with just a handful of followers.  He knew the cause of freedom was just, and he knew that when people would see the justice of his cause, they would rise to walk with him.  By the time he arrived at the sea 24 days and 240 miles later, there were millions of people by his side.

A few weeks ago, as we sat around our seder tables, we talked about the liberation of our people from slavery in Egypt.  Our people were enslaved for four hundred years.  So what changed?  Why was it at that moment in history that God finally responded to our cries of anguish and pain?

I think it was because God finally found Moses.  But who was Moses?  Unlike all of his people, who suffered under the yoke of slavery and bondage, Moses grew up in the palace privileged and free.  And yet, when he went out to see his people, and he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite slave, he felt that slave’s pain and suffering.  It became his own. Moses was a man who felt the pain of those who were not like him.  He didn’t see the suffering of that slave and feel nothing?  He didn’t say to himself, “he must have done something to deserve that beating.”  He saw that suffering and it became his suffering, he saw that pain and it became his pain.

But he did more than feel that pain.  He chose to act.  He chose to rise up and say injustice will no longer be tolerated.  He did not simply feel compassion, but he acted on that compassion.  He did not simply see an injustice and say, “isn’t that terrible.”  He saw an injustice and sought to make it right.

It is for that reason that God turned to Moses and said I need you.  I need you as my partner to do what you think can’t be done.  I need you to go to Egypt and change the people who live there to imagine a new reality – a reality when freedom is enjoyed by all and injustice is made right.

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from his jail cell in Birmingham an essential truth – “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  And for men and women who are gay, bisexual, or transgendered, there is profound injustice in the State of Florida.

Others tonight will speak more about the impact of that injustice on their every day lives, but I want to talk about why I believe securing civil rights for the LGBT community is a Jewish imperative.  In the Talmud, the rabbis try to find the once verse in the Bible that sums up the totality of Judaism.  First they turn to the prophet Micah, who qualified Judaism into three ideas.  He said:

“What is it that God demands of you?  Only this: to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly in God’s presence.” – (Micah 6:8)

Isaiah based all the mitzvoth on two ideas:

“Keep Justice and Righteousness” – (Isaiah 56:1)

Amos reduced it to one:

“Seek me and live.” – (Amos 7:5-6)

Rabbi Akiva said:

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)  This is the most important precept of the Torah.

But Ben Azzai said:

“This is the book of the Generations … Humanity was created in God’s image.”   This is an even greater principle.

Ultimately, the entirety of Judaism rests on these two ideas.  The fact is, as Jews, we are obligated to love.  We are obligated to reach beyond the confines of our own immediate selves and seek to build bonds of love and intimacy with each other.

The Holy One clearly had a problem with sex for it’s own sake.  Pages of proscriptions in the book of Leviticus describe sexual encounters that are not founded in real intimacy and love as abominations.  But what Ben Azzai tells us is that humanity is created in God’s own image.  And that image is not gendered.  The essential nature of our humanity is not male or female.  The essential nature of our humanity is the spiritual energy that comes from love.  All we are is love.

But too often we focus on the vessel that carries that love.  We focus on the color of that vessel, or its gender, and assume that the vessel is really the self.  But we know better.  The tragedy of the Ferry disaster in South Korea is not that the boat is lost, but the people who were trapped within.  It’s not the loss of the vessel but the loss of life that matters.

The fact is, God does not care whom we love, but that we love.  And Ben Azzai taught us that the core of Torah is that we treasure the sanctity of each and every individual life, created in God’s holy image.

The great Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari, as he is known taught that in the beginning of time, God had a thought – a thought driven by an overwhelming and all powerful sense of love:  What if I could make a world?

The universe was filled end to end with light, and God withdrew some of that light to make room for our world.  This act of Tzimtzum not only left room for our world, but left a vacuum of darkness in which that world was born.  So God began to pour light back into the world, back through the holy vessels of wisdom and knowledge, compassion and justice, our drive to achieve, and our call to step back in wonder.  And the light was too powerful for those vessels to hold, and they shattered in a spiritual cataclysm from which we are still trying to recover today.  Shards of light and holiness were scattered throughout the world, hidden for us to find.

Thus it becomes each of our sacred callings to effect the work of Tikkun – of repairing the broken world which we inherit for all to brief a span, and to pass it on healed and well to our children and our children’s children.  Moses, God’s partner in freeing the Israelites from slavery, who led our people to the promised land, at the end of his journey admonished us as a people:  “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice shall you pursue.”

And so we must come together to fix what’s broken in our world.  We must gather together an overwhelming mixed multitude of people and say the injustice that is done daily to the gay community must be repaired, that we cannot stand idly by, that we will come together to make a difference.

I’m here tonight because I’m hoping to find partners, lots and lots of partners who feel the suffering of others and feel compelled to make it right.  Together let us move forward into a world that is healed of bigotry, injustice, and fear, into a new world where justice is championed for all, and God’s love and ours will spread a shelter of peace over us all.

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