Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Politics and Judaism (Yom Kippur 5780)

“Don’t be political.”

“Stick to the Judaism. We’ll watch the news if we want politics.”

“You should really focus on the Jewish aspect of our lives and stay out of politics.”

These are actual quotes from emails I have gotten in just the last year when I have mentioned things in sermons that people deem as, in their words, “too political.” So often I am told by congregants, “Don’t talk politics.” I am asked to steer clear of political commentary and stick to Judaism. If I speak on a topic that breaches the boundaries with which people are comfortable, I know exactly who will be sending me emails over the next few days. Don’t talk politics, stick with Judaism.

Here’s the thing, though. Judaism is politics.

The word politics comes from the Greek politika, which means, “of, for, or relating to the people.” We usually use the word politics to mean governance, and policies made by those in power, whether we agree or disagree with them. But really politics is about the needs of the citizens. So when people ask me not to speak on politics, I hear them asking me to avoid addressing the concerns of the people.

That would not be the Jewish way.

The Talmud, in Pirkei Avot, reminds us of Hillel’s words, al tifrosh min hatzibur, “do not separate yourself from the community” (Pirkei Avot 2:5). This rather well-known teaching reminds us that as Jews we thrive in community. We seek out others, usually who are similar to us, to form groups living in society together. The instruction not to separate from it is a reminder that the affairs of the people are the concerns of all the people.

In the next chapter, Rabbi Chaninah teaches us to “pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the awe it inspires, a person would eat his neighbor alive” (ibid. 3:2). That’s a bit of a morbid way to put it, but Maimonides has a similar teaching. He writes that if a tiny business man tells a giant beggar to get out of his face, and he listens, you know that there is government in power. Knowing that there is a system concerned for the wellbeing of all people creates a mode of behavior that, in general, makes a city with a governing body a good place to live.

In Tractate Meilah, Rabbi Reuven ben Isterobeli is credited with thwarting laws the Romans tried to impose on the Jewish people that would forbid them to observe Shabbat and Brit Milah, which he did by disguising himself as a Roman and participating in their policy discussions. How did he disguise himself as a Roman? He cut his hair in the Komei style, which was how the Romans did it. This meant he had to shave the sides of his head (Meilah 17a). Shaving the sides of his head was a direct violation of the Biblical prohibition against shaving the corners of his head, but in order to participate in politics, they allowed him to shave. So participating in politics was so important that the rabbis allowed violation of certain commandments in order to have a voice in the discussion.

To repeat: it was permitted to violate a commandment to participate in politics.

On the other hand, Pirkei Avot also has Rav Shemayah’s dictum, “do not become a familiar friend of the government” (Pirkei Avot 1:10). This may seem contradictory to the instruction to bless the government, but really it is a warning to not become overly involved with the people who make up the government. The phrase for “do not become a familiar friend,” is lo titvada. Titvada shares its root with l’da’at, “to know.” This kind of knowing is exactly what I hope you think it is. Perhaps a more colloquial translation would be, “do not become bedfellows with the government.” So while we are instructed to bless our leaders, we should not become beholden to them. For any reason. It is not particular people to whom we should be aligned, but it is all people about whom we should be concerned. That is what politics really means, and that is what Judaism is all about.

As Jews we have no problem with arguing. We love it. The Talmud even gives examples of good arguments and bad arguments. The classic good argument, known as b’shem shamayim, “for the sake of Heaven,” is between Hillel and Shammai. Hillel and Shammai were turn-of-the-first-century rabbis who regularly had differing opinions regarding how to interpret Jewish law. Because they were arguing so that the Jewish people would be informed in all of their decisions, their arguments are categorized as b’shem shamayim. The classic bad argument is that of Korach, who argued with Aaron in the book of Numbers, asking who he was to be the priest when they were of the same blood, same family. Aren’t they all as good as Aaron and his sons, they asked. While it might have been a good point, Korach was arguing for the sake of self-promotion, not good for the community.

Lately, as Americans, we have confused politics with partisanship, and we have maintained loyalty to personalities and parties rather than to our nation. This is exactly what Rav Shemayah warns against. We are becoming too familiar with those in power. We are allying ourselves with people and with parties instead of slinging ourselves with the governing we have hired them to do. 

Of course, there are some exceptions.

Justin Amash is a Michigan congressman born in the US to Palestinian refugees. His father fled to America at 16, and America provided opportunities for his family that they would never have had in the Middle East. His parents were enthusiastic Republicans, and he was elected to congress as a Republican in 2011. In July this year, he left the Republican Party, and he now serves as the only Independent in the House of Representatives. In his words, “In recent years...I’ve become disenchanted with party politics and frightened by what I see from it. The two-party system has evolved into an existential threat to American principles and institutions.”

In other words, his motivation is the mitigation of the power of the duopoly that exists in the United States Government. A duopoly exists when an industry gets run by two behemoths. The one that dominated as it grew to power in the 80s was in the soda industry. Coke and Pepsi control 70% of the soda market, and as often as we might drink Dr. Pepper or A&W Root Beer, Coke and Pepsi dominate the supermarket aisles, soda machines, and convenience stores. 

The main difference, and the very problem between the soda industry and the government industry is that we have created a duopoly between Republicans and Democrats, and allowed them to control nearly 100% of the active market. There are independents like Justin Amash, but I could only find six senators and eight representatives in congress since 1970. That’s a total of thirteen people in almost 50 years, thirteen because Bernie Sanders is on both lists. Only three of the thirteen were elected as independents and remained independent throughout their terms.

Katherine Gehl, CEO of Wisconsin dairy company Gehl Foods, and Michael Porter, Harvard Business Economics Professor, recently published a Harvard Business School Report called, “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America.” Their report shows that current political parties have made it very hard to compete if people are not playing by their rules. It would be one thing if they were taking care of their customers (us), yet they are much better at creating revenue and jobs for itself. Customer satisfaction is at historic lows. Fewer than 25% of Americans say they are satisfied with how things are working. In terms of popularity, the government ranks below every industry, including cable TV, health care, and even airlines. For these industries, when customer satisfaction gets so low, we usually see new competitors or products like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. In politics we do not see any new entrants except for Democrats and Republicans. Why? Because they work really well in one arena: colluding with each other to keep new parties out of government (Freakonomics, Season 8, Episode 10, "America's Hidden Duopoly").

Government today has become less about politics, the concerns of the people, and more about beating the opponent. They strengthen their stranglehold on the market by catering only to the extremes. All they have to do to win an election is show that they are this much less hated than the other person. The political industry that gets people elected runs independent of the issues they are supposed to be taking care of in our nation. This is not politics. This is partisanship.

What is worse is that the parties are the ones who set rules that benefit from the duopoly, not the people. In the American duopolistic model, polarization is a feature, not a bug. It is a feature created to cater to the wealthy, the special interests, the lobbyists, etc. As late as the 70s and 80s, landmark legislation was passed by both parties. The Social Security Act of 1935 had 90% Democratic support, and 75% Republican. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had 60% of Democrats supporting it, and 75% of Republicans. Today, landmark legislation can only pass if the party pushing it through has enough votes to carry it by themselves. The Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 with 0% Republican votes. Trump’s 2018 tax reform bill passed with 0% Democrat votes (ibid).

Why is it that this is happening more and more as we tread this path in the life of American politics? Because we are losing sight of the other in order to try to promote our own agenda. Because we are paying scant heed to the good of the community in order to make offerings to the cult of personality. Because on the rare occasions when we do try argue b’shem shamayim, we use logical fallacies instead of providing counterpoints. Because we give all the attention to those who would insult their political rivals rather than engage with them.

Gehl and Porter suggest a way out of this spiral of social destruction. Part of their plan includes non-partisan, single-ballot primaries in which all candidates for office would be on one ballot, with the top four vote-getters advancing to the general election. This would be followed by ranked choice voting. We would vote for these four candidates in order of preference, ranking them one through four. If no candidate gets more than 50% of the votes, the lowest ranked candidate is dropped, and those votes are re-allocated to the voters’ second choice until one candidate reaches over 50% (ibid).

As unlikely as it would be for their solution to come to fruition, their idea would give a candidate the need to appeal to a larger group of voters. They would have to hope that they could garner the second choice of voters who would not choose them first. This would require them to talk about the issues instead of just talking at each other. It would require real care about the good of the people, the politics, and not just allegiance to partisanship.

In today’s Torah reading we are commanded by God to choose. It says, hachayim v’hamavet natati lefanecha habrachah v’haklalah; uvacharta bachayim l’ma’an t’chiyeh: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, that you will live.” The idea of choosing good over evil, blessing over curse, and life over death sounds easy. The problem is, as I have mentioned many times, these choices are never labeled. Like being in the voting booth, we usually make our decisions based on subtle distinctions. This choice may be slightly less bad, and this choice may be slightly more acceptable. And what is good for us may be bad for the person next to us. Usually our decisions are way more important than Yanni or Laurel, and we saw how bothered everyone got over that.

It would be great if we had some sort of guide to help us make the subtle decisions. It would be wonderful if there was some text, something written down and cherished for generations that had instructions for how to tell the blessing from the curse. [LOOK AT THE TORAH] Oh, wait a minute!

In the Torah portion we read this afternoon, we will hear the holiness code. It begins with God telling Moses to tell the Israelites that they should be holy because God is holy. Let’s be honest, that seems like a tall order at first. It almost feels impossible to make our choices from this morning based on God’s holiness. But then Moses breaks it down for the Israelites. What does being holy actually mean? Simple things at first. Honor your parents, keep Shabbat, don’t steal, don’t worship idols, make proper sacrifices, don’t harvest your field’s corners. Then it gets into bigger social issues. “Do not curse the deaf nor place a stumbling block before the blind.” Judge fairly. Do not spread slander. Respect our elders. Be honest in judgment. Treat strangers as if they are already citizens, because we were strangers. If that doesn’t sound like a political platform, I don’t know what does.

Of course, we could talk about any one of these statements for hours, but I am just giving you the straight text today. Right out of the Torah: Judge fairly. Do not spread slander. Respect our elders. Be honest in judgment. Treat strangers as if they are already citizens, because we were strangers.

Striving for holiness means that holiness should imbue every aspect of our life. When we are here in the sanctuary or at home. Whether we are at work or driving on the highway. Whether we are shopping or having dinner with friends and family. Whether it is Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, or election day. We are commanded to be holy, and we can demand that holiness from everyone, from the people we lead to those who lead us. We should demand it from our own leaders.

Our American duopoly is far from holy, and it is getting farther and farther by the minute. Every negative ad, every bit of mud slung, every tweet brings us out of the holy and into the profane. When we say nothing about it, we are giving it permission to grow and thrive, to infect our political system and our daily lives. Judaism permits us—or rather it commands us—to engage in the welfare of the people. It commands us to be politically active, and to do so in a manner that shows our love for our neighbor as well as for our nation.

Justin Amash, Katherine Gehl, and Michael Porter get it. There are current political candidates who get it. There are plenty of politicians and candidates who do not get it. We are surely stuck with the current system of gerrymandered electoral districts for the foreseeable future, but we still have the obligation to vote, and to participate in the political process—without becoming bedfellows with any person or party, and without insulting or scorning those who disagree with us. Being holy means we argue b’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven and for the good of the people. Being holy means we treat our neighbors with respect, no matter their political leanings. This is our mandate, direct from our sacred texts. 

Judaism IS politics. Politics should be holiness. It is up to us to take part—to write to our senators and representatives; to speak out when we witness the injustices of the current system; to blow the whistle on lashon hara from our leaders; to let them know that we will only support those who strive to be holy, for we are holy.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Israel and the Zionist Congress (Kol Nidre Sermon)

The Jerusalem Post recently posted a quiz on line titled, “How much do you know about Israel’s Knesset?” Knesset is the governing body of the State of Israel, and also refers to the building in which it houses its headquarters. The questions were all about the building. I got 2 out of 7 correct. None were about Israel’s government itself. So I thought I would give you a little seven-question quiz about the government itself.

How many seats are there in Knesset? (120)

Which version of Knesset is it right now? (22nd)

How long has it been in power? (Five days)

Which party has the majority? (None, but Kachol V’lavan—Blue and White—has one seat more than Likud)

How many parties are there in Israel? (There are ten with seats in Knesset, 20 others that received votes but did not break the 3% threshold to be represented in Knesset, and another dozen or so that did not get enough votes to register on polls, like the Pirate Party.)

How long was the previous Knesset? (Five Months)

Who is the incoming Prime Minister? (We don’t know)

As a bonus, here is a little trivia that I love about Israel: Election day is a national holiday. Schools are closed, businesses are supposed to be closed, and if a business is open the employees are not supposed to come to work until after they have voted. And if you think about it, it’s the only holiday for Israelis that is an actual holiday where they have no other religious obligations or national ceremonies to attend. After their 15-minute commitment at the polls, it’s a true holiday.

But currently, Israel is facing a problem that could be described as electile dysfunction.

The 22nd Knesset was sworn in on Thursday. Elections were held on September 17 to determine the shape of Israel’s parliament, and there is still no telling what the government will look like in the coming years. 

The 21st Knesset was sworn in five months ago. In September, 17 new members of Knesset were elected, and 15 members of Knesset had 5-month terms.

In Israel, the citizens vote for a party, not for a person. Voting is done in an envelope that voters place into the ballot box that has one card in it, and a letter code on the card in big Hebrew letters tells the ballot-counters which party they voted for. The Prime Minister is the head of the party with the most seats IF that party can form a coalition government. A coalition is formed by getting 61 seats to vote yes to the structure set by the leading party. As the 21st Knesset was convened, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud party, believed he had enough votes to form a coalition, but Avigdor Lieberman, Knesset Member and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, pulled his five votes at the last minute. Netanyahu was not able to form a coalition, and therefore called another election. This election produced a lead for Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, but only by one vote.

If everything were to stay status quo, meaning the same parties who vote together will keep voting together, Blue and White should get one fewer for their coalition than Likud. But still neither party is able to cross that 61-vote threshold. This is largely due to the Joint List, an alliance among four Arab-Israeli parties, who never vote with a coalition, and who have acquired 13 seats—more than they have ever had. It is a part of their platform to abstain from coalitions. Abstentions or no, they still need 61 votes, and there is almost no math that would allow that to happen.

Enter Reuven Rivlin, the President of Israel. Usually, the president of Israel holds little more than ceremonial responsibilities. He gives awards at high schools and military presentations, stands in front of the presidential residence on national holidays, and sign laws, though he does not have the same kind of veto power an American president has. Natalie and I even met President Rivlin when we lived in Israel. The president there is really not that big of a deal.

Until last week.

One of the president’s duties is to decide who gets the first chance to form a coalition government. This usually goes to the party with the most seats, but with Blue and White’s one-seat lead and Likud leading 55-52 lead in coalition votes, each side argued that they should be first. So last week President Rivlin hosted a two-hour meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Benny Gantz to try to figure out who would get first crack.

But Rivlin suggested something different. That the two parties form a coalition with each other, with one party selecting the Prime Minister, and the other selecting a Deputy Prime Minister with actual powers and responsibilities in the government. This is a position that, until this proposal, does not exist in Israel. Together the two parties hold 65 seats, which would create no need for any other party to be involved in the creation of the government. It would also cancel out any possibility Avidgor Lieberman, the Ultra-Orthodox Shas, or any other small party holding sway over any coalition. This novel concept has been suggested for years when parties have had disputes after elections. This time, however, it presents both realistic possibilities as well as new problems.

The first problem is who would be Prime Minister first? They are both demanding that they should be the first to serve. Gantz says he refuses to give up the lead, referring to the elections, and Netanyahu is not one known for relinquishing any power. There is a risk that Netanyahu could be tried for corruption charges in December, according to most political analysts. Israel’s courts will not likely try a sitting Prime Minister, so if Gantz is sitting at the helm and Netanyahu is convicted, Gantz will be the de facto Prime Minister without the need to switch with Netanyahu. However, if Netanyahu goes first, there are many who fear the expert politician that he is will find many ways to not relinquish the station. Though the proposal assumes that once Netanyahu is stripped of his ministerial duties, he would maintain the title until he is exonerated if he is exonerated. 

The most novel part of the proposal is that Netanyahu would surrender his powers, even temporarily, if he is indicted. Keep in mind, this kind of idea of temporarily abdicating one’s own governmental powers has not been tried since US President Jebediah Bartlett gave up all presidential powers to Republican Speaker of the House Glenn Allen Walken. At that time the president’s daughter was in the hands of terrorists and he knew he was unfit to act in the best interests of the country. Maybe we should call on Aaron Sorkin to solve all of Israel’s problems.

Back to non-fiction, the idea would be this new government would start with Netanyahu as Prime Minister and Benny Gantz as Deputy. Netanyahu has said in an interview with IDF Radio that he would relinquish power if he is indicted. So the question is, do Israelis trust him to do so if he is indicted. Most Jewish Israelis favor the idea of a unity government, but trust is an essential part of doing the work of government. The idea of a deputy Prime Minister who is not in a temporary position could make for a partnership unlike we have ever seen before.
As of right now, we are still in limbo. We do not know what is going to happen with Israel’s Knesset, and we do not know who will be Prime Minister, if there will be a deputy, or even if the 22nd Knesset will last longer than the 21st.

Who will run Israel is a matter of great concern to American Jews, especially Reform Jews, because the last few years have been turbulent in Israeli-American Jewry relations. The most recent escalation was over women’s and egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, but this was not an isolated issue. In the words of Rabbi Uri Regev, 
“Since the 1970s, every decade has seen a conflagration over ‘Who is a Jew?’ prompted by ultra-Orthodox parties’ attempts to exclude from recognition under Israeli law most American ‘Jews by choice’ and the rabbis who convert them. One of the reasons for the short-lived 21st Knesset was the demand made — once again — by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to pass a law to preempt an anticipated Supreme Court ruling in favor of non-Orthodox converts” (Jewish Journal, Sept 11, 2019).
In other words, they are trying to nullify any conversions officiated by Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and even Modern Orthodox rabbis. Converts under their laws would not be accepted as Jews in the State of Israel, which has major implications when it comes to the Law of Return.

With Israel’s ensuing leadership as well as Israeli progressive Judaism in flux, it is even more important to do our part to support Israel’s future: by participating in our own vote. This coming year we will have the opportunity to vote in the World Zionist Congress. 

Established by Theodor Herzl in 1897, the Zionist Congress (as it was originally known) was the legislative body of the World Zionist Organization (WZO), a non-governmental entity that promotes Zionism. 

The WZC, also known as the Parliament of the Jewish People, comprises 500 delegates and meets in Jerusalem every five years. It enables delegates to exert ideological influence on both Israeli society and the global Jewish agenda, as well as allocate financial and other resources to various organizations – including the Reform Movement – in Israel. 

The 38th World Zionist Congress is scheduled to meet in Jerusalem in October, 2020, and the elections will determine the size of the various delegations to the Congress and are scheduled to be held from January 21 to March 11, 2020. Participating in the World Zionist Congress elections is the only way North American Jews can weigh in democratically about issues in Israel.

Currently, the United States has 145 delegates in the WZC, the largest single delegation outside Israel. Thanks to a robust turnout in the 2015 elections, 56 of the 145 delegates (39 percent) represent the Reform Movement and, as a result, have been able to ensure that more than $4 million a year is being directed to the Israeli Reform Movement. By comparison, the Israeli government annually provides nearly 4 billion shekels ($1.1 billion) to Orthodox and Haredi institutions in Israel.

A strong election turnout among North America’s Reform Jews and our supporters and allies will ensure that financial resources will continue to flow to our Israeli movement – including Reform congregations and institutions. It also will allow us to fill leadership positions in some of Israel’s national institutions, including the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Jewish National Fund.

And yet, because of the turnout expected by the Reform Movement, Shas and the UTJ, the political parties representing ultra-Orthodox, Chasidic, and Haredi Jews, have been mobilizing to generate votes in the hope that they can regain control over Israeli policy, and revert to a pro-Orthodox agenda in Israel.

We must maintain a strong presence in the World Zionist Organization. To do this, you can vote. The easiest way for an American to vote is to become a member of ARZA. In the beginning of the secular year you will get a form in the mail from ARZA, through CBT. By filling out the form and becoming a member of ARZA, we will add our numbers to the vote of the World Zionist Organization and keep Reform strong by keeping Israel pluralist and democratic.

Over the past few years we have seen increasing support for Progressive Judaism. If we want this to continue, we must vote.

If we want marriages and divorces performed by non-Orthodox rabbis to be recognized in Israel, we must vote.

If we want egalitarianism to get a foothold in Israeli society, we must vote.

If we want LGBT rights to continue to be supported by Israel’s government, we must vote.

If we want conversions done under Reform, Conservative, and even Modern Orthodox supervision to be recognized in Israel, we must vote.

If we want businesses to stop being punished for operating outside of Orthodox norms, we must vote.

If we want to stop the corruption in Israeli government that stems from kowtowing to the Ultra-Orthodox, we must vote.

If we want to strengthen Israel’s ties to America, we must vote.

If we want the world to know that Reform Jews support Israel, we must vote in the upcoming World Zionist elections, so Israel will continue as a bastion of democratic, Jewish values in the Middle East.

Israeli politics can be very confusing. Our relationship with Israel does not have to be. All we have to do is register with ARZA at the turn of the secular year, and vote. Im tirzu ein zo aggadah. If you will it, it is no dream.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Rosh Hashanah 5780

Isaac is mentally challenged.

This is not to make fun of him or try to insult him in any way. Isaac has something about him that makes him different. I don’t like calling anyone “on the spectrum” because if it’s a spectrum we’re all on it, and that phrase is therefore not descriptive at all. Yet the text points to a non-specific mental or social disability that makes him different from everyone else. So much so that when we studied this section of the Torah in our Saturday morning class in my first year here, I had taken to calling him, “Special Needs Isaac.” Something about Isaac does not feel like he is like the other characters in Genesis.

Today we are reading the Akeidah, the story of the binding of Isaac. It is a terrible story of Abraham being asked by God to take his son up to a mountain and sacrifice him. Abraham says yes, and goes up to the spot God shows him with Isaac. The he binds Isaac—giving the name to this section, since Akeidah means binding, and raises the knife to sacrifice him, only to be stopped by an angel who tells him that it was all a test. Abraham did not withhold his son from God, and therefore he will be blessed by becoming as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the beach.

The rabbis of the Talmud and the commentators throughout the centuries have struggled with many parts of this text. One of the things that gets their hackles up is the questions of how old Isaac is at this point. If he is younger than 13 it makes sense that he might be overpowered by his elderly father. But the rabbis do not like that math, and they want him to be older—sometimes as old as in his 30’s. But if he’s older, wouldn’t he fight back and not let his aged father tie him up? Something about it does not fit.

Looking back at Isaac’s life, he is never given a voice before or after the Akeidah. They speak about him a lot, but Isaac does not speak for himself. When God tells Abraham that he and Sarah will have a son, Abraham wonders how a man of a hundred and a woman of ninety could possibly have children together, and he laughs. Sarah has the same reaction later when the angels tell her that she will have a child. They both laugh—va’yitzchak for Abraham and vatitzchak for Sarah. For their laughter, they are told they will name their son Isaac, Yitzchak, which shares its root with the laughter they display. 

Even acknowledging that numbers in the Torah are not math, they laugh because they are an elderly couple. They have spent years living together, building a life together, building a faith together. They have done far too much for them to be young. Abraham’s laughter in Genesis 17 and Sarah’s in Genesis 18 are both about how old they are and how silly an idea it is that they could bear children. Isaac’s own name means laughter, and comes from the reaction these two have. So suffice it to say they are comically old for childbearing.

A study was done in Israel in 2006, looking at 132,000 families. Is showed that men who conceive in their 30s are 1.6 times as likely to have a child with a disability as men under 30. Men in their 40s have a sixfold increase in risk. Since then, 5.7 million families have been studied in Denmark, Sweden, here in California, and elsewhere. Nearly all of this research has shown an increased prevalence of mental disability among the children of older fathers.

Clearly the writers of the Torah were not aware of this study, but perhaps they knew the simple truth that older parents were more likely to produce children with disabilities. The Torah wants us to understand that Isaac is mentally different.

We often understand that for their laughter they beget laughter, but what if the laughter they beget is not a friendly laughter, but one of teasing, making fun, and mocking?

Once Isaac is born, he grows up and is weaned. It happens in one verse in the Torah, Genesis 21:8, which says exactly that: “The boy grew and was weaned.” At the weaning feast, a common custom of the ancient world, Sarah sees Ishmael with Isaac, and he is m’tzachek. The word m’tzachek can mean a few different things. It is surely there at least in part because m’tzachek shares its root with Yitzchak, Isaac’s own name. But it can be playing, making sport of, jesting, or toying with. It could be innocent—two brothers playing—or it could be sinister if Ishmael is picking on Isaac.

What further confuses the scene is that we do not know how old either brother is. We know Ishmael is 13 when he is circumcised, and Isaac is born around a year later. So the boys are probably about 14 years apart in age. But we have no idea how old Isaac was when he was weaned. Evidence suggests that societies at the time stopped nursing their babies between 2 and 5 years of age. So if we assume Isaac was weaned around three years old, and that Ishmael is around 18, perhaps Ishmael is playing a little rough for Sarah’s liking. We have likely seen much older siblings or cousins who play a little rough for the comfort of a new mother. It happens.

Or maybe Ishmael m’tzachek with Isaac is a kind of teasing that we would never tolerate today. Perhaps he is making fun of Isaac’s disability. || Until very recently, that was the way people with disabilities were treated—with teasing and a complete lack of understanding and compassion. It also explains why Sarah was infuriated enough to demand that Ishmael and his mother leave their home. She was defending her son, who would not have have been able to defend himself.

Abraham may not have shared her sentimentality over Isaac’s issues. Today’s reading of the Akeidah suggests that Isaac may also have needed defending from his own father. The Akeidah begins with a charge. God says to Abraham, “Take your son, your special son, the one you love, Isaac.” 

The midrash Bereshit Rabbah imagines a conversation between God and Abraham.

God says, “Take your son.”

Abraham responds, “I have two sons. Which one?”

“Your special son.”

“Both sons are special. They are unique in their own way.”

“The one you love.”

“I love both of my sons.”


No question when God uses his name. The conversation the midrash creates suggests that Abraham has love for Ishmael as well as Isaac, which is wonderful. It also might miss something. Perhaps Abraham needed to be convinced that he also loves Isaac. 

Imagine the conversation without Abraham’s interjections. Internally, Abraham might be think that God is finally accepting Ishmael as Abraham’s heir. At least until the last word. Take your son, your special son, the one you love, Isaac.

Perhaps at that moment Abraham thinks, “Isaac? I love that kid? But he’s so....different.” Men can have a hard time accepting a son who is different, so for God to tell him, “Abraham, I know you love your son, perhaps more than you realize, and it is time to accept him,” can be a very powerful moment. 

Years after the Akeidah, several chapters after today’s reading, Abraham tells his servant to get a wife for Isaac. He sends him on a journey where he meets Rebekah and invites her to his master Abraham’s home. She agrees, and goes to meet her husband to be, who is sitting alone in a field.

What is interesting is that Isaac needs someone else to get a wife for him. Abraham does not need an intermediary to marry Sarah. Jacob finds Rachel on his own, and though he is tricked into marrying Leah, he agrees to have children with her. Every other biblical character finds their own spouse. Only Isaac has an intermediary sent for him. Perhaps this is due to his lack of mental prowess for negotiating a bride price, or perhaps simply just his lack of ability to have a conversation with another person.

When Rebekah first sees him and he is sitting alone in that field, the rabbis of the Talmud credit Isaac with davening Ma’ariv, reciting the evening prayers, but this anachronistic commentary ignores the likelihood that this is just where he either preferred or was forced to spend his time. Many people with autism, for example, simply like to be away from other people. They find socializing difficult, and do not adhere to social norms. In ancient times, adults with mental challenges were often pushed to the side, told to go away if they could not handle being with the others. Whatever challenges Isaac had, being alone in the field makes sense for him as a character. He was likely out there a lot.

Looking at Isaac as mentally challenged, we might understand Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, even when we do not agree with it. He was a man of the ancient world—powerful, wealthy, a leader in his community, successful in every way except one. Then he conceives a son with disabilities. Isaac could be a constant source of disappointment for Abraham. Though we no longer share Abraham’s feelings of shame over a son like that, we can acknowledge it likely existed in the ancient world for having a son viewed as less-than. A son who, at the time, did nothing but give people something to laugh at.

So in the Torah portion we read this morning, when Abraham is told by God, “Take your son up the mountain,” Abraham’s speedy acquiescence makes sense. But it still does not make it right.

So often we look at this pivotal moment in our Torah and we point out the fact that Isaac and Abraham never speak to each other again. What we neglect to mention is that they have never spoken to each other before this part of the story, either. Their relationship has always been strained, they have never been close. They just go through the motions. Maybe it gets worse after the Akeidah, but it is not a complete sea change.

Recognizing Isaac as mentally challenged, we may learn how we should behave when we have special needs people in our lives, our community, our family. Not like Abraham. He was the denying, angry father. Disappointed and feeling inadequate about the son he and his beloved Sarah produced, he goes through the motions of circumcising him, finding him a wife, setting him up with property and a good life. Sarah dies shortly after the Akeidah and does not even see him married, but even in his early life she was perhaps over protective of him. She shuns anyone who would treat him different, kicking Ishmael and his mother out of their home. Really, neither of these is an acceptable way of treating someone who is different from us.

The rabbis in tractate Berachot of the Talmud actually do teach us how to deal with them. They put Isaac in our prayers every day, three times a day. They credit him with inventing the evening service because of his practice of sitting alone in the field at the end of the day. They say his name along side his father Abraham and son Jacob. We talk about the generations that begin with seven amazing people, the avot and imahot, and we have never swayed from putting Isaac’s name right at the top.

They even point out things that could be seen as indicative of his mental difficulies and laud them as successes. They are excited that he is the only patriarch to have only one wife. They extoll him as the only patriarch to never set foot outside of the land of Canaan. We could easily point to these things as being related to his mental disabilities. Someone without strong social skills would naturally not venture away from their familiar surroundings, nor would they seek more companions when they prefer to be alone. Instead of blaming his condition as the reason he never strives for more, the rabbis compliment him, saying it is his strength of character that grants him the blessing of faithfulness to the land and to Rebekah.
Trying to learn from our longstanding acknowledgment of the blessing all people bring, I worked with a few different B’nai Mitzvah with challenges over the years. In Miami one boy held the Torah and recited Shema. As a severely Autistic young man, that was the most he could do, and it was a beautiful moment. Another Bar Mitzvah we worked with was very musical, and he actually made up the cantillation on the spot, even though he had practiced flawlessly. When he wasn’t singing, it took all of our focus to keep him on the bimah, as his tendency was also to wander off when he fancied.

Here at CBT I have worked with several students of different abilities, too. Hopefully nobody would even notice. Part of instituting our B’nai Mitzvah Revolution is allowing students who do not thrive in an academic arena can still show us what their strengths are. Not everyone can read Hebrew or even English out loud. Not everyone can deliver a D’var Torah. Yet everyone can be celebrated. Everyone can show us their Jewish passions and accomplishments. Everyone can become B’nai Mitzvah in their own style.

This is our responsibility as a community, as a people. When someone is different from us, we do not chastise them, bully them, or tease them for their differences. At the same time, we do not coddle them or keep others away from them because they are different. We learn to work with them. We support them. We learn from them. We take what we would see as a weakness, as less-than, and treat it as normal. Or better, we treat it as a blessing. We support and help strengthen the skills and abilities they do have, and give them the tools they need to be a success in our community.

May we look deep into our ancient texts and learn from the examples of our ancestors. May we continue to reach out to those who are different. May we truly live up to our reputation as a welcoming community by openly welcoming people of all abilities. May find the opportunity to let people with special needs know that they are just that: Special to us and to our community.

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780

“God is a Woman, and She is Growing Older,” by Rabbi Margaret Wenig

God is a woman and she is growing older. She moves more slowly now. She cannot stand erect. Her face is lined. Her voice is scratchy. Sometimes she has to strain to hear. God is a woman and she is growing older; yet, she remembers everything.
On Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the day on which she gave us birth, God sits down at her kitchen table, opens the Book of Memories, and begins turning the pages; and God remembers.
“There, there is the world when it was new and my children when they were young.” As she turns each page she smiles, seeing before her, like so many dolls in a department store window, all the beautiful colors of our skin, all the varied shapes and sizes of our bodies. She marvels at our accomplishments: the music we have written, the gardens we have planted, the stories we have told, the ideas we have spun.
“Now, they can fly faster than the winds I send,” she says to herself, “and they sail across the waters which I gathered into seas. They even visit the moon which I set in the sky. But they rarely visit me.” There pasted into the pages of her book are all the cards we have ever sent to her when we did not bother to visit. She notices our signatures scrawled beneath the printed words someone else has composed.
God is lonely, longing for her children, her playful ones. All that dwells on earth does perish. But God endures, so she suffers the sadness of loosing all that she holds dear.
God is home, turning the pages of her book. “Come home,” she wants to say to us, “Come home.” But she won’t call. For she is afraid that we will say, “No.” She can anticipate the conversation: “We are so busy. We’d love to see you but we just can’t come. Too much to do. Too many responsibilities to juggle.”
Even if we don’t realize it, God knows that our business is just an excuse. She knows that we avoid returning to her because we don’t want to look into her age-worn face. It is hard for us to face a god who disappointed our childhood expectations: She did not give us everything we wanted. She did not make us triumphant in battle, successful in business and invincible to pain. We avoid going home to protect ourselves from our disappointment and to protect her. We don’t want her to see the disappointment in our eyes. Yet, God knows that it is there and she would have us come home anyway.
In a single glance she sees our birth and our death and all the years in between. She sees us as we were when we were young: when we idolized her and trustingly followed her anywhere; when our scrapes and bruises healed quickly, when we were filled with wonder at all things new. She sees us when we were young, when we thought that there was nothing we could not do.
She sees our middle years too: when our energy was unlimited. When we kept house, cooked and cleaned, cared for children, worked, and volunteered—when everyone needed us and we had no time for sleep. And God sees our later years: when we no longer felt so needed; when chaos disrupted the bodily rhythms we had learned to rely upon. She sees us sleeping alone in a room which once slept two. God sees things about us we have forgotten and things we do not yet know. For naught is hidden from God’s sight.
If we were to visit, we might sit down in God’s kitchen with a cup of tea. God might say, “So tell me, how are you?” Now we are afraid to open our mouths and tell her everything she already knows: whom we love; where we hurt; what we have broken or lost; what we wanted to be when we grew up.
We look away. “I never felt I could live up to your expectations.”
“I always believed you could do anything,” she answers.
“What about your future?” she asks us. We do not want to face our future. God hears our reluctance, and she understands.
We are growing older as God is growing older. How much like her we have become.
God holds our face in her two hands and whispers, “Do not be afraid, I will be faithful to the promise I made to you when you were young. I will be with you. Even in your old age I will be with you. When you are grey headed still I will hold you. I gave birth to you, I carried you. I will hold you still. Grow old along with me….”
Ahh, that is why we were created to grow older: each added day of life, each new year make us more like God who is ever growing older.
This Rosh Hashanah we sit in the house of prayer holding in our hands pages and pages of greeting cards bound together, thousands of words we ourselves have not written. Will we merely place our signatures at the bottom and drop the cards in the mail?
God would prefer that we come home. She is waiting for us as she has waited every Rosh Hashanah, waiting very patiently until we are ready. God will not sleep. She will leave the door open and the candles burning waiting patiently for us to come home.
Perhaps this year we will be able to look into God’s aging face and say, “Avinu Malkeinu, our Mother, our Queen, we have come home.”
This is a beautiful midrash on a personal theology that really resonates during the High Holy Days. During these Days of Awe, we so often hear of God as a Father and King, and to think of God as a Divine Mother is very powerful.

It is not too far off from kabbalistic theology, which presents the concept of Teshuvah as “return to the Divine Mother.” Playing on the idea of shuvah meaning “returning,” the kabbalists ask, “to what do we return?” We often say we return to the self we most want to become, but the mystics taught that we were returning to our mother. Perhaps Kabbalah was Rabbi Wenig’s inspiration!

Rabbi Wenig’s poem moves us in ways that I never could. This is not a self-deprecating comment. It is an acknowledgement that she, and half of the world with her, has a perspective that I do not. Her experience of aging and visiting with her own children, children she formed in her body, reminded her of the High Holy Days and how we might experience a visit as we return to our Divine Mother. She takes her understanding from nurturing her children, her own longing for more time with them, her own acknowledgement of things that we want to say to our mothers, to our children. She parallels all of this with an anthropomorphized God, but not the way we usually anthropomorphize. She takes the phrase Avinu Malkeinu of the High Holy Days and flips it to Our Mother, Our Queen. This is a perspective we are not used to, but an important one from which we must learn.

We usually learn from the male perspective. The Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, was clearly written by men. The most common name for a woman in the Bible is eshet, meaning “wife of.” We learn the names of all the male characters in the Bible, but rarely know a female character. Sure, we can rattle off names of significant female character, but that is precisely because they stand out. Most of the action of our sacred narrative is dominated by male action, mannish interpretations, and men telling us what the lessons are deep within our text.

We are getting better as a society. We are listening to women when they have something to teach. Some of the greatest rabbis of this generation are women. My bookshelves are full of incredible books by Jewish women. Nechama Liebowitz, Anita Diamant, Maggie Anton, and more. One of my favorites is the Women’s Torah Commentary, which features a compendium of modern women commentators on our sacred text, and is edited, written, and published exclusively by women. We also no longer use texts or music from those who have mistreated women. This is why we never do music from Shlomo Carlebach, for example, nor would we show a movie or TV show with Bill Cosby in it. These men have done far too much damage to the feminist conversation, and using their creations can taint the learning and prayer experience for all of us.

Perhaps the most unfortunate truth in all of this is that I am ill-equipped to break the chain of masculinity in our tradition. As egalitarian as I try to be, as promoting of women’s issues as I hope to be, as much as I want us to learn together about women’s issues, I am not a woman. It could even be said that this entire sermon is mansplaining. I cannot help being born male, nor would I change a thing. I enjoy being male, but I cannot teach from the perspective offered by Rabbi Wenig or any other female teacher. My experiences are different. I have never had to read myself in to our teachings. I have never been suppressed by gender hierarchy. I have never been ridiculed or parodied for trying to push the feminine point of view into our sources of knowledge. I just cannot empathize.

But I can sympathize. I can be supportive. I can learn with you women and men alike, and put together a program where we, as a community, learn from some amazing women this year. It is with this in mind that we are announcing that our study theme for the Jewish year 5780 will be Jewish Women Authors.

In addition to studying texts written from women’s perspectives, we will be bringing out several authors so we can learn from the sources. As Ben Zoma says in Pirkei Avot, “Who is wise? The one who learns from all people.” Jewish Women authors have a completely different perspective from mine. While we cannot expect to ever learn from all people, bringing some of these authors to CBT allows us to learn from a perspective that I cannot offer.

Our first author will be Cantor Barbara Ostfeld, whose novel Catbird: The Ballad of Barbi Prim, tells the story of an auspicious and talented 8-year-old who dreams of becoming a pioneer. Cantor Ostfeld is a pioneer herself, as she is the first female cantor in Jewish history. She will be joining us for Shabbat services on November 22, which is fittingly a Musical Shabbat, where she will teach about her book and her journey. There will be a dinner before Shabbat services that evening, and she will give us a preview as we dine, and she will stick around for a book signing and Q&A after services.

In January we are working on hosting Stephane Butnick, one of the hosts of the podcast Unorthodox, and author of the released-last-week The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia. If you are not familiar with the podcast Unorthodox, you should download an episode or two and listen in your car on the way home from services today. If you are not familiar with what a podcast is, she wrote a book.

In February we will welcome USA Today Bestselling author Rochelle Weinstein, who will present her fifth novel, This is Not How it Ends, which will be released on January 1, 2020. I have read three of her other four books, and every time I am enthralled by how she so beautifully crafts her characters, and how descriptive she is of the scenes she creates. Weinstein immerses her readers into the world of her novels, and if you have the chance to read any of them you will not be disappointed.

In addition to Cantor Ostfeld and Rochelle Weinstein, we are working with brand new author Melissa W. Hunter, whose first novel, What She Lost, features a protagonist based on her own grandmother, a Holocaust survivor whose experiences shape the course of Hunter’s story.

A big thank you and shout out to Nancy Danger, who is chairing this series of authors. Nancy and I are working hard to create an interesting and meaningful series for CBT.

You may or may not know the names Cantor Barbara Ostfeld, Stephanie Butnick, or Rochelle Weinstein, and I know you trust us to bring quality presenters to CBT. But you should know we are also courting a certain author who is very familiar to this congregation. Editor of The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is likely to be on book tour next summer or fall with a new offering from CCAR Press, and even though it will likely be after this programming year, we know she will make her home congregation a stop on her journey.

If you are interested in bringing an author to us this year, whether you have connections to her or not, please contact Nancy Danger to get on her Jewish Women Authors team. We are looking to book a couple more authors for the year, and we know this is going to be an amazing series for all of our learners.

More information will come through our weekly emails, texts, and on the new web site. So please keep your eyes peeled, and be sure to let Nancy know if you would like to help.

Throughout the year 5780, may we become wise the way Rabbi Ben Zoma would suggest. May our learning this year bring voices that we might otherwise not hear that open us up to new perspectives. May we celebrate Women Jewish Authors and enjoy another year of learning together as a community. May we allow new points of view to enrich our engagement with our sacred tradition of education. May our learning together make the new year better and sweeter than the years before.