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Groggers, Not Guns!

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Academy of Music Purim Association, Fancy Dress Ball, March 15, 1881. New York: Mayer, Merkel, & Ottman Lithograph, 1881. Color lithograph. Courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society and Newton Centre, Massachusetts (206)

We were horrified this morning as we awoke to the news that two blasts had rocked the Belgian capital of Brussels. With dozens of people dead and wounded, we grieve with the Belgian people, with all those visiting who were victimized, and with their families. Only four months after the deadly attacks in Paris, the citizens of the region are still reeling from pillar to post. The sophistication of both these European capitals stands in stark contrast to the wanton violence that has been inflicted upon them. Unfortunately, we in New York are well acquainted with this contrast. So are the people of Israel and throughout the Middle East. So are the people of San Bernadino, and Washington, and cities throughout the world. We have seen the underbelly of human capacity; the potential for evil that exists within human beings.

This Wednesday night and Thursday we in the Jewish community will celebrate one of the most joyous festivals of our year, the Festival of Purim. It is a time of costumes and shpiels, silliness and laughter, eating and drinking – drinking, in fact, to excess (as long as we don’t have to drive!). We should revel in this cathartic release of tension that is, in so many ways, a gift from the architects of Jewish tradition.

This being said, we do acknowledge, however, that our celebration of Purim is in large measure a denial of the very text around which the festival is built – Megillat Ester, the Scroll of Esther. Known popularly as “The Megillah,” the story is in many ways a completely ridiculous fantasy, filled with palace intrigue, absurd stereotypes, and linguistic acrobatics that are designed to tie our tongues. But it is also the story of a cruel Persian governor who hatched a plan to annihilate the Jewish people en masse. And in turn, it is the story of the Jews’ turning the tables, and hanging him on the very gallows he had built for Mordecai the Jew. The Megillah is filled with violence and hatred, men who treat women like chattel, women who use sex to manipulate men, and murderous impulses within all of us.

There have been all too many times, even in recent history, in which the themes of Purim have been played out in real life. Hitler, for instance, banned the Jews from observing Purim. On November 10, 1938, the Nazi journalist Julius Streicher claimed in a speech that just as “the Jew butchered 75,000 Persians” in one night, the same fate would have befallen the German people as the Jews would have instituted a new Purim festival in Germany. Numerous additional massacres were carried out throughout Poland and Germany during the following years by the Nazis on the day of Purim.

More recently, the Dizengoff Center Suicide Bombing in Tel Aviv took place on the eve of Purim (March 4, 1996), killing 13 people.

And sadly, there have been those within our own community who have used this festival as an excuse to unleash the demons within themselves. Witness the massacre perpetrated by Baruch Goldstein, a Jew originally from Brooklyn, in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron in 1994, upon a mosque filled with men at prayer. He killed 29 souls and wounded 125.

As we all understand, this is never what Purim was meant to be. Purim is meant as a catharsis for us; to yell, and scream, and laugh, and make noise, so that we release the tensions that surround us, both individually and communally. Purim is not a festival that calls us to violence. It is meant as a vehicle through which we can sublimate our frustrations. Haman is the villain of the Megillah. So what does our tradition teach us to do? Eat triangle-shaped pastries filled with jam, in memory of the hat he wore. Blow horns and swing groggers. Go nuts, and enjoy it for a few hours.

And above all, we dare not forget the ethical values of Jewish tradition: kindness, respect, charity, and the pursuit of peace. Remember that after all the goings-on in the Megillah, at the very end we are urged to bring gifts of food to the needy. That is what Judaism teaches, and that is why we celebrate Purim.

And so, even in the midst of such overwhelming sadness and global tension, I encourage us all to celebrate this festival with joy, even as we remember the abiding values of our faith. And I wish one and all a Chag Sameach and a Freiliche Purim.

Shabbat Zachor – the Sabbath of Remembrance

Tal_Becker_press_photoThis coming Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor – the Sabbath of Remembrance – just preceding the celebration of Purim, which falls next Wednesday night -Thursday, March 23/24. Shabbat Zachor takes its name from three extra verses of the Torah that we read this Shabbat, in addition to the regularly scheduled portion at the beginning of Leviticus. These verses come from Deuteronomy, Chapter 25, verses 17-19:

Zachor – Remember – what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt – how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the Eternal your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget.

Memory is a core value for Jews. We are commanded to remember the Exodus from Egypt, the Creation of the World, the Revelation at Sinai. We weren’t there, of course, yet we are commanded to remember as though we were, and transmit this memory to our children and all future generations. We are commanded to remember our parents and teachers. And, we are commanded to remember Shabbat and observe it every single week. In the post-Holocaust world, our people have embraced the responsibility to remember, wherever we may live. Zachor – Remember.

But we also understand two basic realities of memory. First, memory is selective. We remember what we choose to remember because it is important to us. If the commandment to remember seminal events of Jewish heritage is important to us, then we engage in perpetuating the memory of them. We remember what it is important for us to remember. (Of course now we have any number of devices in our lives that help us to remember what we need to, and far more as well.). But memory is also interpretive. We look back at events with the specific perspective that we have developed over time. Our world view comes into play when we look at events of the past and try to figure them out as we look back.

The ongoing stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians is complicated by conflicting interpretations of the events leading up to situation in which we find ourselves now. Was the declaration of the State of Israel a triumph of the spirit and a redemption of the Jewish People out of the ashes of the Shoah? Or, was it a naqba – a disaster of untold proportions, as the Arab world characterizes it? Is the Israeli presence in the West Bank territories an ongoing destructive Jewish occupation of a subjugated people? Or, is it a realization of the promise that God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that their descendants would live on this land, Judea and Samaria, for all time?

The reality on the ground in Israel and the territories exists in and of itself. But there are many narratives about what exists that come into conflict with one another, and at the moment, are responsible for the continuation of the stalemate.

Is there a way out? Can we – all of us – accept and honor each other’s narratives and still find a way to get past them so that both groups can arrive at a peaceful and secure compromise, and live on the land side by side, in peace and acceptance of the other?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but I fervently hope the answer is yes. And now for my “shameless plug.” This Wednesday, March 16, one of the most significant insiders of the ongoing negotiation process since Oslo is going to be speaking in Brooklyn, as part of our Shalom Hartman series. Tal Becker, international lawyer, key member of the Israeli negotiating team, and Senior Research Fellow at the Hartman Institute, will be speaking at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue at 8:00PM. The series is being funded by UJA-Federation of New York, and cosponsored by ourselves and our sister congregations in Brownstone Brooklyn. I urge you to come and hear Tal, and ask him questions, which you will have the opportunity to do. While there is no admission fee for members of the congregations of Brownstone Brooklyn (including Union Temple, of course), it is important for UJA-Federation to be able to track the registration and the response. Please register HERE and use the registration code UT16.

While memory informs our perspectives, we have the power to shape and reshape our vision of the future. Ultimately it is our values and ethics that need to guide us as we seek to carve out a future of peace for ourselves and our children.

Convening Without Coercion

Vayakhel Moshe – and Moses convened all the community of the Children of Israel. So begins our sidra, as the Israelites now set about the task of building and adorning the Mishkan – the Tabernacle in the Wilderness.

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Member of Knesset Michael Oren. Photo: USCPublicDiplomacy CC Flickr

Last Wednesday morning there was an historic moment in the Israeli Knesset. For the first time, more than 300 Reform rabbis convened at the Knesset to attend a meeting of the Knesset Committee on Israel-Diaspora Relations. We were in Israel last week for the convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional body of the Reform Rabbinate of North America. We were also joined by our Israeli colleagues in MaRaM (Mo’etzet Harabbanim Hamitkadmim – the Council of Progressive Rabbis), in addition to Reform colleagues from the UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, Australia, and South Africa. Never before had so many rabbis attended such a meeting, let alone Reform rabbis!

After some introductory remarks by the leaders of the CCAR and MaRaM, various Members of Knesset came into the Committee chamber specifically to address us, a body of Reform rabbis, and to affirm their support, including Tzippi Livni, Yair Lapid, Michael Oren, and Isaac (Bouzi) Herzog, among others, about fifteen in all. They expressed their firm belief that the stranglehold of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate over Israeli politics and laws concerning personal status – marriage, divorce, conversion, burial – had to be brought to an end. Particularly noteworthy was the statement by MK Michael Oren, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States. Member of Knesset Oren grew up in New Jersey, and remains close friends with one of our esteemed colleagues there.

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Member of Knesset Tzippi Livni. Photo: Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman.

Now, of course, Owen lives in Jerusalem, where he and his family belong to Kehilat Kol Haneshama, the largest Reform congregation in that city. Not long ago his son was married at Kol Haneshama. The wedding was attended by Former President Shimon Peres, whose own daughter and her family belong to a Reform congregation in the Tel Aviv area. In fact the kehilah was packed with notables on the Israeli political scene who came to rejoice with the Oren family at that wedding. The officiating rabbi was Rabbi Levi Weiman Kelman, the spiritual leader of Kol Haneshama. Rabbi Kelman’s officiation, of course, is not legally recognized in Israel. Oren, who addressed us in Hebrew (since this was, of course, the Israeli Knesset), looked up at us and verbalized the question that all of us ask every day: “How can such a wedding possibly not be recognized?!” Yet, because of the monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate, indeed, such a wedding is not recognized. And, not one of the 300 rabbis sitting in front of MK Oren that morning is able to perform a legally recognized wedding in the Jewish State. If there exists a greater absurdity than this, I can’t find it. But the fact is that a growing number of Israelis – the majority of Israelis in fact – are just plain fed up with this state of affairs. Many spurn the Rabbanut altogether and leave the country to get married, preferring to go to Cyprus, or somewhere in Europe, or, of course, to the United States. Some give in, go through the motions at the Rabbanut, and then hold their own ceremony somewhere in Israel, with the Rabbi and/or Cantor with whom they have a relationship – whether Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist. And many fight – they fight constantly – to change this absurd situation once and for all.

If you were to stop an ordinary Israeli on the street and ask about the political foundation of the State of Israel, most likely he or she would give the knee jerk response: “Israel is a Jewish and democratic state.” There was a great deal of study, and attention, and soul-searching this past week, about what that actually meant in current reality, and what it must mean in aspiration. A great many Israelis – both colleagues and ordinary Israelis alike – actually were happy and relieved to have us there this week, because they recognize the organic relationship between themselves as Israelis, and us, as Jewish leaders from outside of Israel. They need us to help them fight for the kind of Israel that can truly call itself “Jewish and democratic.”

And Moses convened all the community of the Children of Israel. What kind of MIshkan are we building within our community? The oppressive monopoly of the Rabbanut is coming to an end. It may not be tomorrow, or the next day, but the evidence of progress is mounting steadily and dramatically – witness the gathering at the Kotel on Thursday of rabbis and laity – men and women – to pray and sing together at the egalitarian platform that will be built as a result of the deal worked out between IRAC and Israeli Attorney General Rosenblit. Pressure is mounting steadily on the Rabbanut and upon the political leaders. While the nature of Israeli democracy differs from American democracy to the point of necessitating such fighting, it nevertheless has learned from America that it is possible and desirable to live in a religiously pluralistic environment, without dictatorial control in the religious sphere, or coercive control in the public square. I am confident that this issue can and will be solved. But we must be part of the solution – because we are one People: we are Jews.