Summer Movies and Prophecy

After not seeing any movies all spring, my husband and I have been to four movies in as many weeks. What a treat! Tucked within the barrage of predominately action, adventure and horror previews is a trailer for Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” sequel. While he would eschew the comparison, I thought of former Vice President Gore’s perseverance when I read this week’s Haftarah from Jeremiah. The prophet Jeremiah warned and prophesized that riches and power have no real value. He reminded the people that God, “brought you into a land of plentiful fields, to eat its fruit and goodness; but when you entered, you defiled My land, and made my heritage abhorrent….” (Jeremiah 2:7)

You know where I am going with this. I could say nonjudgmentally and with compassion that it is right to make money through whatever means you have the opportunity to do so. At the same time, I could compassionately say it is also right to resist your local government agency’s inclination to sell public land to a developer. But this reminds me of philosopher Ken Wilber’s discussion about “idiot compassion.” This sounds harsh I know and it certainly is right and important to listen to both sides of a disagreement. In Jeremiah’s time the opposing positions were God’s ways vs. idolatry. In our time the positions are enabling (through ordinances, legislation and executive order) individuals to make money at the expense of our natural resources vs. an economy driven by environmental sustainability. It is not compassionate, and therefore not right, to dump toxic particulates into our drinking water.

The people did not listen to Jeremiah. Both Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple were destroyed. Our Torah offers paths to redemption we might be mindful of today. The law of Bal Tashhit, when taking a city in times of war you may eat from, but not destroy, trees. This Jewish law illustrates that the world has social utility. The world feeds, clothes and shelters us. The world does not exist for private gain, the world is held in common for all of us. “The pious will not suffer the loss of a single seed in the world, whereas the wicked rejoice at the destruction of the world,” (Sefer Ha-hinnukh, The Book of Education.)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch commenting on Leviticus 25:34 writes: “Precisely because it [the city with its open spaces] has been given to them for all the generations, no generation is permitted to change it as it sees fit. The present generation is not the sole ruler over it, but the future generations are equal in their rights, and each is required to bequeath it to future generations in the same state in which they received it.”

We are slaves to “top-down” influences as neuropsychiatrist as Dan Siegel explains, “that is to say we have a sensation but the response is set up by earlier experience and embedded beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad.  These top-down influences have had huge survival value in our evolutionary history in that they enable the brain to make rapid assessments and carry out efficient information processing to then initiate behaviors that enable the organism to survive.” Siegel refers here to foraging for food and evading predators. The times we experience today are culturally driven and contemporary culture dictates top-down that we buy into the consumer culture and not to worry that very few are really benefiting from the wanton destruction to our environment.

Last night we had 5-7 inches of rain in many of Lake County’s suburban towns. People were stranded inside and outside their homes and it continued to rain all day today. Ask your insurance agent if their pricing has factored in climate science findings. They do, and this industry is all about risk assessment and capital accumulation. Capital accumulation and honoring the environment are not mutually exclusive.

Einstein wrote, “A human being is part of the whole, called by us ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of consciousness…. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Let me leave you with a chant from Rabbi Shefa Gold that will remind you, “As we delight in the garden of this moment, let us attune to the Source of its vitality and beauty.”

V’nahar yotzei mei’Eden, l’hashkot et hagan.

A river comes forth from Eden to water the garden. (Genesis 2:10)

We Founded Hebrew Seminary on the Principles of Inclusion and Equality, by Douglas Goldhamer and Tom Giller

We founded Hebrew Seminary on the principles of inclusion and equality. We at Hebrew Seminary join with other Jewish religious institutions throughout the United States in condemning President Trump’s executive order suspending immigration from seven Muslim countries.  We find discrimination against any religion to be antithetical to our Torah and to the beliefs of our founding fathers.

In 1779, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison proposed the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, which would be the basis of the First Amendment to the Constitution.  When certain devout Christians wanted to substitute the words “Jesus Christ” for “Almighty God” in the opening passage, they were overwhelmingly voted down, because Virginia’s representatives wanted the law “to comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahomedan (sic), the Hindu and infidel of every denomination.”

In August, 1790, President George Washington, wrote “The government of the United States, gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no tolerance, and requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens….” These words were written by our founding president, after visiting the first Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. Prior to this time, President Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson also showed their support and compassion to the Roman Catholics by attending services at a Roman Catholic church, whose parishioners were not warmly embraced by many Americans at that time.

There is no religious obligation more important in Judaism than the protection of the refugee and the immigrant.  “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)  The Torah admonishes us at least thirty six times to treat “the other” with fairness and compassion.  In this country, “strangers” have added greatly to making us the strong, diverse land that we are today.

According to the Talmud, “he who saves one life, saves the entire world.”  It does not say “one Jewish life, one Christian life, one Muslim life.”  It says “one life,” because all lives are equal before Hashem.  We applaud those who have protested President Trump’s attempted ban, and we are grateful for the wisdom of the Federal judges that have stayed the ban.  We are especially grateful to our Founding Fathers for their brilliance in establishing our system of checks and balances.

Let us not fear the stranger but let us have faith in God that He will inspire these strangers and our citizenry to come together to form bonds of friendship that will enrich all our lives.  As Jews, we must remember the horrible consequences of closing U.S. borders to those facing persecution, and speak up to prevent that shameful history from repeating itself.

Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer, Ph.D., D.D.
Hebrew Seminary President

Thomas Giller, J.D., L.S.W.
Hebrew Seminary Chairman of the Board

 

Finding Possiblity In Bad News

By Executive Director Alison C. Brown

We look to Abraham to teach us advocacy. Last week we read of God’s plan to destroy the city of Sodom. The story teaches us to argue with the powers that be when lives are at stake. Abraham teaches us to argue for the rights of all people and there is no doubt that we need to step-up our advocacy here in America. Allow me to share some examples of why we need to put ourselves out there and allow me to offer Jewish teachings that may inspire us to do so. I do believe God is with us every move we make. I believe in a God of love and possibility. I do not accept impossibility.

“On November 20, hundreds gathered for an anti-hate rally at a vandalized Brooklyn park named in memory of the late Beastie Boys singer Adam Yauch. The rally Sunday at the Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn came after the park was defaced with swastikas and the message ‘Go Trump.’” (Jewish Telegraph Agency)

An Anti-Defamation League report issued in October identified 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets between August 2015 and July 2016 with an estimated reach of 10 billion impressions, which the task force believes “contributed to reinforcing and normalizing anti-Semitic language – particularly racial slurs and anti-Israel statements — on a massive scale.”

As an introduction to its “Hate Crime Statistics 2015” report released this November, the FBI wrote: “Earlier this year, a Florida man pled guilty to threatening to firebomb two mosques. A Virginia man was charged with assaulting a gay victim. And an Iowa man was convicted of stomping on and kicking the head of an African-American victim.”

I do not accept this foreboding news. Let us bring about a prevailing wind of kindness. Let us be upstanders, people who speak up even to their peers when a wrong is being perpetrated. Humans are social and prone to group think. We need to conspicuously role model mutual respect, act for social justice and unequivocally leave no one to fend for themselves. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, each and every person has a piece of the truth. When Rav Huna would eat a meal, he would open his door and say, “Whoever is in need, let that person come and eat.” (Ta’anit 20b) In our communities, many read the newspaper and simply put it down. Children fallen in the street are set aside. The Wisdom of our Fathers, Pirke Avot 2:5, echoes through the house: “Hillel said, do not separate yourself from the community.”

Think about what it means to be inclusionary. When we are open to everything and everyone, we don’t define ourselves or make decisions based on subconscious fears. We draw back when demagogues venomously tell us what to think. We sit with our initial response to a choice or a person different than ourselves and witness it. Being with our fears and prejudices allows them to dissipate. Then we can be open to possibilities. Then we can be open to being our best self. Snap judgements close countless doors. Grudges epitomize the certainty of only one possibility.

Psychologist Erich Fromm believed that God is a metaphor for our best self. He theorized that we believe in and seek to connect with our ideal self. Fromm was searching for meaning, a way to respond to the inevitability of change. The definition of time is change. We often don’t know why things change, we can only weigh change against what is the most good for the most people. As a rabbi once said: “We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.”

Philosopher John D. Caputo beckons us, “The religious sense of life has to do with exposing oneself to radical uncertainty and the open-endedness of life…. The Scriptures are filled with narratives in which the power of the present is broken and the full length and breadth of the real open like a flower, unfolding the power of the possible, the power of the impossible beyond the possible, of the hyper-real beyond the real. … faith, hope and love are what we need to keep up with what is really going on in the real beyond the real ….”

I believe that the possible, my ideal self, love, and the hyper-real beyond the real are all different names for The Source, The Name, HaShem. I am assured and inspired by the words of Kabbalist Kedushat Levi, “Now He is giving His people life!” The creation of man into Yesh (existence) happened in the past tense and is happening right now. God is continually creating us and we are part of Her creative activity here on the physical plane.

Each and every moment of our lives, God gives us possibility. These possibilities exist for everyone equally and we are responsible to recognize and actualize those possibilities for our self and all fellow human beings. We thank God for our gift of possibility by assuring that our brothers and sisters, all of them, can actualize their gifts. We show our gratitude by assuring equal rights for all, which opens doors to meeting the basic needs of food, shelter, health care and education, which opens an inner door toward our ideal self.

Moses and Miriam’s Friendship of Trust

Our sidra this week is Chukat which includes the mysterious telling of Moses emotionally striking the rock in the wilderness of Zin to bring forth much needed water for the people of Israel (Num. 20:10-11). For this, Moses was not allowed to enter the land of Canaan.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes this is the first trial that Moses had to face as a leader without his sister Miriam who had recently passed away. Rabbi Sacks explains that the early life of Moses suggests that Miriam was Moses’ trusted friend and confidante. “Maimonides calls it the ‘friendship of trust’ (chaver habitachon) and describes it as having someone in whom ‘you have absolute trust and with whom you are completely open and unguarded.’” Even Moses needed a human friend that he could trust.

My fellow student Tirtzah says this is also what we need to help heal our world today. My heart has been aching since the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas policemen Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens. I asked Tirtzah what can we do? She told me of her Englewood neighbors and their ‘network of trust’. These eight households began neighbor-by-neighbor to be open, unguarded and authentic with each other. Leaders such as Moses and neighbors such as you and I need friends and family we can trust.

This is one thing we can do. Give those we meet reason to trust us. Be a kind listener. Be a trusted problem-solver. Talk openly about your fears and sanctify the gift of each day by being kind.

Here is another thing we can do. Jewish law influenced Roman law, English law, and our own Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The Men of the Great Assembly said, “”Be deliberate in judgement,’ because there is no greater act of loving-kindness than saving the oppressed (from those who would wrong them) by rendering fair judgement.” (Kehati on Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 2.)

In the words of contemporary author George Saunders, “… to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespear’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret, luminous place. Believe that it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”

 

 

 

Be Brave and Balanced

 

From the Pen of Hebrew Seminary Executive Director Alison C. Brown

20 May, 9 Iyar marks 28 days of Counting the Omer. Tonight we reflect upon ourselves through the lens of Malchut sheb’Netzach. Malchut is the Sefirah that corresponds to our completeness in the physical realm and the Shechinah, the divine within, our source of spiritual strength. With the holographic augmentation of Netzach we reflect tonight upon our “capacity to stand up for what is right and just,” writes Rabbi Rami Shapiro.

Our election cycle offers examples of how to stand up for what is right and just. A female Senator bravely tweeted this week, “Your policies are dangerous. Your words are reckless.” While we count the Omer, we look honestly within about our policies, our attitude, our work, and our words. When we look at our thoughts and our choices honestly and with integrity it makes it possible to also critically follow the election news.

Don’t believe me.

Don’t believe everything you hear and read.

Bring clear eyes and a full heart to your day, your reflections and the election cycle.

We seek balance during these 49 days of the Omer. On Passover, we left Egypt inexperienced with freedom. We have 49 days to get accustomed to this freedom and learn to use it wisely. On the 50th day we once again receive the Torah. As we count the Omer each year and look within for our true selves, we clarify and refine our Sefirot, our transformers of God’s energy.

My husband and I have been easing our twin seniors into more freedoms this year; even so, they will be unaccustomed to the freedoms of college. I recently discovered that one of my favorite writers, George Saunders gave a commencement speech a couple of years ago. He half-jested that we are born with built-in confusions, such as the belief that our personal story is the only story and that we’re separate from the universe. “There’s us and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing sets and the state of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people.” We intellectually know better than to really believe these things, Saunders writes, but we live by them. We prioritize our own needs first.

In America we are free. We are free to meet our needs. Some are louder about this than others; some have no voice at all. Many of us are somewhere in the middle stages of our life of freedom. We manage to meet our needs and we have enough comforts that we can factor the needs of others into our priorities. Some of us are brave, both within and without our means, because we know that inner balance is found through kindness and love.

Go ahead, be ambitious Saunders told the graduates, “but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial.”

Take stock of yourself in these days of freedom. The Source of all is nudging you to be balanced and brave.

 

Parts I through IV of this Omer series are posted on the HS Facebook Page.

 

 

 

 

Navigating Life Via the Torah Teachings of Justice and Compassion

Sefer Assiyah, Hebrew Seminary’s e-newsletter recently included an interview with faculty member Rabbi Cantor Michael Davis.  We asked:

What Torah teaching can you share with us that might help us navigate life in America today?

Recently, when I was asked to speak at the 15,000 strong convention of Muslims in American, the question that was posed was: “what is it within your tradition that compels you to do interfaith work?” My speech included the following:

“As a professor at a rabbinical seminary, I teach that Judaism was not formed in isolation from other religions and cultures. For centuries, Judaism’s most influential scholars were Arab Jews. Most famously, nine hundred years ago, Moussa Ibn Maimoun, known as Moses Maimonides, the greatest rabbi since Moses our Teacher, studied Greek philosophy – Aristotle and Plato  – in their Arabic translation. Ibn Maimoun wrote his pre-eminent philosophical and religious works in Arabic.

“As far back as the Bible and throughout 3,000 years of Judaism, Jews have lived alongside other faiths and peoples. Judaism teaches how to be in the world that we share with so many other faiths.

“My Mother was born in Vienna, Austria not long before the Nazis came to power.  Quakers working with Jews brought her to England, thus escaping the Holocaust. Some 9,000 other young Jews and more were saved in this manner.  I would not be here today if not for this blessed collaboration between Christians and Jews. That is interfaith in action.”

“For much of our history, Jews were a “minority”. A minority in numbers of course, but more importantly a minority with regard to our legal rights.  The Bible teaches us: “remember that you were once slaves.”  Therefore, we must seek justice for other and treat others with compassion. We are called to stand in solidarity with others.”

About Rabbi Cantor Michael Davis

Michael Davis was born in England, received his Judaic training in yeshivot Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, trained with Hazzan Naftali Herstick of the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem and received his cantorial ordination from Hebrew Union College.  Michael joined the Hebrew Seminary faculty in 2009.