Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – Summer, 2010

One of my projects for the past couple of months has been working with a web designer on our new Ahavas Israel web site.  By the time you read this it should have replaced the web site that Paula Bojsen created for us about five years ago.  Paula created a state of the art web site which over the years has been a valuable virtual front door to the congregation.  It is fascinating to me how quickly time goes by in the internet world.  Five years is a generation.  A five year old web site looks dated, but more importantly, the technology that was used to create and maintain had become obsolete.  We undertook the redesign project in order to ensure that our web site functions not only as an attractive and informational brochure for potential members, but also as a communications tool for our congregational family.

While researching web sites of other synagogues, I found many, belonging to both large and small congregations, that contained broken links and out-of-date information.  As a virtual front door to the congregations, they reflected badly on the organization.  We are grateful to Rachel Lutwick-Deaner for keeping our website updated for the last few years.

One of the interesting things about building a web site is that it is a great equalizer among congregations.  A 2000 family synagogue might have a large building and staff along with an eight figure budget and a multi-million dollar endowment, and might offer a greater variety of programming than a small congregation, but you can put their web site and ours side by side, and the differences shrink.  A large congregation is just as likely to have a difficult to navigate, out of date, web site as a small congregation.

I also found organizations with web sites that gave no sense of the personality of the congregation.  Many Federation and Chabad web sites, which take most of their content from a national organization suffer from this.  Such generic sites may have useful information, but the personality and uniqueness of the local organization is buried underneath the identity of the national parent organization.  In the world of news, we know that national and international news can be found any number of places; local news sources, however, are much more limited in number.  A web site of a congregation should stress the local, not the national.  Our web site reflects the fact that Ahavas Israel exists to provide local community and connections.

Our new web site can be found at the same address, AhavasIsraelGR.org.  Please visit it and let me know what you think.  Let me know what else you’d like to see, and let me know if the organization and layout is intuitive and usable.


Judaism and Zionism

An article in the New York Review of Books by Peter Beinart entitled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment” makes a strong case that American Jews are abandoning Zionism in favor of liberal values.

The article alludes to, but doesn’t directly deal with what may be the primary reason for the disconnect between American Jews and Israel.  We are spending far too many resources building Holocaust museums (which are an entirely negative reason to remain Jewish, as in Emil Fackinheim’s 614th mitzvah, “Don’t give Hitler a posthumous victory.”) and birthright trips to Israel.  Birthright has been a wonderful program, but the fact is that you cannot create a bond to Israel in 10 days unless there was something there before the trip.

We have failed to give our young generation a Judaism that is sophisticated and modern, but also maintains a connection to traditional Torah principles.  Reform has embraced liberalism as a religious principle, ignoring the centrality of the practices of Torah as the glue that hold together Jewish community; Orthodoxy ignores modern political realities in favor of a messianic approach nibbling the edges of racism, that if we only hold on long enough God will reward us richly.  I think the Conservative Jewish approach is perfect for finding the middle ground, although I see far too many of my colleagues falling into the sensationalist rhetoric of comparing Obama to Chamberlin, and the Middle East to 1939 Nazi Germany.

Don’t get me wrong — I am not a left wing peacenik.  The security concerns are real – Israel is fighting for its life, and Iran is a dangerous enemy.  The United States is pushing for a peace agreement as if both sides (Israel and Fatah/Hamas) were equally at fault and equally trustworthy.  Israel without Judaism is a state without a moral center.  However, the Judaism that is increasingly found in Israel lacks morality.

I want to see a Judaism deal honestly and openly with the texts of our tradition that disdain the “other,” while at the same time relying up them to do the work of maintaining our State on Shabbat, providing us with organs when we need transplants, and employing them as our menial laborers.  I want to see a Judaism that believes that belief and practice are more central to our identity than genetics; a Judaism that is open to strangers; a Judaism that actively encourages seekers.  This kind of Judaism will be able to speak compassionately to Palestinians while still building a security fence.  This kind of Judaism will be able to treat the Moslem and Christian Arab citizens of Israel with dignity and equality.  This kind of Judaism can teach young people how to be both passionate Jews and passionate Zionists.

I am open to comments, disagreement, questions.  I realize that in a relatively brief essay, I have challenged Reform Jews, Orthodox Jews, Federation Jews, and Jews whose lives are defined by the Shoah to address the hard question of how they would respond to Beinart’s article.  I am not arrogant enough to think that I personally have all or even most of the answers – but I passionately believe that without a compassionate Torah center, the answers are not to be found.

Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day

Today is the 43rd anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967.  The following link gives me chills – it’s the actually news footage of the Israeli army going to the Kotel, the Western Wall and the Temple Mount.  The first link contains a complete transcript and translation.  The button on that page that is supposed to play the audio doesn’t work on my Mac (Safari or Firefox) system.  However, the second link contains an embedded youtube video of the same material.



Hello, Wilbur

To add to the conversation about Eating Animals …

Hello, Wilbur

Hello, Wilbur

If we love adorable animals in children’s books, are we ethically obliged to raise our kids vegetarian?

BY MARJORIE INGALL | 7:00 am May 10, 2010

CREDIT: Nickolas Murray, George Eastman House Photography Collection

In the current issue of The Horn Book, the venerable magazine about children’s literature, there’s an essay [1] by children’s-book author Jennifer Armstrong [2] called “Eating Reading Animals.” Armstrong points out that of the all-time bestselling children’s books, fully a third feature animal protagonists. We love to read about our furry and feathered friends. We immerse our kids in animal-centric educational and caretaking experiences. We take them to zoos and farms and encourage them to lavish love and care upon our kitties and doggies. We tie our explanations of global warming and deforestation to how these phenomena endanger adorable fauna. Animal talk is central to the ethical lessons we try to impart to our kids.

And, Armstrong writes, just as we no longer burn live cats or engage in bear-baiting [3] for amusement the way fun-loving Westerners did centuries ago, we need to continue to evolve as moral people. Which is why it’s time to stop eating meat. “[W]hat I am suggesting is that if you love children’s literature, you cannot kill animals just because they taste good on a bun,” she writes. “There’s more than a bit of hypocrisy involved in urging children to empathize with pandas and polar bears and bunnies and ducks in books and at a distance and then feeding them hamburgers and sliced deli meats. The United States kills approximately ten billion land animals every year for human consumption, which works out to over one million animals per hour. No number of books about runaway bunnies, or ducklings negotiating Boston traffic, or terrific and radiant pigs can compensate for that scale of violence, in my opinion.” Her best line: “What is [a child] to make of the trusted adult who holds in one hand a living baby chick to caress with tender care and a chicken nugget in the other hand to eat with special sauce?”

It’s a valid question, even for those of us who nix the nugget because McDonald’s isn’t kosher. Meat is still part of the American Jewish family experience—Shabbat dinner often still revolves around the roast beast; the Jewish deli, while disappearing, still holds iconic cultural pride of place.

Some Jewish writers [4] have recently considered the moral issues around what we ingest. Sadly, as we all know, kashrut isn’t always synonymous with eating morally—look at Postville and the way the Rubashkins’ plant [5] treated animals and workers. I’m involved in a kosher, ethical meat co-op and have followed with interest the attempts by Conservative and Modern Orthodox activists to certify kosher meat as ethical as well as “kosher” according to the letter of halakhah, Jewish law. Ethical kashrut should involve respect for humans and animals. I don’t eat much meat—I joke that I’m in a mixed marriage because I married a Reform Jew from Wisconsin who lives for bratwurst and owns a “Bacon is a Vegetable [6]” t-shirt—but when I do eat meat, I need to know its origins and trust the source. My standards of kashrut wouldn’t be acceptable to some other Jews, and my standards of what’s ethical wouldn’t meet those of vegetarians or vegans. We all have our line in the sand.

And that line can shift. The one time as an adult I willfully broke my own standards of kashrut was when I was writing for a travel guide in rural Greece. On a remote island in the late 1980s, a family insisted I come home with them for dinner. They were fishermen. They caught a fresh squid and smashed it against the side of their fishing boat. I felt just as caught as the cephalopod. I thought about having to explain not just kashrut, but what a Jew was. And I decided that their philosophy of philoxenia, kindness to strangers, was more important than my kashrut. Just that time, and just for me.

At that family’s table I stared down that calamari, heart pounding—I’d never had any unkosher seafood before—and slowly brought one of those ring-y things to my mouth.

Holy moly, it was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted.

Thus ended my one and only foray into non-kosher seafood. So, what’s the moral here? That it’s hard to generalize about ethical rightness. We’re often weighing different goods. And of course, for many people kashrut isn’t about morality at all—it’s about following God’s literal word. Attaching Western values to kashrut is specious, according to many Orthodox folk, because kashrut is about obedience, not moral choice.

My kids love the story of me quaking over a plate of squid rings. Josie tends to follow Daddy’s religion (meat is God), and Maxie tends to follow mine (an occasional hot dog, some white meat, but generally not a fan of the fleisch), and they both revel in tales of my anxiety and waffling—welcome to childhood, where parents’ dithering is children’s joy. Both my kids have experienced that classic youthful moment of revelation, drumstick on way to mouth: Wait, you mean chicken is chicken? Both were briefly horrified; both also forgot or compartmentalized. I expect the classic “OMG, I am so going vegan” to happen, on schedule, in the teen years. If at any point they choose to go fully veg, we’ll accommodate. The amount of meat we eat now is a constant, low-level source of tension (Jonathan wants more; I want less), so adding still more thrumming demands to the mix will only add to the merriment.

In any event, for now, despite my family’s love for our kitty Yoyo and for William Steig’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble [7], we will continue to eat meat. Some more, some less; some only kosher, others wrapped in prosciutto and stuffed with crawfish. But Armstrong’s essay should make us all think, wherever we fall on the fleshtastic and/or kosher end of the spectrum. Where does food come from? How do we refrain from exploitation of workers, animals, resources? How do our consumer choices affect the planet? We should all be sweating a little. That goes for kashrut-keepers who don’t think the conditions in a slaughterhouse matter, or who wish to shove any further questions about this issue under the blood-stained rug [8]; it goes for vegans with easy answers about what everyone else should do; it goes for Michael Pollan, whose seven-word mantra (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) doesn’t allow for class or cultural nuance.

The word “mitzvah” doesn’t actually mean “good deed,” though many people think it does. It actually means “obligation.” And one obligation that comes with having kids is not getting to go for easy answers anymore. Let’s keep reading, and keep asking the questions. It’s a mitzvah.

Article printed from Tablet Magazine: http://www.tabletmag.com

URL to article: http://www.tabletmag.com/life-and-religion/33112/hello-wilbur/

URLs in this post:

[1] an essay: http://www.hbook.com/magazine/articles/2010/may10_armstrong.asp

[2] Jennifer Armstrong: http://www.jennifer-armstrong.com/index.htm

[3] bear-baiting: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bear-baiting

[4] Jewish writers: http://www.amazon.com/Eating-Animals-Jonathan-Safran-Foer/dp/0316069906/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273167099&sr=1-1

[5] Rubashkins’ plant: http://forward.com/articles/119184/

[6] Bacon is a Vegetable: http://store.dieselsweeties.com/products/bacon-is-a-vegetable-shirt

[7] Sylvester and the Magic Pebblehttp://www.amazon.com/Sylvester-Magic-Pebble-Aladdin-Picture/dp/0671662694

[8] blood-stained rug: http://forward.com/articles/127824/

Happy Mother’s Day

A bit of Torah in honor of mothers (Kiddushin 31b):

“When Rabbi Joseph heard his mother’s footsteps, he would say: ‘I will arise before the approaching Shekhinah.’

Shekhinah is a reference to the presence of God, coming from Exodus 25:8, “Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

Honoring one’s father and mother, the fifth of the ten pronouncements, forms a bridge between the mitzvot between human beings and God and the mitzvot between human beings. The placement of this command reminds us that our parents are potentially our earliest link to God. Similarly, the statement of Rabbi Joseph honors his mother as the one who gave him life and links him to the presence of God.

Let us be thankful to our mothers, those who gave us biological life and/or those who raised us. They gave us life and hopefully taught us something about how to use our life to bring light and goodness into the world.

Thank you to my colleague Rabbi Rob Scheinberg for sharing the source.