Friday, January 23, 2015

Distinctly Jewish, From Ancient Egypt to Today

Throughout this week you may have seen on social media an article called “Hot pastrami and the decline of secular, Jewish-American identity: How deli stopped being an essential part of the Jewish-American story.” This opinion piece, written by Peter Beinart and published by Haaretz, expresses Beinart’s observation that the secular American Jewish identity is being diluted and fading away to the point where there soon may not be a singular, distinctive American-Jewish persona and culture recognizable by Jews and non-Jews alike. Even if we do not necessarily agree with his assessment of the situation, Beinart’s concern is certainly one that we must take seriously.

Maintaining a strong Jewish identity, one that is distinct from other cultures, one that stands out even in assimilated societies, and one that we are proud to exhibit has always been a hallmark of our people. Even in the darkest of times, when fear might have led to this identity being hidden in public, it continued to grow and flourish in private circles. For centuries, our religion has been maintained through study of Torah, and our peoplehood has been maintained by Jewish culture: our rituals, our holidays, our foods, our language, and all of our idiosyncrasies.

This has been true even from the earliest days of the Jewish people. As we read this week in Parashat Bo, and as we know from the story of Passover, on the eve of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, our ancestors were commanded to mark their doorposts with lamb’s blood. This smearing of blood was used to identify and distinguish Jewish homes from non-Jewish homes, protecting our ancestors from the final plague: the killing of the first-born.

Throughout the ages we have maintained our ancestors’ practice. By following the precedent in Egypt and observing the commandments in our Torah, we continue to mark our doorposts to this day with a mezuzah , clearly and proudly letting people know that our home is a Jewish home. And we have even gone further, wearing bracelets, rings, and necklaces featuring a Star of David, a “Chai” (Hebrew word for life), and even a smaller mezuzah. Many Jews also choose to wear their kippot (skullcaps, also known as yarmulkes) in public due to a feeling of religious obligation, a sense of pride and identity, or, many times, both. 

Over the past few months, and especially brought to a head over the past few weeks, we have come to clearly see that rampant Jewish hatred still exists in many parts of the civilized world. In these places, such as France, our fellow Jews have had to hide who they really are and temper their expressions of Jewish identity, fearing abuse, assault, or even the loss of their lives. They are no longer comfortable wearing their Jewish jewelry, kippot, or other outward signs of being Jewish. This fear has gotten to the point where an Israeli barber has created what is being called the “magic yarmulke;” a washable skullcap made out of hair. This new “fashion statement” blends easily with regular hair and allows one to fulfill the obligation of covering the head, while remaining inconspicuous (read, safe) in public. 

In ancient Egypt, when our people were persecuted and oppressed, their decision to actively and proudly display their identity is what saved their lives. In today’s Europe, when our people enjoy lives of freedom in the greater society, their decision to actively and proudly display their identity is what puts their safety at risk. I am, as we all should be, dumbfounded by this dichotomy.

Our hearts go out to Jews all over the world who live in fear, hesitant to announce that they are Jews. Our prayers go out to God that one day, very soon, the world will become enlightened. Our actions, therefore, must be put towards embracing OUR Jewish identities and proudly displaying them for all to see. If we can maintain a singular, unique, and distinctive identity as American Jews, we can give our brothers and sisters across the world hope that one day, they may be able to proudly show off their unique identities as well.

Let us put our Judaism on display. Let us embrace that which makes us unique in the world. And, this Shabbat, let’s have a bowl of matzo ball soup, corned beef (or pastrami) on rye, and a knish on the side, to remind us of who we are and where we come from.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Show Your Marvel

On Monday evening, the Ohio State Buckeyes won the first-ever College Football Playoffs National Championship. As great as that game was, and as exciting of a victory as it is for Buckeye fans, such as my wife, the football game itself was only part of what drew people to watch ESPN. Many were drawn to their TV screens in order to watch the premiere of the trailer for Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron, the next big superhero blockbuster to hit the silver screen. 

With the recent successes of movies like Man of Steel, X-Men, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain America, and the success of TV shows like Agents of SHIELD, Arrow, and The Flash, we are, indeed, currently entrenched in the era of the superhero, comic book movie.  Marvel and DC Comics are both pursuing an aggressive slate of upcoming projects like Avengers, and next year’s Batman v Superman movie. 
Recently, Stephen McFeely, one of the writers of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, told The Hollywood Reporter that he often gets asked questions of why comic book movies are prevalent nowadays. His response to these questions is: 

"In some ways, we’ve become a genre that you can do well now given the world of computers and perhaps it’s also just a time in the sun. You went to the movies in the 50’s and 60’s you went to a western. So at this point, you’re going to a superhero movie. It’s taking over that same black hat, white hat myth-making surface.”

While I would certainly agree with McFeely that todays visual effects have the power to bring the worlds of the comic heroes to life in ways that earlier generations could only dream about, I would have to say that modern technology is not the only reason people flock to comic book movies and shows. 
Day in and day out we see on the news and read online about horrific events taking place across the world and close to home. In this, the information age, we are more inundated than ever with knowledge of just how much evil exists in the world. Evils that we might choose to ignore at times, but evils nonetheless that do not go away just because we cannot handle them. 
The superhero genre gives us a temporary escape. We immerse ourselves in worlds that are also full of evil but, at the same time, feature heroes who keep that evil at bay, make the world safe, and foster the feelings of freedom and protection that all people dream about. DC and Marvel are producing movies and TV shows about extraordinary individuals who are saving the day from unspeakable evils because that is what we need right now. We need heroes, marvels to behold and to inspire us.
In their oppression in Egypt, our ancestors sought a similar hero to free them from their burdens. This week in our Torah, Moses emerges as that wonder. Finally agreeing to be God’s messenger, Moses, along with his brother Aaron, are instructed by God to proceed to Egypt, confront Pharaoh, and demand the freedom of the Hebrews. At the same time, God also knows that it will take more than a mere demand to convince Pharaoh. As such, God tells Moses and Aaron that Pharaoh will need convincing:

The Eternal One said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh speaks to you and says, ‘Show your marvel,’ you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your rod and cast it down before Pharaoh.’ It shall turn into a serpent.
(Exodus 7:8-9)

Our heroes were issued the challenge, “תְּנוּ לָכֶם מוֹפֵת (t’nu lachem mofeit),” “show your marvel.” God knew, just as we do, that it takes a marvel, a wonderful or astonishing person or thing, to initiate true change in the face of oppression.

This weekend, our country devotes itself to honoring one such marvel of recent history, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King was the epitome of a hero who stood up for what he believed in, inspired others to join his cause, and proved that equality was a goal for which many had strived. Dr. King’s work and his words still echo to this day as a call to action against many of the troubles our world faces today.

In the face of renewed feelings and tensions concerning racial inequality, we hear Dr. King say:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

And in response to those who have acted violently in protest, we implore as Dr. King implored:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

In the face of renewed global terrorism we consider Dr. King’s words from a 1967 speech at Marietta College:

"When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. Where evil men would seek to perpetuate an unjust status quo, good men must seek to bring into being a real order of justice.”

And for each and every time we hear about a terrible tragedy, we seek comfort from Dr. King’s charge:

“We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.”

In our broken and hurting world we maintain our hope for a brighter future, but hope, alone, is not enough. Rabbi Tarfon taught us:

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.
Lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hivatel mimena—
 “You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.” 
(Pirkei Avot 2:16)

It is up to each of us to bring some hope back to the world, to be that light unto the nations that our prophets urge us to be. We all have the power to be everyday super heroes, to bring reality closer to the world of the comic books, to make our fantasy play out in reality. All we need is someone to inspire us. So now I challenge the world, our country, our community, and you:

“תְּנוּ לָכֶם מוֹפֵת” 
(t’nu lachem mofeit)

“Show Your Marvel!”

Friday, January 9, 2015

God Imperfect; World Imperfect

These days it seems more and more apparent that we live in a broken and imperfect world. With all of the crises in the Middle East, the ever-growing list of victims of preventable gun violence in our country, and, especially, this week’s terrorist activities in France, we are all left dumbfounded as to how so much evil could have been permitted to exist. An obvious question that people of faith are likely to be asking in the wake of all of this violence and hate is, “where is God in all of this?” And, of course, the corollary question is sure to be asked, “how could God let all of this happen?” While these are certainly valid questions, at this moment in time, we are not well served, nor are we comforted, by answering these questions directly. We can never know God’s true plans or absolute nature. We can only speak to humanity’s experience of, and relationship to, that which is divine. 

As we seek to understand God in our own lives, we find infinite guidance through the written words and eternal teachings of our Torah. We begin the book of Exodus this Shabbat, reading about Moses’ first interaction with God. After approaching the Burning Bush and accepting God’s mission of freeing the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, Moses asks God one of the most pivotal questions in the Torah:

Moses said to God, "When I come to the Israelites and say to them 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is God’s name?' what shall I say to them?" And God said to Moses, "Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh." He continued, "Thus shall you say to the Israelites, 'Ehyeh sent me to you.’"
(Exodus 3:13-14)

God’s response to Moses, the name Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, is one that comes with a variety of translations and, therefore, a variety of meanings. The common translation with which we are familiar is reflected in numerous editions of the Bible and even immortalized by Cecil B. deMille’s The Ten Commandments; “I AM THAT I AM.” The Midrash teaches us that the meaning of Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh comes to be found in the variety of names we use in reference to God: 

R. Abba b. Mammel said: God said to Moses: ‘You wish to know My name. Well, I am called according to My deeds; sometimes I am called “El Shaddai (Almighty God)”, “Tz’vaot (Lord of Hosts)”, “Elohim (God)”, “Adonai (Lord)”. When I am judging created beings, I am called “ Elohim",’ and when I am waging war against the wicked, I am called “Tz’vaot". When I suspend judgment for a person's sins, I am called "El Shaddai,” and when I am merciful towards My world, I am called "Adonai", … Hence “I AM THAT I AM” in virtue of My deeds.’ 
(Exodus Rabbah 3:6)

According to this teaching, God’s essence is to be learned from God’s actions in the world, with each name referring to a different action or characteristic of God’s being. Therefore God is what God is, depending on how we as humans refer to God. If this is so, what are we then to learn, or, for that matter, teach about how the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) relate to and address the same, One God. In light of recent events, and of the countless instances of radicals from all three religions acting “in God’s name,” one might draw a conclusion that referring to God by the name of Jesus, or Allah, or, heaven forbid, Adonai, might insinuate that God’s nature is evil, violent, and vengeful. Thankfully we know this not to be so and, as such, we know that as instructive as the above midrash is, God’s essence goes beyond mere absolutes; “I AM THAT I AM” is too rigid of a translation and too definite of an answer for a people whose eternal quest is to struggle with God’s being.

Another midrash, found in the Talmud, approaches Moses’ question from a different perspective: God’s surprise that the Israelites even needed to know God’s name.

Then the Holy One, blessed be God, said to him, ‘Alas for those who are gone and no more to be found! For how many times did I reveal Myself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by the name of El Shaddai, and they did not question my character, nor say to Me, What is Your name? I said to Abraham, Arise, walk through the land in the length of it, and in the width of it,’ for I will give it to you: yet when he sought a place to bury Sarah…had to purchase it for four hundred silver shekels; and still he did not question My character. I said to Isaac, Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you: yet his servants sought water to drink, and did not find it without its being disputed…still he did not question My character. I said to Jacob, The land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your descendants: yet he sought a place to pitch his tent and did not find one until he purchased it…nevertheless he did not question My character; nor did they say to me, What is God’s name?
(Sanhedrin 111a)

This midrash teaches us that just as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob knew God personally, so too did God expect the Israelites, hundreds of years later, to accept God for the deeds of the past, not questioning God’s existence or, for that matter, which god was coming to their rescue. Instead, what God is faced with, and what Moses will come to lead, is an Israelite people who have not experienced God’s actions in the world. They had no personal interaction with the God of their ancestors. They are bound to ask for God’s name as proof of God’s identity, essentially questioning of God, “what haveYou done for me lately.” For the Israelites of Moses’ generation, God is not an absolute and “I AM THAT I AM” is not a convincing introduction.

Grammitcally speaking, “I AM THAT I AM” is a less-than-accurate translation of Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh. The word ehyeh is a verb conjugated in the imperfect aspect. This means that it reflects an uncompleted, ongoing action, that can exist either in the past, present, or future tense. As such, a more accurate translations would be “I WILL BE THAT WHICH I WILL BE,” “I AM BECOMING THAT WHICH I AM BECOMING,” or some combination of the two. By God’s own description, we can understand God as the divine entity whose nature is in a constant state of flux. God’s essence is fluid and determined by our experience of and relation to God; God’s becoming is determined by our doing. God is imperfect because we are imperfect.

Therefore, we must not look to God when trying to comprehend all of the evil and hate in our world. Instead we must look inward and ask ourselves: How can we help to bring perfection to the world? What can we do to help God become the gracious and merciful being that God strives to be?

Rabbi Haim Korsia, the chief rabbi of France, said in response to Wednesday’s attack “We must give hope to all of society. It is one of our jobs as Jews to give hope and be an or lagoyim, a light to the nations.” We are a light to the nations when we promote freedom for all races and faiths. We are a light to the nations when we engage in meaningful discussions with those who are different from ourselves. We are a light to the nations when we promote acceptance of others, not just tolerance. 

Albert Einstein said, “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.” We can come to understand God only by understanding each other. By celebrating our differences and by learning from our similarities we can come to understand each other. By embracing the all that is unique in the world, we can help to save the world. To take poetic license from a reading in our prayerbooks by Edmund Fleg:

We are Jews because for Israel, God is not perfect; we are perfecting God.
We are Jews because for Israel, the world is not perfect; we are perfecting the world.