Sunday, June 29, 2014

My Remarks at the Broward Federation Solidarity Rally

By attending this solidarity rally, we have fulfilled a mitzvah, a sacred act, a Divine commandment prescribed by our holy Torah. The specific Mitzvah that I believe we are fulfilling here is in Parshat Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy Chapter 22. There it describes a situation in which a fellow Jew is in need of help. The Torah charges us: Hakeim Takim Imo. Help your fellow man. But help him or her in a comprehensive manner. Within these three short Hebrew words are two related yet distinct responsibilities. First Hakeim- alleviate their suffering, rectify the situation by providing material support and concrete steps to fix what is broken.
And also Takim Imo: stand up in solidarity with those who are in need, provide spiritual sustenance for those in trouble and their loved ones.
          One of the most important concrete steps we can undertake is to raise awareness and keep the attention of the world on the plight of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali. The news cycle is very fast, and it’s already moving on to new stories. But we won’t move on, we can’t move on, until the boys are returned because this story is about our family. Our efforts here must be supplemented by letters to the editor, social media campaigns, reaching out to elected officials- whatever we can do to increase the awareness of this terribly unjust situation.
          But the we must Takim Imo: our provision of spiritual sustenance to the three boys and their families must not end with today’s rally. Jewish tradition teaches us that good deeds performed on behalf of someone in trouble is a way to alleviate their predicament. Therefore let us react to these kidnappings with an increase in kindness. Let us respond to this terrorism with enhanced Torah study. Let our response to these provocations find expression in our intensified prayers.  May our steps to stand – and act -in solidarity create the merit that Brings Our Boys home swiftly and Safely. And May our efforts create a better world, one from which we can continue to benefit, long after the Boys’ safe return. At my synagogue, the Young Israel of Hollywood – Ft. Lauderdale, these last 3 weeks since the boys were kidnapped, we have added Psalm 130 to our Shabbat evening prayers specifically on behalf of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali. After the Pslam we recite the following short prayer, with which I’d like to conclude:
אַחֵינוּ כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל, הַנְּתוּנִים בְּצָרָה וּבַשִּׁבְיָה, הָעוֹמְדִים בֵּין בַּיָּם וּבֵין בַּיַּבָּשָׁה, הַמָּקוֹם יְרַחֵם עֲלֵיהֶם, וְיוֹצִיאֵם מִצָּרָה לִרְוָחָה, וּמֵאֲפֵלָה לְאוֹרָה, וּמִשִּׁעְבּוּד לִגְאֻלָּה, הַשְׁתָּא בַּעֲגָלָא וּבִזְמַן קָרִיב.

“Our brothers, the entire family of Israel who are delivered into distress and captivity, whether they are on these shores or across the ocean- may the Omnipresent One have mercy on them, and remove them from distress to relief, from darkness to light, from subjugation to redemption, now, speedily and soon and let us say Amen.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Lend Your Voice, But Don't Give It To Others

In Parshat Shelach we read about the episode of the spies. Upon hearing the evil report from most of the spies, the Torah tells us the reaction of the nation:
Vatisa kol Ha’eidah Vayitnu et Kolam, vatyivku ha’am balayla hahu” (14:1)
“The entire assembly raised up and issued its voice, the people wept that night”

The bolded words above seem strange. What does it mean that the people literally “gave their voice”, and not just “raised their voice”?

Perhaps the Torah is alluding to one of the major mistakes perpetrated by the Jewish People in regards to the Meraglim affair. Instead of maintaining their own judgment, they “gave their voice” to the spies with the evil report. They chose not to think independently, but rather to blindly follow what the gang was saying.

We must be careful to never blindly give our voices to others. We must keep our voices so that our voices reflect who we are and what we believe.  

Our voice is too important and too powerful to give over to someone else. We can lend our voices to others and on behalf of others, but the story of the meraglim teaches us to be very wary about giving our voices to someone or something else.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Behaving AND Believing: Some Thoughts on "Social Orthodoxy"

Shavuot 5774
Behaving and Believing (Naaseh V’Nishma)
Some Thoughts on “Social Orthodoxy”
According to traditional Jewish thought, the Jewish People experienced a revelation on this day 3,326 years ago; during which Hashem revealed both the Written and Oral traditions that we continue to revere to this day. What if you don’t believe that- can you still be Orthodox?
          According to the recent Pew Survey of American Jews, 77% of Modern Orthodox Jews believe with certitude in the existence of God. What about the other 23%? Can you be Orthodox and be agnostic, or not think much about God’s existence or role in the world?
          The answer to both questions could be yes, according to Jay Lefkowitz, in a recent article in Commentary Magazine. In Lefkowitz’s words, “I root my identity much more in Jewish culture, history nationality than in faith and commandments. “ Mr. Lefkowitz admits to being Shomer Mitzvot (by and large) and living a life that from the outside would be considered Orthodox. He puts on tefillin every day, observes Shabbat and holidays and sends his children to Jewish day schools. But not because God commanded him to do so, but because he wants to connect with the Jewish, Halachik community: past, present and future. He calls this type of Judaism: Social Orthodoxy. The Social Orthodox may daven daily (perhaps even with a minyan) but question the efficacy of prayer, or even whether there is God listening. Social Orthodox will abide by the laws of Kashrut and Shabbat; but not because they are commanded by Hashem but rather because it is through these practices that one finds his/her place in the Orthodox community and assures its continuity. Social Orthodox will celebrate Shavuot, even as they question whether Matan Torah ever occurred.
          There is some merit to Mr. Lefkowitz argument. Judaism, in contrast to Christianity, is much more interested in what we do than in what we believe. For us it’s deed more so than creed. Jewish tradition also believes in the value of a mitzvah even when performed for the wrong reasons. The Rabbis of the Talmud firmly believed in the power of a mitzvah- and mitoch shelo lishma, ba lishma.
The community factor of Judaism is an important element to the religious experience. For instance, our famous declaration of the unity of God begins with Shema Yisrael- turning to the community first- before continuing with Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad. In Megillat Rut which we will read tomorrow, Ruth’s declaration of commitment begins Amech Ami- your people are my people” – and only then is there mention of Elokayich Elokai- your God is my God. The social bonds of Jewish community seem to preface/ be more important than the theological underpinnings. And even the expression Na’aseh V’Nishma is written in the first person plural. Acceptance of Torah and community are inextricably linked.
          Lefkowitz also defends Social Orthodoxy based on a famous verse related to Matan Torah. In Parshat Mishpatim we read that Bnei Yisrael responded to Moshe’s offer of the Torah with the phrase, “Na’aseh V’Nishma.” According to Mr. Lefkowitz, “There is a long tradition in Judaism of engaging first in religious practices and letting matters of faith come later……And so for me, and I imagine for many others like me, the key to Jewish living is not our religious beliefs but our commitment to a set of practices and values that foster community and continuity.”   It may be that Social Orthodoxy keeps some Jews within the fold of tradition. And I certainly would not tell a person that s/he must believe all Jewish principles of faith in order to be part of the Halachik community. There is no thought police in our community.
          Nevertheless, I have my concerns. One concern is stated by Mr. Lefkowitz himself: sustainability. “Whether such a cultural tradition can be sufficiently transmitted to the next generation is a fair question.” Causes without religious underpinnings are difficult to transmit in the long term.
          Mr. Lefkowitz suggested that there can be a movement predicated on Naaseh that puts Nishma on the back burner indefinitely. I think that this is impossible, based on the Seforno
Seforno:  Naaseh L’Tachlit Shenishma B’Kolo K’avadim Hameshamshim et Harav Shelo Al Menat Lekabel Peras
Purpose of doing is to foster a love for God to the degree that your actions ultimately are an expression of that relationship with the Divine. When you love someone you do even before you understand. But even if you don’t understand exactly why you are doing what you’re doing, you at least recognize that these actions are done in the context of a relationship with Hashem.
          The story is told that Mrs. Albert Einstein was asked whether she understood the Theory of Relativity. To which she responded, “No, I do not understand Professor Einstein’s Theory of Relativity- but I understand Professor Einstein.” We may not understand the meaning of all of our mitzvah actions and we may not need to. But we need to have some semblance of a recognition that these actions are the way we demonstrate our relationship with A Metzaveh- God, the Commander in Chief.
          Social Orthodoxy presumes that community is enough of a reason to maintain a traditional lifestyle. However people and communities can disappoint us. If our religious observance depends on the response we receive from others within the community, then what happens when others in the community don’t care about the particulars of our observance? Or even worse- what happens if you  find yourself  in a situation where no one cares about you at all. Then what? To whom do we turn if we have not fostered a relationship with Hashem such that we can state with confidence ”Ezri Me’Im Hashem.”

          Of the three Regalim, Shavuot is most focused on the individual. On Pesach the korban Pesach was eaten in a large group- just as our seders are celebrated. On Sukkot, everyone eats together in a sukkah, and the four species symbolize the unity of all Jews. On Shavuot, the Biblical command is Bikurim- each individual farmer comes to the Beit Hamikdash to declare his gratitude to Hashem and his relationship with the Divine. Nowadays, there are no unique Shavuot mitzvoth to occupy our time. And therefore Shavuot is an appropriate time to consider our religious identities and the meaning of our personal observance. I think on some level we are all a little bit Social Orthodox. We want our religious observance to help us foster a sense of Jewish community, Jewish continuity and Jewish pride. The growth of Modern Orthodoxy in America testifies to how successful our community building efforts have been in the past 50 years. But let us not lose sight of the twofold declaration of our ancestors. Naaseh V’Nishma. To behave according to the Torah’s mandates, AND to Believe that God is an important piece of the picture: charging us, challenging us and cheering us on.