Monthly Archives: April 2016

Post Seder Thoughts

Shalom. I hope your Passover has been going well. I love this holiday, the sedarim and the people around, even the food which represents a nice change and I don’t know why some get so wrought up about their deprivation.

I have a lot on my mind for future blog posts, including the Conservative rabbi who waited till he retired to announce that Conservative rabbis should perform intermarriages. I think there are several issues here and look forward to discussing them with you.

It’s still Pesach so let me share one seder memory. The Four Sons/ Children part of the Haggadah makes me think of who the people are around our table, which category might best fit them, and in general about people in my life. The “A Night to Remember” Haggadah includes at that point in the seder a reading from Robert Coles’s “The Call of Service” that always resonates and reminds me not to do what I usually do.

“It is tempting, and at times not altogether inappropriate, to sort people into a few well-chosen ‘types.’ But I urge a sense of the complexity of people on myself and on the reader. William Carlos Williams, the American poet, once talked of the ‘zeal’ with which we ‘take to labels of all kinds.’ ‘We crave certainty; we love to put a period at the end of a sentence, and that is that. But take a look at people, a real close look, and you’ll find inconsistencies and contradictions – and that’s where a closer look is needed, not a category or a definition that tells you, that reassures you: all right, you’ve got it!’”

I cannot tell you how many times this caution has proven to be true with people I have known. It’s too easy to make snap judgments about people, or think we know exactly what they are thinking. or believe that the book’s cover matches its contents. But, I need to remind myself, underneath it’s a lot more complicated. There is a little of the wise and the wicked and the simple and the confused in each of us. We will have a happier and more peaceful world when we see that.

Moadim l’simchah/ happy last days of Pesach. Bill Rudolph


Why Do We Survive?

In preparation for leading the Passover sedarim, I always look through my Haggadot collection. The relatively new one by the former Chief Rabbi (of Great Britain) Jonathan Sacks is one of the best. And who better to quote on the Queen’s 90th birthday?

Sacks talks in one of his essays about our winning out over Pharaoh and the irony that the first two references to Israel outside the Bible are obituaries for the Jewish people. The Merneptah stele, from Egypt in the 13th century B.C.E., states: “Israel is laid waste, her seat is no more.” Then the Mesha stele, a basalt slab dating from the 9th century B.C.E., which stands today in the Louvre, has Mesha, king of Moab, thanking his deity Chemosh for his victories in war, including his triumph over Omri, king of Israel. The  endnote is that “Israel has perished forever.”

So how come we are still around, celebrating once again our deliverance from Pharaoh’s planned genocide?  To what do we owe our survival? Paul Johnson, in his wonderful A History of the Jews, writes,  “No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny. At a very early stage of their collective existence they believed that they had detected a divine scheme for the human race, of which their own society was to be a pilot. They worked out their role in immense detail. They clung to it with heroic persistence in the face of savage suffering… The Jewish vision became the prototype for many similar grand designs for humanity, both divine and man–made. The Jews, therefore, stand right at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of a purpose.”

For Johnson, and for Rabbi Sacks, having a purpose might explain why we have defied the odds. But this “dignity of a purpose” is such an idealistic, almost radical, hope. Throughout history too many felt that such ideals are illusions and that hope is a form of hubris destined to end in failure. Judaism is now, as it has been always, a protest against such despair. It is a protest in the name of humanity and in the name of God Whose breath we breathe and Whose voice, if we listen, we can still hear through the echoes of time. Passover is the festival of faith, the faith of our ancestors, who followed that divine voice across the wilderness in search of a freedom that honors the presence of God in the affairs of mankind. Passover represents the central Jewish project:  constructing a society radically unlike any that had existed before and most that have come into being since. It asks us if we can make, on earth, a social order based not on transactions of power but on respect for the human person – each person – as the “image of God?” That is a key value that our Pesach observance represents. In the midst of the four this and the four that of the seder, we need to make sure it finds its place.

Ponder this as you begin final preparations for the holiday. Gail joins me in wishing you a Chag Kasher v’Sameach.     Bill Rudolph

The Times, They are A-Changin’

Passover is fast approaching, so I will take time off from the usual depressing news of the geopolitical world to discuss the big news in the gastronomic world. It is now OK for Conservative Jews to eat legumes during the eight days of Passover! Maybe you already heard that. I am sure it is trending on twitter too. My reaction?

Since the 1200s, Ashkenazic Jews avoided legumes (in Hebrew, kitniyot, things like corn and rice and beans including soy) during Passover because some rabbi back in the day thought that when they are used in making bread that some forbidden grains might accidentally be used in their place in the baking process. Highly unlikely but it doesn’t take much to produce a prohibition. Sephardic Jews are much more sane in matters of observance and never adopted this practice. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of our movement ruled just recently, following the lead of our colleagues in Israel, that kitniyot no longer need to be avoided. There is joy in Mudville. Not in my house, but in other houses. People can eat a wider variety of food and maybe save some money by using natural ingredients (vs processed foods) that are now OK.

My concerns are two, one halachic and one pragmatic. The halachic issue is for American Jews. Very few processed foods with legumes will be marked kosher for passover, since the marking in this country (the hechsher) is almost always done by Ashkenazic Orthodox rabbis, and people will have to (innocently) read the ingredients and decide the products are fine for Pesach when they may not be. Raw corn or rice – no problem. But that won’t be the extent of the legume consumption, and I think people will be innocently lured into a place they want to avoid. And other people may have new concerns about eating in other people’s homes. Which leads to my other issue.

My other issue is more pragmatic. Why can’t we survive without kitniyot for eight days? Is it that difficult? It’s already gotten easy to keep Pesach, maybe too easy, with a myriad of tasty options that make the holiday diet more than palatable. Can we not tolerate eight days without legumes? I know this sounds like the kvetching of an old foggie who thinks younger people are weak or impatient or looking for the easy way out. Maybe the shoe fits. In this case, let me remind you that Passover is ultimately about our feeling that we too were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed us from that and we need to be sensitive to oppression as a result of that experience. The way we eat, which is what we do each day more than any other act in any way related to the holiday, was designed to reinforce that feeling. The more we dilute, the more each day feels like an ordinary day.

I look forward to hearing what you think. In the meantime, best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom and a good start on the Pesach preparations. Bill Rudolph

Descartes and Dual Loyalty

It’s a magical date today, 4/8/16, must be a good omen but not sure for what.

My Gray Panthers (we are up to 4 cohorts) are studying about the Enlightenment. Late 18th century, European thinkers like Descartes argued that the universe could be explained by reason. People could question traditional theories and beliefs, even about God and religion, certainly about the political order, all of which then opened up immensely. Jews, freed from the ghetto, jumped right in on these discussions, and we still feel the effects today.

One of the issues raised in this period was whether Jews could be fully integrated into the new order. We studied a German Bible scholar named Johann David Michaelis who argued against that, believing that the Torah wanted Jews to maintain a separate existence, as evidenced by the laws of kashrut (without restaurants they could only eat in their own or other Jewish homes) and their hope to return to Zion their real homeland as soon as that would be possible, both of which were incompatible with full integration.

We talked about the Zionism part. It raises the issue of what we call today “dual loyalty.” Many American Jews often feel that, in their kishkes if not on their lips. We even speculated if there was (G-d forbid!) a war between the U.S. and Israel, on which side would we fight? We had our answers. Yours?

Which brings me, hopefully in some logical progression, to the primary election season. As crazy and sometimes scary as it has been, it has caused me to think about what is really important when I go to vote in elections that have national implications (as opposed to the town clerk.) What is my real bottom line? What is yours? And is it Israel?

Possible bottom lines abound. Sanders appeals to my desire for a fairer distribution of wealth and privilege, and he is a Jew of sorts, but I need someone who has a realistic plan to make change. Cruz offers a stronger U.S. defense role in the world, which I think important, but his domestic ideas are unacceptable. Trump stands for nothing really, except sometimes for intolerance, not hard to eliminate that choice. I am hoping Clinton, who has in my view the best overall package of convictions and experience, can overcome her amazingly poor campaigning skills and be the next President.

The choice to succeed Barbara Mikulski for that Senate seat presents a different, maybe more perplexing, set of options. Van Hollen is strong and experienced and shares my values. Edwards is similarly liberal if not as qualified, but of all the Congressional members is maybe the least supportive of Israel seen in modern times and is not reluctant to boast of it. She is a woman and she is black. Polls show strong support in those populations. Madeleine Albright said, famously, about the Democratic presidential primaries, that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Do Jewish women vote for Edwards then, or does her stance on an issue that is very important to many Jews override the gender preference? What is the bottom line for us on this one? For me, it’s Israel. Which sort of brings us full circle to Johann David Michaelis and ultimately Descartes.

The age of reason continues to affect us. In the short run, so will the elections. Think about what is really important as you vote. And have a Shabbat Shalom. Bill Rudolph