Category Archives: Uncategorized

To Resign or Not to Resign

Among the most difficult topics of the day for me is that of apparent racist actions by public figures like Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. You cannot have missed this. Now other public figures are proving to be guilty of the same kinds of behavior. I condemn the behaviors, which are part of the legacy of a nation that has never really gotten beyond the Civil War.

The questions this issue raises for me, and for many with whom I speak, are about appropriate consequences for such behaviors when they were committed decades ago – when such behaviors were evidently commonplace in parts of our society – and the perpetrators seem to have made what we Jews call teshuvah (repentance) and have led lives that seem to prove that they are no longer the person who made that terrible choice so long ago. Governor Northam would seem to be a perfect example of that kind of change, even if his apology included a stab at denial. But this is a good man who has done a lot of good for a lot of people, including blacks and the poor. Should his racist behaviors be judged on an absolute scale of right/wrong or be judged in the context of his whole life? When is zero tolerance not appropriate?

I come back to two pieces of Jewish tradition. One is the story of Moses who led a stiff-necked ragged band of ex-slaves for forty years in the wilderness but couldn’t enter the Promised Land because for one moment in those forty years he lost faith in God’s ability to do miracles? When I teach that text, I always say that public figures are judged differently than others, that in fact leaders may not be allowed to make a mistake. For them, there may well be zero tolerance. In that case, the Governor has got to go.

The other piece of Jewish tradition argues the opposite. We have elaborate processes to allow for teshuvah which we play out on the High Holidays. Contrition, public admission of wrongdoing, reconciliation and recompense where possible, avoiding the same behaviors when tempted. There is a clear path to change what we do and who we are. Why isn’t that path open to all? Who among us has never done something stupid and/or wrong? Why the rush to judgment about others when we somehow, almost always, figure out a way to absolve ourselves?

I don’t like any part of this mess, but maybe it has to be the lose-lose proposition that we are seeing. Maybe it will help us move to a new understanding of the pain that racism causes. We are learning from the #MeToo movement that sexual assault and harassment leave scars that don’t go away and cannot be tolerated. Maybe this will be a pivot point in the sad history of racism in our country.

Ponder all this. Responses are always welcome. Shabbat Shalom. Bill Rudolph

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Gravest Threat II

The brain cells are frozen, so allow me to rely upon yours. I am doubling back with a few of the many responses to my early December column that spoke of the warning of leading Reform Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch about the future of liberal Jews and Judaism (that includes most Conservative Jews too.) You may recall his words:

“We speak about our obligations to the world with profound conviction and eloquence, but never seem to speak about our obligations to Jews. For many Reform Jews, tikkun olam implies everyone in the world except Jews.” The irony is that tikkun slam originates with the Biblical prophets who were fierce particularists; the impetus for their morality was an outcome of the centrality for them of the Jewish people, not its negation.
Hirsch says a lot more, but here is how he concludes: “The growing inclination among liberal Jews to de-emphasize Jewish distinctiveness is the gravest threat to the future of liberal Judaism.” In general, he asks, is it possible to sustain the Jewish people without being committed to the Jewish people? Can Judaism survive without Jews? We have had “ferocious” survival instincts, and needed them; when these are lost, the future is lost.

I now share three of your responses to this posting, sometimes not the whole response and leaving off names/ initials just in case.

Thanks for the extremely important post addressing what I believe is a crisis in American Jewry. For me it’s not so much how “liberal” Jews are behaving, but rather the failure of Reform and Conservative movement leadership in having created the mindset and enabling the behavior. It reminds me of Barbara Tuchman’s definition of historical “folly” (see, for instance her analysis of our participation in the Vietnam War) in which a government or organization keeps doing things that patently hurt it but refuse to change when there are alternatives available. So in the case of liberal Jewish leadership which has seen a 70% intermarriage rated between 2000 and 2013 and assimilation rate that places the survivability of the “liberal” Jewish experience in jeopardy, what does leadership do – it doubles down on the same attitudes and approaches that created the crisis in the first place. For instance, the movements have contributed to a generation of Jewish youth who don’t identify as Jewish, yet leadership insists the problem is that the movement is not liberal enough so bring in Michael Chabon and his adolescent nonsense and become even more “liberal.” I’m glad to read Rabbi Hirsch’s Kol Nidre sermon because for us to staunch still another generation being lost, clergy like Hirsch must speak out for Jewish particularism and take possession of the movements that I would be so sorry to see die out.

I agree that Hirsch has nailed the biggest threat facing American Judaism. It speaks to me personally, as I have struggled my whole life trying to reconcile liberalism and Jewish particularism. (Perhaps my discontent stems from being force-fed non-liberal Judaism by a pair of immigrant parents. But that’s a separate question for another time.) Israel is one reason why many Jews, especially but not only younger ones, recoil from developing a strong Jewish identity: the rightward thrust of Israel – both in terms of (1) the nationalistic settlement movement and related conflict with the Palestinians; and (2) the political influence of Israel’s parasitic ultra-Orthodox. These factors reach beyond Netanyahu, but, like Trump in the U.S., he cynically seeks to amplify them for political gain and thus provides a convenient (and deserving) target for liberal Jews to identify AGAINST. For these reasons, and because many Orthodox and some right-wing Conservative Jews in the U.S. have cozied up to Trump and Evangelical Republicans, it is hard to feel commonality with the worldwide community of Jews (“Am Yisrael Chai”). Thirdly, the way non-Orthodox Judaism is taught and practiced leaves a lot to be desired. I give just one example: Why must the liturgy praise God over and over again ad nauseam? Why must we spend an extra hour or more every Shabbos repeating prayers in the Musaph? I know. you must be thinking that I’m in the wrong denomination – I’d be happier in Reform, Reconstructionist, or even Humanist Judaism? Probably right, but I’m too old to switch and, alas, I’ve made too many friends at Beth El to leave now.

It would be useful to subject the anti-particularist perspective to historical analysis. Going back to the European experience at least as far back as the Middle Ages, most especially preceding the Spanish Inquisition and the Shoah, the rejection of Jewish particularism and identity accompanying the urge to assimilation has had a very bad ending almost uniformly. We should not be lulled into thinking that American exceptionalism, now under attack from the right in practice while being espoused rhetorically, will ineluctably protect us in the States. We need to show the courage of the Maccabees as we celebrate Hanukkah.

Some things to ponder as we prepare to welcome in Shabbat. Best, Bill Rudolph

Leadership

We think about great American leaders on winter holiday weekends like this. I have been reading, slowly but surely, Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington. He wasn’t the greatest general in our history – Grant was far superior in that regard – but he was an inspiring leader and was by all accounts a decent and upright human being. There is debate about how religious he was – evidently praying daily and supporting a lot of charity efforts is not conclusive. But there is no debate about his respect for religion’s role in our republic. As Chernow puts it, Washington “never doubted religion’s single importance in a republic, regarding it as the basis of morality and the foundation of any well-ordered polity.” In his farewell address, here is how Washington put it: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

I agree. That won’t surprise you. But maybe most people don’t care these days. Look at President Trump, arguably the most immoral president we have ever witnessed, in both his personal and business life. yet this immorality doesn’t seem to matter one iota to even the most “religious” in his base, including the Vice-President who won’t even dine alone with a woman in a public place and Jerry Falwell Jr. (now President of Liberty University) who says we are all sinners and Trump has his 100% support. And there is Bibi Netanyahu, up for possible indictment in three separate corruption cases, cozying up to some of the most right-wing leaders around the world (including Trump), who if the upcoming election were to be held today would likely win in a landslide.

So, why doesn’t character seem to matter? And can there be “political prosperity” where religion and morality are absent from the national leadership? How could the jury be out on this? Your thoughts are always welcome.

Wishing you a good MLK Jr. Day, hoping as do you that his visions for America won’t be lost in the muck. Bill Rudolph

School Days

Shalom. One of my retirement gigs, as you may recall, is being chief rabbi of the Fauquier Jewish Congregation (all of 65 families.) This past Sunday, in our little Religious School (20 kids on a good day), I heard three kid comments that I decided are worth sharing. You be the judge.

First was from Cara, sixth grade. We began the morning reciting and understanding the long page of thanking prayers that begin the Shachrit service each morning and we got to the one that thanks G-d for giving us courage. Cara waited till the last comment to share that her Air Force dad’s year long absence on a classified mission abroad has required her to be really brave, and so far she has found the courage to be that. It took courage just to say that, and there was a nice silence in the room.

Later, as our oldest kids were discussing Egyptian slavery, they were talking about singling out minorities. The teacher, a nephrologist in real life if you are curious, talked about an experience he had in Texas. He met a man who looked and sounded Mexican, and to make conversation our teacher had asked him where he came from. It turns out that his family first arrived in Texas – in 1642! Remember, Texas was a Spanish colony and then an independent country and not part of the United States till the 1840’s.  He was much more a native than almost all the other Texans around. That was interesting. But more interesting was that one of the kids, Julia, sixth grade, immediately told the teacher that asking the man where he came from was a “micro aggression.” We are not supposed to ask a question that might make someone even the least bit uncomfortable. How about that from a 12 year old! I didn’t know how to react to that.

Last but not chronologically so, we recited the Shema as part of the same service that had included the prayer about courage. When we were finished and moving along in the siddur, Samantha, third grade, got out of her seat and walked over to where I was standing and quietly whispered to me that I hadn’t covered my eyes when we recited the Shema. She was right, and I was pleased.

Such are the little experiences that I have had in Warrenton, and in Bethesda before that. They make a rabbi’s job always a challenging pleasure. I hope you were lucky enough to have had similar experiences in your work lives. Best, Bill Rudolph

Nothing Major

Boker Tov. It’s a new year. 2018 provided ample reasons to be depressed, disappointed, concerned, freaked out – proven by the spate of year end articles that attempted to find good things that happened – I don’t remember seeing that before. Hopefully 2019 will bring slightly better news, which in this world would represent real progress.

Two end of year, not major, phenomena will occupy me for this brief blogpost. It’s a legal holiday, football and over-eating beckon, bigger issues can wait. The first is trying to understand the many Happy New Year cards that we just received, far more numerous than what Rosh Hashanah brought. It didn’t used to be this way. These cards are usually in some Shutterfly form, with lovely pictures of the family in nice rustic or travel scenes, sometimes an enclosure gives the highlights of the year for each family member. All very nice, but wasn’t Rosh Hashanah the time for that? The first thought may be that assimilation is rearing its ugly head, but for the most part, these cards come from more observant families who are active in Jewish life. Explain this please.

The second observation relates to my growing frustration with electronic fundraising appeals. Maybe because I am a professional Jew, these last few weeks have seen my Inbox deluged with appeals. Fifty a day was a very slow day. Many organizations came at me every single day. Maybe you had somewhat the same experience. I know that end of year contributions are a significant proportion of a charity’s annual take, but one or two notices would surely suffice, more than that for me at least produces more resistance than participation. Since we now have Giving Tuesday, which was just a few weeks ago and brought the same organizations to my Inbox multiple times leading up to it, the cumulative effect is frustrating to say the least. The internet makes it too easy to send this constant stream of appeals, and charities can’t resist. Pushing the Delete key, you say, solves the problem, but for me there is always a modicum of guilt for not donating to every single organization that wants/needs my dollars. I don’t see this situation improving, and don’t have an answer.

Wishing you all a good healthy new year. Send us cards on Rosh Hashanah, and tell the charities to tone it down. Best, Bill Rudolph

Comfort

My shul hopping (not shopping) in my retirement brought me face to face with a long time dilemma that maybe I am the only one to ponder, maybe not.

The first experience with this dilemma was on Shabbat, September 8, 1986. Yes, that would be 32 years ago. That morning, in Istanbul Turkey, there was a machine gun and grenade attack by two Arab terrorists on the Neve Shalom Synagogue. It took the lives of 21 Sabbath worshippers and wounded four, and bore the stamp of the Abu Nidal gang, a dissident faction of the PLO based in Syria.

My clock radio woke me with this story before I headed off to lead the early Shabbat minyan, which I did in those years. When I arrived, congregant S came running over to me. He had heard the story and wanted to make sure the others got the news. I thought for a moment and then told him that people need some peace on Shabbat, why upset them, they will hear about it in due time. He couldn’t help himself, blurted it out half way through the service.

Last Shabbat I was reminded of this. The rabbi offering the sermon began with a post – Pittsburgh – shooting announcement about knowing where the exits are just in case something (bad) happens, and listening carefully to whatever instructions may be given from the bimah. His sermon, which was well crafted and delivered, focused on the Joseph story, specifically how great his reunited family was living, safe and sound and without needs in Goshen. But then a new Pharaoh arose and things totally changed for the worst, with hundreds of years of slavery to follow. The message: you may have a good life, our people may be doing well, it can disappear. Between the announcement and the sermon, I came home rather depressed.

I think a lot about the role of the synagogue. Its traditional functions are as a house of worship, a house of study, a house of gathering. At times like this, I especially think about its role on Shabbat. To paraphrase the aphorism, is Shabbat the time to make the comfortable uncomfortable, or the reverse – to bring comfort to the uncomfortable. For some time now, maybe since 1986, and especially now, I have favored the latter. The news is bad enough, and by now it’s 24/7 impossible to avoid. Shouldn’t shul on Shabbat be a respite from that?

I was fortunate in having a weekly blog, the parent of this one, where I could talk about politics and the news of the day, so that Shabbat could be a time for learning and community and maybe a little inspiration, not more depressing discussion about the fate of the world or our people. I mostly stuck to that. Was I right?

Your thoughts are always welcome.  I can’t promise a fast response this time – I will be in seclusion,  training to lead the sleigh.  Best regards. Bill Rudolph

Six and Fourteen

Gerald Schroeder teaches at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem and writes a lot, including a book with the title Genesis and the Big Bang. With the shortest day of the year soon to be upon us, and the Geminids Meteor Shower entertaining us last evening, thoughts about creation and the heavens are a natural. Schroeder believes there is no conflict between the universe that science sees stretching back 14 billion years and the six 24-hour days of Genesis; rather, they are measuring reality from two different perspectives. Let me share a little of his challenging thinking, some of which I understand and all of which I would hope is plausible.

A student of Nachmanides named Isaac of Acre (ca. 1250) brings biblical data that indicate our universe is 15 billion years old. At the same time, commentators like Nachmanides himself and Rashi tell us what seems just the opposite: that the word “day” in Genesis always means a period of 24 hours, so there is no wiggle room for the idea that the Torah’s days were long periods of time. Yet Nachmanides also tells us that those same six 24 hour days contain all the ages of the world. How do we reconcile all of this?

Schroeder says that the Torah is looking forward in time, witness “day one” then “the second day” and similar ordinal numbers for the other five. If the Torah was looking back into history, the first day would have been an ordinal number too. [It’s like World War I became that not “The Great War” only when there was World War II.] Conversely, we today, with modern telescopes that capture light from deep space, are actually looking back in time. We measure how much the wavelengths of that ancient light have been stretched due to the stretching and expansion of the universe, and with those data we calculate the age of our universe, and it turns out to be about 14 billion years old. Isaac of Acre, with no fancy telescopes, was not far off!

But how would those 14 billion years look from the Bible’s view, looking forward from the beginning (the Big Bang) into the future that reaches us today? For that we take these same stretched light waves and “un-stretch” them, taking us back to the first moment. As we progress mathematically back in time towards that biblical beginning, the universe becomes both younger and smaller at an equal rate. [There is a mathematical equation for this compression on Schroeder’s website.] Using data from astronomy, Schroeder tells us that if we view time from the beginning looking forward, the 14 billion years would be compressed by the factor of 900 billion. Doing the math, our 14 billion divided by 900 billion yields 0.015 years, or in days, 5.5 days. Isn’t it intriguing that the Talmud states that Adam and Eve were created midway through the sixth day, that is 5.5 days after the Big Bang?!

The great Maimonides (ca. 12th century) writes that the only way that we can know the God of the Bible, Whom he calls the God of Science, is to know the Science of Nature. Knowing both can provide important insights when we talk of either, as in talking about Genesis and/or cosmology.

Ponder this and have a Shabbat Shalom. Bill Rudolph