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Anxiety

One more High Holiday blogpost as Yom Kippur approaches.

Anxiety was the topic of a Shabbat discussion with Beth El’s Zhava women, all raising families at a time where anxiety is at a high among kids and the rest of us. Anxiety is a fearful or negative reaction to something that is not happening in the present. People in the Carolinas are not having an anxiety attack, their plight is real and we pray for better conditions soon.

Anxiety is pervasive among kids – which explains the record crowd for that annual Zhava discussion on parenting – because of many factors: post 9/11 insecurity along with active shooter drills in their schools, social media with its constant potential for the negative (who is liking me? who clicked on my picture?), academic pressures especially in places like Bethesda, body image, fretting about careers, climate change, current politics, you name it.

Needless to say, there are no easy solutions to what one expert noted, “If you wanted to create an environment to churn out really angsty people, we’ve done it.” With Zhava we talked about cognitive behavior and other strategies, and limiting screen time, and we talked about our Jewish tradition’s message about faith – which is really a sense of trust that things usually work out OK – and practicing gratitude to get a better perspective on our concerns.

And we talked about Yom Kippur. If you get into the traditional Jewish cycle of things, especially Yom Kippur, there’s that sense of being able to let go of things. The gates of repentance are always open, but especially now. No matter how bad things are, we believe in forgiveness, which is one of those important things which enables people to let go of things. There are so many things you see in the general world which are sort of Jewish, and we claim those. Something as simple as AA—that’s a very Jewish model, when you think about it. You hand it over to God and you let go, which are basically the first two steps of any 12-step program. Worrying about the sort of God you talk to is peripheral; it’s basically being able to let go and not feel you have to carry every heavy burden yourself.

I wish you an easy fast and a new year in which anxiety does not occupy too much of your psychic energy.        Best, Bill Rudolph

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Questions

This is my final pre Rosh Hashanah blogpost, after which I go into semi-seclusion until at least Simchat Torah.

Here are some old and some new questions for us to ponder in the lead up to the holidays or during them, with or not with family, on a walk or in the car. I think they help frame some of the personal work that we should do during these ten days of repentance and resolve. In no particular order, and there is no requirement to do all:

If I could change one thing about myself, what would that be?
What keeps me from being my best self? What can I do to reduce and eliminate those behaviors?
What would bring me more happiness than anything else in the world?
What is the most important decision I need to make in the coming year?
What project, or goal, if left undone, will I most regret next Rosh Hashanah?
What are the most important relationships in my life? Over the last year did those relationships become closer and deeper or was there a sense of stagnation? What can I do to nurture those relationships in the new year?
To whom do I need to apologize? For what do I need to forgive myself or let go?
What are my three major goals in life? Have I achieved any of them? What am I doing about the others?

A lot to ponder. Hopefully you will find time for this, and time with family and friends and your shul community. Gail and I wish you a shanah tovah umetukah – a good and sweet new year. Best, Bill Rudolph

What We Believe

It is still Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and I want to share another idea that came up in my sermon preparations that won’t make it to the “big time” but seems worthy nonetheless. This one is longer than my usual – read it in shifts if you are rushed. It has to do with how we develop our beliefs and values – what we take from home and school and shul, and the way in which we take that and make it our own. It’s not a simple process but one that resonates at the High Holiday season.

There is a nice story about two people whose beliefs are questionable. It’s the story of a rich man named Simcha, whose greatest dream is to give something to God that God couldn’t possibly already have. So he asks his wife to bake some challahs, thinking all the while that his wife’s delicious Shabbes masterpieces aren’t available in heaven, and he takes the loaves to the synagogue on a silver tray and places them in the ark.

Shortly thereafter, a very proud but thrifty rag picker named Moishe Pipik stops by the shul on his way home in order to ask God for a favor. He stands before the ark and explains to God that he has been a good Jew and deserves a little happiness, that just because it was his particular misfortune to be born poor doesn’t mean that he and his family shouldn’t enjoy the finer things in life. He opens the ark, and after a moment or two of shock, excitedly concludes that God has sent him six golden challahs on a silver tray ready to eat.

Simcha then returns to the shul and sees his tray, but no challahs. He quickly concludes that God has accepted his gift, and runs home to bake some more challah. The cycle continues for several days, all the while Simcha believing that he is giving God an unsurpassed culinary treat and Moishe believing that he is the recipient of God’s special blessings.

The story continues with the rabbi of the synagogue realizing what’s happening and bringing the two characters together. He scolds Simcha for wasting time and money, and points out to Moishe Pipik that he couldn’t have possibly received divine challah in the ark.

That is the story, and the really interesting thing is the end of the story. It seems that the things we believe, even if they are sometimes foolish, are not intended to be sunk by somebody else, because according to the story’s conclusion, the rabbi was punished for destroying a belief that someone held about something in the world. What he should have done was to allow the pair to believe what they wanted to, even if their belief was foolish, and he should have waited for them to reach their own conclusions. People have to resolve for themselves what they believe, what things are valuable and what things should be discarded.

Back to us. Ultimately, once we gained what we can from parents and family and school and shul, no outside source should be the editor of what we believe and value. That is a process that each of us undergoes, a sifting through the storehouse of memory and family feelings on all kinds of things that we were taught are important, in an attempt to learn for ourselves what we should believe. You see, it’s one thing to accept someone else’s scientific data on how the world functions, and then use it as a basis for learning more about the world. But it’s another thing to accept someone’s ideas about morality or ethics or human relationships, even a parent’s ideas, and accept them without challenge. We can’t do that because we need to see for ourselves that those ideas have merit and meaning.

The High Holidays stand for many things, but maybe the most important thing is becoming a complete person. These are the days when we confess that we are not whole, and that we need to try very hard to become whole. And so the idea that people should challenge and test what they believe and value, and not live according to someone else’s proven success, seems to me to fit. That’s a part of becoming a whole person, when you can say that you believe something or disbelieve it, and you feel inside that you’re right. And maybe the added bonus is realizing (often I hope) that what you gained as a child and adolescent from your family was really right all along, and now you feel even closer to your family and their values and beliefs.

Give this some thought as the holidays approach. Best, Bill Rudolph

Appendix: The great Chasid, the Baal Shem Tov, once asked a question about a famous prayer. It’s one from the Amidah that is said three times a day, every day of the year, a prayer with which you should be familiar. The Baal Shem Tov asked: Why do we say “Eloheinu ve’lohei avoteinu . . . Our God and God of our fathers, Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzhak veilohei Ya’akov . . . the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob?” The wording seems redundant; “our fathers” already implies Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The answer offered by the Baal Shem Tov is very important. It’s not enough to live just by the faith of our ancestors, or just by our own faith. To be a complete person, we have to combine the two and live by both. “Our God and God of our fathers” represents the faith and belief and values that what we gain from parents and family and school and shul. But “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” represents that each person must take the faith they are given, and challenge it, deal with it, think about it, test it, and try to make it their own. That’s what each of our ancestors did. They inherited a tremendous story of faith from their fathers and mothers, but then went into the world to see for themselves the validity of that faith. They molded it, and shaped it to fit their own experience. And the Baal Shem Tov tells us that we each have to do the same thing.

Perfection

It is Elul, the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and I like to share some ideas that come up in my sermon preparations that don’t make it to the “big time” but are worthy nonetheless. This one is short, and hopefully sweet.

In Anchorage, Alaska, there is a diner with a rhyming family name: Kriner’s Diner. They have good food, strong coffee, and an endearing greasy spoon ambiance. They also have t-shirts. The t-shirts are emblazoned with the family name on front — Kriner’s Diner — and have a powerful message on the back. It reads, “Kriner’s Diner. Not trying to please everyone, just a solid 75%.”

What if we make that our motto for the new year 5779? It is common sense. Anyone who provides services to the community cannot make everyone happy… but a solid 75% sounds pretty doggone good. I think right now about our shuls and our clergy. They can’t be exactly what each member wants, whether it be more or less Hebrew in the service, more or less air conditioning in the sanctuary, more or fewer pastoral visits. And the same is true for many organizations that serve the community.

Even more important, we can’t make ourselves 100% happy. We can’t do everything we have to do in a perfect way. We often ask too much of ourselves. Same with our family members, especially the children. Same with Israel. Expectations of perfection almost guarantee feelings of frustration or incompetence about ourselves and disappointment even alienation when it comes to others.

I think Jewish people excel at overly high expectations. I am not sure why. Maybe closer to 75% perfect is enough? Something to ponder as the holidays near.         Bill Rudolph

Bikes and Mormons

We are back from the last of our summer travels and settling down into what passes for “normal life” these days. While abroad, we took to saying we are from New York, saying D.C. got us into a Trump discussion too often.

We were lucky to spend three ten day periods this summer in three very nice ways: first in Israel with a group mostly from my little VA shul ( I wrote about that earlier), second at the beach, and third in the Netherlands and Belgium with our son and his wife. The first was very spiritual, the second totally relaxing, the third the sweetest.

Let me focus on the sweet. Marc and I do an organized bike ride almost every summer. The last on was in Maine, very hilly. Our wives urged us to find a ride that would allow them to travel parallel to us and spend each night with us, and we found it, which is partly why it was so sweet. The other part of the sweetness was the biking. It is so flat in that region, mostly below sea level in fact. On a 50 mile ride, the total elevation was usually about 15 feet, not kidding. Is that the reason why there are more bikes than people in the Netherlands (formerly Holland)? There are, and it takes a lot of getting used to when you see everyone going everywhere on their (crummy to avoid theft) bikes. No helmets, not so good. Bike lanes almost everywhere, which is good – except crossing a street involves twice as many judgements as our roads do, and we all felt lucky that we didn’t get run over before we realized what is going on.

We were the 4 Jews in the group of 24. Because of who I am, religion comes up. The most interesting discussions were with three Mormon couples who travel together a lot. We think of Mormons and there are red flags, especially around diversity. But there is more to it. Theirs is a close knit community back home in Salt Lake City. Families have Sunday dinner together, which isn’t happening in mainstream Christianity much anymore. They don’t do alcohol or coffee or tea or cigarettes; since beer flows day and night where we were, they clearly outdid us on the martyrdom scale. Their wards (what we could call congregations) are lay run; one of the best bikers in the group also plays the organ for services. Another helps each year to replace the 250,000 bulbs from the Netherlands that grace the Temple Square. Much of the Square sits on a large parking lot so there is no drainage and the bulbs would rot if not replaced. Who knew? They have all been to Israel and love it; their tours were more like ours than the ones other Christians in the group told us about which focus on the Galilee and include Bethlehem and Jordan and not much Jewish. Our new Mormon friends were abhorred by the effort to posthumously convert Holocaust victims to Mormonism. So there – travel does open us to new experiences and perspectives for sure.

Early on, when Gail and I would stay in a B & B, we would want to quit our jobs and buy one. So it was with the Netherlands. It’s captivating and beautiful (and flat), the people are sort of friendly, the weather isn’t awful, there are lots of flowers even in the summer, lots of bikes, good fish, great cheese, politics that are complicated but seem benign, and a train ride away is much of Western Europe. We aren’t moving, but hope to go back for an extended period sometime soon. We feel lucky to have had this taste of a different world. Anyone out there have a similar experience this summer? Do share please.

Best regards. Less than a month till Rosh Hashanah, in case anyone besides rabbis and cantors is counting. Bill Rudolph

The Nation State Law

If one were to study the history of my blogging, it seems like the summers are always punctuated by events in Israel, and the events are usually of the crisis variety.

This time around my plan to take time off from blogging is interrupted not by the actions on the Gaza and Syrian borders but by Knesset passage on July 19th of Israel’s 13th Basic Law (there is no constitution so these are important), the so-called Nation State law. In brief, this law codifies Israel’s status as the “national home of the Jewish people,” declares Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, sets the Hebrew calendar as the state’s official calendar, defines Hebrew as the formal language of the state and Arabic as a language with special status, promotes Jewish settlement as a national value, and affirms the state’s commitment to connect with and preserve the heritage of the Jewish people among Jews in the Diaspora.

The sense is that the bill is meant to be a corrective to current laws and principles which emphasize the democratic nature of the state more than its Jewish character. It is not clear that anything significant will change because of it, but its emphasis and the absence of the phrase from the Declaration of Independence guaranteeing “full equality for all its citizens” has created enormous tension.

The bill has actually been lurking in the background for a long time. It has been revised numerous times, and only passed by a slim margin. It has provoked heated debate among political leadership, Israeli activists, civil society and the community at large, over whether Israel requires a Basic Law that affirms its character as a Jewish state, and what the consequences are for Israel’s democratic character and for its Arab citizens—who comprise the vast majority of Israel’s non- Jewish population (21% of the total.) Its passage has sent shockwaves through Israel’s Arab society, and has been met with polarized response from within Israel and abroad, including widespread condemnation from critics alongside expressions of praise and support.

My blog posts are too concise to present the merits and demerits of this law. Let me refer you to two pieces that go into the needed detail. First, on the more critical side, is a backgrounder from the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, the umbrella for groups like our local task force that I co-chair. http://iataskforce.org/sites/default/files/resource/resource-1624.pdf. The second is a more recent piece by Mitchell Bard of the American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, famous for its Myths and Facts about the Israeli Arab conflict, which is about as good a defense of the law as seems possible. There is not exactly a link so it is pasted on below.

This, like almost everything about Israel, is complicated. You know I tend to err on the side of defending Israel and its decisions/actions. In this case, it is more difficult. It is hard to see the need for this law, which doesn’t really change anything but has terrible optics and has succeeded in angering so many people. Not just people who are angry at whatever Israel does, but people like Mohammad Darawshe of Givat Haviva, who works tirelessly to build a shared society among Israeli Jews and Arabs. On a recent conference call, he noted that Israeli Arabs have now been officially declared to be second class citizens, and personally feels that “Israel has disowned 21% of its population.” It was painful to hear that. Several Druze officers in the IDF have resigned from the army in response. Already one MK from the Arab list has left the Knesset. Israeli intellectuals like Yuval Noah Harari are refusing to speak in government sponsored forums in the States because of this law.

This is a tough time, tougher than it needs to be. Maybe all the Arab List MK’s should resign, which would collapse this government – which seems tone deaf to greater realities – and this Prime Minister whose core principle seems to be remaining in office – and maybe bring about change. This is radical thinking for me, but the current path is not a good one, for Israel and also for its supporters abroad who face an increasingly uphill battle.

Write back as you wish. Best, Bill Rudolph
From Mitchell Bard:
MYTH:
The Nation State Law proves Israel is undemocratic and discriminates against Arabs.
FACT
On July 19, 2018, Israel adopted a new Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People. The law provoked controversy inside and outside of Israel. After the vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said:
This is a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and in the history of the State of Israel. Today, 122 years after [Theodor] Herzl shared his vision, we have established into law the basic principles of our existence. “Israel” is the nation-state of the Jewish people. A nation state that respects the individual rights of all its citizens and, in the Middle East, only Israel respects these rights. This is our state, the state of the Jews. In recent years there have been some who have attempted to cast doubt on this, and so to undercut the foundations of our existence and our rights. Today we etched in the stone of law: This is our state, this is our language, this is our anthem, and this is our flag (extracted from multiple news sources with slightly different translations).
As Netanyahu said, this law codifies Israel’s status as the “national home of the Jewish people.” The law also declares Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, sets the Hebrew calendar as the state’s official calendar and confirms Shabbat and Jewish holidays as official days of rest while allowing non-Jews to determine their own rest days and holidays. It recognizes the current national flag as the official one, the menorah as the state’s symbol and Hatikvah as the national anthem. It also states that Israel will endeavor to ensure the safety of all Jews and “preserve the cultural, historical and religious legacy of the Jewish people among the Jewish diaspora.”
Some critics have suggested, the law should have included the word “equality.” For example, Amir Fuchs, Head of the Defending Democratic Values Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, said “it is difficult to understand why the authors of this bill insist not to include this important value” (Amir Fuchs, “The Nation State Bill Bias,” Israel Democracy Institute, July 10, 2018). Supporters of the law counter the existing Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty defines Israel’s democratic character, but the new law was needed because Israel’s Jewish character was not embedded in constitutional law. Moreover, Professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University notes that this law is only one part of a broad and detailed democratic map. “Does every U.S. law or constitutional amendment include the word democratic? ”(personal communication).
The law also enshrines the Zionist idea upon which the nation was founded, namely that Israel is a country established to fulfill the Jewish people’s “right to national self-determination.” Legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich notes that seven European states have similar “nationhood” constitutional provisions (Eugene Kontorovich, “Get Over It—Israel Is the Jewish State,” Wall Street Journal, July 20, 2018). Furthermore, no nation grants a right to self-determination to a minority within its borders; otherwise the Basques in Spain and Kurds in Turkey or Iraq would have their own states. This clause is also a response to Israel’s detractors, such as advocates of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, who assert this right belongs to the Palestinians and not the Jewish people.
Much of the criticism of the law focused on the establishment of Hebrew as Israel’s sole official language. Formerly Arabic was also an official state language (as was English). Any alteration of a long-established status quo is jarring; however, the recognition of Hebrew is consistent with the policies of other countries which give official status only to the majority language. The previous recognition of Arabic was a remnant of the British Mandatory period and does not reflect today’s reality in which 80% of Israelis, including most Arabs, speak Hebrew. The law specifically states that it “does not change the status given to the Arabic language before the basic law was created” in any other way. Hence, Arabic speakers are no more discriminated against than minorities in more than 100 countries that have a single national language. Incidentally, the de facto official language of the Palestinian Authority is Arabic.
Another clause that sparked controversy states that Israel will “encourage and promote” Jewish settlement around the country. The language was deliberately altered so as not to suggest this would lead to the creation of Jewish-only towns, however, some critics, feared it would be interpreted as if that was the intention. Indeed, Israel’s enemies interpreted it that way, arguing the law promotes segregation.
David Hazony, executive director of the Israel Innovation Fund, noted that some critics have interpreted this clause as promoting Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria. While that may be the political goal of some of its supporters, Hazony said the “word being translated as ‘settlement’ is hityashvut, which to any Israeli ear refers more to the Galilee and the Negev and the history of building new Jewish communities a century ago across the country than it does to the West Bank” (David Hazony, “Everything You’ve Heard About Israel’s Nation State Bill Is Wrong,” Forward, July 23, 2018).
Kontorovich adds that this clause is consistent with the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, which sought to “encourage . . . close settlement by Jews.” More important, he says it does not “prescribe or authorize any particular policies” unlike, for example, the state constitution of Hawaii, which Kontorovich notes “authorizes land policies to promote homesteading by ethnic Hawaiians, and provides preferential land policies for them.” Kontorovich adds that Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that Arabs have a right to create residential communities in Israel that exclude Jews but Jews do not have the same right to exclude Arabs.
One indication of the double standard applied to Israel is that no international uproar followed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ declaration that not “a single Israeli” would be permitted to live in a Palestinian state (Noah Browning, “Abbas wants ‘not a single Israeli’ in future Palestinian state,” Reuters, July 29, 2013).).
The law did provoke negative reactions around the world and angered many non-Jews in Israel. This does not make it either undemocratic or discriminatory. Kontorovich explained:
In reality, Israel’s Basic Law would not be out of place among the liberal democratic constitutions of Europe — which include similar provisions that have not aroused controversy. The law does not infringe on the individual rights of any Israeli citizen, including Arabs; nor does it create individual privileges. The illiberalism here lies with the law’s critics, who would deny the Jewish state the freedom to legislate like a normal country.
In the case of the Nation State Law, members of Knesset voted by a 62-55 majority to approve the legislation. This is democracy in action. Still, like Americans, Israelis can challenge laws in court, and three Knesset members have already done so, one sign of the health of Israel’s democracy (Jonathan Lis and Noa Landau, “Israeli Minister Admits Nation-state Law Marginalizes ‘Druze Brothers,’” Haaretz, July 25, 2018). Another indication is the ability of Israelis to vote for new representatives who could revoke or alter the law if they can convince a majority of all Knesset members a change is warranted.
Even a critic of the law, IDI President Yohanan Plesner admitted the practical impact of the bill was currently merely “symbolic and educational.” He said it “won’t have immediate concrete implications.” IDI vice president Yuval Shani added, “It is not a game changer and has very little problematic implications….It won’t change how the country is run” (Gil Hoffman, “Israel Democracy Institute: Jewish Nation-State Law ‘not a game changer,’” Jerusalem Post, July 30, 2018).

Israel

I am just back from touring Israel with a nice group, mostly from my Warrenton shul, and am stimulated enough to post this despite my recent announcement that I am taking time off from blogging this summer.

Israel never ceases to provide stimulation and inspiration, and frustration, and worry. Each of our days had each of those. In 70 short years, Israel has built a thriving and exciting nation despite enormous challenges. Most of my group were first timers to Israel, which meant they couldn’t appreciate how far it has come over the decades. My first visit was in 1964, when you brought your own toilet paper and the drive up to Jerusalem went at a snail’s pace. Now there are first world amenities, great highways that seem to sprout up every few days, commuter trains, skyscrapers. But then you look south to Gaza or north to the Golan or east to Iran, and wonder if there could possibly be a more dangerous neighborhood in the world.

Israelis have a far greater tolerance for chaos and danger than we do. I think if we were there we would stay in the house all the time. Tel Aviv is hopping even at midnight, hours after Bethesda has reached its usual sleep state. Tourism is thriving, bli ayin hara. There is not a hotel room to be had. The airport is packed, even at 4AM when our return flight took off. On the other hand, the Prime Minister is the subject of four criminal investigations, his wife is already indicted, but there are not so many great alternatives. Like here, some worry that democracy is being taken apart. What is going on in Syria, and Lebanon, and Gaza, can keep you up at night, and BDS seems never to take a break. Yet every day we experienced the kind of exhilarating moments that only our ancient homeland can provide. So you can see, there is never a dull moment for Israelis, and for people like me.

I have two mantra’s that help me put the many serious challenges in perspective. One, from one of our peace negotiators: “Israel will survive but its neighbors will never let it enjoy that survival very much.” Two, from a speaker during my last shul trip: “I see Israel as like an ark, necessarily a well-armed ark, floating above the waters of war and chaos in the region; some day the waters will recede and the ark will be able to safely land and Israel will enjoy a new day.” These are not the most optimistic forecasts, but they may be realistic. I pray that part b of the first will prove false, and that the ark will find nice dry land in the not too distant future.

I am expecting to be back in Israel two more times in the next eight months, for some learning but first some biking. Israel is a serious part of my Jewish identity. Its successes and failures and challenges resonate with me deeply, maybe too deeply. That’s been true since my first visit, that summer on a kibbutz in 1964. I never forget how lucky it is to have been born at this time. As my old boss Richard Joel said to a group of young Jews, our great grandparents and those before them came from different places, had different ways of making a living, and probably wouldn’t have agreed on much, except that they each hoped to one day touch the stones of the Kotel – and they knew they never would. We who can should do so as often as possible, and in between the touches, do all we can to support Israel in its struggle to be a nation like other nations but with a heart.

Best, Bill Rudolph