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Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Dvar Torah For Shabbat B’Midbar/Erev Shavuot 5772.

One of the books that has carried many of us through the histrionics and narcissism of adolescence is Kahlil Gibran’s, The Prophet. Gibran, a renowned Lebanese poet and artist, wrote about a prophet who dishes out wisdom on a variety of life topics to the people of his adopted country before he leaves them to return to his home. The book’s overly florid diction, likely an attempt by Gibran to make it sound biblical, did not stop the book from becoming an international bestseller that continues to be read today in many languages. One of the prophet’s teachings – the one about children – is quoted quite often:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s
longing for itself.
They come through you but not from
And though they are with you yet they
belong not to you.

With all of my children currently home for a brief time, and with two of them preparing to graduate their respective school programs, I certainly understand what the prophet was saying. We parents learn, not always quickly enough, that almost from the moment they leave the womb, our kids are becoming their own people, shaping their own souls and charting their own destinies. Clearly, we the parents have a lot to do with this; but as they get older, if we give them the room to do so, our children grow into the people they wish or need to become, hopefully for the better and not for the worse. Our job is to guide them in this process of self discovery, and to do so with the humble recognition that, in a very healthy sense our children are not our children.

However, that is not the entire story, as the Torah and later Jewish tradition teach us. In the Torah portion, B’Midbar, we learn about God’s command to Moses to match each of the firstborn males with each of the Levites for the purposes of redeeming the firstborn from sacred service to God after that task was given to the Levites. We read earlier in Exodus, chapter 13 that God sanctified the firstborn males as dedicated servants of God after the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn. When the Levites replaced them for this work, the firstborn were still sacred to God, and as such needed to be redeemed from that sacred status before they could return to normal life with their families. Our Torah portion tells us that there were 273 more firstborn males than Levites. They were redeemed by giving five shekel coins to the sanctuary coffers as a kind of redemption price in lieu of turning over their status to other Levites who awaited this conferral of status. Later on in chapter 18 of Numbers, God commands us to redeem all firstborn males in the future by giving this redemption money to a Kohen, a priest, who then absolves each firstborn from dedicated service to God. This ritual of redemption developed over many years into Pidyon Ha-Ben, redemption of the firstborn which is performed by a Kohen in behalf of a family and its firstborn son after the newborn has been alive for thirty days.

It is unfortunate that Pidyon Ha-Ben is not performed more often in our non-Orthodox Jewish circles. We could certainly expand it to include firstborn daughters, specifically because of the meaningful symbolism of the liturgy that has been written for it. In America, the custom is to offer the presiding Kohen five silver dollars in memory of the five ancient shekel coins used during the time of the Torah. That money is generally not pocketed by the Kohen, but is given to the poor. What is so interesting is the script that the Kohen and the parents recite to each other before the Kohen recites the blessing thanking God for the mitzvah of redeeming firstborn children:

The Kohen asks the parents:

What is your preference: to give me your firstborn son, the firstborn of his mother, or to redeem him for five shekel coins as you are obligated according to the Torah?

The parents then respond:

We wish to redeem our son. We present you with cost of his redemption as required by the Torah.

This is a very strange script. Why would the Kohen give the parents a choice to redeem or not to redeem their child, while in the same breath reminding them that the Torah obligates them to redeem the child for five shekel coins? One siddur commentator suggests that the Kohen is merely reminding the parents that they might think they can get away with not paying the five shekels for their child’s redemption, but their attempts will not succeed. I suggest a different reason for this script. We parents begin an amazing and terrifying life journey with our children from the moment they are born, one in which we and they struggle simultaneously with their being and not being ours. Life with children is all about holding on and letting go. One of the great insights of developmental psychology is that the terrible twos and the teen years mirror one another: at those ages, our kids will do almost anything to push us away while also seeking to keep us near them, as they figure out how to be in the world. There are times when, in our deepest frustration with our kids, we even contemplate wishing them to leave the house and be out of our hair, so we can get back the lives we had before parenthood. Yet how many of us have felt the pushback of guilt and remorse after feeling these things, which is only natural. The redemption of the firstborn and its liturgy seem to be telling us that, no matter how grown up and far away from us they get, our children never stop being our children. We are always “redeeming” them by recognizing our bonds of family responsibility and love with one another, even if at times we do not like each other very much. What is more, as much as this parent-child relationship is an obligation, the challenge for both parents and children is to reaffirm regularly that we choose this relationship, by allowing it to grow and change and deepen from birth, to adolescence, to adulthood, and perhaps even into that time when our children become parents, and the great mystery of family and parenting begins again.

So, my postscript to Kahlil Gibran’s sage insight is this: our children are our children.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Over the past few weeks, our friends in the Schenectady Jewish community have been subjected to one of the most insidious forms of anti-Semitism: the use of freedom of the press as cover for espousing uninformed, virulently antisemitic views that demonize Israel, and that denigrate Judaism (along with Christianity and Islam). Columnist Carl Strock who has written for the Schenectady Gazette since 1981, retired from full-time work about four years ago. He continues to write a column known as The View From Here. After a trip to Israel last month that included only Jerusalem and Ramallah, he returned to our area and wrote a series of articles that can only be denounced as pure bigotry, Mr. Strock's protests of honest reporting and claims of victimization notwithstanding.

Ohav is firmly committed to Zionism and to supporting the State of Israel. Though we as a congregation do not publicly take sides in debates about Israeli politics and foreign policy, constructive debate about what is happening in Israel should be no different from constructive debate about what goes on in any nation. Certainly, we Jews must be vigilant to ensure that such debate not be exploited vindictively by those who hate the State of Israel; nonetheless, debate is often necessary and just, when it is based upon fact, careful analysis, and a desire to help Israel be its best self.

What Carl Strock has done, with the permission and support of the Gazette, is not legitimate, constructive debate or criticism: it is antisemitic screed, and it needs to be condemned as such by Jews and non-Jews alike.

Let me briefly analyze just one segment of one of Mr Strock's articles, since my point is to demonstrate how easily words can distort the truth, especially in the hands of a well known opinion writer and a readership that may not know any better. Below is an excerpt from his essay from April 3, 2012. After the italicized paragraph which is his writing, I will offer some commentary.

One thing that struck me about Judaism on my brief visit to Jerusalem is that it’s a tribal religion. The god that it posits — the ineffable YHWH — is the god of a particular people, his Chosen People, in opposition to other gods of other peoples. That’s the way it originated in biblical times, when YHWH had to compete with Ba’al and other disreputable types, and that’s the way it still seems today. Christianity, for all its warts, is at least intended for everyone. Islam claims to be for everyone, but its god speaks only Arabic and you have to be able to pray in Arabic if you want to have any show with him. Judaism makes no pretensions to universality. This matters because Judaism is the heart of the state of Israel. The state is not for everyone either. It’s for members of the tribe, as made clear in its declaration of independence and its national anthem. Its central conceit is that modern-day Jews, whether from Poland or Ethiopia, and regardless of physical type, are all lineal descendants of the Israelites of the Bible. After 2,000 years they have come home. You hear this all the time in Israel. I heard it most memorably from an aggressive guy in downtown Jerusalem who buttonholed me and tried to get me to sign a petition against the division of Jerusalem, not that any such division is in the works. “We waited 2,000 years!” he shouted at me, though I was not offering any resistance. It turned out he was from New York, though he could as well have been from Kiev or Marrakech.

Judaism began as a religion intended to bring the idea and presence of one universal God to the entire world, through the life and family of Abraham. Though this idea of the one God of the universe Who has universal standards of behavior for all people developed over millenia, it is hardly "tribal." Consider that it is our Bible that teaches from the beginning that all human beings are created in God's image. Consider also that the rabbis who developed Judaism in the Talmudic period taught explicitly that seven laws of personal and societal decency govern all human beings and that all righteous people - not just Jews - have a place in the world to come. Finally, were Judaism merely tribal, no one could ever gain admission to the tribe. However, conversion to Judaism occupies a prominent place in Jewish life and practice, precisely because being "part of the tribe" is as much about accepting the historic mission of Judaism and the Jews to be a light unto the nations, as it is about being born into a Jewish family. The Jewish concept of chosenness is often the "bad boy" that is used by people like our writer to "prove" that we Jews see ourselves as inherently superior and solely self-concerned. Certainly, we care about the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people, just as other ethnic and religious groups quite naturally care about their own survival. Nonetheless, the concept of being the chosen people is more often expressed by Jewish sources in terms of being responsible for our historic mission of being God's partners in healing the world. Further, this historic partnership with God does not preclude other peoples and faiths from having their own partnerships, from being "chosen" for their own missions in the world.

Mr. Strock would also do well to note that the "universalism" of classical Christianity he highlights was historically a universalism of coercion that insisted every person accept Jesus as his or her savior or forfeit salvation in the next world, and often one's life in this world. This does not mean that any or all Christian communities accept this idea today; it does mean, however, that Mr. Strock is dangerously ignorant about religion and history. (Further, I am amazed that Mr. Strock would be so quick to assert that Islam only allows people to speak to God in Arabic. What is his basis for such a comment?) We Jews have struggled for millenia to be a part of the world while also being apart from the world, that is, to live in the larger society as a people with a distinctive identity. Why is that tribalist bigotry when it applies to Jews, but healthy self-assertion when it applies to other nations and peoples who seek to thrive and express themselves?

The worst aspect of Mr. Strock's assertions is his wholesale condemnation of Israel as a bigoted, tribalist Jewish state. Citizenship in the Jewish state is for everyone and it is particularly supportive of the repatriation of the Jewish people. Why is that? Why did the Israeli Knesset create the Law of Return that grants immediate citizenship to any Jew seeking to live in Israel? Precisely because for two thousand years, when we had no home, we were persecuted repeatedly and treated like pariahs simply because we were Jews. The most extreme expression of this, of course, was the Holocaust, which ironically was perpetrated by Germany, one of the leaders of "refined, universalistic" Western civilization and culture at the time. One can hardly call it bigoted and tribalist to establish a homeland for our people in order to express ourselves culturally, politically and spiritually, as well as to protect ourselves. Certainly, wanting to establish that homeland in the place with which we have been connected for 3,000 years can hardly be called bigoted either; unless, of course, one wishes to condemn all national and cultural aspirations of every people in the world as bigoted, which itself is the worst form of bigotry dressed in the garb of universalism.

Whether through the Law of Return or other means, Israeli citizenship is open to Jews and non-Jews. There are Israeli Arab citizens who fully integrate into Israeli society, who vote, and who do quite well academically, socially and economically. There are Arab Knesset members and physicians, university professors, and an Arab supreme court justice. The relationship between the State of Israel and her Arab citizens is not perfect by any means. Discrimination, inequality and racism exist, as they do in every Western democratic society. Right now in Israel, a great deal of public controversy exists between forces within Israeli society that would like to deny rights to women and minorities and the vast majority of Israeli society that wants Israel to remain a strong democracy. That controversy is as public and civil as it is precisely because Israel is a democracy, howbeit an imperfect one. We must look carefully at what Mr. Strock is doing here: he is using "hot-button" words that bother Americans, such as "tribe" and "tribalism," to convey the distorted message that Israel is a racist backwater founded upon stone-age ideas and loyalties.

Finally, Mr. Strock's comments about the Israel Declaration of Independence and Ha-Tikvah deserve some firm response. The declaration is exactly what a declaration of independence is supposed to be: a profound and succinct statement that tells the world about a people's national aspirations and its determination to achieve self-determination. It is not necessarily supposed to be a statement of universal principles about the brotherhood of Man. However, this is what we read about two thirds of the way into that document, after its writers summarize the tragic history of Jewish homelessness and persecution in the diaspora :

THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Israel has not been able to live up to every one of these high ideals. To be fair, what nation can? Yet a look at Israel's record over 64 years of existence reveals that she has done a remarkable job in building her democracy, especially given her onerous burden of being constantly vigilant about defense and security. Could Israel do a better job? Yes. Is it clear that Israel and the Palestinian people need to forge a lasting and just peace that will benefit everyone in the region? Yes. Does Israel deserve to be relentlessly singled out for one-sided criticism from people like Mr. Strock and others who are even more vocal? Most certainly not.

Later in his essay, Mr. Strock trots out the usual canards about the Jews as colonialist late-comers to the Middle East who forcibly dispossessed indigenous populations living in the land. What he and too many others seem unwilling to accept is the historical truth that we Jews did not simply "show up" in the Middle East after the Holocaust. We have truly waited to come home for over two millenia, and Israel is that home to which we have returned. This does not mean that our having a home deligitimizes the national aspirations of Palestinians or other peoples. What is does mean is that we have no less of a right to fulfill our dreams and mission as a people than anyone else, in our historic homeland.

Mr. Strock's writing about Jews, Judaism and Israel has been incendiary and divisive, and he has made a point of attacking Christianity and Islam as well, thus engendering even more hurt and divisiveness in the capital district community. His cover is that he hates all religions equally and wishes to debunk and demystify all religious claims and authority; also, that he has a right to say and print what he likes, given freedom of the press. What he has actually done is create a toxic atmosphere that fosters hatred and misunderstanding by exploiting his pen power to spread outright lies. That is an abuse of a free press, not an embodiment of it. The organized Jewish and Christian communities are taking a number of steps to respond to Mr. Strock, but each of us has the power to respond as well. Specifically, we have the vital task of learning as much of the truth as possible about who we are as Jews, what Judaism says and does, and what Israel is all about. We have the opportunity to write, speak and teach the truth whenever we can, so that our children and grandchildren, our fellow Jews and our fellow citizens learn that truth. Isn't a fair, free, and rational exchange of ideas without fear of reprisal or repression what American civil liberties are all about? If Mr. Strock chooses to use his authority to lie and behave unfairly, then we have to choose to correct those lies and help others to understand the Jewish experience. Finally, we need to keep building bridges between us and the wider community, not just for our own sake but for the sake of all our citizens.

May we continue to be strong in our fight against bigotry and demagoguery, as Jews, as Zionists, and as proud American citizens.