“Is It Possible to be a Jewish Intellectual?” – Eva Illouz in Haaretz


, , , , , , ,

Is It Possible to be a Jewish Intellectual?” is an expansive six-thousand-one-hundred-word essay written by Sociology Professor Eva Illouz of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem that was published this week in Haaretz, Israel’s equivalent of The New York Times. It is a must-read piece for both Israelis and American Jews. I am grateful to my friend Mike Rogoff in Jerusalem for sending me the link to it. [Note: You must be a subscriber to Haaretz to access the article. In my view, this article makes a subscription worthwhile in and of itself].  http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/jewish-world-features/.premium-1.585401 

Dr. Illouz considers in-depth the concepts of “Ahavat Yisrael – Love for Israel” and “Solidarity for the Jewish people” as well as the ethical and tribal challenges that confront intellectuals in remaining detached from their national or religious group in order to retain their moral integrity.

Dr. Illouz begins her discussion by citing the famous exchange between Gershom Scholem, the great 20th century scholar of Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Hannah Arendt, the German Jewish political theorist who covered the Adolph Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 and who wrote a number of essays about it in The New Yorker and a book entitled Eichmann in Jerusalem.

After their publication Scholem accused Arendt, as a Jew, of

“…not having enough ‘ahavat Yisrael – love for the Jewish nation and people’ …. Instead of displaying what we would have expected from a Jew on such an occasion – undiluted horror at Eichmann’s deeds; unreserved compassion for the moral dilemmas of the Jewish leaders who dealt with the Nazis; solidarity with the State of Israel – Arendt analyzed each one with a cold sense of truth and justice, and blurred the moral terms in which these had been hitherto judged by the public.”

Dr. Illouz goes on to discuss the forces that have influenced contemporary American Jewish identity in light of the Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel, American Jewish political advocacy for Israel, and American Jewish organizational politics, all of which have served to embrace a priori the Jewish principle of “Ahavat Yisrael – Love of the people of Israel” as identical with “hyper-solidarity” with the political State of Israel and its policies regardless of their moral imperfections.

This essay lays the ground for us to consider both the nature of Israeli and American Jewish identity since the establishment of the state of Israel and the consequences of Israel having assumed political and governmental power as a nation-state for the first time in two thousand years. It also considers the impact of American Jewish organizational support for Israel and what it means to be pro-Israel.



Good Wishes and Hopes for Pesach – 5774


, , , , , ,

This will be my final blog before Pesach begins, and I want to take the opportunity to wish all of you a season of renewal and joy.

May your Seders be punctuated with hope, enveloped by family and good friends, open to strangers and people in need of material and spiritual uplift, filled with prayers for justice and peace for our people, for the Palestinians, Syrians, Ukrainians, Venezuelans, Sudanese, Congolese, Egyptians, Iraqis, Afghanis, and all peoples suffering under the reality of and threat of violence and living with injustice.

I pray as well that all who are suffering from addictions and abuse of every kind find wholeness and relief from their wounds, and those suffering from illness and chronic pain find a way to overcome.

As Jews, we are a people of hope, not false hope, but a deeper kind of hope based in the unity of our people am Yisrael, the unity of humankind and the recognition that each human being belongs to each other. Our faith calls upon us to seek holistic and holy ways of being with each other and with the “other” with whom we live.

As a Jew and an ohev am u-M’dinat Yisrael, I have not given up on the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. I believe they will continue not only because there is too much to lose for Israel, the Palestinians and the United States if they end, but because in the Middle East maximum demands and extremist posturing usually precede breakthroughs. We will, of course, have to wait and see.

I wish for President Obama, Secretary Kerry, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and President Abbas not just the fortitude to carry on, but the wisdom and courage to find a way through the morass of issues that need resolution and compromise.

Jeffrey Goldberg has written a fine piece in the Bloomberg View on the dynamics of the current negotiations that is worth reading – “When Will Netanyahu Hail Himself to the Cross” (don’t let the title deter you from reaching his words) http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2014-04-10/when-will-netanyahu-nail-himself-to-the-cross.

Shabbat shalom v’Chag Pesach Sameach, biv’racha u-b’ahavah,

Rabbi John Rosove


The Pesach Seder – 5th in a series of 5 Blogs


, , , , , ,

Add Depth, Meaning and Fun to Your Seder

Orange – Dr. Susanna Heschel asked everyone to take a segment of orange, say the blessing over fruit (Baruch Atah Adonai … borei p’ri ha-eitz), and eat it as a gesture of solidarity with Jewish lesbians, gay men, and others marginalized within the Jewish community (e.g. widows, single individuals). This tradition was changed, as Dr. Heschel explains, by homophobic men and women who felt they could never include homosexuals at their Seders. They deliberately changed the meaning of the orange’s presence on the Seder plate sarcastically when confronted with the large numbers of women being ordained by the liberal rabbinic seminaries saying, “Women rabbis are as appropriate in synagogue life as having an orange on a Seder plate.” We place an orange on the plate to remind us of both those marginalized historically from Jewish life and as a statement of gender inclusivity in Jewish leadership.

Olives – Olives are grown plentifully in the land of Israel and placing olives on our Seder plates connects us with Israelis and our people living in the ancient land. It also reminds us that the olive harvest is intrinsic to the economy of Palestinian Arabs, and when olive trees are cut down by settler groups in revenge or by the Israeli army for “security” reasons, we stand with those who are victimized.

Kos Miryam – In honor of the matriarch Miriam we remember the important role that women played in the Exodus story by having a glass of water next to the cup of Elijah. This tradition recalls the sea through which the Israelites passed and “Miriam’s Well,” believed to have sustained the people throughout their wandering until Miriam’s death.

Poetry – Ask Seder participants to bring poetry on the themes of freedom, change, redemption, hope, love, and salvation, and intersperse this poetry appropriately throughout the Seder.

Personal Testimonies – Ask individuals to share experiences from this past year that enabled them to escape from their own “enslavement” (e.g. bad habits, sugar, caffeine dependency, addictions, technology, life-depleting work, bad relationships, etc.). Ask participants to bring a concrete item that represents a liberating experience and share it with Seder participants.

Personal Memories – Ask older individuals to share the most meaningful Seder they ever attended from their childhood and why it was so memorable.

Burn Chometz – At the beginning of the Seder pass out paper and pencils and ask all to write what has enslaved them in the past year from which they wish to liberate themselves (see above in “Personal Testimonies”). Collect and burn in the fire place.

Acts of Redemption – At the beginning of the Seder pass out paper and pencils and ask all to write down what redeeming acts (e.g. acts of goodness, social justice work, pro-Israel pro-peace activism, hunger projects, etc.) they engaged in during the last year and collect them. Read them following the ten plagues.

Venue for the Seder – If the group is too large to gather comfortably around one table, move the Seder to a larger room so all can sit comfortably together.

Eat Earlier in the Seder to Sate Appetite – Say the blessings over Matzah and the Seder foods at the beginning of the Seder thereby allowing people to munch so that the Seder can go forward fully and to its proper conclusion.

Invite Non-family and Non-Jews – Fulfill the mitzvah to “welcome the stranger.” Not only do these invited guests appreciate coming, but if your family customarily “misbehaves” (i.e. doesn’t take the Seder seriously enough) the presence of non-Jews and non-family maintains control over rowdy and disrespectful individuals.

Afikoman Hunt – For very young children hide many Afikoman pieces wrapped in different colored napkins. Give each child a different color so they can find their piece. Everyone wins.

Scallions for Dayeinu – A Persian Jewish custom is for participants to smack each other on the head during the singing of Dayeinu.

Discussion Cards from Jewish World Watch – These tell the remarkable stories of JWW activists and survivors of genocide in Darfur and mass atrocities in Congo. Each embodies characteristics, or midot, to repair our broken world. https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?shva=1#inbox/14529fb5fc133045

J Street’s Passover Supplement – Support America’s Peace Mission of 2 states for 2 peoples and peace between Israel and the Palestinians. J Street is a pro-Israel pro-peace political and educational organization in Washington, D.C. and the largest pro-Israel PAC in the nation’s capital – see www.jstreet.org- https://act.jstreet.org/donate/passover2014_download/

Asylum Seekers in Israel – 30,000 refugees escaped Sudan and Eritria by foot to Israel and are seeking asylum and/or work until the vicious dictatorships of their host countries change. There is a clear and present danger should they be returned. Read about what Israel is doing to “contain” the refugees from the Los Angeles Jewish Journal – http://www.jewishjournal.com/womanwrites/item/bechol_dor_vador_how_you_can_make_a_difference_this_passover – click to the supplement prepared by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights http://www.asylumseekers.org/uploads/4/7/0/6/4706099/rn_refugee_seder_2014_supplementfinal-1.pdf – sign a petition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cease detention of African Asylum Seekers in Israel – http://rightnowisrael.nationbuilder.com/

“Put Justice on Your Seder Plate” – Celebrate the workers who pick tomatoes and support their human rights campaign by putting a tomato on your Seder plate. T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights supports the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to create safe and fair conditions in the tomato fields. T’ruah is an organization of rabbis from all streams of Judaism that acts on the Jewish imperative to respect and protect the human rights of all people. See – http://www.truah.org/images/Tomato_on_Seder_Plate_2014.pdf

Religious Tolerance of Every Individual According to his/her Character – A Passover Supplement from Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel https://www.dropbox.com/s/o1pa96tk4b9vgux/Hiddush%20Seder%20Supplement%205774.pdf

May this Passover season be one of rejoicing, rebirth and renewal for you and your dear ones.




A Rabbi at 93 and a Poem Called “The Promised Land” by Carl Dennis


, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Rabbi Leonard Beerman has been in my life since I was 12 years old. He inspired so many in my generation and me to engage as young teens in the civil rights movement, to protest American military involvement in Vietnam, to apply for Conscientious Objector status during that war, to fight nuclear weapons proliferation, to engage in interfaith dialogue and create coalitions of decency on behalf of just causes, and to support the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people for a state of their own alongside a secure Israel despite (as Leonard put it many years ago) Palestinian “cruelty and stupidity.”

Leonard was a rabbinic student in 1948 learning Hebrew in Jerusalem when the War of Independence broke out, and he aided in the effort to help establish the Jewish state.

For the last 65 years Leonard has been a uniquely courageous and consistent voice in the American Rabbinate advocating for human rights here, in Israel and around the world despite personal ostracism and political blow-back at the hands of many fellow Jews. Leonard spoke as he did because he believes that the principles of justice, compassion and peace as articulated by the Biblical Prophets are primary Jewish ethical concerns.

Leonard is as eloquent and provocative a speaker as there is in American Judaism today. I grew up hearing the gentle resonance of his voice and the prophetic power of his words. His message at once inspires me, comforts me and forces me to think critically even if I do not agree with him. Even so, Leonard is always worth hearing because like the Biblical Prophet he understands that speaking truth is more important than feeding his community what he knows they want to hear.

Today, April 9, is Leonard’s 93rd birthday, and I send him birthday wishes with hopes that he will enjoy many more years of productive activism and good health with his dear wife Joan, his adoring children and grandchildren, and his many cherished colleagues, friends and admirers.

Leonard and I meet for lunch every few months to talk, share stories and thoughts about issues great and small, personal, Jewish and worldly. Last week when we met he brought me a poem that evokes the Jerusalem I love of Jewish messianic dreams and the real Jerusalem that I also love that inspires so much passion by so many and is one of the core issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The poem, called “My Promised Land” by Carl Dennis, is at once wistful, melancholic and hopeful. It is worth reading at our Passover Seders because it reminds us of our messianic dreams and of the work that is yet to be done for the sake of peace:

The land of Israel my mother loves / Gets by without the luxury of existence / And still wins followers, / Though it can’t be found on the map / West of Jordan or south of Lebanon, / Though what can be found / bears the same name, / Making for confusion.

Not the land I fought her about for years / But the one untarnished by the smoke of history, / Where no one informs the people of Hebron or Jericho / They’re squatting on property that isn’t theirs, / Where every settler can remember wandering.

The dinners I spoiled with shouting / Could have been saved, / Both of us lingering quietly in our chairs, / If I’d guessed the truth that now is obvious, / That she wasn’t lavishing all her love / On the country that doesn’t deserve so rich a gift / But on the one that does, the one not there, / That she hoped good news would reach its borders.

And cross into the land of the righteous and merciful / That the Prophets spoke of in their hopeful moods, / That was loved by the red-eyed rabbis of Galicia / Who studied every word of the book and prayed / To get one thread of the meaning right; / The promised Land where the great and small / Hurry to school and the wise are waiting.”




The Pesach Seder – 4th in a Series of 5 Blogs


, , , , , , ,

Significance of the Number 4 – In Jewish tradition, the number 4 (or multiples) appears constantly; the rains in the days of Noah fell for 40 days and nights; Moses communed with God on Mount Sinai for 40 days and received the entire Torah; the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before entering the land of Israel; the holiest Name of God is 4 letters (YHVH); the gematria (i.e. number equivalence) for the Hebrew root “K-d-sh” (holy) is 404; and in the Seder there are 4 questions, 4 children and 4 cups of wine.

In western culture there are the 4 elements (fire, wind, earth, and water), 4 directions, and 4 winds, etc.

What therefore is the meaning of 4? The American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, has written that this number signifies completeness and wholeness (Hebrew – sh’leimut) the attainment of which is the primary goal of Pesach. During this season Judaism calls upon parents to turn their hearts towards their children and children to turn their hearts towards their parents, to restore family relationships and make peace in the home (shalom bayit). The Jewish people is called upon to turn away from baseless hatred (sinat chinam) one for another and unite as a people, to welcome the stranger and come close to God. The goal of Pesach is Oneness (Achdut) in every aspect of life. Once attained, Jews will gather from the 4 corners of the earth in the holy city of Jerusalem (the city of shalem - wholeness and messianic peace).

4 Questions– The 4 questions derive from a Greco-Roman tradition of having a feast followed by a philosophical discussion.

4 Children – The wise, evil, simple, and the one who does not know enough to ask. The wise wants to understand the rituals and messianic purpose of the Seder including the meaning of the Afikoman (see 1st blog). The evil one deliberately separates from community, is unaccountable, indifferent, and passive to the fate of the Jewish people. The simple one wants to know what to do to be a part of community. The one who doesn’t know enough to ask is the Jew who has no Jewish knowledge at all. All 4 kinds of people need to be present at our Seder tables and each responded according to who they are.

4 Cups of Wine – Recalls the 4 terms used to describe redemption (Exodus 6:6-8): “I shall take you out…”; “I shall rescue you…”; “I shall redeem you…”; “I shall bring you…”.

10 Plagues – (Blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, blight, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, death of the first-born). These represent an attack on the ancient Egyptian gods to teach Israel and the Egyptians that YHVH is the only legitimate deity. We take the index finger and drop a bit of wine on our plates as we recite each plague symbolizing the reduction of our joy when our enemies suffer.

Dayeinu and Hallel - Sung just before the meal, Dayeinu expresses gratitude that God redeemed us and will one day facilitate the greatest redemption of all. The Hallel (passages from Psalms) is the most ancient section of the Hagadah.

Elijah – The prophet destined to announce the coming of the Messiah – Elijah’s Cup entered the Seder in the 15th or 16th century during an era of great distress, anxiety and fear in the Jewish community due to widespread anti-Jewish hatred inspired by the crusades, disputations, blood libel, and black plague.

The Open Door – Jewish folklore suggests that at the moment we open the door Elijah enters to bring the promise of hope. Originally, Jews opened the door to show Christian passers-by that nothing cultic or sinister was occurring at Jewish Seders. This tradition began during medieval times when the blood libel, desecration of the host, and fear of Jews inspired anti-Jewish riots during the Easter season. The most dangerous day of the year for the Jewish community was when Passover and Good Friday coincided.

Jews in Every Age – The Hagadah has elements that were introduced in every period in Jewish history including the Bible, Greek, Roman, Arab, Christian Europe, 19th Century Enlightenment, Zionism, the State of Israel, and the Holocaust. We are instructed that “every Jew must regard him/herself as if each of us personally went free from Egypt.” As we sit together at the Seder table, if we are sensitive to the subtleties and nuances of the Seder rites, rituals, Biblical and rabbinic texts, it is as if we join Jews living in every age at their Seder tables and link our lives with theirs.

The Messiah and Next Year in Jerusalem – The hope of the Jewish people is for a world to one day be redeemed of its brokenness, injustice, hardheartedness, indifference, suffering, and pain. The coming of the Messiah symbolizes our people’s hope and dream for the time of the messianic dominion of God.

To be continued…


The Pesach Seder – 3rd in a Series of 5 Blogs


, , , , , , , ,

The Very First Seder in Jewish History – The first Seder was held in Egypt before the Exodus itself. Consequently, the Seder is not a celebration of redemption because the redeeming event had not yet taken place. Rather, the Seder is an expression of faith that there will be redemption in the future, that the world is not yet just and compassionate and that there is to be a more peaceful order of human affairs in a time to come.

The Seder as a Night-time Ritual - The Seder is the only full ritual that occurs at night and in the home. It is also the only time that the Hallel is said at night. Rabbi Levi Meier (z’l) suggested that whereas in daylight all things are public, at night our higher selves are revealed. When Jacob wrestled with a Divine/human being at the river Jabok we learn that following that struggle “Ya-akov shalem – Jacob became whole.” This night-time ritual moves us towards wholeness and integration (per Jungian theory – Rabbi Meier was a certified Jungian therapist) – i.e. the unification of body, mind, heart, and soul with God.

Birth Imagery in the Exodus Narrative – Birth imagery and the role of women in the Exodus narrative is prominently reflected in the Seder and therefore, alongside male images of God as a warrior and liberator, women are ancient Israel’s savers and sustainers of life. Feminine imagery is evoked especially at the Passover season because of the concurrence of the spring equinox when the lambing of the flocks took place. Most importantly, Passover celebrates the birth of the Jewish nation out of slavery. Israelite new-born boys were saved by two Hebrew mid-wives, Shifra and Puah. Yocheved (Moses’ mother) and Miriam (Moses’ older sister) saved the future liberator from certain death by placing him in a basket in the river, watching over him as he floated down the river, watching as he was drawn out of the river and saved by the Egyptian Princess, and by Miriam arranging with the Princess to have Moses’ own mother, Yocheved, act as his wet-nurse in the palace. Moses grew to manhood, never forgetting who he really was because of his engaged mother and sister, Yocheved and Miriam, and he eventually led the people through the opening of the Sea of Reeds, a metaphor of the opening of his womb. The Hebrew name for Egypt (Mitzrayim) means “coming from a narrow or constricted place,” such as a new-born moving through the birth canal. The salt water of the sea might suggest the amniotic fluid heralding both the birth of the Jewish nation into freedom and the beginning of spring.

Moses is Never Mentioned in the Hagadah – This obvious oversight was a deliberate attempt by the rabbis who developed the Hagadah in the first centuries of the Common Era (CE) to remind the people that it was God and God alone that redeemed the people from slavery. Much of the Hagadah developed in the centuries after Christianity made inroads into the Jewish community. The rabbis were concerned that Jews not deify any human leader as the Christians had done with Jesus.

Nachshon Ben Aminadav – The Midrash (rabbinic commentary) describes what happened when the Israelites arrived at the Sea of Reeds with the Egyptian army behind them in hot pursuit. Moses began to pray that God would save the people yet again while a little known figure, Nachshon Ben Aminadav, jumped into the sea and took history into his own hands. This is the first time a former slave acted on his own and on his people’s behalf. At that moment, in response to Moses’ prayer and Nachshon’s courageous deed, God split the sea and allowed the people to pass into freedom on dry land. Judaism affirms that God is a liberating force for justice and good, especially for the most vulnerable in society, and that we Jews are obligated by the Covenant to be drawn at Sinai to emulate God Who acted compassionately, defied injustice and strove to create a Jewish people (the early Zionist movement and the founding of the state of Israel is reflective of this earliest impulse in Jewish history).

Wine and Matzah in Christian Tradition – Jesus reportedly said at the Last Supper (thought to be a Passover Seder) while pointing at the matzah and wine, “This is my body and this is my blood!” (Matthew 26:26) Christian theologians developed the doctrine of transubstantiation (i.e. the Eucharist) and claimed it as legitimate continuation of first century Judaism. The deification of Jesus into a wholly Divine being, however, constitutes a significant theological leap and departure from traditional Judaism that affirms God as unknowable, infinite and eternal. For Jews, the bread represents the lamb of the Pascal offering. For Christians, Jesus replaced the lamb, and the wine symbolized his blood which led Jesus’ followers at that Seder to not be shocked by his alleged identification with the pascal offering. The anti-Semitic defamation in the “blood libel” is a convoluted distortion of the Eucharist turned on itself and against the Jewish people who had refused to accept the divinity of Jesus as the Christ Messiah.

To be continued…






Israeli and American Jews – The Struggle for Consensus and Current Tensions


, , , , , ,

In recent weeks Israeli and American Jewish activists, writers and thinkers have been discussing political and ideological trends within both the American Jewish community and Israeli society vis a vis the nature of pro-Israel activism and what Israel would need to compromise should the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, now seriously threatened, ever advance.

There are, at the very least, two truths that seem to permeate much of our two societies these days. The first is the most consequential for the future security, Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel; the distrust of Israelis towards Palestinians and Palestinians towards Israelis resulting in political/ideological recalcitrance of each side’s negotiating positions. The second is the growing ideological and emotional divide in the American Jewish community between left and right especially concerning the meaning of pro-Israel activism.

In the Middle East, it is unclear in the short-term whether American supported peace negotiations will continue. In the American Jewish community, conservative pro-Israel activists have undertaken a new campaign to discredit the pro-Israel legitimacy of J Street most recently reflected in a film called “The J Street Challenge” that is producing a great deal of ink.

J Street is the largest pro-Israel Political Action Committee in Washington, D.C. and over the nearly six years of its existence has attracted growing support among an increasingly large segment of the American Jewish community’s liberal pro-Israel community. The film “The J Street Challenge” reflects the American Jewish community’s right-wing disagreement with J Street’s policy positions (www.jstreet.org) and is fueled by strong animus towards the organization’s leadership.

[Note: I serve as a co-chair of the national Rabbinic Cabinet of J Street representing nearly 800 rabbis from all the American Jewish religious streams, and my son has served as a member of the J Street national staff almost since the founding of J Street six years ago. However, I appreciate and respect the long history of support in the nation’s capital for the state of Israel by AIPAC, though I am sad and continually disheartened to say that so many in AIPAC do not hold similar appreciation and respect for J Street].

I offer the following two articles that address American Jewish internal tensions and the concerns of the broad majority of Israeli citizens that make up the Israeli political center.

As events unfold it is important to understand the short-term and long-term implications of what is occurring within the American Jewish community and Israel alike especially relative to the following themes: The future of Israeli democracy and the Jewish character of the State of Israel; The lack of agreement that will bring about a two-states for two peoples resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; The meaning of pro-Israel activism in the United States; and the state of civility within the American Jewish community today.

The first article was written by Yossi Klein Halevi, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a contributing editor to The New Republic. His piece The Quiet Rise of the Israeli Center” (Times of Israel, March 23) is an insightful look at the dreams, concerns and worries of the largest bloc of Israeli citizens, the political moderate center – http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-quiet-rise-of-the-israeli-center/

The second is written by Larry Gellman, one of America’s top money managers and financial advisers, who has been active as a lay American Jewish leader for thirty years with Jewish Federations, State of Israel Bonds, AIPAC, J Street, CLAL, and Hillel. He has helped to create and fund Jewish Day Schools in two American cities. Gellman lectures widely in the United States and Israel on Judaism and business ethics. His op-ed that follows is therefore significant because of his standing as a mainstream leader in the American Jewish community – “Donor Slams Federation for Divisive ‘Political Attack Ad’ Aimed at J Street” (The Jewish Daily Forward, April 3) http://forward.com/articles/195784/donor-slams-federation-for-divisive-political-atta/?p=all

The Pesach Seder – 2nd in a series of 5 Blogs


, , , ,

Let us not forget that despite the disturbing news concerning the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, we Jews are a people of hope and the Pesach Seder is all about hope and the promise of redemption and peace. As an Israeli friend, Yaron Shavit, once shared with me – “B’Yisrael y’ush lo optsia – In Israel despair is not an option!”

Here is the 2nd of 5 blogs on the parts of the Passover Seder:

Purpose of the Seder – The Seder’s goal is for each participant to personally experience and empathize with our people’s historic struggle for liberation, for each one of us to confront the spiritual and psychological enslavement that stands in the way of our growth as individuals and a people. The ultimate spiritual and metaphysical goal is to glimpse sh’leimut (i.e. wholeness –the unity of humankind, the people of Israel, the world and cosmos, and the unity of God’s Holiest Name – YHVH. Mystics teach that the ultimate goal is to empty oneself entirely into God’s Oneness – Achdut.

Chometz – Leavened bread is forbidden during Passover so that the Jewish people may recall the hasty exit of the Israelites from Egypt. Chometz symbolizes “sin” (using classical language). Essentially, sin is an alienation from one’s self, from the community and from God. It is the fomenting of the evil impulse in our hearts (yeitzer ha-ra), and our task is to cleanse ourselves and our homes during the Passover festival. Technically, kosher matzah for Passover must be mixed, kneaded, and put in the oven to bake within 18 minutes. Any dough that stands longer than 18 minutes is presumed to be chometz and unfit for Passover consumption.

B’dikat Chometz (Search for Chometz) – This is a tradition conducted the day before Passover. All chometz is gathered and either burned publicly (bi-ur chometz), sold or given away to non-Jews. Some people collect all their chometz and remove it from the house (i.e. put it in the garage) until after the conclusion of the Passover festival. On the night before the first Seder, children take a spoon, feather and candle and search the house for chometz crumbs. Five grains are considered chometz during Passover: wheat, spelt, barley, oats, and rye. The following are forbidden to be consumed during Passover: whiskey, beer and bourbon because of the fomenting process. In some Sephardic homes, rice is permissible during Passover but not so in Ashkenazi homes, because of the principle of “mar’it ayin – how it appears” (i.e. rice may in some form look like one of the other forbidden grains). Rice is not considered chometz. Many Sefardim consume rice during Pesach. Ashkenazim do not consume rice for fear that if it is ground into flour, it might appear to be not kosher for Pesach.

14 Sections of the SederKaddesh – urchatz – karpas – yachatz – maggid – rachtzah – motzi/matzah – maror – korech – shulchan orech – tzafun – barech – hallel – nirtzah. At the beginning of the Seder, Sephardim (Jews originally coming from Spain) pass the Seder plate over the heads of all the guests symbolizing the passing of the angel of death over the Israelite homes. While the plate is passed, the sections of the Seder are sung.

Biblical Story of the Exodus – At the end of Genesis, the Israelites had settled in the land of Goshen after a severe famine in the land of Canaan. Joseph had brought his father and the 12 sons and 1 daughter to Goshen. But then (at the beginning of the Book of Exodus) there “arose a Pharaoh in Egypt who knew not Joseph” and put all the Hebrews into slavery and hard labor to build his cities. The story is believed to have taken place around the year 1250 B.C.E. Jews, therefore, did NOT build the pyramids, which date from the middle of the 2nd millennium B.C.E. Though the Biblical story says our people were slaves for 400 years, it is likely that they were slaves for a generation (perhaps 40 years). The Bible also says that over 600,000 men (including women and children the figure would have been 3 to 4 times greater) were freed from slavery. An unruly number, it is more likely that between 10,000 and 15,000 Hebrews and others (i.e. mixed multitude) came out of Egypt. A people used to slavery, they would be condemned to wander for 40 years (a generation) until the generation of slaves died. Moses himself never entered the land of Israel primarily because of his defiance of God at the incident of M’ribah. The Exodus story is completed by the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the building of the Tabernacle, the period of the wandering for 40 years in the desert, and the entering and settling of the land of Israel ultimately resulting in the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. For Jews, Freedom is tied in with Law and the Covenant.

The Very First Seder – The first Seder was held in Egypt before the Exodus itself. Consequently, the Seder is not a celebration of redemption because the redeeming event had not yet taken place. Rather, the Seder is an expression of faith that there will be redemption in the future, that the world is not yet perfected and that there is to be a more peaceful and just order of human affairs.

To be continued…

The Pesach Seder – 1st in a series of 5 Blogs



As Pesach approaches I will offer a series of five blogs beginning here exploring different aspects of the Seder, the historical roots of many of our customs and rites, the religious and spiritual significance of the Seder parts, and suggestions to enhance your family Seder.

The Seder Plate contains six ritual elements: the egg (beitzah), bone (z’ro-a), parsley (karpas), bitter herb (maror), apples/nuts/honey/wine mixture (charoset), lettuce (?). There is a debate among the sages about whether there should be five or six items. The Kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572) said that there needs to be six items because of the mystical resemblance to the Star of David, a symbol of redemption.

The Symbolism of the Foods:

Egg = birth and rebirth (personal and national)

Bone = God’s strong outstretched arm that redeemed the slaves

Parsley = Spring time (salt water – tears of slavery)

Bitter Herb = hardship of slavery

Charoset = mortar that held bricks together

Lettuce = unknown, but possibly representing the sacrifice in the Temple

The 3 Matzot on the Traditional Platter – Originally they represented the 3 sacrifices brought to the Temple; the Pascal offering (lamb), the Tamid offering (daily), and the Maaser Sheini (tithing). The number 3 also represents the three classes of Israelites, all of whom are present at the Seder; the Priests (Kohanim), the Vice-Priests (Levi-im – Levites), and the Israelites (Yis’ra-elim).

The Matzah – Sometimes called the “bread of affliction” or the “poor bread” in the Ha Lachma Anya (Aramaic) section of the Seder, the Matzah is a salvationary substance that points to God’s redeeming power. The midrash (rabbinic legend) speaks of bread hanging from trees in the Garden of Eden. The mannah of the desert is thought to be the food of the hosts of heaven, much as Greek ambrosia was the food of the gods. In any event, the matzah (or bread) not only sustains life, but is directly linked to God’s redemptive power.

Afikoman- The last item eaten in the Seder, the Afikoman is the middle matzah on the ceremonial matzah plate and is broken off and hidden (tzafun) before the Seder begins to be found by the children/adults at the end of the meal. Since it is impossible to evenly break the Afikoman, the larger half is hidden symbolizing the larger hope the Jewish people hold out for our future. Afikoman is sometimes translated “dessert,” but in all probability it is an Aramaic word originally derived from the Greek “afikomenos,” meaning Ha-ba, the “Coming one” or Messiah (Professor David Daube, 1909-1999). Breaking the middle matzah symbolizes the broken state of the Jewish people in slavery and the brokenness of the world badly in need of healing. It also symbolizes the kabbalistic idea of the sh’virat ha-kei-lim (the breaking of the vessels) and the introduction of the sitra achra (the “other side” of God, or the dark aspect of the universe) into reality. Finding the Afikoman at the end, we restore it to the other half symbolizing the redemption of the individual, the people Israel, the world, and God’s own name (YHVH) that split apart when the universe began at the time of the “breaking of the vessels.” In effect, the Jewish people are charged with effecting tikun (the restoration of the world – the reclaiming of the Garden of Eden – the reunification of God’s Name YHVH). Then all Seder participants eat the Afikoman together. Prizes are given to those who participate in the hunt.

The Number 4 – The number 4 is repeated many times in the Seder (e.g. 4 cups of wine, 4 sons, 4 sages, 4 questions). Cross-culturally, the number 4 is symbolic of wholeness, integrity and completion, a principle goal of Passover and of Jewish life (Hebrew – Shleimut).

To be continued…



Female vs Male Power – Towards a More Peaceful, Healthy and Sane World


, ,

Appeasement” – “Weakness and doubt” – “Effeminacy” – “Soft sentimentalism” – “Naiveté” – “A lack of realism” – “A failure to adhere to demanding moral principles” – “A crisis in values” – “An aversion to martial, manly virtues that make nations strong and give life meaning!”

These are the ways many conservative politicians and pundits are characterizing President Obama and his foreign policy.

John McCain charged that Obama’s foreign policy allowed Putin to invade, take over and annex Crimea because the world now has the “perception that the United States is weak.” (The New York Times, March 14, 2014)

Sarah Palin said that “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil. They look at our President as one who wears mom jeans.” (Fox News)

Donald Rumsfeld bashed Obama on his handling of the Afghanistan disengagement saying that “a trained ape could do better” and that “United States diplomacy has been …embarrassingly bad.” (Fox News)

Dick Cheney critiqued the Obama Administration as “incompetent and lack[ing] principles and values.” (Fox News)

Bill Kristol opined in 2002 that the “era of American weakness and doubt in response to terrorism is over.”

None of this is new. For years conservatives have characterized themselves as the heroic defenders of American strength, virility and competence regardless of the complexity of the issues, their own hidden agendas and the dire consequences of their actions.

Peter Beinart analyzed their rhetoric this way:

Today, hawks still link appeasement and effeminacy. Last month, for instance, after comparing the ‘bare-chested Putin’ to ‘Barack Obama, in his increasingly metro-sexual golf get-ups,’ National Review’s Victor Davis Hanson suggested that Putin’s aggression might finally rouse Americans to peer ‘into ourselves—we the hollow men, the stuffed men of dry voices and whispers’ and get tough.” (“Vladimir Putin – Russian Neo-Con”, Atlantic, March 24, 2014): http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/03/vladimir-putin-russian-neocon/284602/

It is chutzpah that the very people most critical of Obama and his foreign policy used innuendo, distortion and lies to take the United States into war against Iraq on the false claims that Sadaam Hussein was in league with Al Qaida and had WMD.

Less we forget, the Iraqi war that the United States initiated resulted in 200,000 dead Iraqi civilians and 6,781 dead American soldiers along with hundreds of thousands of Americans and Iraqis maimed, injured and traumatized.

Nor should we forget that America ran up a bill for that war of $1.7 trillion, an additional $490 billion in benefits owed to war veterans, and expenses that could grow to more than $6 trillion over the next four decades including interest – an equivalent sum of $75,000 for every American household, and that we sent Iraq back into the dark ages while removing the only counter-balance to Iran’s ascendency in the Middle East.

Those who want America yet again to brandish our swords and strike after all we and the victims of violence have suffered at their hands and all the negative international consequences ought to be doing t’shuvah for their sins and then think about whether they ought to speak at all given all the mistakes they made!

If we have learned anything in the past decade, it should be that our response to international conflict should not leave behind the impression that the United States is the nastiest, toughest and biggest bully on the planet. Rather, the world should see America as affirming diplomacy over violence, finesse over force, and negotiated compromise over militancy lest we make a mockery further of our democratic values and our faith in life as a sacred gift. As I see it, that is part of what Obama has been trying to do in several very tough international theaters.

Yes, there are times when an American military response is justifiable and necessary. Yet, it is easy to rush into war and almost always devastating when we do.

The words of the American Civil War Union General, William Tucumseh Sherman (1820-1891), are instructive: “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell.”

When Peter Beinart shined a light on conservative gender rhetoric last week, I recalled what the spiritual teacher David Steindl-Rast wrote years ago concerning the difference between feminine and masculine power:

“The very concept of women’s power is different from that of men. Women’s power is the power to foster new life and growth…If more people would understand how this life-giving power differs from power over others, the world would be a more peaceful, healthy and sane place.” (Essential Writings, p. 11)

The world would be well-served if American leaders from both major political parties were a bit more “feminine” and a lot more concerned about the well-being of every human being who will be affected by what our foreign policy does, more like mothers who instinctively cherish their children and act lovingly and responsibly on their behalf.




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 204 other followers