Note to Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito – from Thomas Jefferson

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Since Thomas Jefferson is considered by most Americans as an authority on the original intent of the framers of the US Constitution, the conservative wing of the current US Supreme Court and all those fine Republican candidates for President who have claimed in the last week that the majority opinion in the equal marriage decision got it really wrong, I recommend for their consideration this statement of our 3rd President and author of the Declaration of Independence signed exactly 239 years ago today. Perhaps the four justices and Republican candidates will change their minds!?

“Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to it, and labored with it. It deserved well of its country. It was very like the present, but without the experience of the present; and forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading; and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
-Thomas Jefferson

Source: Wordsmith.org – A thought for the day

The Iran Nuclear Negotiations – Why I Am Ambivalent

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Much is at stake as the June 30 deadline approaches for the P5+1 nations and Iran to conclude nuclear weapons negotiations, and as Tuesday approaches I am uncomfortably ambivalent. Here are my reasons why.

The Iranian leadership, without question, is a tough, stubborn, brutal, dishonest, and ideologically driven group that seeks hegemony over the entirety of the Middle East, the acquisition of a nuclear bomb being but one element important in its strategy of intimidation and domination of the region.

The economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the P5+1 nations to force it to negotiate an end to its nuclear weapons program have been effective in at least bringing the Iranian leadership to the negotiating table as it seeks relief from the economic stranglehold in which it finds itself.

Both sides have much to lose if an agreement does not emerge from these talks, but I do not believe that time is on the west’s side. If no agreement can be reached, even with an extension of the talks by a few days or weeks, the P5+1 coalition could unravel given Russia’s and China’s fading-away act.

The alternative to an agreement is dire whether it be Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon or a western military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities that sparks a wider war.

Western experts believe that should the US and its coalition partners initiate a military strike to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, not only would complete destruction be impossible, but military action won’t make a substantial difference. Iran’s current break-out time to produce a bomb of a few months would be delayed only two to four years, and then we’ll find ourselves back where we are now.

The military option is most probably not a real possibility anyway given the P5+1’s war weariness and reluctance to open another theater of violence in the Middle East.

That being said, let’s imagine for a moment the consequences of a military strike on Iran, should it occur.

Both Hezbollah and Hamas (Iranian proxies) could well join together in a coordinated counter-attack on the Jewish state. It is estimated that there are 100,000 Iranian supplied Hezbollah missiles sitting in launchers on the Lebanese border with far greater navigational accuracy than anything Hamas has had, and they are all pointed at Israel with the capacity to strike Kiryat Shemona, Haifa, Tiberius, Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Petach Tikvah, Holon, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ariel and all  the major contested settlements, as well as cities and towns leading up to and including Jerusalem. Though Israel’s Iron Dome would intersect and destroy many incoming missiles, many other missiles will find their mark and kill hundreds or thousands of Israelis. Israel would bomb the daylights out of southern Lebanon with a likely ground invasion, and many innocent Lebanese and Israeli soldiers would be killed.

Hezbollah’s tunnel system in the north is said to be far more extensive than anything Hamas built in the south, and we could expect an invasion into Israel itself with deadly results.

And so, a war involving Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas can be expected to be more destructive and costly than anything Israel has experienced before.

Contemplating a scenario like this with a full Israeli military response is a nightmare of epic proportions. Yet, the bottom line in negotiations has to be that there can be no agreement that directly or indirectly recognizes Iran moving towards nuclear military capability.

One has to consider whether some kind of P5+1 control over Iranian nuclear ambitions is better than no control at all, and that some agreement that achieves many of the goals of the western powers is better than no deal.

All this is why I find myself ambivalent about what is the right course should negotiations fail. On the one hand, it is almost always a mistake to allow our actions to be influenced inordinately by our fears. Yet on the other, our leaders are going to have to choose what the better course is between two bad choices – all-out war or a partial agreement.

In an effort to clarify the important issues involved, a document called “Public Statement on U.S. Policy toward the Iran Nuclear Negotiations” was recently published under the auspices of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The group assembled to discuss the Iran nuclear issue that produced this document included an impressive non-partisan group of American military, security, diplomatic, nuclear arms, and Middle East experts. The names of participants are listed. The 4-page document is worth reading and can be accessed here:

http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/uploads/Documents/pubs/StatementWeb2.pdf

The politics driving the right and the left, unfortunately, have obfuscated many of the most important issues at stake. Most of us cannot claim to understand the physics of nuclear technology and weaponry and so we have to rely on the experts, and some of them disagree with each other.

For now, we will have to wait and see what transpires this week between the two parties and, if there is an extension of the talks, what will be the final outcome?

Iran and the Bomb – Moses and the Rock – Sinai and the Rod

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This week the Torah recounts Miriam’s death and the people’s complaints of thirst during the period of wandering. God tells Moses to take his rod and order a rock to produce water. Old and weary of the people’s incessant complaining, instead of ordering the rock to produce water Moses strikes it with his rod. Though the people drink their fill, God punishes the prophet for his defiance and bars him from entering the Promised Land (Chukat – Numbers 20:1-13).

Talmudic sages explain the severity of God’s punishment by charging that Moses’ faith wasn’t strong enough, that because he failed to sanctify God before the people the Eternal deemed him unworthy to lead them into Canaan.

Maimonides explains that Moses lacked compassion and that he should have spoken kindly to the people instead of with words of rebuke.

Others say that in losing his temper Moses lost his moral authority to be the leader.

One opines that because Moses claimed credit for the miracle of the water without acknowledging God, the Almighty denied him what he dreamed of most.

There’s yet another explanation. Earlier at Massah and Meribah the people also complained of debilitating thirst, and similar to our portion God told Moses to take his rod and hit the rock instead of speaking to it (Exodus 17).

What’s the difference?

The answer is that Sinai intervened between the two events. God intended the second time to usher in a new way of being in the world for the former slaves, to erase their humiliating experience of suffering from their hearts and souls, to create a new free people worthy of a higher order of being, to yield from force to reason, violence to dialogue, brutish despotism to moral law, might to right, and intolerance to compassion.

God wanted a new age to begin, the ‘messianic age,’ and Moses was to be the Messiah.

However, when Moses hit the rock instead of speaking to it, he showed the people that Sinai had changed nothing at all, that God was merely a more powerful Pharaoh with better magic and greater violence.

Rabbi Marc Gelman writes of what God may have intended for the people (“The Waters of Meribah,” Learn Torah with…Vol. 5, Number 16, January 30, 1999, edited by Joel Lurie Grishaver and Rabbi Stuart Kelman):

“When my people enters the land you shall not enter with them, but neither shall I. I shall only allow a part of my presence to enter the land with them. The abundance of my presence I shall keep outside the land. The exiled part shall be called my Shekhinah and it shall remind the people that I too am in exile. I too am a divided presence in the world, and that I shall only be whole again on that day when the power of the fist vanishes forever from the world. Only on that day will I be one. Only on that day will my name be one. Only on that day Moses, shall we enter the land together. Only on that day Moses, shall the waters of Meribah become the flowing waters of justice and the everlasting stream of righteousness gushing forth from my holy mountain where all people shall come and be free at last.”

Sinai teaches that the restrictive, oppressive and terrifying power of might must give way to a greater vision of Oneness if God’s word is to prevail and draw humankind together in mutual respect and dignity, in security and peace.

The most difficult challenge of our era, indeed of any era, is how we are to attain oneness in our interpersonal relationships, our communities, amongst different peoples, ethnicities, religions, and nations.

In the next week, we will learn whether the P5 + 1 nations and Iran will succeed in negotiating an agreement that brings about a dramatic reduction in Iran’s capacity to develop a nuclear bomb, and whether the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel and the peoples of the Middle East will be stilled.

Based on what we have been told is included in this agreement, even as we hear the Ayatollah’s bellicose rhetoric and “red lines” on top of Israeli and Congressional criticism and suspicion of this deal or any deal at all, there is obviously a vast difference of opinion amongst good, concerned and intelligent people about whether a successfully negotiated agreement is possible. If it is, the central questions are two: will the agreement be a harbinger of a more peaceful world, or will it be a subterfuge giving cover to Iran as it continues its march towards nuclear weapons capability.

We can only hope that the P5 + 1 advocates for an agreement are right that the deal will have enough teeth, investigative power and snap-back provisions to assure compliance and eliminate the threat of an Iranian bomb, and whether the principles established at Sinai are within reach in the real world of increasingly sectarian and tribal warfare.

The Reawakening to Love Again – A Memorial to Moshe Tabak

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Moshe Tabak was 90 years old when he died last week. Originally from Sigid, Czechoslovakia, he was the descendent of a distinguished line of chassidic Dayanim (scholars and judges) and was one of eleven children.

Moshe’s father was a wealthy land-owner in Czechoslovakia before the war, and so when the Nazis took over the country in 1939, he felt resistant to leave despite his wife’s urgent pleas. He reasoned that the bad times would pass and they should wait it out.

Tragically, he and almost all the family were murdered in Auschwitz, except Moshe, one older brother and a younger sister who survived work camps.

After the war at a port in Rumania, Moshe was waiting to board a Haganah boat that would take him and hundreds of refugees to Palestine. He was standing in a bread line when he spotted Miriam, a girl two years younger than him. Charmed, he reached out and offered her chocolate. Miriam remembers that Moshe was wearing a hat, had beautiful blue eyes and curly hair.

Once on board the ship, Moshe became sea-sick, and Miriam nursed him. They fell in love quickly and two years later, in 1947, they married in Palestine.

Theirs was a love-match from the beginning. Jewish legend relates that at creation each soul was split in two into what is called a palga gufa, a half-soul, and then each half moves through time and multiple lives in a sea of souls seeking its other half to become whole again.

Moshe and Miriam believed they had originally been one soul and that each was the other’s beshert, intended one – soul-mate. Their love was so deep and sustaining, they couldn’t imagine it otherwise.

Together Moshe and Miriam parented four children who in turn brought them nine grandchildren and then six great-grandchildren – L’dor vador.

Last summer, Moshe and Miriam, now living in Los Angeles and together for 70 years, aging and frail, moved in with their youngest daughter and son-in law, Debi and Ofer, and their four children Orly, Danielle, Aleeza, and Bradley, members of our congregation for many years. Their youngest two, twins, had been preparing to become bar and bat mitzvah yesterday on Shabbat Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32).

Sadly, we buried Moshe at 3 PM on Friday just before Shabbat. The family attended Kabbalat Shabbat services to say Kaddish. Tradition discourages public mourning on the Sabbath.

Yesterday morning, despite the family’s loss of its loving and gentle patriarch, convened to celebrate Aleeza’s and Bradley’s b’nai mitzvah.

My teacher and friend, Rabbi Larry Hoffman of HUC-JIR in NY, wrote a moving d’var Torah this week about the juxtaposition of death and life and how that theme played itself out in the rebellion of Korach and the subsequent sprouting of Aaron’s staff:

“Moses placed the staffs before God in the tent of the covenant law. The next day Moses entered the tent and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the tribe of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds.” (Numbers 17:7-8)

Rabbi Hoffman explained that the great shoot of promise exemplified in the buds, blossoms and almonds of Aaron’s priestly staff, is regenerative and always bends towards the sun. “Judaism elects that image,” Larry wrote as its preferred image, not the image of destruction, bitterness and negativity.

How true this has been in Moshe’s and Miriam’s family experience.

Moshe was a positive thinking man. He mourned the destruction of his family quietly, deeply, with reverence, and dignity, but he looked forward, started his life over (as did so many survivors of the Shoah), sought continually every day to rediscover the good in life and to celebrate it, showing love and being generous in spirit to all, taking sustenance from Jewish tradition and Jewish faith, and delighting in the joy of family.

An unknown poet has written:

“Four things are beautiful beyond belief:
The pleasant weakness that comes after pain,
The radiant greenness that comes after rain,
The deepened faith that follows after grief,
And the re-awakening to love again.”

Zecher tzadik livracha. May the memory of this righteous man, Moshe Tabak, be a blessing.

On “d”emocrats and Demagogues, Servant-leaders and Hubris – D’var Torah Korach

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According to the latest Rasmussen Report national telephone survey of American voters, just 12% of likely U.S. voters rate the job Congress does as good or excellent. That is little different from a month ago but slightly better than the 8% approval measured a year ago. Most voters (58%) think Congress is doing a poor job.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why this is so. The US Congress is dysfunctional because too many of our representatives refuse to compromise and find solutions to the nation’s many problems. They act instead according to the laws of the jungle and abide by the philosophy that ends justify means, might makes right, cynicism trumps hope, and power is an ultimate “good.”

There are, of course, many decent servant-leaders in Washington, D.C. and around the country who, despite formidable obstacles, seek to do well and work diligently on behalf of the common good.

This week’s Torah portion Korach considers both kinds of leaders as it tells the story of a major rebellion led by Korach and 250 Israelite leaders against Moses and Aaron.

Korach was Moses’ and Aaron’s first cousin (Exodus 6:18-21), a member of the priestly class and part of the ruling elite. The leaders around him are described as “Princes of the congregation, the elect men of the assembly, men of renown.” (Numbers 16:2) The Talmud says of them “that they had a name recognized in the whole world.” (Bavli, Sanhedrin 110a). These were not outside agitators or riff-raff. They were the ruling establishment.

Despite his elevated status, however, Korach and his close familial relationship with the Prophet Moses and High Priest Aaron, Korach wasn’t at all satisfied with his station. He challenged Aaron’s exclusive right to the priesthood, and his cohorts Dathan and Abiram questioned Moses’ leadership. Korach’s goal was to unseat the divinely chosen leaders, and he appealed to the people to overthrow them using religious language and espousing the importance of rotating leaders in office, all of whom he said were equally worthy.

“And they assembled themselves together against Moses and … Aaron, and said, ‘You [Moses and Aaron] take too much upon yourself, seeing that all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them.’”

In actuality, tradition says of Korach that he and his minions weren’t “democrats” (small “d”) at all; they were demagogues who manipulated and incited the masses for their narrow self-interests.

Rabbi Moshe Weiler, the founder of liberal Judaism in South Africa, has written:“Theirs [i.e. Korach and his cohorts] was the pursuit of kavod, honor and power, in the guise of sanctity and love of the masses.”

Onkolos (2nd century C.E.), in his Aramaic translation of the two opening words of the portion, Vayikach Korach (“And Korach took”) wrote It’peleg Korach (“And Korach separated himself”), suggesting that he didn’t consider himself to be one with the people nor was he interested in serving their interests.

Korach sought power for power’s sake and he ignited a controversy based on ignoble motivations and nefarious goals leading to the devastation of the community. In the end, the earth swallowed Korach and his rebel comrades alive and sent them to Sheol in a spectacular inferno. (Numbers 16:31-35)

Korach’s eish ha-mach’loket (“fire of controversy”) became an eish o-che-lah (“a devouring fire”) that augured doom.

“The Sayings of the Sages” (5:21) reflects upon Korach’s rebellion and distinguishes between two very different kinds of controversy. The first is healthy and useful, pursued for the sake of heaven (l’shem sha-ma-yim) that brings about blessing and a stronger community. The second is a pernicious fight not based on lasting values that brings about disunity and destruction. Hillel and Shammai (1st century BCE) embodied the former, and Korach and his legions the latter.

Korach was essentially a cynic. Moses was the opposite, the humble servant-leader.

Who are we? Do we resonate with the voice of Korach or the spirit of Moses?

Who are our leaders? Are they interested only in power or in the common good?

Rabbi Rachel Cowan opines that though every individual may, indeed, aspire to be like Moses, Korach lives within our hearts too.

In thinking about ourselves and our leaders, the words of Maimonides remind us of the importance of pursuing higher virtue: “The ideal public leader is one who holds seven attributes: wisdom, humility, reverence, loathing of money, love of truth, love of humanity, and a good name.” (Hilchot Sanhedrin 2:7)

Upon reading this my brother once asked me, “Do you know anyone in public service who measures up to this high standard?”

I responded, “Not quite – but every public servant ought to aspire to do so.”

Does the World Really Hate Israel and the Jews?

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The rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Europe, the fanatic Muslim extremism of Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, ISIS, and the Wahhabis, the cancerous spread of the International BDS movement, the political manipulation of people’s fears and hatred of the “other,” a double-standard when it comes to criticizing Israel that doesn’t make the same demands of other countries in similar conflicts, all are cited by Jews and Israelis as evidence that the world hates us.

Let’s assume for a moment that they are right. Why would the world hate us?

Perhaps, the resentment comes from the biblical story about which most everyone is familiar and in which the Jewish people is the original recipient of God’s promise.

Or perhaps, the hostility comes from our people’s rejection of the prophecies of the founders of Christianity and Islam whose adherents dominate so much of the planet.

Or perhaps, the story of the birth of Zionism and the state of Israel provokes dissonance in the minds of those who abide the myth that Judaism and the Jewish people ought to hold an inferior place relative to classic Christianity and Christians, Islam and Muslims.

For whatever the reason (and there are many), it’s true that the world pays inordinate attention to us Jews and the state of Israel. There are more foreign correspondents in Israel today than in any other country except the United States.

Why?

Years ago, Tom Friedman wrote:

“Quite simply, the West has a fascination and preoccupation with the story of Israel, a curiosity about it, an attraction and even an aversion to it that is out of all proportion to the nation’s size. And equally, Israel has an uncanny ability to inject itself into the news like no other country of four million people.” (“The Focus of Israel,” NY Times Magazine,  February 1, 1987)

Friedman characterized Israel’s story as “the oldest, most familiar super story of Western civilization” of which “The Bible is the First edition,” and it is that super story, he suggested, that drives people’s attitudes towards Jews and the state of Israel.

Does the world really hate us?

In a recent poll, 71% of Israelis think that the world has a double standard when it comes to criticizing Israel, and 69% of Israelis say that Israel’s current relationship with the world is either “not good” or “not so good.”

It’s true that the world uses a double standard to measure Israel’s behavior and policies; but, this doesn’t mean that the world is against us. Though other countries expect a higher level of behavior of Israel, so do Jews because Israel was created for that purpose of being a moral “light to the nations,” and even with its remarkable accomplishments in every area of human endeavor, we Jews by nature do not settle for what “is”; we are a people seeking redemption for ourselves and for the world.

I do not believe that the world is against us. Nor do I believe that the vast majority of the world’s population cares about Jews or the state of Israel one way or another, because for most countries Israel doesn’t affect their populations who are far more concerned with and worried about other matters.

Of those who do care a great deal about Israel, their main concern is the occupation and the settlements, and about whether Israel and the Palestinians will ever be able to find a secure, just, reasonable, end-of-conflict two-state resolution of their conflict.

The truth is this – never in Jewish history have there been as many powerful leaders of more nations allied with Israel as there are today, even when Israel’s leaders insult them.

Millions of French citizens of every ethnic and religious background marched in the streets of Paris after the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket terrorist attacks this past year. Those people were allied with Israel and the West. They were not against us, but we Jews who resonate more to headlines about those who hate us than to headlines about those who love us are quick to ignore statements of support and solidarity.

Yes, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and ISIS are serious threats to the safety and security of the people of Israel. Yes, the international BDS movement and criticism of Israel in the blogosphere that quickly devolves into anti-Semitic ranting and delegitimization of Israel’s existence must be taken seriously and combated. Yes, there will always be anti-Semites. Of course, we have to be diligent in stating the truth and in our self-defense. But diligence in defense of our interests does not mean painting the entire world with the same extremist brush.

Last week’s Torah portion Shlach L’cha told the story of the 12 scouts sent by Moses to spy out the land, and we were reminded that we cannot be led by fear and the mindset of the victim. We are not “grasshoppers.” Israel is by far the strongest and most secure nation in the Middle East. Israel holds most of the cards in the relationships it has with the Palestinians and its neighbors, and despite legitimate threats against her, we foolishly build a fortress around ourselves and let no one in because we think the world hates us. They don’t!

National Poll of American Jews on Iran Negotiations and The Forward’s Response to Adelson’s anti-BDS Campaign

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Two matters of vital interest to American Jewry and Israel:

1. J Street conducted a national poll of American Jewish support for Iran nuclear negotiations. American Jews are strongly in favor of the current negotiations with Iran and the P5 +2 going forward with proper inspection of all sites (including military sites) and provisions to reinstitute sanctions immediately upon Iranian violations of the agreement. See findings https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.jstreet.org/images/j-street-iran-poll-1-pager.pdf

See also this Times of Israel article on poll – “Most US Jews support Iran nuclear deal, J Street poll finds”, – http://www.timesofisrael.com/most-us-jews-support-iran-nuclear-deal-j-street-poll-finds/

“Overall, President Obama’s approval rating remains higher among American Jews than among Americans in general. Fifty-six percent approve of the way he is handling his job as president, compared to 45% of the general population, according to a calculation published by website Real Clear Politics from the same period.”

2. Wealthy Republican Right-Wing supporter of PM Netanyahu Sheldon Adelson is pouring money into fighting BDS on American college campuses. I am opposed to BDS, but we have to ask ‘Is Adelson’s money and approach good or bad in the fight against the BDS movement on college campuses?’ The Jewish Daily Forward editorial staff says it is not, and I agree with them.

See “The Wrong and Right Way to Beat BDS,” Jewish Forward
http://forward.com/opinion/editorial/309821/how-sheldon-adelson-could-really-fight-bds/?utm_source=feedly&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Main

“It’s hard to see what sort of productive role Sheldon Adelson can play in [fighting BDS],” writes the Forward editorial board. “But there is something that he can do. He can call his friend Benjamin Netanyahu and remind the prime minister that it is in his power to resurrect genuine negotiations with the Palestinians, repair his frayed relationship with the Obama administration and rescue Israel from growing international isolation. That might, indeed, save the day.”

From Grandparent to Child – Recording Memories

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Few of us know anything about our families beyond three or four generations going back. This is a sad deficit, and so in helping to prepare young people to become bar and bat mitzvah, my synagogue schools initiated a family legacy project to help our students and their parents record as much of the history of their families as is possible.

We asked them to search for historic family documents, photographs, family trees, recorded memories, memoirs, and ritual items. We also asked the students to choose an elderly individual to interview.

This is an important and fun task for children who gain a sense of and identity with these members of their families and a greater sense of their family history. There is also great satisfaction that the older members of our families take in relating their stories to future generations.

To aid our students in the interview, I developed a list of questions they could use. Since most grandparents love telling their grandchildren about their lives, all the students need to do is gently prod their elder’s memories and, if they are fortunate, the floodgates open.

Here is the list that I give to our prospective b’nai mitzvah:

1. To begin, please write down the names of everyone in your family: parents, siblings, children, grand-children, your grandparents, and great-grandparents – their names and approximate dates of birth and death, where they were born and where they died.

2. Can you tell me your own earliest memories growing up? How old were you and where were you when you had those memories?

3. Where were you born? Did you have brothers and sisters? How many of them had children and grandchildren? Do you know your Hebrew name?

4. Were you named after a relative? What kind of a person was your namesake?

5. How did you celebrate your birthday when you were growing up?

6. Were you a member of a synagogue when you were young? Where was your synagogue? Do you remember the name of your rabbi and/or cantor/chazzan, and what do you remember about them?

7. What did you do for fun as a child and as a teenager?

8. Who most significantly influenced your life when you were young? Who were your mentors, and what did you learn from them?

9. Did you feel “different” in your school, and if so how? How did you cope with feeling different?

10. What factors influenced your choice of profession, employment or way of spending your time?

11. How old were the oldest of your relatives that you remember when you were young, and when and where were they born?

12. What can you remember about your parents and grandparents that I might be interested in knowing? What were they like? What did they do for a living? What were their hobbies? Were they athletes, readers, writers, artists, musicians, scientists, doctors, nurses, lawyers, judges, business people, laborers, tradesmen, or teachers? What was the most important accomplishment they would say they achieved in their lives?

13. What important hardships and challenges did your grandparents and great-grandparents face?

14. What were they most proud of at the end of their lives?

15. What languages do you speak and what languages did your grandparents and great-grandparents speak?

16. What countries have you and did they live in?

17. Did you or they experience anti-Semitism? Were you or they survivors of the Holocaust? What can you tell me about yours or their experiences?

18. Were your parents and grandparents observant Jews? Do you believe in God, or, are you a skeptic or an atheist? What about your parents, grandparents and great-grandparents?

19. Are there any Jewish ritual items in your family that are very old? Do they have stories attached to them?

20. If one side of your family is of another faith tradition, what is that tradition and how did your grandparents and great-grandparents practice their religion? Were they part of a church community? If so, where and what was the name of the church and their pastor/priest? Are there ritual items that they have and are there stories attached to them?

21. Did you ever visit Israel? What do you feel about Israel as the national home of the Jewish people?

22. Did you travel much in your life? Where have you been? When did you go there?

23. What world events most influenced your life, the lives of your parents and grandparents?

24. How would you want to be remembered by me?

Question for interviewee: What characteristics and virtues of the person you are interviewing do you most admire?

J’accuse! Social Media and Moral Culpability

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I follow the principle that unless I’m prepared to have reported what I say and write on the front page of the New York Times, I keep my mouth shut.

Too many people, however, think little about the consequences of what they write on the internet. They use social media without discretion and without a sense of responsibility for the negative consequences on others when they vent their rage, disappointment, irritation, frustration, and disagreement.

In Israel last week, an Israeli government bureaucrat was accused of racism on Facebook. The accuser is an African American woman who made aliyah years ago. She entered a government office with her children to arrange for passports, claimed she was rudely shunted aside by the clerk and not treated as other women with children were treated in the office. She said that the government clerk, 47-year-old Ariel Runis, “told me that if I was complaining about discrimination, I should ‘Get the heck out of his face.’” (Haaretz, May 26).

Enraged by the perceived slight, she went home and posted on Facebook that Runis treated her badly because of the color of her skin. Her post spread quickly and grabbed more than 6000 “likes.” News sources picked up the story without fact-checking and ran it. It became a national story.

Mr. Runis was attacked widely throughout the state of Israel in an already charged racial environment following alleged racist police brutality against Ethiopian Jews and PM Netanyahu’s election campaign against Arab-Israeli citizens.

Runis’ description of the incident is very different from that of the offended woman. He said she had refused to wait in line, demanded special treatment and wanted to push ahead of other mothers with children who were quietly waiting their turn. He denied that his treatment of her had anything to do with the color of her skin.

Runis was humiliated and shamed by the accusation that he was a “racist,” said that his life’s work, including personal activism on behalf of social equality and justice, had been “erased with one stroke.”

The Facebook slander of his character and the media extravaganza pushed him over the edge. He shot himself in the head.

Runis’ suicide could not have been caused only by the public shame he suffered. Other inner demons had to have played their part in his psychology. However, one cannot deny the damage done to his reputation and the public humiliation he suffered by this woman’s Facebook post.

Fundamental ethical questions about responsibility in this case have to be asked. Who is responsible?

Runis himself ? Of course.

The woman?  Yes.

Facebook? Yes.

The media in its 24/7 news-frenzy and rush to get the story first? Yes.

Everyone who read the Facebook post, forwarded it and commented on it? Probably.

It’s my conviction, and I believe backed up by Jewish tradition, that all the above are morally responsible in this case.

Jewish tradition has much to say about the ethics of gossip (l’shon hara – lit. evil tongue) and slander (r’chilut), comparing l’shon ha-ra to the three cardinal sins of murder, adultery and idol worship, the commission of which prevents perpetrators a place in the world to come. (Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 15b).

Tradition also warns that the people who listen to gossip are considered worse even than the person who tells it because no harm could be done by gossip if no one listened to it. The Talmud says that l’shon ha-ra kills three people: the person who speaks it, the person who hears it, and the person about whom it is told. (Ibid.)

Yes – social media has a positive function in our society, but social media is a potentially dangerous weapon in the hands of irresponsible and self-centered individuals who think little of or care little about destructive consequences to other human beings.

I’m reminded of the young yeshiva bucher who told tales about his classmates, was called into the rebbe’s study who instructed the boy to take a pillow, climb a hill, cut the pillow, release the feathers into the wind, and then return to the rebbe for further instructions. When the boy completed the task and returned his rebbe told him to collect every single feather, return it to the pillow and report back to him.

The boy said, “I can’t do that Rebbe!”

His rebbe said: “So too you must guard your words, for once you speak them you can never get them back!”

This tragic incident in Israel shows how important it is for us to hold our tongues and remember that if we don’t want what we say and write to appear on the front page of the New York Times, then we must be silent less we shame others publicly and destroy their good name.

Threats Against the Jewish people in Europe and America

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I refer you to three important articles that raise questions and challenges concerning Jewish well-being in Europe and America.

The first is a provocative piece that appeared in The Huffington Post that recalls the classic Jewish fear that we are an “ever-dying people,” yet it shines a light on the specific challenges facing liberal American Jews today on the one hand as well as the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of America on the other.

The second is an investigative report in The Atlantic on the rise in anti-Semitism in Europe and what might be the future of Europe’s remaining Jews.

The third is a short op-ed that appeared in New York’s The Jewish Week, concerning the attack on American Progressive Zionists by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). My predecessor at Temple Israel of Hollywood, Rabbi Max Nussbaum (z’l), served in the 1950s as the President of the ZOA. He was a German refugee, a prominent Zionist and social activist, and, as his widow Ruth told me several years ago before she died at the age of 98, her husband Max would have been appalled had he lived to witness the behavior of the current leadership of the ZOA in its brazen slander against progressive American Zionists leaders.

Historically, we Jews often have been contentious with each other, but when threatened, we have usually pulled together as one. Not so today, it seems.

The threats today against the Jewish people, Judaism and the state of Israel are coming from a number of different places, including the international BDS movement, Islamic anti-Semites, classic European anti-Semites, terrorism, and Iran.

Internally we’re threatened by assimilation, Jewish ignorance and passivity, the Israeli settler movement and its supporters in the new Israeli government, and a lack of resolve to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

These articles are likely to disturb, as well they should!

1. Bad for the Jews, Bad for AmericaHuffington Post – Sandy Goodman (retired producer for the NBC Nightly News), May 26, 2015
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sandy-goodman/bad-for-the-jews-bad-for-america_b_7425212.html

“The American Jewish community is coming apart at the seams. Its vital center is collapsing, and the entire group is increasingly polarized by runaway growth at both extremes: religious fundamentalism on one end, secular non-belief on the other. The result is not only bad for the Jews, but bad for the rest of America.”

2. Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe? The Atlantic – Jeffrey Goldberg, April 2015
http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/03/is-it-time-for-the-jews-to-leave-europe/386279/

“For half a century, memories of the Holocaust limited anti-Semitism on the Continent. That period has ended—the recent fatal attacks in Paris and Copenhagen are merely the latest examples of rising violence against Jews. Renewed vitriol among right-wing fascists and new threats from radicalized Islamists have created a crisis, confronting Jews with an agonizing choice.”

3. ZOA Has Gone Too Far in Criticizing Progressive Zionists The Jewish Week – Kenneth Bob and Gideon Aronoff – May 22, 2015
http://www.thejewishweek.com/editorial-opinion/opinion/zoa-has-gone-too-far-criticizing-progressive-zionists

“The Hatikvah Slate [the Progressive Zionist slate in the World Zionist Congress Elections] – Ameinu, Partners for Progressive Israel (PPI), and the Zionist youth movements Habonim Dror and Hashomer Hatzair – have and will continue to actively oppose the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. But we were forced to waste over four months and significant financial and human resources defending ourselves from distortions by ZOA and others aimed to expel progressive Zionists from the Zionist movement and to limit use of the eternal symbols of Zionism, like the name Hatikvah, solely to the Zionist right.

Instead of fair competition for the hearts, minds and votes of Zionists, ZOA acts to defame committed supporters of Israel, and progressive Israelis who are working to defend their country’s future. Ultimately, the ZOA’s hostile and distorted rhetoric and attacks on progressive Zionists, threaten the unity of the Jewish community and its collective effort to support for the State of Israel.  During dangerous and challenging times like today, this is a cost that the Jewish community and Israel simply cannot afford.”

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