An Antidote For These Disturbing Times

I offer this d’var Torah at the end of a week that for me has been exceptionally disturbing in the wake of the President’s dishonesty, self-centered heartlessness and bullying tactics along with the Republican congressional leadership’s efforts to make good on its promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, rather than correct its problems, and thus take health insurance from twenty-four million poor and older Americans over the course of the next decade.

I have found myself these past eighteen months since the presidential campaign began and especially since 11/8 and 1/20 to be in constant need of a mental, emotional, and spiritual corrective to the corrosive spirit that has taken over so much of this country.

Learning Torah has always been for me such a corrective endeavor. And so, I offer here an edited d’var Torah that I posted originally three years ago concerning Betzalel, the master architect and builder of the Tabernacle.

God instructed Moses to choose Betzalel to design and build the Tabernacle that would carry the tablets of the law (Exodus 38:22-39:31). On the face of it, these verses describe a matter-of-fact building of a physical edifice. But this isn’t merely an architectural plan for an ancient structure. It’s a description of the highest aesthetic vision of the ancient Israelites that would impress itself upon the hearts, minds, and souls of generations of Jews to come.

Not just any craftsman could design and build this sacred structure. Only someone with extraordinary qualities of heart, mind, spirit, and skill could do the job.

We learn that Betzalel was endowed with wisdom (chochmah), insight (binah), and understanding (da-at). Rashi suggests that chochmah refers to the wisdom we learn from others; binah is the understanding we acquire from life experience; da-at is mystical intuition.

Though Betzalel was apparently the right choice, God asked Moses if he himself believed that Betzalel was suited to perform this sacred task. Moses replied: “Master of the universe! If You consider him suitable, then surely I do!” Not yet satisfied, God instructed Moses: “Go and ask Israel if they approve of my choice of Betzalel.”

Moses did so and the people replied: “If Betzalel is judged good enough by God and by you, surely he is approved by us, too.”

The rabbis emphasized that Betzalel was not only God’s and Moses’ choice but the people’s choice.

This simple story of Betzalel’s selection teaches that Judaism regards a person’s devotion to God, Torah, and the people of Israel to be the key virtues of a Jewish artist.

Mark Chagall went further when he wrote: “The artist must penetrate into the world, feel the fate of human beings, of peoples, with real love. There is no art for art’s sake. One must be interested in the entire realm of life.”

The story of Betzalel and the commentary that was written over time are reminders that each one of us, the artist and non-artist, ought to train ourselves to continuously direct one of our eyes heavenward and direct the other eye upon human affairs thereby drawing us nearer to one another in love and support and to the cosmic core of the universe.

This is an orientation that can serve each of us well and, I suggest, can help direct the leadership of our country to fulfill the higher purposes towards which American democracy has sought to fulfill.

Shabbat shalom.

What do Nations Need More – The Leadership of a Prophet or a Priest?

President Obama once said that the difference between him and Martin Luther King was that King was an inspirational prophetic leader and he, Obama, was a political leader. In biblical and rabbinic terms the Obama model compares with the functions of the priesthood that lead the earthly institution of the Temple’s sacrificial cult. After the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple by Rome in 70 C.E., the rabbinic class replaced the priesthood as the institutional and legal authority.

This week’s Torah portion Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10) shines a light on these two modes of leadership and it’s all about Aaron and not Moses. Thirty times Aaron’s name appears. Moses is virtually absent except for three inferences.

Commentators explained Moses’ absence in a number of ways. One Midrash reminds us that God was preparing to destroy the people after the incident of the golden calf.

If God was to be so consumed by righteous rage and indignation to destroy the people, then Moses told God to destroy him too and to remove his name from the “Book.” Moses couldn’t conceive of his life without his people.

Stunned, God asked: “Moses, my beloved prophet, could you really stand to have your name taken out of this Book?”

“Yes,” Moses said “if it means saving my people.”

So God took Moses’ name out of this parashah to test the prophet’s humility and sincerity. Moses passed the test and God forgave the people of their greatest sin.

The parashah shines a light on the differences in two leadership styles as exemplified by Moses and Aaron.

Moses was the charismatic prophet – Aaron the institution-bound High Priest.

Moses needed no special clothing as the leader to reflect his authority – Aaron wore the “sacral vestments” as a visible sign of the dignity of his office.

Moses was willing to challenge God – Aaron would never do so. Instead, Aaron was encumbered by institutional and traditional constraints.

Moses broke new ground, met God on the mountain, forged a new world based upon a vision that was yet to be created – Aaron was contained, measured, conservative, and conventional.

Moses was dramatic and he defied custom – Aaron’s world changed slowly if at all.

Moses created a legal system from scratch – Aaron shunned disorder and chaos choosing instead to follow in detail what had been passed along to him.

Moses’ effect was inspirational revealing a soul that reached for the stars and communed with God. There was no one like him before, then, or since.

The question I’ve been pondering in light of this week’s Torah reading that contains no direct mention of Moses’ name, and in light of the vagaries inherent in the Trump era is this: What do people and nations need more – The prophet or the priest?

If truth be told we need both but in delicate balance.

Without Moses’ prophetic zeal there would be no vision nor any hope for an inspired, just, compassionate, and peaceful world.

Without Aaron, there would be little stability and order. Without law, humankind would succumb to the worst excesses of evil, avarice, greed, and selfishness.

The three times God addresses Moses by inference in this portion offer additional insight into what makes for wise leadership.

The first says: “V’atah t’zaveh et b’nai Yisrael… – You shall command the children of Israel…” (Exodus 27:20)

We need strong leaders to be confident enough to take command when necessary. However, a wise leader does not engage constantly and at every opportunity.

The second says: “V’atah hakrev eleicha et Aharon achicha v’et banav ito mitoch b’nei Yisrael l’chahano li… – You shall bring close to you Aaron your brother and his sons with you into the midst of the children of Israel…” (Exodus 28:1)

We need leaders that understand that they cannot effectively lead alone. A wise leader does tzimzum, contracts within oneself enough to allow others to step forward and lead as partners. Such a leader delegates authority to those who have expertise.

The third says: “V’atah t’dabeir et kol chochmei lev asher mileitiv ruach chocham… – And you shall speak to all those wise in heart and filled with the spirit of wisdom…” (Exodus 28:3).

The wise leader presumes that others too are wise.

Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership styles taken together include the virtues of vision, wisdom, humility, moral rectitude, a love of truth, a love of humanity, and a respect for the dignity of every human being.

The reason that the Trump era is so confusing is because the President is not a prophet because he is incapable of transcending himself and empathizing with the “other.”

Nor is he a priest because he can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction, and he is utterly unfamiliar with and not curious about learning the rules of the game and how the government actually works.

So, what do we citizens do?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the civil rights movement of the 1960s gave the American liberal Jewish community its moral voice.

Is this not what is now occurring not only for the Jewish community but for all reasonable people (regardless of political party) of all faiths, cultures, races, national backgrounds, and gender identities?

This engaged moral activism that we are seeing everywhere offers me both comfort and hope. This will have to suffice for now.

Shabbat shalom.

“No human being is illegal!” – Elie Wiesel

In 1987 my wife Barbara was a member of the Board of CARECEN, the Central American Refugee Center in Washington, D.C. CARECEN was a significant activist organization helping to change American foreign policy vis a vis political asylum requests from El Salvadoran refugees fleeing the “Death Squads.” This band of murderers was killing leftists, labor union leaders, intellectuals, and Catholics (recall the murder of the four American nuns found on a road by US Ambassador Bob White under President Jimmy Carter).

President Reagan’s first act upon assuming office was to fire Ambassador White who had called  Roberto D’Aubuisson a “pathological killer.” D’Aubuisson was an El Salvadoran soldier, an extreme right-wing politician and the leader of the death-squads. He was named by the UN-created Truth Commission for El Salvador as having ordered the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero in 1980.

Reagan’s firing of Bob White was not one of Reagan’s most shining moments. Those who remember, Reagan didn’t realize that every country in Central and South America was different!

The Reagan Administration had close ties with the El Salvadoran government and was not interested in publicly acknowledging that massive human rights abuses were being committed and countenanced.

Barbara was asked by the Director of CARECEN (she was the only Jew on the national board) to make contact with Elie Wiesel and try and engage him in this effort on behalf of El Salvadoran asylum seekers. Barbara succeeded in doing so and Wiesel made this now famous statement in the context of the El Salvadoran controversy – “No human being is illegal!”

The saying became the brand of CARACEN’s campaign on behalf of these refugees.

Given Trump’s immigrant ban and antipathy to Muslims, Elie Wiesel’s comment is as current as ever.

A two-state solution: The only pragmatic path forward

Rabbi Josh Weinberg (President of ARZA) and I (National ARZA Chair) published together an op-ed in The Jerusalem Post entitled “A two-state solution: The only pragmatic path forward” (March 6, 2017) in response to President Trump’s apparent backing away from long-held American policy supporting a two-states for two peoples resolution of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

We express our worries as well that Prime Minister Netanyahu also seems to be backing away from the two-state solution.

see –

The “Silver Lining” of Donald Trump

The Israeli columnist Chemi Shalev of Haaretz describes the “positive revolution across America” that has been sparked by Donald Trump in his piece “Ten Ways Donald Trump Has Already Made America – and the World – Great Again.” (March 5 -see link below).

We Jews have always been positive thinkers, and so here is a positive spin on this most disturbing era in our nation’s most recent history.

Shalev opines:

  1. Trump has made people aware just how fragile and vulnerable America’s constitutional freedoms can be. ..
  1. Trump has injected new life into the American left…
  1. Trump has shaken the Jewish community to its core …
  1. Trump is a catalyzer for solidarity and brotherhood/sisterhood among Jews from the right and the left….
  1. Trump has been a miracle worker for the free press and the journalistic profession, …
  1. Trump has revitalized the careers of late night shows, hosts and comedians, including Saturday Night Live, Samantha Bee and The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, and saved Stephen Colbert from slowly suffocating in the previously unbearable nothingness of late night puff interviews…
  1. Trump has done wonders to generate new support for the much-maligned Affordable Care Act and renewed respect for its creator, Barack Obama, and rehabilitated the image of past presidents, especially George W Bush…
  1. Trump has exposed the American right wing’s most significant feature: rank hypocrisy…
  1. Trump has cured many people around the world of any inferiority complexes they may have had toward America by proving that the U.S. can be just as stupid, reactionary and retrograde as anyone else…
  1. Trump has sparked a new wave of patriotism across the globe as people come to appreciate what they have at home more than ever before and to renew esteem for international institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union.

An Arab lawmaker imagines a utopian Israeli-Palestinian state and himself as Prime Minister

There are increasingly more people who are giving up on a two states for two peoples resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and are, instead, supporting a one state democracy that stretches from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

In my view, this represents for the Jewish people a defeat of historic proportions.

The State of Israel was founded on the basis of it being a Jewish state that is democratic in character and affirms the principles of justice and equality for all its citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike.

As time passes and the Jewish settlement enterprise continues and as the status quo is maintained a one-state reality becomes more probable. If that is the end result, the question remains as to what kind of state it will become.

The Arab and Jewish populations between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea including Gaza are nearly equivalent (5.5 million Israeli Jews and 5.5 million Arabs of which only 1.5 million are Israeli citizens and the remainder live under occupation in the West Bank or are ruled by Hamas in the Gaza Strip).

There are essentially three options:

  1. Two states for two peoples (Israel and Palestine) with established borders, Jerusalem as a shared capital, Palestinian refugees enjoying the right of return to Palestine and not Israel, Palestinian acceptance of the legitimacy of the Jewish state of Israel and Israeli acceptance of the legitimacy of the State of Palestinian, and assured security;
  2. A one-state democracy in which all citizens share equal rights including the right to vote in national elections and to serve at the highest levels of government;
  3. A one-state undemocratic Jewish State of Israel in which Arab citizens do not share equal rights with Israeli Jews.

The first option preserves the Jewish and the democratic State of Israel.

The second represents the end of Zionism.

The third ushers in a new form of Apartheid in which Israel ceases to be a democracy and risks further international isolation, the weakening of the American-Israeli relationship, and the alienation of large segments of world Jewry from Israel.

Yesterday (March 2, 2017) in the Israeli daily Haaretz there appeared an interview with Member of the Knesset Ahmed Tibi (of the Arab List). The interview offers a realistic glimpse into what a one-state non-Jewish democracy might look like (see link to article below)

A few highlights of Mr. Tibi’s comments:

“I belong to those who support the two-state vision, have fought for it and continue to fight for it. I think it’s the optimal solution for the existing situation. The international community wants it and the majority on both sides wants it, even though that majority is diminishing according to the surveys I see, among both Palestinians and Israelis. And with 620,000 settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and two separate judicial systems, there’s a reality today of one state with rolling apartheid.” …

[In a one-state solution] We will annul the [Israeli] Declaration of Independence and in its place write a civil declaration that represents all citizens: Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze. The entire public. It’s untenable for a democratic state to have a declaration of independence that is fundamentally Jewish.” …

“That [the Jewish right of return] would automatically be annulled because the country would no longer be a Jewish state as it is today. The single state will not resemble the present-day State of Israel. It will be something different. Why should Jews be able to return here and Palestinians not?” …

“…With one, equal state, the State of Israel in its present format will not exist. All its symbols will change, and the narrative will be different. The unifying element in one state will be different from what it is today because it will be a state of everyone, not a state of the Jewish collectivity in which there is a tolerated minority that is thrown a bone in the form of gestures like new roads and the establishment of well-baby clinics. In an equal, single state, equality is a supreme value.”

Those who support the status quo in effect are supporting option #3.

According to  American Middle East envoy Martin Indyk who spoke at the recent J Street National Conference in Washington, D.C., the status quo might seem to be sustainable in the short term, but in the long term “there will be an explosion.”

If that happens, the dream of the founding generation of the State of Israel will be lost.




Friedman’s ‘kapo’ comment should disqualify him as ambassador to Israel” – Dr. Charles Gati

Earlier this week, I was asked to participate with two others in a press conference in Washington, D.C. on behalf of J Street which was convening in its 6th Annual National Conference.

I joined Dr. Charles Gati, Senior Research Professor of European and Eurasian Studies of Johns Hopkins SAI, a former state department consultant and Holocaust survivor, and Dylan Williams, Vice President of Government Affairs for J Street. I was asked as a former co-chair of the Rabbinic Cabinet of J Street and now as the national chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

We were being questioned about President Trump’s nomination of David Friedman to be the next United States Ambassador to Israel. All three of us were strongly opposed to the nomination.

We oppose Friedman because of his long-standing support of the settlement enterprise, his public opposition to the two-state solution, and his assaults against large segments of the American Jewish community that support the two states for two people’s resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We said that Friedman’s policy positions run counter to the long-held positions of every American President in the last 25 years who have supported the two-state solution, his slander of J Street supporters as “worse than kapos,” his charge that the ADL is led by a bunch of “morons,” and that President Obama and Secretary Kerry are anti-Israel and anti-Semites.

These positions and statements ought to disqualify Friedman’s appointment to any position in the government, let alone as the chief American diplomat in one of the most sensitive regions in the world.

I was asked by Al Jazeera English whether or not I accepted Friedman’s statements at his Senate hearing in which he recanted virtually every position he ever held and every statement he ever made vis a vis Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I said that I do not accept anything he said in the hearings as reflective of his true beliefs and as an indication of how he would conduct himself should he be confirmed by the Senate in the next few days.

In particular, I was moved by Dr. Charles Gati. He was ten years old when the Nazis invaded Budapest in 1944 and ordered the expulsion and murder of all that city’s Jews. Charles was spared being shot and thrown into the Danube River due to pure luck.

His opposition to Friedman was based not only on his policy positions and ill-temperament but because Friedman showed how woefully ignorant he is of Jewish history and the history of the Holocaust when he callously used the word “kapo” to describe J Street supporters.

After hearing Dr. Gati, I told him and Dylan Williams that meetings ought to be arranged this week one-on-one between Charles and every reasonable Republican Senator. I am certain that Charles would persuade any reasonable leader to oppose this nomination.

Read:  Friedman’s ‘kapo’ comment should disqualify him as ambassador to Israel, The Hill

Bibi’s Failure to Relate to the Fears of American Jews

As anti-Semitic incidents have increased dramatically since the election of Donald Trump as President, not only has Trump failed (until this week) to address the escalation of anti-Semitic hatred in the alt-right wing of his political base but so too has Prime Minister Netanyahu failed to relate to American Jewish fears.

In his recent visit to the White House, the Prime Minister tried to reassure  American Jews that because Donald Trump is his old friend and he knows that he is not an anti-Semite  that we American Jews have nothing to worry about.

It seems to me that Bibi has had a choice and that he picked wrong. Either as the Israeli Prime Minister, he could take the position that anti-Semitism in the United States is an internal American affair and that he’d be wise to give no response to it in order not to offend the thin-skinned President by calling him out to speak against the haters who helped elect him. Or, as the Prime Minister of Israel, he has the responsibility to be concerned about the safety of the Jewish people everywhere in the world.

The truth is that at almost every opportunity in the past, Bibi has called out anti-Semitism everywhere it occurs, especially when it’s committed by Muslims. He has utterly failed to do so here in the United States.

Yes – we American Jews can take care of ourselves, but the Prime Minister ought to be saying publicly that he’s concerned about us and the rise in anti-Semitic attacks against Jewish community centers, synagogues, and cemeteries. Netanyahu’s refusal to do so has had the effect of white-washing Trump’s support of the alt-right’s extremism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

I am worried that the Prime Minister has so dramatically failed to publicly relate to the fears of American Jews. Mr. Netanyahu seems only to be concerned about right-wing American Jews and the evangelical Christian community while ignoring the 70% of American Jews who supported Hillary Clinton.

Just as the American Jewish community needs to maintain its non-partisan support of the State of Israel, so too ought the Israeli Prime Minister support the needs and fears of all American Jews.

Note: I speak as an individual and do not claim to represent my synagogue or any other organization.

An Urgent Message from Anat Hoffman – Chair of “Women of the Wall”

I am forwarding to you this message from Anat Hoffman:
We want to call your attention to an immediate danger facing Women of the Wall.
An extremist group, Liba, has created a video that went viral this week. In a mere 3 minutes, Liba incites rancor against any form of pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall [in Jerusalem]. The video boldly shows scenes of past violence against Women of the Wall.
“The Kotel is the heart of the nation, and you don’t divide a heart,” reads the title.
The video, along with thousands of posters hung in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, implores people, especially ultra-Orthodox teens from yeshivas and seminaries, to come en masse to the Western Wall on Monday, February 27. The plan is to overwhelm and distract Women of the Wall during the monthly Rosh Hodesh Adar prayer service.
It is written on the posters:
“This coming Monday at 7 AM, cults as dangerous as a cancer at the heart of our faithful Jewish nation will be gathering at the Kotel to dig their talons into the holy site and trample with brazen contempt and the Holy Torah.”
Click here to watch the video:
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Women of the Wall has stood, for 28 years, at the forefront of the battle for freedom of worship in the holiest place for all Jews. This is the time for us to stand together, united to defeat the powers of intolerance.