A Soft Murmuring Sound

[My photo in Carpentaria, California overlooking the Pacific – morning]

This summer Barbara and I rented a house for a week in Carpentaria, California. The house was at the top of the mountain over-looking the Pacific. I was moved not only by the glorious view but by the solitude of the site. There were no homes nearby and no traffic. Avocado and orange tree groves spread out in every direction. The serene stillness of the silence was punctuated only occasionally by the horns and bells of a train as it moved through the town that connected Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

I’ve always had sensitive ears. I cringe at loud cacophony. My tastes in music are the classics and jazz. I prefer the mellifluous to the abrasive.

Sitting outside each morning before others awoke, I listened to the sound of my breathing, reassuring myself about who I am, from whence I’ve come, and Who is my Creator.

I thank my late colleague, Rabbi Levi Meir, for sharing with me many years ago his translation of an essay by Dr. Adolf Altmann, the late Chief Rabbi of the town of Trier, Germany in 1928, on the significance of the sense of hearing.

Rabbi Altmann concluded that the command “Sh’ma Yisrael – Listen, O Israel” which appears in this week’s Torah portion Va-etchanan, is more than a call for attention.  He explained that something deeper occurs when we proclaim the supreme watchword of Jewish faith.

Rabbi Altmann noted that the command “Sh’ma!” is an appeal to one of the senses, that the keenest perception of all embraces thought and the sensory experience of hearing. He said that hearing is the only sense through which God revealed It’s divinity to the Israelites directly.

Why hearing? Why not touch, sight, taste, or smell? Altmann wrote that among the five senses the tonal stands nearest to the purely spiritual reflecting tradition’s understanding of hearing as the best medium of sensory revelation, the most easily amplified into the infinite. Mozart understood as well that hearing is the means through which sense and spirit touch and the corporeal and incorporeal are joined.

Jewish mystics speak of the religious seeker’s goal of hitbodedut (communion with God), of reaching outward and inward to that moment of meeting when God hears the stirring of the soul reaching out and we hear God’s voice as if, per Heschel, reaching out to us. The prophet Elijah experienced the divine voice as a kol d’mama daka, a soft murmuring sound (1 Kings 19:12), like a baby’s breath, or like air passing quietly through the lips. In that moment of God-hearing, Israel is aware of divine unity.

Judaism understands that each mitzvah (commandment) is a living transference of God’s voice that once sounded to Israel at Sinai. Every word and letter in Torah is the encasing vessel of God’s holy sparks, flashes of light rediscovered as they are heard in the ears of every generation.

Rabbi Leo Baeck taught that in encountering the God of Israel, the Jew discovers the mystery and the commandment. Thus, the mitzvot are the spiritual and ethical links when the metaphysical and the moral join.

Rabbi Altmann wrote:

“Through the silent walls of hard prison cells hear the sighs, Israel; out of the lonely huts of deserted widows and orphans, from the bed of pain of the sick and suffering, from the quietly restrained anguish of the rejected and disenfranchised; from the mute looks of the timid and sorrow-laden, from the pale lips of the starving and needy, you, Jew, shall hear the cries of pain, without their having to be emitted. The cry of the suffering is the cry of God, which emanates from them to you. As the Psalmist lets God speak: ‘With the oppressed, I am one in suffering.’ (Psalm 91:15)”

We say the Sh’ma and understand its spiritual power and ethical obligation to become witnesses to God in the world. It isn’t an accident that the two enlarged letters of the Sh’ma (the ayin and daled) spell “witness.”

The silence I experienced on a Carpentaria mountain; the murmuring sound  in every life-breath; the God-filled words of Torah; the screams of human suffering – all command our attention as if we are standing with our people at Mount Sinai.

Shabbat Shalom.




Despair and Hope: The Challenges of Tish’a b’Av

[My photo: Ruins of the Second Temple destroyed by Rome in 70 CE]

One of the least commemorated holydays in the Jewish calendar cycle is commemorated today (Sunday, July 22, 2018), Tisha b’Av (i.e. the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av), the day marking the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem (586 BCE by the Babylonians and 70 CE by Rome).

Each destruction was traumatic in the ancient Jewish world. Historical documents record that blood flowed like a river through the streets of Jerusalem that the survivors became slaves to the conquerors and that God was driven into exile with the people.

Beyond the geopolitics of those horrific events, sages of later centuries linked the two destructions to the Jewish people’s behavior.

Following the first destruction, they explained mip’nei cha-ta-einu gi-li-nu m’ar-tzei-nu (“because of our sins we were exiled from our land”). The prophets identified particular sins as the cause including the perversion of justice, the disregard for the needs of the widow, orphan and stranger, and the worship of the false gods of profit and materialism.

Following the second destruction, the rabbis of the Talmud explained mip’nei sinat chi-nam gi-li-nu m’ar-tzei-nu (“Because of gratuitous hatred [of one Jew for another] we were exiled from our land”).

Over the centuries Tisha b’Av became a day of national mourning for the Jewish people. For modern Jews, focusing on the sins of the people as the first cause of the destruction raises difficult theological and moral problems after the Holocaust. Yet, even if we believe we are individually and collectively innocent of the oppressive and hard-hearted conditions that characterize our era, Rabbi Heschel reminds us that “some are guilty, but all are responsible” and that as witnesses to those social ills we must act out of duty and a sense of justice.

For modern Jews as well, gratuitous hatred of one Jew for another is a trend that ought to disturb all who value the unity of the Jewish people.

The traditionally ascribed causes of the destruction of the first and second Temples remain extant today, and thus Tisha b’Av has modern relevance and meaning. This Holyday is a veritable warning of how history can be repeated if we aren’t vigilant in our advocacy of justice on the one hand and love of the Jewish people despite our differences on the other.

Towards the end of the day, during the Minchah afternoon service, the mood of Tisha B’Av abruptly changes. At that hour, tradition teaches, the Messiah will be born. Thus, our mourning is transformed into celebration and our dejection is converted into anticipation of reunification with God and our people.

Though national in character, Tisha b’Av also has a personal corollary and application. Rose Kennedy lost four of her children during her lifetime. She taught them, as recalled by Ted Kennedy in his memoir True Compass, the following:

“The birds will sing when the storm is over; the rose must know the thorn; the valley makes the mountain tall.”









I am posting this letter by Rabbi Dow Marmur, the emeritus Rabbi at Holy Blossom Synagogue in Toronto and a past President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Rabbi Marmur resides in Jerusalem and writes regularly to a select group of his friends.

This piece is incisive and insightful about the Israeli Prime Minister and what may have been behind both the Nation-State Law and the Surrogacy Law that passed the Knesset this week. It is worth reading and sharing with people whom you think will care.

  There’s no date for the next general election in Israel but the prime minister is already campaigning at full speed. Three most current instances come to mind,

  1. He has promoted legislation, just passed, that will prove that he and his party are the only authentic custodians of the Zionist idea. All who oppose him are extreme leftist post-Zionists bent on self-destruction. There’s reason to fear that many Israelis will believe him.

              That’s behind the new law that proclaims the obvious in a new and ominous context that Israel is a Jewish state. It promotes Jewish settlements everywhere where, at best, Israel’s two million Arab citizens may be tolerated. (The original draft wanted explicitly to segregate them). Arabic will no longer be one of Israel’s two official languages beside Hebrew but only a preferred one. It has thus been de facto downgraded. No wonder Arab leaders in Israel invoke the apartheid accusation.

              All this will please right-wing voters and force their opponents to “prove” that they, too, are good Jews and Zionists, something that hitherto the Israeli public may have taken for granted.

              Even members of Netanyahu’s own Likud Party have expressed discomfort, among them President Reuven Rivlin and Member of Knesset Binyamin Begin, the son of the late prime minister. They’re liberal nationalists and they seem to sense what many of us have come to fear: the “democratic” in the notion of Israel as a Jewish democratic state is being ominously eroded.

  1. Another instance of pre-election manipulation: Prime Minister Netanyahu withdrew his support for gay couples to have children through surrogacy. Only single women who cannot bear children would be allowed to “carry out a surrogacy procedure in Israel.” This should show that you don’t have to vote for one of the Orthodox political parties: Likud will deliver the anti-gay goods.
  2. And then there’s the visit by Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary who has managed to thwart democracy in his country and thus endeared himself to his Israeli counterpart: Netanyahu thanked Orban for defending Israel in Europe.

              Some Israelis made a feeble attempt to stage a protest when Orban visited Yad Vashem but that wouldn’t have marred the joy for the guest when visiting the memorial to the Jewish victims.

              The affection for this anti-Semite is consistent with the tacit support that Netanyahu has given to the current government in Poland which, according to the views of respected experts, amounts to a form of Holocaust denial.

              Part of Netanyahu’s self-image as presented to Israelis is that he’s not only a brilliant leader of his country but also a player on the world stage. His dealings with Hungary and Poland are part of the effort to join forces with “trusted” members of the European Union. For similar reasons, Israel’s prime minister is also said to have told his party faithful that it was he who got Trump to take action against Iran. He wouldn’t be the first Jew in history with Messianic ambitions.

              Mrs. Netanyahu has been quoted recently to say that had her husband been an American he would have been president of the United States. After Trump, anything is possible.

Jerusalem 20.7.18                                                                                                                              Dow Marmur













Update on the Status of the Israeli Nation-State Bill

Later today (Wednesday, July 18) the Nation-State bill is likely to pass in the Israeli Knesset in a watered down version from the original.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg, President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) the national board of which I chair, sent the following cover note over a letter by Rabbi Gilad Kariv, President of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ), and Rabbi Noa Sattat, Executive Director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), plus two attachments, one by retiring Chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), Natan Sharansky, and a nation-bill update.

It should be noted that the passage of this bill has been opposed strenuously by the President of the State of Israel Reuven Rivlin and Member of the Knesset Benny Begin of the Prime Minister’s Likud party. Prime Minister Netanyahu has advocated for and supported the bill and then doubled down his support despite international Jewish condemnation of the bill that would chip away at Israel’s democratic character and defy its own Declaration of Independence, the original Israeli “nation-state” statement of principles. Those opposed argue that there is no need for this bill because Israel’s Declaration of Independence sets the principles for the establishment of a Jewish democratic State of Israel

The nation-state bill will, if passed (and it is expected to pass in this new form) be equivalent to an amendment to the American Constitution.

Please read the below carefully as well as the two items that follow so you understand what has occurred in recent days in the Knesset and what is at stake for the continuance of a democratic Jewish State of Israel.

I agree with the leadership of our international Reform Zionist and Israeli Reform movement. I will send out another blog in the next day or two once the Bill has completed its run through the Knesset.

In thinking about the distortions in the American presidency today and what is happening in Israel, though of very different characters, I’m deeply distressed about both. However, with regards to both nations, they belong to us all and we have to keep fighting for what we believe, for justice, religious pluralism, and democracy even if current events cause us deep worry and despair.


Shalom Haverim/ot,

Please see the below letter from Rabbis Gilad Kariv and Noa Sattath updating us on the current status of the Nation-State bill. I am also including a letter from Natan Sharansky and an update from JAFI BoG Chair Michael Siegel.

In addition to the efforts in Israel, we have been working hard to do everything we can from North America to try and prevent this bill from passing, and despite all of our efforts it looks like it will indeed pass.  In my mind, that means one thing at the moment – that we must double down our support for the Reform Movement in Israel and strengthen the Jewish and democratic values of the State in order to contribute to the flourishing of a strong civil society.


Rabbi Joshua Weinberg, President, ARZA


Friends and Partners Shalom,

Today (Wednesday) the Knesset Committee has approved a final version of the “Nation State” Law, and we believe that the law will be passed tonight by the Knesset by a very small margin of coalition MKs with all the opposition MKs voting against.

As all of you are aware, over the past weeks  and especially the last few days we have organized and led the intense public and political “battle” to prevent this law from passing.  Many of you aided us in this effort and we want to express our deepest gratitude. We believe that our efforts put Reform and Progressive Jews in the forefront of the struggle for Israel’s democratic and Jewish values based on our Zionist and Democratic world view.

During this public struggle we stated clearly that the “Nation State” Law can actually help us in legal claims regarding recognition of the non- Orthodox  streams of Judaism from the very fact of the statement in the law that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people. At the same time we nonetheless fiercely opposed the law because of the worsening of relations between Arabs and Jews in Israel,  and because the law does not mention Israel’s Declaration of Independence, or the principle of equality and democratic values of the state of Israel.

It is important to note that the version of the law that will be ratified tonight by the Knesset is very different from the original versions that were proposed. It does not include any statement in which the Jewish character of the state is more important than the democratic character (the democratic character of Israel is anchored in the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom passed in the 90s). The law also does not include a statement giving an official status of Jewish law (halacha) as a source of inspiration,  nor does the law give itself a higher status than the other Basic Laws. Additionally instead of the original line that stated clearly that people could be prevented from joining community settlements on the basis of religion, ethnicity, or nationality,  the law now only makes a general statement in support of Jewish settlement as a national value that the nation should promote.

All of these points reduce the negativity of the original versions, but it’s still important to state that we feel that  this is a terrible and unnecessary law which erodes the necessary balances among the core values of the state of Israel.

In the coming days we will distribute a detailed summery regarding the law including the lessons we have learned in the process of the struggle against the law, and thoughts regarding the future. We are convinced that our Zionist, Progressive and Democratic Voice is needed now more than ever to be heard. We believe that even after the law is passed, we should express our disappointment and concern to Israeli ambassadors and representatives throughout the world. It’s very important that Jerusalem be made aware that the passing of the law leaves a heavy burden on Israeli society and world Jewry and that large numbers of the Jewish people in Israel and around the world are deeply worried about erosion of Israel’s core values.

We want to thank all those who helped and continue to participate in the effort, both our professionals and our volunteer leadership in Israel and around the world.


Rabbi Gilad Kariv and Rabbi Noa Sattath


To: MK Amir Ohana, Chairman – The Joint Committee of the Knesset Committee and the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee

Re: The Need for Consideration of the Position of Diaspora Jews on the Subject of the “National Law”

Distinguished colleagues,

The State of Israel is the national home for the entire Jewish people, and it is clear to me that there is no dispute on this point between any Zionist parties or movements. Although the National Law was originally intended to reinforce this principle, recent amendments to it (I refer mainly to Section 6B) raise great concerns since they seem to drive a wedge between Israeli Jewry and World Jewry.

It is troubling that changes to the law add to the conflict that has accompanied us in recent years around the role to give to different streams of Judaism in the public sphere.

I call upon the members of the committee to put their hearts into this issue and do everything in their power to prevent a further rift in the Jewish people.

Additionally, changes to certain clauses give ammunition to those who support a boycott against Israel, for example the revocation of Arabic’s special status as a language until the passing of a law about it—when we don’t know what that law will be or when it will pass—and the clause about making it legal for towns to refuse residency to certain populations. In recent times, a number of laws have passed the Knesset with the stated purpose of shoring up the struggle against the boycott of Israel. Yet they were drafted and passed without consulting with those who actually fight the boycott every day in the Diaspora. So too in the case of the current bill: we can’t expect Jews overseas to fight hard against the boycott movement without consulting with them and hearing their opinions.

I therefore propose that you invite representatives of overseas Jewish organizations to present their viewpoints to the members of the committee, before a final draft of the law is formulated.


Natan Sharansky


Dear Friends,

In recent months, the Knesset has debated the Nation-State Basic Law sponsored by the Likud and the Prime Minister which intends to enshrine in legislation the State of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, something which Jews worldwide universally support.

The bill contains several significant clauses about the nature of the Jewish state, it’s symbols, the Hebrew language, Aliyah and the responsibility of the State for Jews in distress. There is also important language about the responsibility of the State to maintain the relationship with the Diaspora and to preserve the cultural, historic and religious heritage of the Jewish people in the State of Israel.

Over the past week we have been working with the Knesset and the government to try and influence the legislation in a positive manner and to alert the government to several problematic clauses in the law. Natan Sharansky wrote a letter to the Chairman of the Committee of the Knesset working on the law, MK Amir Ohana, who participated in our last MK mission to the US with JFNA. The letter highlighted our concerns and called on the Knesset to invite representatives of the Jewish people to appear before them prior to the legislation being passed. After the letter was received, MK Ohana invited Josh Schwarcz, our Secretary General, to speak before the committee last Thursday. Josh addressed the committee and presented our concerns to the Knesset.

We actively worked with the Government and members of the Caucus for the Jewish People in the Knesset to lobby on the legislation. All our efforts were done in close cooperation with Jerry Silverman, the President and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, who was in Israel this week and with the active leadership and participation of our Chairman elect, MK Isaac Herzog, who amongst other things, spoke at length in the Knesset plenum about the law.

The most important achievement was the revision of problematic language in the law that allowed for the creation of separate community settlements based upon religion or ethnicity. We were amongst those who spoke out vocally on the language in the law about segregation and we are pleased that the language was subsequently taken out.

We also achieved important language on the Diaspora – relating to the responsibility of the Government to preserve the connection with the Jewish people in the Diaspora and to the preservation of the cultural, historic and religious heritage of the Jewish people in the State of Israel. Unfortunately, the ultra-orthodox were successful in inserting language that made it clear that the responsibility of the government for maintaining the relationship with the Jewish people is specifically in the Diaspora.

We remain concerned about the clause lowering of the status of the Arabic language from an official language to a language of special status. This clause is potentially unhelpful in maintaining support for Israel.

This update is being sent to you before the final Knesset vote on the bill. It is still possible, but unlikely, that the bill will be modified at the last minute or not brought to a vote in this session of the Knesset.  If there are any last-minute changes we will, of course, inform you.

Please find attached a translation of the letter from Natan Sharansky to MK Amir Ohana. The law changed dramatically following the action we took after Natan’s letter was sent and the final version of the law is much more declarative than its original version.

Also, please see the following link to an article on this issue in the Jerusalem Post:


We will continue to work on your behalf and on behalf of the Jewish people in Israel while being your voice in the Government and the Knesset.


Michael Siegal (Jewish Agency for Israel)


The American Reform Movement Accepts the Jerusalem Program of the World Zionist Organization and Becomes a “Zionist Movement”

This is a monumental change after 130 years since the 1885 Pittsburgh Platform of the Central Conference of American Rabbis first said that American Reform Judaism is a religion only and anti-Zionist.

Over the course of the last century, Reform Judaism has increasingly become engaged in Zionist activity and Israel. In 1978 at the biannual meeting of the Reform movement in San Francisco, the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) was founded and for the past 41 years as served as the Zionist arm of American Reform movement representing  1.5 million Reform Jews. ARZA’s chief function has been to promote Israel in the United States and to represent the Reform movement in the national institutions of the Jewish people (i.e. The Jewish Agency for Israel, The World Zionist Organization, and the Jewish National Fund).

The Union for Reform Judaism’s decision to endorse the Jerusalem Program of the World Zionist Organization transforms the American Reform movement formally into a Zionist movement.

See this article in the Jerusalem Post about this historic turning point in American Reform – https://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Refusing-to-be-pushed-away-Reform-movement-affirms-its-zionist-core-561155

Also, an important conversation about the new chairman of the Jewish Agency, Israeli opposition leader Yitzhak “Bougie” Herzog, and the place of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) in international Jewish affairs is tackled on “The Promised Podcast” on TLV1 Radio – listen here https://tlv1.fm/the-promised-podcast/2018/06/30/bougies-golem/.


Justice Kennedy’s Timing – “Say hello to Your boy! A special Guy!”

If you are confused-disturbed-wondering why Justice Kennedy retired now – it seems as though it’s a “gift” to Trump from a grateful justice whose son lent Trump more than $1 billion from Deutsche Bank when Trump couldn’t get money from any other bank.

Our corrupt man of the day?

Here’s the opening of this article – read it and decide if you want to know more!

Deutsche also had its own problems with money laundering, particularly money laundering tied to Russia. Days after Trump became President, New York State announced a $425 million fine Deutsche Bank had agreed to pay over a $10 billion Russian money laundering scheme, one of many investigations the bank is still embroiled in.

‘To be civil or not to be civil’ – THAT is the question

My son, Daniel Rosove, engaged in back and forth tweeting conversation with Van Jones, well known author, commentator and activist.

Daniel is the Program Director of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and has visited a number of “red states” in the American south seeking programs to fund that help the food insecure.

Daniel’s statement about the need for those of us who have felt the righteous rage in the past year to remain civil was retweeted thousands of times by Van Jones. I agree with Daniel and want to share it with you. His eloquence and clarity speak for themselves.

Retweeted by Van Jones! https://twitter.com/VanJones68/status/1012361118029897728

We are all Balaam – for better and worse!

Every year the story of Balaam and his talking donkey recalls for me one of my childhood’s favorite TV sit-coms “Mr. Ed” featuring that friendly talking Palomino horse in the barn.

More seriously, the Biblical Balaam fantasy is a profound tale of good and evil, sensitivity and hard-heartedness, faith and cynicism. Though named for Balak, the King of Moab, the Torah portion is more about Balaam, the non-Jewish sorcerer and prophet than Balak and perhaps ought to have been named for him instead.

Balak feared the Israelites as they crossed through his territory, so he sought Balaam’s prophetic assistance by paying him to curse the Israelites thereby softening them before an armed conflict. Balak must have known that the children of Israel had scored already two military victories against the Canaanites of the Negev and the Amorites in Transjordan, so hiring Balaam was an attempt to move the advantage to Balak’s favor. Only the land of Moab separated Israel from their conquest of Canaan. The King must have feared what might befall him and his kingdom.

Instead of cursing Israel Balaam offered a blessing so beautiful and powerful that it became an integral part of our morning liturgy:

Mah tovu o-ha-le-cha Yaakov – How goodly are your Tents of Jacob, Mish’ken-o-te-cha Yisrael – Your dwelling places O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)

A number of questions come to mind about this story: What are we to make of Balaam? What is his purpose? What are his origins? Why is this story here? What is the modern relevance?

My friend, Rabbi Misha Zinko, many years ago wrote about this portion and some of his insights are worth sharing.

Balaam comes from Pethor, near the Euphrates River. In Jewish mysticism, the river is a direct link to God. Balaam’s origins suggest that he was immersed from his youth in a spiritual environment that inspired his prophetic capacities.

Balaam’s full name was Balaam ben B’orb’or can either mean “fool” or “burned.” Balaam is either a brutish fool of a man or a man burning with divine insight…or both.

The rabbis interpret “Balaam” as “b’li am” – meaning, “without a people.” He was as his name – an independent sorcerer, out for himself, unattached by tribal custom, and unconstrained by social convention.

If we evaluate Balaam based upon his blasphemous actions and defiance against God when he made the deal with Balak to curse God’s people, we have to conclude that he was a fool. But if we judge him based upon his origins near the river and his poetic words of praise for the children of Israel, then we might regard him as burning with a desire to offer a blessing to God’s people.

Rabbi Zinko suggests that considering these two aspects of the Balaam character, each of us too has within us the two traits of Balaam. On the one hand we can be blind to the wonders around us just as Balaam was blind to the angel holding a sword and standing in his way as he prepared to curse the people. On the other hand, Balaam’s spiritual antenna were so finely tuned that when it came time to curse Israel, he blessed them with God’s word instead.

How often are we blind to the wonders in front of us? How often are we insensitive to the cruelty in our communities, country and around the world? Like Balaam, however, we’re also capable of perceiving God’s presence and acting in a Godly way. When we’re aware and spiritually tuned, our eyes behold unnoticed grace, we intuit the divine within the human condition, and we act accordingly.

Having fulfilled his mission to bless Israel, Balaam returned “M’komo – to his Place.” Rabbinic tradition understands the Hebrew word Makom to be synonymous to God. The story suggests that Balaam returned to a “Place” where he drank from the river of Godly insight and glimpsed the divine destiny of the children of Israel. It was in that mind-frame that he offered words of blessing instead of cursing.

May we do the same.

Shabbat shalom.


Birddog nation documentary – 8 minutes of your time

birddog activism

I want you to see a moving and inspirational 8-minute documentary project conceived by two of my congregants, Chris Bubser & Sophie Sartain.

Please watch the sizzle reel. You won’t regret it. And if you are inspired by their activism as I am, please consider a charitable contribution. You won’t regret that either!


Thank you for your consideration.