Liberty for all: An Elusive Goal  Quick Comment: Parashat Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2)

rabbiadar:

Thank you for sharing this memory! Reblogged to help spread something that should not be lost.

Originally posted on Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives:

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In vain I searched the  Internet for the words from Yitzhak Rabin seared into my memory but apparently forgotten by Google among his more famous speeches.

It was in July of 1974 when during his first term as Prime Minister Rabin addressed a joint session of congress and eloquently described learning the words on the Liberty Bell in their original Hebrew as a small child: “U’kratem dror ba-aretz l’chol yoshveha – Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all of its inhabitants (Leviticus 25: 10).”

Rabin pointed out that this cardinal foundation of both American and Israeli democracy comes form this week’s Torah portion.

 As recent events from Ferguson to Baltimore in the USA and the demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in Israel attest, the United States at age 238 and Israel at age 67 both fall far short of that biblical goal.

Though neither country has yet…

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On Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day

Have mercy on Mother’s Day
for not everyone has a Hallmark life:

Some want with all their hearts to have a child to hold
and they can’t, just can’t.

Some yearn for the child who is gone
and their heart breaks over and over like clockwork every day.

Some ache for the children taken from them by politics
or murder, or a drunk driver, or bad luck.

Some gave a child up – it was “for the best” –
and now they wonder every day: where is she? What’s she doing?

Have mercy on Mother’s Day
because not everyone had a Hallmark life:

Their mom was sick or selfish
or she went missing one dark night and never came back
or she lived on her own private planet
perhaps some kind of hell.
Or it hurts even to be in the room with her
because she bites, like an injured mother cat
all claws and teeth.

Perhaps their mom was a child herself
Perhaps we’ll never know
They’ll never tell

Have mercy on Mother’s Day
Have mercy on all the mothers
All the children
Have mercy.

Sanctifying the Divine Name through Chocolate and Coffee: Thoughts for Fair Trade Shabbat

Originally posted on Rabbi Ed Bernstein:

Fresh cocoa beans Fresh cocoa beans

In Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the popular film version Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka manufactures his product with the dedicated labor of the Oompa Loompas. They provide Willy Wonka with cheap labor to which his competitors don’t have access. In the backstory, they are paid only in cacao beans. In the book and the movie, the Oompa Loompas are endearing characters, even as their labor upon closer analysis appears to be exploited. It turns out that the Oompa Loompas are real. That is, the major corporations of the chocolate industry, as well as the coffee industry, often rely on child slave trafficking to produce much of the world’s supply of chocolate and coffee. These child slaves are not smiling, cuddly figures like the Oompa Loompas. They are subjected to great abuse. On this Shabbat, congregations across the country…

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Rain and the Government

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“May he come down like rain upon the mown grass, as showers that water the earth!” – Psalm 72:6

Psalm 72 is a Psalm attributed to Solomon. It begins, “Give the king Thy judgments, O God, and Thy righteousness unto the king’s son” and it continues with a list of things one hopes from a new government. I found it today when a brief sprinkle of rain sent me to the concordance looking for Bible verses having to do with rain.

Concordances are fun. We use them to find out how many times and where a particular word appears in the Bible. This is of greater utility if it is a Hebrew concordance, of course, since an English concordance only tells us about the English words that appear in a particular English translation. Still, the results can take us into parts of the text we failed to notice before.

In this verse “he” refers to the young prince, the future ruler of the kingdom. Yesterday we received the news that PM Netanyahu has been able to form a government for Israel. (Israel is a parliamentary democracy; for more about how it works, check out this article in the Virtual Jewish Library.)

Truth be told, were I Israeli I probably wouldn’t have voted for any of the people in the new government, but I wish them wisdom, virtue, and good common sense. May their government “come down like rain” upon the pressing issues facing the State of Israel, bringing vitality to the land and all its inhabitants.

Their Own Private Judaism

I used to work for a major Jewish organization, and part of my job was to answer questions that came in over the telephone. (Nowadays they use websites for that.) One of the strangest calls I ever received was from a woman who said:

“I’ve talked to three rabbis and I am very frustrated. You see, I was Jewish in a previous life. But these rabbis insist that I can’t be Jewish unless I convert! They don’t get it: I don’t need to convert!”

I could tell that she was 100% serious. She found it hugely insulting that those rabbis hadn’t taken her at her word. By the end of our conversation, she had decided that I was a horrible person too, because I would not point her to a rabbi who would agree with her that she was born Jewish.

She has stuck in my mind for fifteen years. What seemed perfectly reasonable to her was simply not going to fly with any rabbi I knew, then or now.

The reason is, no one gets to make up their own private Judaism. There are many different expressions of Judaism: Secular, Haredi, Reform, Modern Orthodox, Renewal, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, and a thousand different shades of each of those. What there isn’t is private Judaism. A person can say something like “I was born Jewish in a previous life so I’m Jewish” but that will not persuade other Jews that they should agree.

Granted, the Jewish world is full of disagreements: we thrive on them. One group says one thing, another disagrees. We’ve been doing that as far back as Jacob’s children, and on every subject imaginable.

Once a person is a congregation of one, though, it’s another matter. A Jew all alone, insisting that something is “the true way” is in a bad place. The Talmud tells a story about Rabbi Eliezer, a learned and holy rabbi, who ruled differently from all the other rabbis about an oven. He insisted that he was right and all of them were wrong. Then he called nature and God to witness, and both affirmed that the law always went his way. The rabbis retorted that they’d outvoted him, and that “After the majority must one incline.” (Exodus 23:2.) Then a Heavenly Voice laughed and said, “My children have defeated me!” Rabbi Eliezer is so upset by this, and by his isolation, that he brings disaster upon himself and upon the whole community. (Bava Metzia 59b)

It would have been better for the rabbis not to break Rabbi Eliezer’s heart. But it also would have been better had he not separated himself from the community. That separation – his insistence that he was right and all of them were wrong – was the impulse that set a tragedy in motion.

This is a teaching that is very uncomfortable for many of us American Jews, because we, like other Americans, are admirers of rugged individualism. In American mythology, there is nobility in being the lone voice whom everyone later realizes was right.

But that’s just not how Judaism works. We figure things out by comparing notes. We preserve minority opinions with care, but we are wary of lone opinions until and unless they stand the test of time. (Example:. Spinoza.)

Not every “private Judaism” question I get is as extreme as the “Jewish in a previous life” lady’s question. But it is always worth pondering, if a person asks  rabbi after rabbi and gets “no” for an answer, if perhaps what they want isn’t Jewish at all.

Who Was Herzl?

rabbiadar:

This is a long piece, but well worth the time to read it. It’s the most penetrating writing about Theodor Herzl that I’ve seen anywhere.

Originally posted on joe wolfson:

Theodor Herzl would have been 165 this week and this coincides with my first trip to Basel – of Zionist Congress fame – so I wanted to share this wonderful piece. For any local readers I also repost here a piece of mine published in Die Jüdische Allgemeine in German a number of years ago.

Who was Theodor Herzl? I think I first heard his name as a 9 year old on a Hanoah HaTzioni camp in a song about beards and Basel. And although his name is one of the most quoted in discussions about the Jewish 20th century – and rightly so – I’ve rarely heard or read much about the personality behind the vision. So it was a pleasure a few years ago to find a long first-hand description in ‘The World of Yesterday’, the memoir of the Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig. At the peak of his fame…

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“The Highest Form of Jewish Giving” might be a surprise.

If you bring up the subject of tzedakah, money given for charity, many Jews will tell you two things:

1. Tzedakah is from the same Hebrew root as “justice.”  and

2. Maimonides taught a ladder of tzedakah, with making a loan as the highest form of tzedakah.

The first is true, the second is missing some bits.

1. Tzedakah is indeed from the Hebrew root associated with justice: tzadee, dalet, kuf.   The Hebrew for justice is tzedek.

2. Maimonides teaches us a hierarchy of virtue in giving tzedakah, from least to greatest:

  1. Giving begrudgingly
  2. Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully.
  3. Giving after being asked
  4. Giving before being asked
  5. Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  6. Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient does not know your identity
  7. Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
  8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

Adapted from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7-14

“Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant” is a far cry from “the highest form of charity is a loan.” Maimonides specifies, first of all, that he refers to an interest-free loan or a money gift to enable a person to start a business. Providing an interest-free loan or a gift for education or training might also qualify. The Talmud (Shabbat 63) suggests that an interest-free loan is preferable because it is more sensitive to the dignity of the recipient. However, the highest form of tzedakah, according to Maimonides, is to form a business partnership with the intended recipient, which means taking on risks and serving as an ongoing partner in the venture. It isn’t for the faint of heart, and should not be undertaken lightly. We are forbidden to give tzedakah beyond our means.

There’s a third point about tzedakah that gets less press. Maimonides teaches that when we select a recipient for a share from our limited resources, we should look first nearby and for the most in distress. “Nearness” might mean physical nearness (give to the food bank in your own county before you give to the one far away) or it might mean familial nearness, so help for the cousin who can’t make rent takes precedence over a non-relative, or an organization that will survive without our gift. (I can imagine development directors groaning at this one, but that’s what the Rambam says, folks.)

Maimonides warns, like a good investment advisor, against putting all of one’s tzedakah funds in one place: figure out how much is possible, then divide the funds between two or more recipients. So even if hapless Cousin Susie could absorb all one’s tzedakah, at least a bit should go elsewhere. Also (returning to that principle of helping people be self-sufficient) it may be best to help Cousin Susie get out of her current situation by assisting her in making terms with creditors, or moving into more affordable housing, or whatever will contribute to a long term fix.

For a more complete explanation of Maimonides on giving, I recommend this article online or the book from which it is excerpted, The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money, by Dr. Meir Tamari. Dr. Tamari is both a rabbi and an economist, serving for many years as the Chief Economist of the Bank of Israel.

In an era of growing income inequality it can be overwhelming to make decisions about tzedakah. I appreciate that our forebears thought a lot about this question and left us a framework for decision making.