Bob Dylan's "Trouble No More: 1979-1981": Understanding an American Apikoros

I.  Carrying a Light Bulb

Dylan preaching.jpeg

The official release of Bob Dylan’s “Gospel Shows” is bringing a lot of people back to a time when, for them, the ‘60s counterculture really died. Here was Dylan—Hebrew name, Shabtai Zissel ben Avraham—singing songs of born again Christian faith, the glories of being saved by Christ, and condemning the unbelievers of Sodom. From 1979-1981 he released a triptych of albums of these songs—Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love—and, starting in November 1979, would only perform songs in concert that reflected his newfound covenant with God.  In so doing, a lot of old fans ran for the hills.

Dylan—that is, Robert Alan Zimmerman—had a Jewish upbringing in Hibbing, Minnesota. His parents were American-born children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He trained for his bar mitzvah with Rabbi Reuben Maier in the rabbi’s apartment above a local café (his father later related that Bob showed great proficiency with Hebrew). He attended Camp Herzl, a Jewish and Zionist summer camp in Wisconsin, during his teen years.

The release of these Gospel Shows (and it’s momentous; I’ve been waiting for the so-called “Bootleg Series” to get around to this era) raises again questions that dogged music fans back then: What happened to America’s greatest songwriter in the late ‘70s? How could Jewish fans listen? And as for these songs of heavenly salvation—what the hell?

I’ll offer one fan’s interpretation. I’ve never met Bob Dylan, so I may be way off base. But I’ve read many biographies and interviews of the man, and more importantly, I’ve tried to pay close attention to every note of his recorded oeuvre (and many bootlegs, which are essential for understanding Dylan’s art).

Dylan himself can be hard to trust when it comes talking about himself or his music. While there are many pearls in his autobiography Chronicles, some reviewers noted that he totally avoided writing about the moments that most people would actually be interested in. In the ‘60s, his press conferences were a hoot—because most journalists were totally clueless about his efforts to bring poetry and art to popular music, he messed with them:

Interviewer:  What is your real message?
Bob Dylan:  My real message? Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb.

He tends to speak in parables, especially when he’s feeling like a trapped animal. I imagine he felt that way through much of the ‘60s, but it persisted in the subsequent decades. For instance, in 1991 he was presented with a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. I suspect that Dylan recognized the Grammys for what they were:  hollow trophies given out by self-congratulatory ghouls from the music business, and “lifetime achievement” is even worse—what they give you when they acknowledge that your relevance is long past, and that if you’d just hurry up and die they can start reshaping your legacy to fit their own preconceptions. So Dylan—50 years old—slithered to the podium and virtually spoke in tongues, as far as the corporate throng was concerned.

Well, um… uh, yeah. Well my daddy, he didn’t leave me too much. My daddy once said to me… [looooooong uncomfortable pause. Nervous laughter from everyone. Security puts their hands on their holsters.] Well he said so many things, y’know?  [laughter

He said, son, it is possible for you to become so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you. And if that happens, God will always believe in your own ability to mend your own ways. Thank you.

Add to his list of accomplishments: the best awards speech ever.

But in that speech (and its allusion to Psalm 27:10), which is a total fiction (Abe Zimmerman said no such thing) and a dodge (please get me off this godforsaken stage), there is also a great reveal: a desperate statement from a man “so defiled” who has been to hell and back, including the depths of alcoholism. And who believes in salvation—but only from an external force, a rock of ages.

II.  Apikoros

To understand Dylan’s gospel years, one has to understand that he has never been halfhearted with his art. When he commits to a guise, he dives in completely. I believe that Dylan was a true believer during these years. It proved short-lived and eventually he resumed performing non-Christian-themed songs (“Thank God,” said many old fans), but from 1979-1981 he was sincere in his devotion.

I sense that Dylan has a streak in him that makes him say, “You think you can put me in a box? Why should I be what you want me to be?” I find this orneriness to be very appealing—perhaps because I have some of  it myself. He devotes a lot of space in Chronicles to spitting with disgust when people tried to call him the “Voice of the Generation” of the ‘60’s. Who in hell, he asks, would want to be anyone’s “voice of the generation”? For a long time he was publicly putting down people who would pin a label on him—surely that’s what “Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Positively Fourth Street” (“You’ve got a lot of nerve / to say you are my friend…”) are about?  And in case there was any doubt, there was “Idiot Wind,” the most vicious put-down song ever:

Even you, yesterday, you had to ask me where it was at
I couldn’t believe, after all these years, you didn’t know me better than that, sweet lady

A recap of Dylan’s career shows this bait-and-switch. He’d adopt a certain style, and throw himself into it completely. He’d write such compelling music in that mode that fans would hop on board. Then, abruptly, he would discard that mode for another one… enraging those who thought they had embraced the “real Dylan.”

In Judaism, this is called being an apikoros—as close a word to “heretic” that we have. But we have a funny relationship with our apikorsim. Some of them are some of the most important Jews in history.

So in 1961 he shows up in New York completely enamored with Woody Guthrie’s Americana: work shirt, acoustic guitar, and hokey humor (to make sophisticated points about the human condition) intact. From there was an evolution to the coffee houses of Greenwich Village, hanging with Joan Baez and Dave van Ronk, and singing at the 1963 March on Washington for Martin Luther King.

The insular folk scene was so self-righteous and cocksure that to leave it was an act of blasphemy. So when Dylan showed up at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with a raucous electric band, whomping out songs of surreal poetry, the self-appointed gatekeepers revolted. Pete Seeger tried to cut the electric cords with an ax. Peter Yarrow, the distressed master of ceremonies, tried to nudge “Bobby” back out for an encore… “This time with an acoustic guitar.”

That’s what Dylan left behind when he started his barnburning world tour of 1966 with his electric band The Hawks. But the folkies wouldn’t let it go. Some fans embraced this loud electric rock, but the old timers booed, and slow-clapped between songs. The zenith was in Manchester, England, when, just before the band tore into “Like a Rolling Stone,” a distressed old folkie had enough. “Judas!” he howled at the Jew standing on stage.

But the heckler was already a fossil. Dylan had recorded three electric albums that made him a hero to new rock counterculture. And we know what Dylan thinks about heroes, right?

So he retreated. After touring the world as one of the biggest and loudest rock acts… he shut up, and disappeared for 1967 and its hallucinatory Summer of Love. When he emerged, it was in a new guise: Country Bob, singing on the Johnny Cash show, and recording with Nashville session pros. Gone were the amphetamine screeds of 1965. And the counterculture was pissed. In 1971 Dylan released Self Portrait, two records of country songs and covers, and Greil Marcus opened his famous review of the album in Rolling Stone with the words, “What is this shit?”

Country music at the turn of the ‘70s was not the sterile commodity that it would become. It represented the antithesis of the ‘60s counterculture; the enemy of the hippies and all they stood for. Again, Dylan had adopted the pose of the heretic. He was saying, again, to his fans:  You really want to follow me? Well, let’s see if you’ll follow me here…

For all its integrity, this does show a rather perverse relationship with his audience, to say the least.

In the mid-70s, his star was ascendant again.  He reunited with The Band, and through 1974 performed the highest-grossing rock tour of all time. He made hugely well-received albums that reflected his mastery of the ‘70s singer-songwriter convention. By 1978 was performing a 115-date world tour with a big band, full of horns and back-up singers.  

But his was a tormented soul, and it was time for another sharp turn.


III.  Dylan & Religion

One other thing before we approach the Gospel Years. Religion—the Bible, specifically—has always been part of Dylan’s neshama.  Christopher Ricks has written an excruciating treatise on this, but I can add one or two points minus all his exegesis.

Dylan knows the Bible backwards and forwards; it pops up when you least expect it. There are moments like the “slain by a cane/Cain” line in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” for instance. But—hands up—how many people know the title of “Rainy Day Women Nos. 12 & 35” (“everybody must get stoned!”) comes from Proverbs 27:15?

An endless dripping on a rainy day
And a contentious wife are alike

But I like to think that even in his early days, Dylan was attracted to the Old-Time Religion of America, the kind that includes periodic Great Awakenings and embraces Jonathan “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” Edwards, Jefferson’s Bible, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dorothy Day, and the apocalpyticism of bluesman Blind Willie Johnson. These were all forms of a distinctly American faith.

Even a Jew like Dylan—even a Jew like me—can love Woody Guthrie’s version of Jesus Christ. For Woody, this was the true Jesus:

Jesus Christ was a man that traveled through the land
A hard working man and brave
He said to the rich, "Give your money to the poor,"
So they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.

And:

This song was made in New York City
Of rich men and preachers and slaves
If Jesus was to preach like he preached in Galilee
They would lay Jesus Christ in his grave. 

Amen, selah, and tell me that those lines aren’t even more prophetic in Trump’s America than they were back in Woody’s dust bowl days?

It’s not hard to imagine a young Dylan absorbing the lessons, and assimilating them into the work.

IV.  Saved

With that background, I think there are three parts to understanding Dylan’s embrace of a born-again Christianity in 1979.

First:  As we’ve seen, it follows his pattern. When his fan base becomes enormous, he suddenly takes a sharp turn, shaking off fans who feel “betrayed” by his “heretical” embrace of something new, often the polar opposite of where he’s been.

Second:  Dylan is a polyglot of American music. He’s been an authentic purveyor of Woody Guthriesque Americana, protest folk, delta blues, electric rock, straight-up country, bluegrass, and, since 2011, jazz standards and the Great American Songbook. Since he’s embraced virtually every indigenous form of American music, it would be strange if he didn’t explore gospel music.

And when he explores something, he gets completely immersed in it. (In 2003 he wrote the song “’Cross the Green Mountain” for the Civil War movie Gods and Generals. They say he spent days in the New York Public Library researching the Civil War to get the lyrics just right.)

Third:  None of this is to say that his religious conversion, even though it was short-lived, wasn’t authentic. I believe that he believed.

With an increasingly jaundiced eye he surveyed the music business of the ‘70s. Drugs and decadence were everywhere. He’d been living this life for a while. And he was living in Malibu, where friends and acquaintances were receding into their own chemical hells (see under: The Band).

Furthermore, his marriage to Sara Lowndes had collapsed. They had been together since the ‘60s, and with Sara he had five kids and fled the turbulent “Judas!” years to a farmhouse in Woodstock. He wrote love songs to their family on New Morning, grieved their break-up on Blood on the Tracks, celebrated their reconciliation on Desire and its song “Sara,” and ultimately the whole thing went south. 

So picture the man’s state of mind: exhausted, divorced, cynical, burnt-out.

The story goes that several of his backing musicians were already born again, and his interest was piqued by their religious discipline during the ’78 tour. And then there’s this incident from the end of the tour, San Diego, November 17, 1979:

Towards the end of the show someone out in the crowd… knew I wasn’t feeling too well. I think they could see that. And they threw a silver cross on the stage. Now usually I don’t pick things up in front of the stage. Once in a while I do. Sometimes I don’t. But I looked down at that cross. I said, “I gotta pick that up.” So I picked up the cross and I put it in my pocket… And I brought it backstage and I brought it with me to the next town, which was out in Arizona… I was feeling even worse than I’d felt when I was in San Diego. I said, “Well, I need something tonight.” I didn’t know what it was. I was used to all kinds of things. I said, “I need something tonight that I didn’t have before.”  And I looked in my pocket and I had this cross.[1] 

At 38 years old, Shabtai Zissel met Jesus.  

V.  The Music

So what about the music? 

It’s electrifying. Listening to the Gospel Shows reminds you that, at many points through his six decades of performing, Dylan is one of the greatest performers—and yes, one of our greatest singers. The opening cut was “Slow Train,” and it is amazing to hear the singer so engaged and so committed to every syllable that comes out of his mouth.

He’s also got a whip-tight band to ride this particular train. So it’s clear that finding religion was the jolt this particular artist needed at this moment in his life—the intensity of “Gotta Serve Somebody” and “Solid Rock” and “Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” rival the power of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” and “Like a Rolling Stone” from ’66, only this time no one had the chutzpah to yell “Judas!”

The quieter moments when he’s not preaching, but rather sharing his relationship with God—“Precious Angel,” “Pressing On,” “I Believe in You”—are as intimate a portrait of faith that any artist has ever shared. Even if, like me, you don’t share this specific vocabulary—Jesus is not my savior—there’s inspiration to be found in his inspiration.

My favorite song from this period is a late arrival, 1981’s “Every Grain of Sand.” Here’s a song of faith that Jew can approach without reservation: there’s no intermediary, just a very transcendent God who has ordained everything in Creation. It starts from the deepest depths of loneliness and despair:

In the time of my confession, in the hour of my deepest need
When the pool of tears beneath my feet flood every newborn seed
There’s a dying voice within me reaching out somewhere
Toiling in the danger and in the morals of despair

 And then revelation that everything is the way it is meant to be:

Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand

Those words still give me chills, on the 1000th time I’ve heard them:  “…every hair is numbered…” They remind me of a story about Rav Kook that’s told in A Tzaddik in Our Time, the classic biography of Rabbi Aryeh Levin:

We chatted together on themes of Torah study… He went out, as his hallowed custom was, to stroll a bit in the fields and gather his thoughts; and I went along. On the way I plucked some branch or flower. [Rav Kook] was taken aback; and then he told me gently, “Believe me: In all my days I have taken care never to pluck a blade of grass or a flower needlessly, when it had the ability to grow or blossom. You know the teaching of the Sages that there is not a single blade of grass below, here on earth, which does not have a heavenly force (or angel) above telling it, ‘Grow!’ Every sprout and leaf of grass says something, conveys some meaning. Every stone whispers some inner hidden message in the silence. Every creation utters its song.”

Dylan Kotel.jpg

VI. Still on the Road

When Dylan released an album in 1983 entitled Infidels, fans and ex-fans prepared for more of the same. As it turned out, there was still plenty of apocalypse to go around: “Jokerman” has dense imagery invoking the Book of Revelations, and the refrain of “Man of Peace,” is a paraphrase of 2 Corinthians (“Sometimes Satan / comes as a man of peace.”) And there was a cover photo (taken by Sara Lowndes of all people!) of Dylan crouched on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. But there were respites from the fire and brimstone as well. 

In concert, he started backing off from the preaching. He started mixing in his older numbers. His faith seemed to have ebbed.

Then something funny happened: Dylan started sounding Jewish again. He was reported to be hanging out with Lubavitcher chasidim, and performed on a televised Chabad telethon (grinning, with a kippah on his head). In September 1983, he was photographed celebrating his son Jesse’s bar mitzvah at the Western Wall. In September 1987, he brought along Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Roger McGuinn for concerts in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Was Shabtai Zissel back?

In a 1983 interview he said:

Roots, man—we’re talking about Jewish roots, you want to know more? Check on Elijah the prophet. He could make rain. Isaiah the prophet, even Jeremiah, see if their brethren didn’t want to bust their brains for telling it right like it is, yeah—these are my roots, I suppose.

Then he immediately qualified that search for his roots:

Am I looking for them?... I ain’t looking for them in synagogues, with six-pointed Egyptian stars shining down from every window, I can tell you that much.

So he’s never going to be what you want him to be. You might want him to be the old folkie that he was in his 20s; someone else might want him to sing “Forever Young” every night; I might wish he were more unequivocal about his Judaism. But the artist forges his own path, never tiring of wishing restless farewells to those who want to define him.

And you gotta admit, there’s a lot of integrity in that stance. He may be an apikoros, but he’s a damn righteous one.

 

[1] Clinton Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades—Take Two, 2000, p.491

The Balfour Centennial—A Time of Reflection & Introspection

November 2, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. But past anniversaries of this moment have been controversial, and the centennial is proving to be no exception.

In 1917, at the height of World War I but with an eye to the new world order that would come at the war’s end, the British Foreign Office issued a proclamation to the English Zionist leadership:  “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…”  With the tacit support of the U.S., Russia, France, Italy, and even the Vatican, the British offered the first international political recognition of the Zionist movement that had been catalyzed by Theodor Herzl and the First Zionist Congress twenty years earlier.

But should we care? From a certain Zionist perspective, celebrating Balfour is the epitome of “golus mentality” (i.e., thinking like you’re still in the ghetto). In other words, why should Jews need foreign validation for their own liberation movement? Zionism was supposed to free us from that sort of thinking!

And from an anti-Zionist perspective, Balfour was cynical to say the least. Zionist opponents like MP Edwin Montagu, the only Jew in the British cabinet in 1917, insisted that a Jew who longed for Zion had “admitted that he is unfit for a share in public life in Great Britain, or to be treated as an Englishman.”  This idea, that Jews in emancipated Western Europe and America had left Exile behind for modern Promised Lands, was already passé by 1917, but it endured in many entrenched Jewish establishments.

But to understand what Balfour meant to those who celebrated Jewish peoplehood—and Zionism was, first and foremost, an acknowledgment that there were national ties that bound Jews around the world to one another—we can find a profound illustration in the books of Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn (1857-1935).

Hirschensohn was an Orthodox rabbi, born in Safed and raised in Jerusalem. He cultivated a friendship with the fervently secular and nationalistic Eliezer ben Yehuda, the key proponent of Hebrew as a modern, living language of the Jewish nation. For his efforts—and in a dark foreshadowing of today—Hirschensohn was excommunicated by the Orthodox rabbinate in Jerusalem for daring to propose that halakha and modernity could co-exist. He left Palestine in 1901, never to return. He landed in, of all places, Hoboken, New Jersey, where he spent the rest of his life.

Hirschensohn never relinquished his belief in Zionism or his dedication to the Jewish people. He composed, among other books, a multi-volume work called Malki Bakodesh, which analyzed modern questions (such as women’s suffrage) through the lens of halakha. And on the title page of Malki Bakodesh, beneath the biblical epigrams, is the date of publication. It reads :

5679 [= 1919] 
The Second Year since the recognition of the British Kingdom

to our right in the Land of Israel

In other words, Hirschensohn was embracing two timelines. 5679, in the traditional Jewish counting. And—Year 2, since the Jewish nation leapt back into history!

That is the profound meaning of Balfour. For people like Hirschensohn, watching events unfold from New Jersey with his heart in Jerusalem, time was starting anew. And Jews around the world, for whom the luster of modernity had tarnished with the devastation of World War I and the sadism of pogroms in Eastern Europe, saw themselves validated as a legitimate people with a past and a future.

Since then, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration has been marked with peaks of joy and valleys of disinterest.

On the 10th anniversary, Zionist leader Berl Katznelson was (already!) scolding the halutzim for forgetting their history. The anniversary was passing virtually unnoticed. In an editorial in Davar, in the preeminent newspaper of the Yishuv, Katznelson argued: “On this day, a day of memory and reckoning, those at the helm should stand proudly and count everything that has been done and achieved.… They will learn how to accept the days of the future, if they be difficult, with mental fortitude and courage.”

On the 25th anniversary, the Jewish world was a more sober place. Knowing full well of the Nazi atrocities that were occurring, David Ben Gurion reminded the nation that the anniversary of Balfour was not a celebration—but a solemn reminder of precisely why Jewish autonomy was a necessity.

Subsequent anniversaries of Balfour were often completely neglected, due to a variety of factors. These include the priorities of building the State—but also a considered ambivalence about the British, who subsequent to Balfour had often opposed Jewish expansion in the land.

Balfour - Israeli Stamp.jpeg

On the 50th anniversary, less than five months after the victory of the Six Day War, Israelis were ready to embrace their past—and the legitimacy that it bestowed in the community of nations. The headiness of those days promised that peace and normalization were at hand. And that was a process that had been sparked by Balfour.

Balfour - Israeli Stamp2.jpeg

So postage stamps were issued of Lord Balfour and the Declaration’s architect, Chaim Weizmann. Each stamp carried not only an image of the man, but also a biblical reference. Balfour’s portrait was enhanced by Jeremiah 31:17, translated in this way: “Your children shall come back to their own country.”  Weizmann’s picture included the word yovel, the biblical Jubilee, when ancient Israel was commanded to “proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” That is to say, Israel was the latest chapter of the ancient saga of the Jewish people—interrupted by a 2000-year exile.

Today's centennial brings out all these complexities. In 2016, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a U.N. called for the British to mark the anniversary with “an apology to the Palestinian people for the catastrophes, miseries, and injustices that it created.” British Prime Minister Theresa May, to her great credit, will ignore that call and celebrate the milestone with Prime Minister Netanyahu in London. (UK Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has a problem with confronting antisemitism in his party, announced that he would not be attending the celebrations.)

For the rest of us, this centennial could be a time for reflection about the meaning of Israel in our lives. We live in an extraordinary generation in Jewish history: a generation that knows a state of Israel. And the Balfour Declaration was a key moment in bringing that remarkable reality to fruition.

On the other hand, Jewish peoplehood is being torn and tattered by its leaders. The Prime Minister of Israel has proven himself to be an adversary to the unity of the Jewish people, by creating a cabinet of reactionary zealots and jettisoning large swaths of the world’s Jews for the sake of holding on to political power. The crisis at the Western Wall—in which the government forged a remarkable compromise and then abandoned it after pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties—is a symbolic illustration of this behavior. American Zionist leadership has shown itself to be unwilling or unable push the issue of religious pluralism in Israel as a fundamental priority.

There is much to be worried about in regard to Israel’s future. But milestone anniversaries such as this one—a forshpeis to the 70th anniversary celebration of Israel’s Independence next May—remind us of the incredible story that is modern Israel.

And it should compel each of us to explore our own responsibilities to make sure that Israel remains true to its founding principles, to be a democratic “national home” to every Jew.

Rain (I Don't Mind) - For Shemini Atzeret

 

שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֔ים תַּקְרִ֥יבוּ אִשֶּׁ֖ה לַה' בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֡י מִקְרָא־קֹדֶשׁ֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם
וְהִקְרַבְתֶּ֨ם אִשֶּׁ֤ה לַֽה' עֲצֶ֣רֶת הִ֔וא כָּל־מְלֶ֥אכֶת עֲבֹדָ֖ה לֹ֥א תַעֲשֽׂוּ׃

Seven days you shall bring offerings by fire to Adonai. On the eighth (ha-shemini) day you shall observe a sacred occasion and bring an offering by fire to Adonai; it is a solemn gathering (atzeret) you shall not work at your occupations. (Leviticus 23:36)


The holiday called Shemini Atzeret (literally, “the gathering on the eighth day”) is for many people the phantom, forgotten festival in Jewish life. Even Jews who determinedly spend their week in the Sukkah might be hard-pressed to say what, exactly, that eighth day is all about.

The 23rd day of the seventh month is the culmination of a three-and-half week period full of holidays: Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot have all preceded it. It arrives eight days after Sukkot begins, the final punctuation mark on this festival-rich season.

This prompts the Rabbis to ruminate about how Sukkot in the autumn complements Pesach in the spring: just as Pesach is the 7-day pilgrimage festival celebrating the spring planting, Sukkot is the 7-day pilgrimage which rejoices in the fall harvest. Passover is “capped” after 50 days by a holiday that is called Atzeret (we call that early-summer holiday Shavuot). So, for the sake of symmetry, Sukkot should also be “capped” by an Atzeret.  (But why isn’t it 50 days later? The midrash answers: because winter is coming, and a pilgrimage in the middle of winter’s rain and snow would be too arduous for the Jews.) (Midrash Tanchuma, Pinchas 15)

But the special identity of this day is far from clear, and the Torah doesn’t make it much clearer when it discusses ancient Israel’s festivals. In Leviticus, the Atzeret sounds like the capstone to the seven days of Sukkot, and is a holiday in its own right (“you shall not work at your occupations”). In Numbers, a large numbers of sacrifices are made on each day of Sukkot; on the eighth day, a more modest offering is prescribed, indicating that the eighth day was connected to Sukkot, and yet separate and distinct from it (Numbers 29: 35-38). And in Deuteronomy, there is no mention of an eighth-day assembly after the seven days of Sukkot (Deut. 16:13-15)!

Later in the Bible, we read of the enormous Sukkot celebrations that took place in Jerusalem. When King Solomon dedicated the Temple on the Sukkot holiday, Shemini Atzeret is the “one more day,” for the king (and the King of Kings) to spend together with the people of Israel; a little more time to linger together before everyone trudges home to face the approaching winter (I Kings 8:66).

Consider at what a sweet image that is. Long before rabbis griped and groaned about Jews who couldn’t be bothered to show up to synagogue more than twice a year, the Bible was imagining God, surveying the Sukkot masses in Jerusalem, saying, “This time we’ve had together during the holidays has been so special—for Me! Stay just a little longer, just one day, so we can savor it just a little more.” That was Shemini Atzeret.

By the generations of the Talmud, Shemini Atzeret (like many of the Torah’s holidays) had acquired some new features. It developed one overarching theme: water.

Shemini Atzeret became the time when the Rabbis would pray that life-giving rains would soak the land of Israel. They (as do we) begin to insert the words “you cause the wind to blow and the rains to fall” in the second blessing of the Amidah on Shemini Atzeret. And one of the key features of the liturgy on this day is an elaborate piyyut called Geshem (“Rain”).

Water is a historical worry for the dwellers of the Land of Israel. Diaspora-dwellers might find this hard to understand. In North America, rain can fall pretty much any time in the calendar year. Not so for Israel; almost all the annual rainfall comes down during a five-month rainy season from November to March. An ancient farmer, dependent on winter rains for a successful sowing season in the spring, would be very much aware if the rain was even just a few weeks late. Thus we can understand their fear and trepidation when rain had yet to arrive. An entire tractate of the Mishnah, Ta’anit, is devoted to the prayers and fasts that are prescribed for the community when the rain has failed to come.

The Torah testified that the Land of Israel was dependent on the rain. By contrast, the land of Egypt did not rely on rain; rather, the irrigation of Egyptian fields came from the overflowing waters of the Nile River. The 3rd-century apocalyptic prophet Zechariah knew this; as he called upon God to punish the oppressive nations of the world with drought, he acknowledged that drought will not be much of a punishment against Egypt. Don’t worry, the prophet says; Egypt will get its own special, appropriate form of discipline! (Zechariah 14:18).

But the Land of Israel is different. Israel depends on God’s mercies, expressed through rainfall:

כִּ֣י הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתָּ֤ה בָא־שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ לֹ֣א כְאֶ֤רֶץ מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ הִ֔וא אֲשֶׁ֥ר יְצָאתֶ֖ם מִשָּׁ֑ם
אֲשֶׁ֤ר תִּזְרַע֙ אֶֽת־זַרְעֲךָ֔ וְהִשְׁקִ֥יתָ בְרַגְלְךָ֖ כְּגַ֥ן הַיָּרָֽק׃
הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתֶּ֜ם עֹבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֙מָּה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ אֶ֥רֶץ הָרִ֖ים וּבְקָעֹ֑ת לִמְטַ֥ר הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם תִּשְׁתֶּה־מָּֽיִם׃

For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heavens. (Deut. 11:10-11)

Worrying about water is still the case today. A visitor to the Dead Sea cannot help but notice that this marvel is rapidly dissipating; it recedes a few dozen meters each year. The water level of the Kinneret precipitously rises and falls. And the battle over control of aquifers and water-sources is part of the realpolitik between Israel and her neighbors.

Today, Israel is the world’s greatest water innovator. It has successfully deployed technology, conservation, and good management to meet the water needs of its citizens and its crops—with enough left over that it even exports water to its neighbors! (In the Boston suburbs, by contrast, it seems like every summer there is a drought and the towns rush into panic-mode, limiting the amount of water that people can use.)  The themes of water scarcity and how Israel has addressed it are discussed in the recent book Let There Be Water by Seth M. Siegel.

The Sages of the Talmud, as was their wont, took these themes and spiritualized them. In Babylonia, drought was less of a worry than it was in the Land of Israel. So for the Rabbis, rain became a symbol of God’s benevolence and spiritual openness. (The Beatles knew this too.)  אין מים אלא תורה says the Talmud (Bava Kamma 17a); “Wherever the Torah mentions ‘water,’ read ‘Torah’ instead.”  They make a comparison: Just as rain delivers physical sustenance, Torah brings spiritual sustenance.

Shemini Atzeret, then, has a symbolic and deeply powerful meaning to those who are open to it. On Sukkot, we expressed our gratitude for the harvest of blessings with which we are surrounded. As the holiday concludes, we pray for life-giving waters that will sustain us and create a fertile environment for blessings yet to come. If this can happen, then we know that we can find the resources and strength to face the long cold winter ahead.     

How to—and How Not to—Prepare for Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is a time of deep introspection and reflection. The most solemn day of the year, it is also potentially a day of great liberation: forgiveness and turning can have that effect. (There’s a reason that the Talmud, startlingly, calls Yom Kippur the “most joyful day of the year.”)

Judaism recognized long ago that for Yom Kippur to accomplish all it sets out do demands a certain amount of preparation. Thus, the Ten Days of Teshuvah that commence with Rosh HaShanah are designed to spark a careful sifting through our relationships and all the parts of life that we want to redirect in the year ahead.

Our tradition developed a handful of interesting customs to aid in this preparation. (A custom, or minhag, is to be differentiated from Jewish law, or halakha. They reflect the diverse local color of Jewish life as it has proliferated throughout the millennia across the globe.)  Some of these customs have—mercifully!—disappeared except in certain obscure corners of the Jewish world.

Here are a few interesting ones:

Makkot:  That is to say—lashes. Following the literal letter of Leviticus when it says, “You are to afflict yourselves” (16:31 and 23:27), some Jews historically went beyond fasting. Here’s Scott-Martin Kosofsky, from his Book of Customs (2004):

From this grew the customs of fasting and makkot, the act of flagellation, as a personal confession of sin… Those who do the flogging alternate with those who are flogged. Thirty-nine lashes are given, as the words of V’hu Rahum, the prayer for mercy, are recited three times very slowly by the person administering the lashes. The person who is flogged bows and recites the confession saying one word at each lashing. If specific sins come to mind, these should be mentioned quietly, below the breath.

Kapparot: The most notorious Yom Kippur custom involves taking a live fowl (a rooster for a man and a hen for a woman) and swinging it over one’s head while reciting, “This is my atonement, this is my ransom, this is my substitute.” Afterwards, the chicken is slaughtered and either it or its monetary value is donated as Tzedakah. The tradition of kapparot (better, the Yiddish kappores, since it is an Ashkenazi custom) functions similarly to the Tashlich ceremony: symbolically casting one’s sins onto a third party and sending it away.

Kappores arose in Europe and has been controversial throughout its history. The Sephardic sage Rabbi Yosef Karo, author of the 16th Century law code the Shulchan Aruch, insisted “it is a practice that should be prevented” (Orach Chayim 605:1). The Maharil, a 14th-15th century German sage, was more sympathetic, but offered an interesting caveat:

There are places where the kappores themselves are given to the poor But the custom in the Rhine district, where the price of the kappora is given to the poor, is a better one, for the poor man is not ashamed to accept the money. But when the poor man is given the fowl itself, he says to himself: First this person put his sins onto this fowl, and now he humiliates me by giving it to me!

The custom of kappores can still be found in some Chasidic communities. Chabad seems especially big on retaining and promoting it. In 2016, an activist group called United Poultry Concerns, trying to stem the practice, filed a lawsuit in California against Chabad of Irvine. The case was dismissed; it did not rise to California’s compelling state interest to infringe on religious liberty in this instance. Still, one can see why those concerned about animal rights are disturbed by the persistence of this custom.

Mikveh:  Immersion by men in a mikveh—a ritual bath for spiritual purification—is unusual but not unheard of. (Mikveh is a Mitzvah for women after their menstrual cycles, but is not commanded of men.) Immersion as a spiritual custom has had a popular reemergence in liberal communities in recent years, thanks in no small part to places like Mayyim Hayyim in Newton, MA.

Daniel Sperber, the preeminent scholar of regional Jewish customs around the world, has noted some interesting aspects of the practice of immersing before Yom Kippur. In his opus Minhagei Yisrael (available abridged in English as Why Jews Do What They Do, 1999), he explains that the custom arose in medieval Germany to immerse three times before Yom Kippur. This was based on numerology: in one explanation, the phrase mikveh yisrael appears in the Bible three times; in another, the Bible refers three times (Ezekiel 36:25, Leviticus 16:19 and 16:30) to God’s purification of Israel. An alternative explanation connects the three immersions to the three appearances of the word “purify” in Leviticus 16:19 and 30.

Seudat Mafseket:  A ritual meal that precedes the fast. The Talmud itself emphasizes the importance of having a good meal in preparation for fasting. Rashi, commenting on the discussion in Yoma 81b, writes:

The feasting on the ninth of Tishrei [the day before Yom Kippur] helps to emphasize the solemnity and the self-affliction due the next day. The more feasting on the eve of Yom Kippur, the more pronounced the affliction on the day itself.

It’s more than academic to look at the traditions that arose around preparing for Yom Kippur. Some of those customs are dead-ends for us (I won’t be joining you for lashing with makkot this week, and my own experiences with kappores largely have been nauseating, not redemptive).  Some—like rediscovering the mikveh and making the meal before the fast special—readily complement our spiritual condition. 

The point is that Yom Kippur, in order to “work,” demands preparation. The essential thing is not the custom per se, but the internal, spiritual result.  They are intended to catalyze the process by which we ask face deep questions:

What relationships are most precious to me, and how will I tend to them better in the year ahead?

Whom have I hurt? Who is waiting to hear my apology?

To what degree am I living up to my responsibilities—to myself, my family, my people, my world?

What makes me so angry about the world that I want to scream—and what can I, in fact, do about it?

How am I going to stop screwing up?

If we can be honest about the questions, and start to approach the answers, then all the preparations for Yom Kippur have done their jobs.

Kappores sign.jpg

After Charlottesville

I’ve been reticent to write about the horrors of the past few days. Not because I haven’t been completely obsessed with it all; simply because I didn’t think I had anything new to contribute.

After all, when my family and neighbors and I were at our town’s rally against hate on Sunday night after Charlottesville, I was in kind of snarky mood. (It happens.) My overwhelming sense was: “Really? We still have to do this? We have to protest the KKK and American Nazis? In 2017?” What was running through my head that evening was the voice of John Belushi ז״ל: “I hate Illinois Nazis.”

And of course, I’m appalled by the moral black hole that is the Executive Branch of the government.

So I’ve read the articles (obsessively), and the op-eds, and the letters from rabbis to their communities, and the statements from community organizations—all of whom appropriately have expressed revulsion that Nazi slogans and symbols are resurging and that the White House can only muster half-hearted condemnation (at best; at worst, “they made me do it!”) of the most appalling people in America. The movement to normalize white supremacy in the highest level of governments is terrifying.  This meme by satirist Andy Borowitz kind of summed it up for me: “Man with Jewish Grandchildren Reluctant to Criticize Nazis.”

But it turns out that there are a couple of wrinkles I’d like to see get some more attention, so here goes:

(1)  The Jewish members of Trump’s inner circle—and I mean National Economic Council chairman Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin—what are they still doing there? They should follow the lead of the CEOs who resigned from presidential advisory councils and resign their posts. Collaborating with evil is evil; this is no time to say, “Well, maybe I can change things from the inside.” 

Just as it was the moral responsibility of Jewish board members to resign from the Carter Center when it became apparent that former President Jimmy Carter was irredeemably anti-Israel, there are bigger things at stake. You can’t say, “Well, in my little corner of the administration, we had a different agenda.” 

(2)  Domestic terrorism:  You don’t like American Nazis and the KKK? Great—that shouldn’t exactly be controversial.  But legislatively speaking:  Now we must be calling out the administration for its proposing to remove domestic groups from certain anti-terrorist organizations, in order to focus solely on Islamic terror. I don’t think this actually went into effect—this administration is insidiously non-transparent—but it did openly propose the idea. Reject it; make sure that lawmakers keep all these groups on domestic terror watchlists (and having the funding to do something about it).

(3)   Don’t change the subject. I was bemused to watch yesterday’s press conference with the President, where at the beginning, middle, and end of the questions-and-answers it was clear that he wanted to talk about anything other than Charlottesville. “How about a couple of infrastructure questions?” he kept asking to reporters who weren’t interested in discussing infrastructure while the residue of a Nazi march in Virginia lingered.

And kudos to right-wing pundits such as Charles Krauthammer, with whom I agree practically never.  But on Fox, Krauthammer wasn’t standing for any dissembling from Trump apologist Laura Ingraham:

Ms. Ingraham, a Trump supporter who has been courted by the White House, allowed that the president’s remarks might have hurt his agenda [my italics]. But she also offered a partial defense, saying of Mr. Trump, “He made some points that were factually right.”

Mr. Krauthammer retorted, “What Trump did today was a moral disgrace,” and said that the president had broken from his predecessors who recognized the history of civil rights.

“I’m not going to pass moral judgment on whether Donald Trump is morally on the same plane as you are, Charles,” Ms. Ingraham replied.

Don’t let them change the subject. That goes too for the likes of Rabbi Marvin Hier—whose moral blinders let him intone a bathetic prayer at the Inauguration—who this morning on CNN condemned Nazis, but tried as hard as he could to change the subject to Iran’s pursuit of nukes. Iran is a horror—but Hier's desire to talk about anything other than the topic at hand was pretty transparent.

We know what we have to do—stand with those of our neighbors who are most likely to be disenfranchised; have zero-tolerance for leaders’ racist dog whistles; sign petitions, attend rallies, write letters and op-eds. Remain aghast, don’t be silent. But I hope drawing out some of these points above is useful. 

And a reminder:  in this week’s Torah portion we read two seemingly contradictory verses:

אֶ֕פֶס כִּ֛י לֹ֥א יִֽהְיֶה־בְּךָ֖ אֶבְי֑וֹן
There shall be no needy among you (Deut. 15:4)

כִּ֛י לֹא־יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ
There will never cease to be needy ones in your land (Deut. 15:11).

Which is it? Will there be people in need in the future or not? 

Bible scholar Richard Elliott Friedman addressed this in his Torah commentary: Verse 11 doesn’t mean that there will always be people in desperate straits; the Hebrew word yehdal ("cease") means that it won’t come to a stop on its own. If you want suffering to disappear, you’ve got to do something about it, reaching out to hurting brothers and sisters.

So it is with extreme hate. It isn’t just going to go away—not unless people of good faith come together and clearly articulate our vision of a decent and just society, and demand that elected leaders make it so.

All You Need is Love

It’s mid-summer and Love Is All Around.

2017 is the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love,” and The Beatles spearheaded the moment in July 1967 with “All You Need is Love.” The song was recorded as Great Britain’s contribution to “Our World,” the first live global television transmission: 400 million people in 25 countries watched John, Paul, George, and Ringo sing:

Nothing you can know that isn’t known
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be

It’s easy

All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love

Love is all you need

Love is also in the air because it’s Tu B’Av, the date on the Jewish calendar devoted to love. (And not the rabbis’ kind of love—you know, “God’s love for the people of Israel.” It’s about the good kind.)

Tu B’Av, the 15th day of the month of Av, falls just six days after the bleakest day on the calendar, Tisha B’Av, as if to offer comfort and consolation after that day’s commemoration of tragedy and destruction.

Tu B’Av is unmentioned in the Bible, but appears briefly in the Talmud, Ta’anit 26b and 30b-31a. There we are told:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said:
There were no days as joyous for the people of Israel as the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, for on those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white clothes—borrowed, so as not to embarrass one who did not have [any of her own]. 

…They would go out and dance in the vineyards. And what would they say? “Young man! Raise your eyes and see what you are choosing for yourself. Do not set your eyes on [surface] beauty, but rather on [a good] family.

[As it says in the Bible,]
Grace is deceptive, beauty is illusory
But a woman who fears God is to be praised.
And it further says,
Extol her for the fruit of her hands,
And let her works praise her in the gates. (Proverbs 31:30-31).

So early Israel had a day devoted to frolicking and partnering up, long before your mother’s friend had “someone she wanted you to meet.” Note especially that the Talmud’s description of “a good family” has nothing to do with money or social status. My favorite part of this description is how the young women of Jerusalem would borrow their festive clothes from one another, so that there was no rich or poor on this day, no humiliation or shame for the Cinderella who isn’t invited to the white collar criminals’ ball.

The Talmud goes on to link this day to events that happened in Israel’s past—days when relief from suffering came to a blessed end, and normal life could resume. One Sage says Tu B’Av was the date when it was determined that members of different tribes of Israel could intermarry with one another. Another Rabbi says that it was the day that Israel was permitted to marry members of the tribe of Benjamin, who had been declared off-limits after the intertribal war described in Judges 19-21. And a third opinion says that Tu B’Av was the day when the deaths of the Israelites in the wilderness—the generation that was doomed to die and not enter the Land of Israel—came to an end; a new generation was now established and they could prepare to enter the Land.  (For all five explanations of Tu B’Av, see Ta’anit 30b-31a.)

It is wonderful to simply note that ancient Israel, like so many other cultures, had a day devoted to love. But what is “love” in the Torah, anyway?

Jews have many words for love, just as, so they say, Eskimos have many words for snow. The most common is ahavah, a word that appears frequently as a noun and as a command (“v’ahavta”). But many have wondered: how can the Torah command love?

I think the key is to understand what, exactly, the Bible means by ahavah. We are, after all, commanded to love many things:  God; fellow Israelites; the stranger (= the immigrant, the minority in our society); and most famously, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).  What does it mean?

Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom explains that “love” in the Torah is not simply an emotion. Love necessarily entails action:

How can love be commanded? The answer simply is that the verb ‘ahav signifies not only an emotion or attitude, but also deeds… The ger [minority] is “loved” by providing him with food and shelter (Deut. 10:18-19). God is “loved” by observing His commandments (Deut. 11:1, 6:5-6,9) and God, in turn, “loves” Israel by subduing its enemies (Deut. 7:8).  (Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, p.1653).

That is to say: of course love is deeply rooted as an emotional complex of compassion, affection, desire, gratitude, and nurturing. But the Bible’s definition of love demands behavior that stems from those feelings.

All of which makes perfect sense. If someone says they love you, you expect that means something more than simply sending flashes of warmth in your direction; it means you can expect certain kindnesses and acts from that person. When my wife, whom I love, needs something, it is a privilege to put my own will aside and to get her what she lacks. When my children, whom I love, hurt, then I hurt.

Or phrased in the negative—if someone disappears in our time of need, or speaks cruelly behind our back, or simply doesn’t have time for us, we may suspect that person didn’t really love us in the first place.

Of course, we are human beings, and by nature we are imperfect and doomed to disappoint. So we should hasten to add that falling short and forgiveness should be built-in parts of a genuine loving relationship as well. Some of the actions that love demands include what the Torah calls tochecha - critique and correction, in order to help the object of our love be the best that they can be. (This is an important part of what we mean by loving one's country.) We believe in teshuvah, the opportunity to return and repair. The point is, “love” demands both presence and action in addition to deep-seated emotion.

So was Lennon זצ״ל right when he sang, “All You Need is Love”? We need more than that. We need justice. And truth. And the ability to support ourselves in a dignified way. We need a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. And God knows we need more peace.

But if “love” is a multidimensional thing that includes feeling and acting on those feelings, maybe Lennon was on to something. If love spurs us to action, maybe Love Is All You Need.

Happy Tu B’Av!

Tisha B'Av, Exile, & The Laws of Physics

Astrophysicists understand principles of physics to become “laws” when they can be reliably applied not only on earth but also universally throughout… well, the universe. For instance, the Second Law of Thermodynamics presumes that objects everywhere have an inclination towards entropy and chaos. And a gravitational principle like centrifugal force, which pulls objects away from their center, is considered reliably true.

I wonder about the universality of these principles in relationships and the human soul. Is “entropy and chaos” our destination? Is there a centrifugal force that pushes us apart? Do our lives automatically incline towards distance and exile?

Stay with me, because Tisha B’Av, the most solemn fast day in the Jewish calendar, is upon us. The 9th day of the month of Av has been a magnet for disaster in Jewish history, encapsulated as the date of destruction of both the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem and the subsequent Jewish exiles from the Land of Israel.

The Sages of Jewish tradition confronted the destruction of the Temple (the Beit HaMikdash) and their exile with radical theology. They spiritualized the message of destruction. And this is a point that I think we lose sight of: what Tisha B’Av really tells us about G-d and human beings.

To understand this, we have to understand what the Beit HaMikdash meant. According to Solomon’s dedication prayer for the Temple (in I Kings 8), worship there had several goals: Someone who was wronged could go to plea for divine justice. Israel sought divine assistance there versus her adversaries. Prayers were offered for relief in times of natural disaster or epidemic. Individuals sought forgiveness for their sins. And it was a place for non-Israelites as well: Solomon asserted that God’s House would be a place for anyone who grasped God’s wonders and wanted to share in celebration of them.

There were other innovations. It was not just a place for reconciliation with God; it was also about reconciling with people. There was a “chamber of secrets”—like something out of Harry Potter—where people would give Tzedakah in secret and others would take in secret, to minimize their loss of dignity (M. Shekalim 6:6). There was also a space in the Temple where a person would return lost objects—not just objects lost in the Temple precincts, but things that belonged to others and had been discovered during the year and throughout the countryside; the Temple was a national lost-and-found (Bava Metzia 28a).

In short, “Anyone who never saw the Beit HaMikdash in its constructed state has never seen a magnificent building” (Sukkah, 51a). And I can’t help but think that by “magnificent” they don’t just mean bean beautiful architecture, but ethical beauty.

The Beit HaMikdash was a place for divine-human intimacy. But that could only be achieved in a place of human-human intimacy, a place where people treated one another with the value, respect, and honor deserving of the Image of God.

In 70 BCE, the Romans destroyed the Temple, burned Jerusalem, and exiled the Jews. The Talmud strove to understand how God could let this happen. And it came to a radical conclusion:

Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three things: idol worship, sexual immorality, and bloodshed.

However, the Second Temple—a time when people were engaged in Torah study, Mitzvot, and acts of kindness—why was it destroyed? Because of senseless hatred (sinnat hinam).

This teaches us that senseless hatred is worse than idol worship, sexual immorality, and bloodshed. (Yoma 9b)

The Talmud, in Gittin 55b-57a, describes various vignettes and a chain of events that led to the destruction of Jerusalem. The most famous of these scenes is the “Story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza,” where a private dispute turns into the public humiliation of a certain man named Bar Kamtza. His humiliation takes place in front of the ambivalent Rabbis, the leaders of the community, who couldn’t care less about his suffering. It culminates with the understanding that “God destroyed God’s house.”

What is the point of all this? And what is so radical about it?  The Talmud is saying that people in those final days of the Beit HaMikdash were already estranged from one another. They couldn’t talk to one another, they publicly embarrassed one another, and ultimately they failed to see the divine in one another. Once a society reaches this low state, where someone would be publicly humiliated and no one would speak in his defense, then the community is already in exile—and its foundations are rotten. 

The Beit HaMikdash is meant to be the antithesis of Exile. So if the people are already exiled from one another, then the Temple is purposeless and empty. Thus God flicks it away; its reason for being had ceased to exist. The Temple wasn’t destroyed as a punishment per se, as if to say, “Because you sinned, I exiled you.” To the contrary, its message is: I, God, was already in exile from you. So I tossed the Temple away like a used candy wrapper.

The question at the heart of Tisha B’Av is: Are we destined to pull away from one another? Is Exile—the place where each of us is ultimately, fundamentally Alone—the natural movement of our lives? 

There is a centrifugal force that moves people apart from one another; it is exacerbated by selfishness, greed, and a failure to find empathy for people whom we know are hurting. More than that: the Talmud condemns as accomplices the bystanders in the Bar Kamtza story, the ones who didn’t humiliate Bar Kamtza but who didn’t do anything to support him. Bystanders to evil are contributors to its effects. If you do nothing in the face of lies and hurt, then you are part of the forces that are pushing exile deeper.

The only way to counteract exile is to apply a countervailing force. (This was the theological premise of early Zionism: don’t passively wait for exile to end, but get to work ending it.) Where there are lies, speak truth. Where a person hurts, provide comfort. Where this is injustice, stand up. And where there is hate, apply love. 

Rav Kook called this countervailing force ahavat hinam, “senseless” or default love, the only possible response to sinat hinam, senseless hate. (Orot HaKodesh, Vol. III, p.324).

The Second Law of Thermodynamics presumes that objects have an inclination towards distance and disorder. But Stephen Hawking, musing on the nature of black holes, notes that this law is not universal: 

The second law of thermodynamics has a rather different status than that of other laws of science, such as Newton’s law of gravity, for example, because it does not hold always, just in the vast majority of cases. (A Brief History of Time, p.130)

In other words, exile isn’t inevitable. And Tisha B’Av is not a black hole of bleakness. It just reminds us that passivity and inertia will pull us further apart from one another, and from our source, unless we act—and act soon.

Pluralism in Israel – Our Facts on the Ground

It’s almost Shabbat in Netanya, a coastal town in central Israel, and I’m with Rabbi Edgar Nof, the Energizer-bunny of Mitzvahs and inclusion.

The synagogue where Edgar works—we joke that the founders didn’t try very hard when they named it “Natan-Ya”—is a small boxy building that was once Haganah headquarters in the days before the Independence. Next door is a school that, in those pre-state days, was occupied by the radical Zionist organization Lehi.  Edgar points out the tower from where, in those revolutionary times, they sent signals to the illegal aliyah boats that were shut out from the ports of Haifa and Akko by the British. 

The mainstream Haganah and the extremist Lehi were bitter rivals. Edgar smiles: “Even then, left and right were fighting each other.” 

________________

Netanya doesn’t seem like the cutting-edge of progressive Judaism. It doesn’t feel like the cutting-edge of anything; it’s more like an Israeli version of a beach town from a Bruce Springsteen song whose glory days are past. Historically it has drawn large numbers of immigrants from Russia and, more recently, France. Natan-Ya—the only liberal shul in the city—feels far from the pulse of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. 

But spend a Shabbat with Edgar and his community and you’ll see precisely what Reform Judaism’s “facts on the ground” look like, and why their growth is such an imperative in Israel.

Friday afternoon commences with two classes that Edgar teaches to various constituencies in his shul—one is a class of conversion students, a richly multiethnic gathering. Plus there’s time for a Tefillin-wrapping ceremony for a boy who will become a Bar Mitzvah in the day ahead. He’s one of two bar mitzvah boys over the next 24 hours.

At Kabbalat Shabbat services, a woman who has been part of the community for years is celebrated: She has finally finished the process of conversion to Judaism, and Edgar immersed her in the Mediterranean earlier in the week. On Shabbat morning, she is called to the Torah for the first time after three decades of life in Israel. The congregation sings to her and embraces her.

On Saturday, there are two bar mitzvah celebrations; one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The first—the tefillin-wrapping boy’s—is a family where the father is Sefardi-Moroccan and the mother is Filipino. They exude such genuine joy. They may have thought that they never would have had a moment like this, as a secular family for whom the doors of the Orthodox establishment must have seemed quite shut. But Edgar and the shul make it happen; as parents and grandfather are called to the Torah, the emotion of generations of Jewish history swells in the room.  I ask the bar mitzvah boy’s two younger sisters if they’ll each become bat mitzvah with Rabbi Edgar when they’re old enough; they answer, “Of course!”

The second bar mitzvah boy, in the afternoon, is also a sweet soul. The family is decidedly secular and the boy himself has his sharing of learning issues. Edgar described to me the work it took to get him to this moment. Nonetheless, for Israelis who perhaps have never set foot inside of a shul, there is a sublime moment of joy and connection, as they pass the Torah from generation to generation and then process around the room with it, kissing it as it comes near. Without a doubt, the extended family members in the room had never been in a Reform synagogue before. What did they see? Tradition, inclusion, warmth, song, Shabbat delight, and embracing smiles. 

Edgar Nof, like other Reform rabbis in Israel, does hundreds of these ceremonies per year, often with constituencies that otherwise would be left behind: new immigrants; disabled kids; families with a parent whose status is disputed.

Here’s the scorecard for one 24-hour period in Netanya:  2 Torah classes; spirited Shabbat services; one conversion; one tefillin ceremony; two bar mitzvah families; guests welcomed. 

This is liberal Judaism on the edge: Flinging doors open wide to those who would otherwise be left behind. Providing authentic Jewish experiences for people who otherwise would have opted out; a genuine alternative to closed orthodoxy and sheer secularism. And it’s not Tel Aviv, Haifa, or Jerusalem, but here, away from the throngs of Anglo tourists, where Edgar Nof does his work of kiruv. The community is a great voice of Judaism that is open to all who seek it. 

Look: religious pluralism, like all of Israel’s civic battles, will be fought with “facts on the ground.” The Kotel is important, as are all of our legislative fights for recognition. But it is also our responsibility to invest in the Israel that we want to see emerge—and that means investing in communities like Natan-Ya, to make the case for a thriving non-Orthodox alternative for Israelis. It can't just be about legislative battles: we have to build the Jewish alternative that we want to see.

___________

It’s all pretty intense, so on Shabbat afternoon I take a break and head down to the beach. Netanya’s sands are enveloped by tall cliffs that remind me of Jurassic Coast of southern England. Surfers are riding the modest Mediterranean waves and you can see all of secular Israel here, in all its ethnic variety and fun. (Also some of the world’s smallest bikinis.)

It all seems so damn normal.

When I’ve had enough Middle Eastern sun, I walk back up King David Street. Suddenly I’m standing in front of the Park Hotel. The hotel has seen better days and its prominent rooftop sign is dilapidated. This was the site of the Passover massacre in 2002, where on the night of the seder a Hamas suicide bomber, disguised as a woman, murdered 28 people and injured 140 others.

It’s not normal, it’s Israel. Where exaltation and horror too often reside next door to each other. And Israel’s enemies don’t discriminate among their victims; they are utterly pluralistic.

Jerusalem, A Fractured Unity

Yom Yerushalayim 5777

As Jerusalem recovers from President Trump’s whirlwind visit, the city moves on to its next milestone. As evening falls, we celebrate the fiftieth Yom Yerushalayim / Jerusalem Day.

In fact, the Trump team’s quick departure is timely, because its visit inadvertently raised doubts about the very meaning of Yom Yerushalayim. 

In the days leading up to the President’s arrival, controversy was stirred as one of his advisors reportedly told the Israelis, “The Western Wall is not your territory. It’s part of the West Bank.” Subsequently, members of the administration both refuted and tacitly affirmed the remark. And while the President indeed made history by visiting the Kotel, his rebuff of Prime Minister Netanyahu who wanted to join him at the Wall only made his actual position more inscrutable.

Apparently, even though the state is 69 years old and Jerusalem has been united under Israeli sovereignty for 50 years, there remain those who doubt the city’s status as the legitimate capital of Israel.

Under the U.N. partition plan of 1947, Jerusalem was supposed to be an internationalized city. After the War of Independence, the city was bifurcated; Jordan ruled its eastern half and all of the Old City, and the western part of the city was controlled by Israel. The national institutions of Israel—including the Knesset, Supreme Court, and residences of the Prime Minister and President—all became rooted in western Jerusalem. And it has flourished: Jerusalem is Israel’s largest city.

Yom Yerushalayim marks the anniversary of the unexpected and dramatic unification of Jerusalem under Israeli rule in the Six Day War. On the 28th day of Iyar—corresponding to June 7, 1967 and May 24, 2017—Israel pushed back the attacking Jordanian forces and conquered the Old City and East Jerusalem. On that day, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan proclaimed:

This morning, the Israel Defense Forces liberated Jerusalem. We have united Jerusalem, the divided capital of Israel. We have returned to the holiest of our holy places, never to part from it again. To our Arab neighbors we extend, also at this hour—and with added emphasis at this hour—our hand in peace. And to our Christian and Muslim fellow citizens, we solemnly promise full religious freedom and rights. We did not come to Jerusalem for the sake of other peoples' holy places, and not to interfere with the adherents of other faiths, but in order to safeguard its entirety, and to live there together with others, in unity.

But there have always been two Jerusalems. Literally: Hebrew speakers know that the –ayim suffix means “a pair,” so its very name Yerushalayim implies not one but two.

The first appearance of Jerusalem in the Bible is in the Book of Joshua, where Joshua battles an alliance led by King Adoni-zedek of Jerusalem (Joshua 10).  By the end of the saga, most of the land has surrendered—except for Jerusalem, of which it says: “The men of Judah could not dispossess the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem; so the people of Judah dwell with the Jebusites in Jerusalem to this day” (Josh. 15:63).  Already in Joshua’s time, the city was multicultural.

David was the first to “unite” Jerusalem; he made the city his kingdom’s capital. His son Solomon built the Temple there, making Jerusalem the dual religious and political capital of the people of Israel. With palace and temple, Jerusalem came to represent both the body and soul of the Jewish people.

Fractiousness amidst unity has remained part of the city’s identity ever since. In the Talmud (Ta’anit 5a), Rabbi Yitzhak imagines two Jerusalems, a heavenly city above that matches its earthly counterpart below:

Rabbi Yitzhak said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:  “The Holy One says, ‘I will not come into the Jerusalem that is above until I come into the city of Jerusalem that is below.’”
Is there really a “Jerusalem that is above”?
Yes, for the verse says, “Jerusalem built up, a city with its companion” (Psalm 122:3).

In other words, Rabbi Yitzhak knows Jerusalem as both a spiritual ideal and as an earthly reality. Unifying the ideal with reality remains a messianic aspiration.

Today, we know that Jerusalem still bears these contradictions. On one hand, we have no doubts about Jerusalem’s centrality to modern Israel. We rejoice that for 50 years it has been united under Israeli rule. The streets of the Jewish Quarter—which had been demolished under the Jordanians—are flourishing. An American President just caressed the stones of the Western Wall. And the religious sites of all the city’s religious faiths are protected. Jerusalem is a thriving city of culture, spirit, and politics.

And yet: how unified is Jerusalem really? The Arab and Jewish neighborhoods certainly feel like two different cities. Do Israelis frequent Silwan or Beit Safafa or Shuafat? Even Jewish Jerusalem feels divided. Do secular residents visit haredi outposts like Sanhedriya or Kiryat Tzanz?

The Western Wall itself is a symbol of the schisms among Jews. The dispossession of non-Orthodox Jews at the Kotel is a pungent reminder that Jerusalem undivided is still a heavenly ideal that is far from reality. The Chief Rabbinate and its supporters distribute ugly posters around the city that slander non-Orthodox Jews and spew hatred at the Women of the Wall. President Trump is welcome at the Kotel, but Jewish women in tallit and tefillin, or men and women together in egalitarian prayer, are derided and scorned.

The ideal is that every Jew in the world has a stake in Jerusalem. But the reality is that its internal divisions reflect the discord that exists among our people.

Still, there remains a vision of heavenly Jerusalem floats above it all, reminding us that this is not the way it is meant to be.  Jerusalem also carries a whiff of peace—as ‘ir shalom, the city of wholeness.  The reality may be painful and fractured, but the ideal is that we should learn how to pray and live side by side with one another.

This Yom Yerushalayim and its celebrations should be a reminder of a future unification, when ideals and reality can be brought together. Celebrate it in joy and hope!

Hitler Didn't Create Israel. (Modernity Did.)

Two 20th Century events irrevocably shaped Jewish destiny: the massacre of six million Jews in the Shoah and the establishment of the State of Israel. They are certainly linked; after all, a visitor cannot understand Israel without visiting Yad VaShem. And yet, it is crucial to understand that Israel was well on its way to becoming real long before Hitler’s rise.

As we commemorate Yom HaShoah, friends and foes alike repeat the falsehood that Israel was established because of the Holocaust. Many Jews, lacking the knowledge of Israel’s history and purpose, believe that Israel came into being in 1948 as some sort of reparation the world’s failure to stop the Nazis in time. Occasionally Palestinian propagandists suggest that Jews were awarded Palestine as compensation for their victimhood—and that Palestinians have suffered for Europe’s crimes.

Even President Barack Obama, in his famous 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world, demonstrated this misreading of history, invoking the Shoah as the only rationale upon which Israel exists.

But the origins of Zionism are far earlier than World War II. Certainly, there were always Jewish enclaves in the Land of Israel throughout the ages. But when we speak of “Zionism,” we mean the modernist movement that emerged in the 19th century salons and journals of Enlightenment-era Europe.

Various streams of Zionism appeared at that time. They fit four general categories: religious awakening, the question of how to be a Jew in modern times, the renewal of Jewish culture, and a response to anti-Semitism.

Most Jewish religious movements in the 19th century—Orthodox and Reform alike—avoided calling upon Jews to move en masse to the Land of Israel. Nevertheless, as early as the 1830s nonconformists like Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai in Serbia (1798-1878) and Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Kalischer in Prussia (1795-1874) were making the religious case for self-emancipation and the establishment of new schools and communities in Palestine.

However, most 19th century Zionist leaders were secular Jews who had been influenced by the zeitgeist of the day: nationalism. It dawned on them—and, unfortunately, on their neighbors—that Jews would always be guests (at best) amidst the nationalist aspirations that were flourishing across the continent. Jews—who had always identified as am yisrael, “the nation of Israel”— began to explore what membership in the Jewish nation meant.

Many of the Zionist leaders had abandoned traditional religion which, in their view, failed to offer meaning in the modern world. So they asked: What, beyond religion, does Jewish peoplehood mean today? For thinkers like Yosef Hayyim Brenner (1881-1921) or Aharon David Gordon (1856-1922), Jewish spirit in the Diaspora would always be stunted; only by working the Land of Israel itself would a new, healthy Jew emerge. And for Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927), Jewish autonomy entailed a renaissance of Jewish culture and in all the expressions of its spirit. This renaissance could not happen as guests in another’s home.

Others were convinced that Zinoism was the only refuge from pogroms and state- and church-sanctioned anti-Semitism. This political Zionism culminated with Theodor Herzl (1860-1904). Herzl concluded that a cataclysm was approaching and he sought a political refuge to save Jewish lives—decades before Hitler’s appearance.

In 1897, Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, where leaders of different streams gathered to shape the movement. Afterwards, Herzl wrote in his diary:

In Basel I founded the Jewish state. If I were to say this aloud I would meet with general laughter; but in another five years, and certainly in another fifty years, everyone will be convinced of this. 

After World War I, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Great Britain came to dominate the Middle East, maps and futures were being redrawn. The floodgates opened with the Balfour Declaration. On November 2, 1917, the British foreign secretary officially endorsed “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

The Balfour Declaration coincided with waves of Jewish immigrants coming to Palestine. The Second Aliyah (1904-1914) brought 40,000 people, largely Russian socialists and labor Zionists, fleeing the pogroms. The Third Aliyah (1919-1923) brought another 40,000 Jews and the Fourth Aliyah (1924-1928) brought 80,000, as a result of postwar economic crises—and immigration quotas in the United States.

Simultaneously, the Yishuv (the nascent Jewish government in Palestine) was building the infrastructure of the state-to-be. The city of Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 on the seashore north of Jaffa. The Haganah, the antecedent of the Israel Defense Forces, was established in 1920. And Hebrew University in Jerusalem was dedicated in 1925.

These currents made the coming reality of a Jewish state clear by the 1930s. In 1937, the British Peel Commission recommended the partition of Palestine into a Jewish State and an Arab State. Setting a sad precedent, the Zionist leadership accepted the plan while the Arabs rejected it. But by now the words “Jewish state” were no longer a political unicorn; its realization was in sight.

This momentum was contagious overseas. American Reform rabbis reversed their longstanding rejection of Zionism. In the Columbus Platform of 1937, they wrote:

In the rehabilitation of Palestine, the land hallowed by memories and hopes, we behold the promise of renewed life for many of our brethren. We affirm the obligation of all Jewry to aid in its upbuilding as a Jewish homeland.

Even then, few anticipated the Final Solution. If the Nazis never had come to power, or if they had been stopped by the allies before the Holocaust came to be, there is no reason to think that the Zionists’ momentum would have ceased.

Of course, the death camps did happen, and in 1948 the State of Israel was declared. Hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived on Israel’s shores. The attempts by the British to limit Jewish migration to Israel—as dramatized by the Exodus 1947 episode—only served to illustrate why a Jewish State was necessary.

Why is all this important? Because to understand Israel today, one must realize that the Shoah is part of the collective story of the Jewish people. But our connections to the land—and to one another, to am yisrael—were in place long before the Nazis’ vile rise to power. The Shoah may justify the vigor with which Israelis fight for their right to exist, but it does not explain why Israel became a historical reality.

Hitler did not create the State of Israel. But because of the Shoah, Israel’s importance, its legitimacy, and its centrality in Jewish life are laid bare.