פידלער אויפן דאך—Fidler Afn Dakh: The Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof

We all know the well-worn critiques of Fiddler on the Roof: it’s sentimental, full of caricatures, and frontloads all of its most memorable songs in Act One. More significantly, it romanticizes a world that in reality knew more than its share of misery. Suffering belies the Jews’ dancing on tables with Cossack “brothers” during the song “To Life!”  

Still I love it, and always have felt that the critics protested too much. After all, an antisemitic cloud hovers over the plot, and the population of Anatevka does end up being expelled from the Pale. This musical was never simply one long hora.

Joel Grey’s Yiddish-language production, just closing at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and making aliyah to the Theatre District, makes that point clearer than it’s ever been.

Since (the English-language) Fiddler is now more than a half-century old, we can better appreciate the context in which it appeared. Historian Rachel Kranston sees Fiddler as an expression of the “ambivalent embrace” of post-WW2 American Jewry’s flight to the suburbs. While many Jewish families found comfort and economic success, thoughtful Jews of that generation understood that big sacrifices were being made when they left the cities. Jewish leaders worried that with prosperity there would be a spiritual descent, a loss of multigenerational intimacies, and a turn towards political conservatism that comes with not seeing the daily struggles of your neighbors. Fiddler—along with the photo-essays of Roman Vishniac and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Earth is the Lord’s—were romanticizations of the past, signs of a generation sensing that something precious was being lost.

Celebrating Yiddish, too, carries the same risks. The language of the daily life of Ashkenazi Jews for centuries, Yiddish was the primary vehicle of their spirituality, their wit, and their literary character. Unfortunately, Yiddish for many people connotes lazy nostalgia or borsht-belt vulgarity. The author and scholar Dovid Katz upends most of this conventional wisdom in an entertaining history of Yiddish, including the mistaken notion that Yiddish is in decline. The truth is that Yiddish is alive and well and embraces more speakers every year. It’s just that almost all of them are Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jews)—not the sort of mamaloshen that most nostalgists have in mind.

Fiddler on the Roof being performed in Yiddish is a great experience, and aims to restore some of those losses. One thing that always rang hollow was its clunky use of Jewish language. Take, for instance, the “Sabbath Prayer.” No Jew says “Sabbath”, of course; that’s Jewish-in-translation for outsiders peering in through a window. But would any audience have been confused because of the word “Shabbos”? Surely not. Even if Fiddler were being performed by a public high school in Fort Smith, Arkansas, the audience would have understood. So why the coyness?

Same goes with “Torah”—or, better, the Yiddish Toyre—instead of Tevye’s constantly invoking the “Good Book” like a frum John Calvin. In the minimalist set of this Yiddish production, a backdrop with the word תורה shadows the set. At first I thought it was a hokey device—until the culmination of the first act. During Tzeitl’s and Motl’s wedding, Russian thugs vandalize the town and beat up the Jews and, at the scene’s climax, rip the tableau “Torah” in half. It’s an unexpectedly visceral and powerful moment.

Similarly, there’s something restorative about reading the spellings of the names in the playbill—“Motl”, “Hodl”, “Khave”, “Leyzer-Volf”, “Anatevke”—rather than their more familiar, ever-so-slightly Americanized versions.

My grandmother never called the Yiddish language “Yiddish”—she just called it “Jewish.” Which is, of course, what it means. And she had a point. Just as Robert Frost once defined “poetry” as “that which is lost in translation”, so too does Judaism in translation lose some of its Jewishness.

Language means everything in Judaism. “The Sabbath” is not “Shabbos”, “the Good Book” is not “Torah”, “charity” is not “Tzedakah”, and a “house of worship” is not a “shul.” The Yiddish Fiddler restores so much of this to the rhythms and cadences of songs and dialogue that have entered our vernacular.

Despite a half-century of rabbis’ and scholars’ gripes about Fiddler, I’ll keep going to see it forever. It is a Jewish-American landmark, and deservedly so: There is just so much memory of Jewish pain coursing though its veins. But Yiddish is the most effective vessel of that pain and that memory, and having seen Fiddler in Yiddish, I don’t think I’ll ever again enjoy English versions of the play quite as much.

Fiddler Yiddish.jpeg

One Good Legacy of 2018: Books about Israel

As 2018 slouches into history, I can think of one item of quality that this year produced: meaningful books about Israel.

Now, “the making of many books is without limit / and much study is wearying of the flesh” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). That warning, tacked onto the end of Kohelet by a revisionist editor, could easily apply to contemporary books about the Middle East. After all, books about Israel that seemed so important just a few years ago have tended to quickly become dated.

Yet there are three books that appeared this year that I suspect will continue to be useful in five and even ten years to come. Each may even guide us on how to talk respectfully to each other again.

My friend Yossi Klein Halevi’s Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor has a heartfelt mission: to cogently and concisely explain the narrative of Israel’s existence. Yossi is a pioneer in fostering Jewish-Muslim understanding, and, G-d willing, this book will contribute to that effort. It is a series of chapters directed to a fictional Palestinian neighbor who lives across the valley from the French Hill neighborhood in Jerusalem where he lives. And he has reinforced the message by publishing a free Arabic version of the manuscript on the internet with a heartfelt invitation for someone to write a “Letters to My Israeli Neighbor” in response.

Yet somehow I can’t shake the feeling that the format of the book is simply a device—its real aim is to make the case for Israel in a clear way to any audience needs it. A big part of that audience is the American Jewish community, which urgently needs to learn how to articulate the case for Israel without anger and defensiveness (despite that fact that we have real enemies on the right and the left who tend to elicit anger and defensiveness from us). In that sense, this book is enormously important—and it will continue to be valuable for years to come.

Also arriving in 2018 was Gil Troy’s anthology The Zionist Ideas, a re-visioning of Arthur Hertzberg’s essential book The Zionist Idea from 1959. Hertzberg was the first to collect primary sources, in English translation, of the great thinkers from the 19th and 20th century who built the intellectual foundations of the Jewish State. And what a diverse group they were! The book captured the dynamic array of thought that sparked the most important revolution in Jewish history since the days of the Talmud—a revolution to which we are the fortunate heirs.

And yet, for all its breadth, Troy’s rethinking of Hertzberg reaches even wider. His Zionist Idea 2.0 not only updates the original with more than half a century of thinkers and activists, it also incorporates non-Ashkenazi voices (still not enough), women (Hertzberg had none!), a great many Diaspora Zionists, and perspectives from across the Jewish religious spectrum. Today’s Zionist community is even more eclectic, diverse, and contentious than it was in Theodor Herzl’s day—and that is really saying something. 

To make room for all of these, Troy has dropped or abridged much that was in the previous volume. Therefore, instead of replacing Hertzberg, Troy’s book will sit neatly on the shelf next to the original. Together, they are the essential primary sources for understanding the complex foundations of Israel and its meaning in the 21st century. Students will be reaching for both of them for a long time to come.

Finally, 2018 saw the arrival of the English translation of Micah Goodman’s Catch-67, originally published in Hebrew in 2017. Milkud 67 was a runaway bestseller in Israel; it seemed like an entire country had become one big book group, debating Goodman’s analysis of why the country is so “stuck” in regard to the Palestinian land and people it conquered in a just, defensive war over 50 years ago.

The dilemma is well known. The right argues that ceding the West Bank would create an aggressive enemy state within spitting distance of Israel’s population centers; given the Palestinians’ history of implacability and terrorism, relinquishing the territories would be suicidal. The left argues that the occupation of a population that doesn’t want to be ruled by Israel is morally corrosive, drains Israel’s resources, and poisons Israel’s relationship with the rest of the world.

And both sides are correct. Thus, the “catch”, evoking Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Up to now, no one—certainly none of Israel’s current sorry crop of leaders—has envisioned a way out of this mess.

Goodman not only diagnoses the dilemma, he tentatively offers a third way forward. Rather than grasping for ultimate solutions, he asks: what can we do today that will reduce hostility, build trust, and make short term but immediate improvements to everyone’s lives, Palestinians and Israelis alike? It’s a refreshing way of looking at a situation that has become so stalemated that no one has been able to offer any new thinking on the subject in many years.

One other thing makes Goodman so compelling. In his opening chapters, he describes a syndrome that is commonplace in Israel—and in America; namely, the inability of people of good faith and differing opinions to engage in civilized debate. It wasn’t always like this. Once, not so very long ago, friends and neighbors who saw the world differently could have meaningful exchanges with one another. The problem is when ideology becomes an intractable part of one’s identity. When that happens, Goodman argues, our opponents are no longer attacking our ideas, they are attacking our very selves. At that point, we get defensive, angry, and nasty. (For proof, see the public “comments” section of any Jewish current events website. Or better yet—don’t, it’ll make you sick.) If he’s right, then the implications of his book are valid far beyond the confines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As 2018 draws to its miserable close, I expect that these three books will have legs. They should give readers concerned about Israel plenty to think about and inspiration to draw upon for years to come.

Look, It's about White Supremacy

No, the terrorist attack in Pittsburgh is not “incomprehensible.”

I write from the suburbs of Chicago, where I’m visiting for the weekend – not far from Skokie where, forty years ago, a band of Illinois Nazis sought to march in full regalia. Why Skokie? Because in the 1970s it was not only densely Jewish, but also because it had the highest concentration of Holocaust survivors of any other municipality in America. Sticking their hate in the faces of Shoah victims was a tactic for noxious, evil people to most provocatively display their message—one that keeps surfacing since the 2016 political campaign, and Charlottesville, and now Pittsburgh: “You (Jew) will not replace us.”

The massacre of Jews at prayer at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on Shabbat morning was first and foremost a crime against Jews: the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history. Victims do not appreciate having crimes against them universalized. This attack was specifically against Jews, in a Jewish place, marking a moment in Jewish time (Shabbat; and the bris celebrating a baby boy’s arrival into the covenant of the Jewish people).

It is crucial to understand that antisemitism is not “generic bigotry.” It is specifically anti-Jewish hatred, incubated throughout the centuries and always ready to take root in the fertile soil of the far left and the far right.

In the taxonomy of hate, antisemitism has specific characteristics. Similarly, Islamophobia has its own unique expressions, and Muslims’ experience of bigotry is uniquely their own. So, too, for anti-black racism. And homophobia. And all the other special hatreds that the human soul has devised for itself.

However, there is a line that connects modern American hate together, and that line is white supremacy, which has plagued this country from its founding to today.

It’s a thread that runs from the days when Americans owned people of a certain color skin. It was enshrined in a Constitution that considered such a man 3/5 of a human being. It is self-evident on the slobbering faces of white celebrants at lynchings.

It was there when an antisemitic mob murdered Leo Frank in 1915. It runs through the internment camps in which Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during World War II. It was on the MS St. Louis which was turned away from Florida’s shores, bringing its doomed passengers back across the Atlantic to the clutches of the Nazis. It lingers in Quran-burnings by hypocritical preachers, and in vandalized mosques.

It was there in Skokie, and in the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Miami. And it’s there in the denigration of refugees as something less-than-human.

The perpetrator of the Tree of Life slaughter made his motivations perfectly clear (no, the crime is not “incomprehensible”). He despised Jews in general, and in particular for their perceived role in protecting refugees from seeking sanctuary in America. He called out HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), and claimed a last straw to save America from invading armies of dark-colored immigrants, as manipulated by sinister Jewish forces.

He told us why. It’s not incomprehensible. Just evil.

White supremacy, white nationalism, whatever you want to call it: it’s the moral rot eating at American democracy since the beginning.

The only peace I can find is that another parallel line likewise runs through the American soul. From the unique experience of a specific group, we can come to partially and incompletely come to understand the suffering (and, I hope, the aspirations and joys) of another group. This is empathy, the greatest of human virtues. Occasionally we confront fellow humans who are completely lacking in this trait. But the gatherings and the vigils of the past few days tell me that it’s possible, at least, that a coalition of decency can arise.

Jonathan Greenblatt said it quite eloquently: You have to have zero tolerance for this.

If your candidate is attacking George Soros or the “globalists,” or a member of Congress from your party is embracing Holocaust deniers, you must stand up and tell them to stop.

If your allies in a range of social justice causes either explain away the anti-Semitism of the Nation of Islam by citing the good work they may do or justify demonizing the Jewish state of Israel and its existence, then they need to know that they can no longer be your ally.

If your favorite social media platform continues to refuse to remove anti-Semitic garbage from its site, then vote with your clicks and deactivate your account.

When we consider this horror in the days and weeks to come, we should keep that in mind. It is about the poisonous sprout of white supremacy – and those who would enable it with their silent nods and coded dog whistles.

Twenty-Five Years Ago Today

Rabin Arafat Handshake.jpeg

25 years ago today. My G-d.

I was alone in my apartment in Jersey City, just days before Rosh Hashanah, watching the ceremony with tears streaming down my face. What killed me was when Rabin said, "Enough," and then went on to recite Oseh Shalom Bimeromav...

Even looking at this photo today, with Arafat's devilish grin, I can see Rabin's obvious reluctance. The old warrior had every reason to be reticent, and not to trust Arafat, the founder of suicide bombing and terrorism as a political tactic. But he did it. He did it because he knew the status quo was not acceptable, not tenable. The children of Israelis and the children of Palestinians had the right to a better future than the present.

There is so much water under the bridge since then. There have been many failures, but I reject outright that the whole endeavor that reached a high point here was a failure. History is a flow, a dynamic movement of streams and eddies. This moment in time shows what is possible, what can happen, what can be striven for. I still find inspiration in it, and Rabin - the lifelong warrior who understood better than anyone Israel's security needs - remains my hero, precisely because his vision of peace wasn't a hands-across-the-water, pie-in-the-sky dream, but one born of painful reality. Rabin’s reluctance made him real. He know the blood toll that Israel had paid in its history; he knew what Arafat was. But he recognized that a moment had arrived that would not be available forever.

It was a recognition that pragmatic peace rooted in reality is the best promise of security for everyone. With every well-rehearsed caveat - I know them well - I still believe that to be true.

Miles Davis and the Art of Living

Miles Davis (1926-1991) was one of the most important American musicians of all time—completely reinventing musical categories three or four times over during his turbulent career. Here’s the opening track of his 1971 album A Tribute to Jack Johnson, called “Right Off”:

Miles was a great trumpeter, but he was even more important as a bandleader, putting together some of the greatest groups in history. And he was known for giving cryptic instructions to his players, like a Zen master. He’d say, “Don’t just play what’s there, play what’s not there.” And: “Sometimes you have to play for a long time in order to play like yourself.” And: “There are no mistakes.”

There’s a moment in “Right Off” that illustrates Miles’s attitude of “no mistakes.” And in this instrumental drama, there’s a spiritual lesson.  You can hear the moment—Miles’s entrance after a dramatic introduction of drums, bass, and electric guitar—between 2:00 and 2:20 in the audio clip.

Here’s how jazz critic Paul Tingen describes what we’re hearing:

At 1:38 the guitarist takes down the volume, and at 2:11 he modulates to B-flat to heighten the dramatic effect of Miles’s entry. However, the bass player misses the modulation, and carries on playing in E.

In other words, the two principle players are now accidentally playing in different keys. It’s a train wreck. Surely they should stop and start the take over?

But that’s where Miles’s genius – his flexibility and his careful listening to his fellow musicians – comes in. Tingen continues:

In the middle of this clash of tonalities, Miles decides to make his entrance.

He starts by playing a D-flat, the minor third in the key of B-flat and the major sixth in the key of E. It is an ingenious choice – because the note is effective in either key. Miles than plays twelve staccato B-flat notes, phrasing them on the beat to drive the band on, and also as if to nudge [Michael] Henderson [the bass player] towards B-flat tonality. Henderson gets the message, comes into line by modulating to B-flat, and Miles carries on, giving one of the most commanding solo performances of his career.

 Tingen explains what’s so stunning about this:

Most musicians would have regarded the point when the 2 musicians were clashing in such incompatible keys as E and B-flat as an embarrassing mistake and would have stopped the band… Very few would have considered, or have had the courage, to come in at such a moment. And even fewer would have been able to make it into a resounding success.

Miles could have stopped the music, corrected the musicians, and started over. Instead, he picks the perfect note that takes the so-called mistake and makes it art.

Abraham Joshua Heschel told us that our task is to construct our lives as works of art, and what Miles does is illustrative of this.  On these days before Yom Kippur, we are tasked with having the courage to look honestly inward, reflecting on our choices and our deeds and their consequences. 

One important lesson of the Season of Teshuvah is that we don’t get to go back and erase our actions. They are done, with a ripple effect that has gone out into the world.  Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are not spiritual erasers, blotting our sins from the Book of Life.

But the Days of Awe are something else:  They are opportunities to transform those deeds and shape them. Every living soul is a work-in-progress. It’s been said: No one can make a brand-new start, but anyone can make a brand-new ending.

That’s what’s so empowering about Yom Kippur. It’s only for people who make mistakes. Perfect people are not invited:

 Rabbi Abbahu says: In the place where a baal teshuvah [one who has turned back to a good and decent path] stands, even a completely righteous person cannot stand. [Talmud, Berachot 34b]

Think about it this way: Teshuvah is one of 613 Mitzvot. That means if a person is perfect and has not sinned – then she can only do 612 of them! The rest of us get the upper hand!

To take what we’ve damaged and mangled and turn it into art: that’s the trick. Miles knew it; so did the Talmud. Maybe this year Yom Kippur can spur more of us in that direction. 

 

Quotes are from Paul Tingen, Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (New York: Billboard Books, 1991), p.106.

 

Why Teshuvah Preceded the Creation of the World

A brief thought about Teshuvah before the final Shabbat of 5778.

A medieval midrash teaches that there were a variety of things that were created even before the creation of the world, and among them: Teshuvah [turning-to-God-in-repentance]. (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 3)

It seems anomalous; after all, I might have thought that it was a person’s responsibility to turn or not to turn. Free will and all that. What in heaven does it mean to say that “Teshuvah” was created before the beginning of the world?

I suspect that the answer lies in relationships, and that’s the reason I always share this particular midrash with couples who are getting married. To say that “Teshuvah” is a preexisting condition means that forgiveness is built-in to the fabric of a relationship.

It means: before you even hurt me, I’m already prepared to forgive you. For any relationship to stand the test of time, there are some prerequisites: We know that I’m going to hurt you with occasional careless words; periodic absorption in my own problems when you need my attention; a subconsciously derived aggression or inappropriate silence when a word is needed. These things will happen, and you’re going to do the same to me. Hopefully not often; hopefully our relationship will always grow and deepen.

And to say that Teshuvah preexists our relationship means that because we love each other, forgiveness and wanting to repair damages even before they happen are built-in to the relationship.

This is the nature of a loving partnership. This is what it means to be a real friend, a lover, a parent, a brother or sister, or a son or daughter: I already forgive you.

The midrash goes a giant step further. At this season, it is as if God says these things to each of us, too: I know you're not perfect; the potential to repair and forgive is part of the fabric of our relationship.

Of course, in an era of scandalous abuses and #MeToo, we have to qualify: we’re not talking about abuse or exploitation or vicious lies here; the Teshuvah called for in those situations is much more complicated. But this is about the petty slights and daily slips that cause hurt to the most important people in our lives, the mistakes that each of us makes because we are human and thus, by definition, imperfect.

Every relationship is an interaction between two different worlds (as we learn from Sanhedrin 4:5). But even before each world was created, Teshuvah was there. Otherwise, real relationship would be impossible, and each of us would be an isolated vessel, utterly alone to navigate the void. Teshuvah makes us human.

Why Do Parents Cry When Their Children Leave for College?

The Talmud (Shabbat 151b-152a) recognizes that people cry different types of tears. There are tears of sorrow and pain, of relief and catharsis. According to the Talmud, some kinds of weeping are beneficial and some are not.

Today, as Heidi and I bring our oldest child to his first year of college, the Rabbis’ observation seems especially insightful. Of course we are tearful. But we are well aware that there are many reasons why parents may cry when their children leave for college.

Some parents may cry because of the realization that their family structure will now be different. Sure, their son or daughter will return home in the future, even many times, but with less and less frequency as the years pass. And inevitably the day will come when their parents’ house is no longer what their children mean when they say the word “home.”

Some parents may be drawn back to the hopes and dreams and promises they made when their child arrived eighteen-or-so years ago, when life was nothing but potential waiting to be realized. And we may think about how wildly divergent life’s path actually turned out to be.

Some may weep because of the realization that time passes so quickly, and that the sweet toddler who reached for your hand is now, all too suddenly, an adult. 

Some may cry because of undifferentiated longing for their child. That is to say, their tears are not for their child’s new beginnings, but because of the loss of the parent’s own youth.

And some tears come from a new vulnerability, a realization that we can’t be there to shield and process and interpret every challenge, failure, and risk that our children are about to discover. When we discover how vulnerable we really are, the tone of our prayers changes, as Dylan identified so perfectly:

My only prayer
is if I can’t be there
Lord protect my child.

And then there is the sensation of wanting just a little bit more time. There’s a great joke from The Simpsons about the last day of school: As the last bell rings, the children leap for the door and the freedom of the summer. Then a teacher exclaims, “WAIT! You didn’t learn about how World War II ended!” The students freeze. The teacher peers into a book. “We won!” The students shout “Hooray!” and now, fully satiated with the teacher’s wisdom, can enjoy their vacation. 

I know the teacher’s feeling. As we drive away from the university, the car one seat emptier, I want to hit the brakes and say, “WAIT! There’s still something I haven’t taught you!”

But that moment is gone. What we hope for, of course, is that our children leave home with the spiritual and emotional confidence to navigate life’s inevitable disappointments and challenges. We hope that they have pride in their Jewish identity, and the knowledge that the prerequisite of functioning in a multicultural society is an assurance of yourself and where you come from.

But we also hope for something more than pride: We hope that we have given them literacy in Jewish wisdom and competence in Jewish practice to allow Judaism to inform and deepen their lives every single day. We hope that we have encouraged them to develop unquenchably thirsty minds built upon a solid bedrock of faith.

The Talmud understood that tears are complex, and the mixture of many conflicting emotions at the same time is what all of life’s most poignant moments are about. As a strange city recedes in the car’s rearview mirror and we return home, we appreciate the complexity of those feelings. We’re full of confidence, pride, and excitement for new beginnings. And we utter a short prayer, perhaps the most honest and basic prayer that there is: “God, protect our child.”

Borrowed Dresses: A Thought about Tu B'Av, the Festival of Love

Tu B’Av is a return to normalcy: Just six days after the Tisha B’Av fast that marks the destruction that senseless hate can wreak, Tu B’Av (the fifteenth of the month of Av) is a day devoted to love.

According to the Mishnah, Israel in antiquity had a minor summer festival when young women would dance in the fields, inviting young men to court them:

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said:

There were no festivals more joyful for Israel than the 15th of Av and the Day of Atonement, for on [Tu B’Av] the maidens of Jerusalem would go out in borrowed white garments – borrowed, so not to shame anyone who didn’t have a garment of her own. Each of the garments required previous ritual immersion. And the maidens of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards.

 This is what they would say: “Young man! Pay close attention and see whom you are about to choose. Don’t be seduced by beauty, but pay heed to a virtuous family.” After all, “Grace is deceptive and beauty is illusory, but a woman who fears God is to be praised” (Prov. 31:30)…  
                         Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8

אָמַר רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל, לֹא הָיוּ יָמִים טוֹבִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל כַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בְּאָב וּכְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים, שֶׁבָּהֶן בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת בִּכְלֵי לָבָן שְׁאוּלִין, שֶׁלֹּא לְבַיֵּשׁ אֶת מִי שֶׁאֵין לוֹ. כָּל הַכֵּלִים טְעוּנִין טְבִילָה. וּבְנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת וְחוֹלוֹת בַּכְּרָמִים. וּמֶה הָיוּ אוֹמְרוֹת, בָּחוּר, שָׂא נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה, מָה אַתָּה בוֹרֵר לָךְ. אַל תִּתֵּן עֵינֶיךָ בַנּוֹי, תֵּן עֵינֶיךָ בַמִּשְׁפָּחָה. שֶׁקֶר הַחֵן וְהֶבֶל הַיֹּפִי, אִשָּׁה יִרְאַת ה' הִיא תִתְהַלָּל

There’s so much here in this passage—it seems so against-the-grain of what we might imagine ancient Israel was like, including the young women, in this case, controlling their own romantic destinies. I’ve written about Tu B’Av and love in Judaism, and Rabbi Tzvi Sinensky has posted this excellent essay about the festival’s possible biblical roots.

It’s easy to skip over that passage about the “borrowed white garments.” What an astonishing custom that is: on a day of frivolity and frolicking, the young women of Jerusalem were determined that none of their peers would be hurt or humiliated while the celebrations were happening. So none would wear her own dress; instead, they would share with each other, including those from poor families who couldn’t afford a dress at all. This was how Jews celebrated.

I wonder how this principle might apply today. Our celebrations have become disasters of consumption. The more money you have, the more elaborate the celebration seems to have become. Somehow, brisses turned into bar/bat mitzvahs, bar/bat mitzvahs turned into weddings, and weddings turned into… what? Papal ordinations?

Each May in Boston, it seems that every Jewish organization has its “Annual Dinner,” where much-needed funds are raised to finance the crucial work that these non-profits, day schools, and synagogues perform year-round. And yet… I know many Jewish professionals dread that time of the year, when night after night they have to experience this season of conspicuous consumption, when many of the values of modesty, equality, and integrity go out the window in pursuit of the big donors’ money. One (important) organization, for instance, is known for charging substantial dollars for a seat at its annual dinner—and for those who pay less, but are committed to the cause, there are tables in an entirely different room from the rest of the donors and speakers! They get to watch the event videostreamed to them in their "annex."

But enough grumpiness. I’m thinking about the daughters of Jerusalem, and what we might learn from them. They teach us, for instance, why Tzedakah organizations that feed hungry people need to serve dinner on china, and use real utensils, even though plastic utensils are so much easier to clean up. It’s why food programs need fresh baked pies and chocolate chip cookies, not just soup and a green vegetable.

It’s why it’s not enough to donate your old clothes—by definition, clothes that you wouldn’t wear any more—or your old furniture, or old video games, or anything else. Laudable as those gifts may be (they certainly shouldn't be thrown out), we're supposed to reach for a higher standard. Maimonides had this nailed 900 years ago. He said that the definition of “Love your neighbor as yourself” was this: “What I want for myself, I want for other people. And what I don’t want for myself, I don’t want [to happen to] them.” (Sefer HaMitzvot, Positive Mitzvah #206)

Can you imagine a high school prom—where all the students, boys and girls alike, wear “borrowed clothes” from one another, so that no one is trying to outdo their neighbor? No one would show up in a fancier car than anyone else—not only because it’s in extremely bad taste, but also because they wouldn’t want to humiliate anyone whose family couldn’t afford otherwise.

Can you imagine how different synagogue life would be—especially in the notorious “Bar Mitzvah Year”? Rich families would no longer say, “If I’ve got it, why shouldn’t I flaunt it?” Because they would understand that exorbitant spending puts pressure on all the other families in a community, making others think, “I suppose that’s the community standard that is expected of us.”

Of course, every child in the class would be invited to everyone else’s birthday party—because no one would ever want to have someone else be hurt on the occasion of their celebration.

I'd be curious to know other ways in which readers would apply this principle. Can you imagine how different, how sensitive, how empathetic our communities could be?

I can imagine it. Call it a hippie-socialist-Bernie-kibbutz fantasy if you want, but I'll take the Sages and the young women of Jerusalem from long ago, and their definition of what a "Festival of Love" really should be. 

The Exile of Tisha B'Av: What Are We Mourning?

Since the Fast of Tisha B'Av cannot fall on Shabbat, it begins this year
on Saturday evening, July 21. 

Exile is one of the preeminent themes of the Torah. From the outset of Genesis, Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden of Eden. Abraham is called by God to “the land I will show you” but famine forces him to seek refuge in Egypt. Joseph is sold off to Egypt, where, at the end of his life, he makes his family promise, “When God has taken notice of you, carry up my bones from here” (Gen. 50:25). The remainder of the Torah – all of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – charts Israel’s pursuit of a path back home.

Jewish history works in similar cycles of dispersion and return. David and Solomon established a kingdom and a Temple in Jerusalem, but these were demolished in 586 B.C.E. and the survivors of Judah were deported eastward. They longed for Zion by the rivers of Babylon. A generation later, a remnant returned and rebuilt the kingdom and its Temple in Jerusalem. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., and again the Jews became a people in exile. For centuries, Jews built Diaspora communities even as stragglers returned to the Land, to pray or to die there. The advent of Zionism in the 19th century marked our most dramatic effort since the days of the Bible to return home. 

We have known different kinds of exile. There is political exile – distance from our physical home – and there is spiritual exile – distance from our spiritual Source. Zionism sought to put an end to the political state of exile, but spiritual exile continues to be our existential reality everywhere, including in the Land of Israel.

The fast of the 9th of Av – Tisha B'Av – is devoted to reflection on what it means to live in exile. The shorthand is that it is the date when both the First and Second Temples were destroyed.

But Tisha B’Av isn’t only about history, just as Pesach and Chanukah are not “only” about history. The genius of the rabbis who shaped Judaism is in the way they spiritualized history and filled it with religious meaning for subsequent generations.

Thus, the events of Tisha B’Av aren’t simply understood as historical calamities. After all, catastrophes have befallen the Jewish people on every day of the calendar year. But they are signposts for a religious condition:

Exile from the homeland
Exile from God
Exile from one another

This is the great secret of Tisha B’Av: The last two are really one. Because in Judaism’s religious humanism (or humanistic religion?), distance from other people necessarily results in distance from God:

Why was the First Temple destroyed?
Because of three things:
Idolatry, Sexual immorality, and Bloodshed….

But the Second Temple –
when people were occupied with Torah, Mitzvot, and gemilut chasadim
Why was it destroyed?
Because of senseless hatred (sinat chinam).
(Talmud, Yoma 9b)

Consider the theological outlook the Talmud is teaching. The First Temple stood at a time of rampant perversion and hypocrisy, so naturally (in the rabbinic mindset) it was lost. But the Second Temple stood during centuries that were recalled for Torah and adherence to mitzvot (commandments). Why would God allow it to be destroyed?

The answer, says the Talmud, is because of rampant hatred that existed among the Jews – even as they were living according to the letter of the Law. Service to God in the Temple was not meant to be performed with hate in their hearts.

The Temple was designed to be a place of intimacy – between God and the People, and between and among the people who gathered there. As people became estranged from one another – when they could no longer see the image of God in the face of the person opposite them – then their worship and the Temple itself became hollow. An institution based on lies and hypocrisies cannot stand. Made as trivial as a piece of tissue paper, it is as if God crumpled it up and tossed it aside – because, spiritually speaking, it was already destroyed. The assault of the Romans was just a final punctuation mark.

The astonishing lesson of the Torah is that only one creation is made “in the image of God” – human beings. To treat other people with contempt or disgust or hate is to treat God’s only image that way. As a result, estrangement from one another and estrangement from God are intertwined.

The Tisha B’Av fast marks a sad reality: this is the world in which we live, each in our own isolated cones with our own preoccupations and nursing our own hurts. This scenario illustrates what it means to live in exile; exile is the metaphysical sense of being alone, and it is our own doing.

If we find it hard to mourn the loss of “The Temple” on Tisha B’Av, no matter; mourn for something else.

Mourn for our distance from God.

Mourn for our distance from each other. 

This piece originally appeared on reformjudaism.org on July 19, 2018.

...an entire world...

Great visual midrash from @thelucidreams:

Lucid Dreams - Sanhedrin.jpg

On Sanhedrin 4:5:

לְלַמֶּדְךָ, שֶׁכָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא. וְכָל הַמְקַיֵּם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ קִיֵּם עוֹלָם מָלֵא

...to teach you that whoever destroys a single life is considered by the Torah to have destroyed an entire world; and whoever saves a single life is considered by the Torah to have saved an entire world...