July 2011

The Bronfman fellows and their counterparts in the Israeli Bronfman program spent today in Tel Aviv. In the morning we attended a dance class from a member of the Batsheva Dance Company, then had a conversation with Israeli author Etgar Karet. From there we walked to Rothschild Boulevard, where we had been two weeks ago. It has since been covered in a tent city of thousands, who were at the heart of a 20,000+ strong demonstration yesterday. The stated purpose of the demonstrators is to advocate for more affordable housing in city centers, though the tent city is also attracting and generating more generalized rage against the machine types. (And love–there was a giant teepee at the corner of Rothschild and Sheinkin with signs saying things like “the love tent” and the like. As the saying goes, it takes a village to make a protest.)

I had Jonah with me today. (I’d like to say it was intentional, but the truth is that he was really not looking forward to camp for some reason, and so I offered to have him come along, provided he didn’t whine. It worked–more or less.) I told him that this was an historic event: tens of thousands of Israelis gathered to demonstrate for issues of civil society–not for Israeli-Palestinian issues or for a political party demonstration, but coming together to respond to a social problem. (I did have to bribe him–30 minutes of talking to the protesters in exchange for a popsicle. He bargained me up to ice cream.)

Though the tent city was instructive on a Biblical level (“Jonah, do you think this is a little like what the camp of the Israelites in the desert was like?”), it was a letdown as far as history and politics were concerned. The protesters are disorganized. They don’t have a platform. Worse, they don’t seem to have the basics down: if you’re going to protest about expensive housing prices, then you need to have a political idea of how to solve the problem. Yet, after a 20,000-strong march yesterday, the best they could muster was that one of the organizers went to the Knesset this morning and threw plastic cups at the finance committee.

They have embraced the notion that they are “apolitical.” Asked by my colleague Andy Bachman if they had read Dror Etkes’s provocative and insightful piece in Haaretz that pointed out the obscene disparity between funding for housing within Israel proper and for Judea and Samaria, the same organizer clammed up and said, “We don’t talk about that here.” Well guys, good luck.

There’s an episode of the West Wing (okay, I happened to watch it last night; it’s not like I’ve got these things memorized) where Jed Bartlett is debating his challenger for re-election. Asked to sum up his economic philosophy, the Republican says, “I believe in lower taxes, because lower taxes will stimulate growth.” At this point Bartlett responds, “That’s a great ten-word soundbite. But we don’t govern in ten-word soundbites. So let me ask you, Governor, what are the next ten words? Where would you cut taxes? What programs would you eliminate? This is a complex world that demands complex responses, which are a lot more than ten words.” Or something to that effect.

I can’t help but think, as I watch this melange of the Israeli left up-close, and as I gaze at the American right from afar, and as I look around at the Arab Spring and the Tea Party and Greek protestors, that we are seeing versions of a pattern: individuals that become masses without any ability to do the real work of organizing and making decisions in a polity. The people who could and should be leading these movements–who have sharp minds and good organizing skills–are busy as social entrepreneurs, frequently for profit. Many of the best and brightest in Israel and the U.S. would never get into politics, because it’s a cesspool. Why do they need the aggravation?

Well folks–we need you. We need good people to step up and lead. We need people who can think in paragraphs, not sentences. And we need you in the public square, not in an office building. We need you to be willing to take personal, professional and financial risks. Because if this is the best we’ve got, my kids won’t even be interested in it for an ice cream cone.

One of the joys of being the father of an 8-year old boy is that he is totally into baseball. When I say totally, I mean completely and utterly obsessed. Our trip to Israel this summer has not deterred Jonah in the slightest from watching the highlights every morning on mlb.com. We voted for the All-Star team. And, if Jonah had had his way, we would have woken up at 3 a.m. to watch the All-Star game live (we caught the ninth inning, at 6 a.m. Israel time).

On our walks to shul on Shabbat, Jonah only wants to talk about baseball. “Abba, ask me some baseball trivia questions!” Once we got past “Who was the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season?” (A: Denny McClain, 1968 Tigers) or, “Who was the last player to win the Triple Crown?” (A: Carl Yastrzemski, 1967 Red Sox) and the other questions to which I know the answer, I was out of material. And I’ve been experiencing this desire to channel Jonah’s baseball addiction in a slightly more constructive direction. (Not that baseball in and of itself isn’t a good thing. But, as every parent knows, when your kid really, really wants something, you have an awful lot of leverage.)

So on one of our recent Shabbat walks, I asked, “Jonah, if we made an all-Tanakh baseball team, who do you think would be on it?” This has led to a conversation that has lasted more than two weeks. Here’s where we’re at. Comments welcome.

Lead-off man: For this position, you want someone fast–a guy who can get on base and steal second. Who comes to mind? Jacob, who stole his brother’s birthright.

Clean-up man: Here you want strength. Samson.

Starting pitcher: Who’s the best thrower in the Bible? David, captain of the slingshot.

Relief pitchers: Aaron and Hur, who relieved Moses’s arms in the battle with Amalek.

Third baseman: We want a guy who can dive for balls hit along the line. Uzziah, who dove to keep the Ark from falling to the ground (and died in the process), comes to mind.

Catcher: As Jonah said, catcher is the most dangerous position, and requires a lot of bravery. We thought of Esther.

Umpire: You want someone fair and wise. Solomon.

Center fielder: Here’s where you need your best runner. Who’s our guy? Abraham, who runs to prepare a meal for the angels who visit him.

We’re still working on the rest. Your ideas welcome.

Also, Jonah asked, “Abba, who will they play?” Our answer: The Christians! So, friends: who would you put on your team?

My colleague Rabbi Andy Bachman wrote about his first experience at Shira Hadasha over this past Shabbat. Andy focused on the large number of American Reform rabbis he noticed there, and wondered why these non-Orthodox rabbis (many of whom, I imagine, were in town for the Hartman Institute’s annual summer learning program for American rabbis) were drawn to a self-described Orthodox synagogue. “I thought of the collective hunger of my colleagues,” Andy writes. “I wondered if they’re spiritually lonely.  I wondered if for them, leading services back home is just another way of teaching; and so they justify the seeming separation between the selves that seek and the selves that enable the seeking of others through this duality.”

I don’t think this is limited to Reform rabbis–I think it’s true of American rabbis in general. Even in an Orthodox shul, where we like to think of ourselves as serving a more Jewishly-educated laity (a claim which I think is generally true, and one of the major attractions of Orthodoxy), most rabbis I know still feel “on,” performing a role. The Orthodox rabbis I know who attend Shira Hadasha while in Jerusalem report a similar sense of “vayinafash,” uplifting and renewal, as a result of the davenning experience there.

I went to Yakar for Shabbat morning this past week. In many ways I see Yakar as a precursor to Shira Hadasha: a place that has been singing beautiful, harmonious, slow melodies, creating the kind of musical aesthetic for which Shira Hadasha has become famous, for a generation. And they still have it: fabulous singing and harmony, a rich feeling of tefillah. (For davening snobs: they actually sang Shlomo Carlebach’s Mimkomcha–the one from the 1950s that he recorded on HaNeshama Lach–which you almost never hear anyone try, certainly not in the U.S. at any rate.) And at this point Yakar feels like a retreat from the tourist attraction that Shira Hadasha has in many ways become.

But I missed the sounds of women’s voices at Yakar. Though I know they were singing, the setup at Yakar–with a front-back mechitza dividing men from women–makes it hard for the men to hear the women (I don’t know how it is for the women). And aesthetically I felt something missing, which I identify as the thing that makes Shira Hadasha very special during its best moments: the actual feeling of a whole community, men and women, praying together. It’s not just that people know the words, that they know the tunes, that they can harmonize; it’s not only that they can keep themselves from clapping at the wrong times or letting the tempo get carried away. Those things describe Yakar as well as Shira Hadasha (and some other minyanim too). The difference at Shira Hadasha is that I can really feel the whole kehillah, the whole congregation.

Most of the students who have gone to Shira Hadasha this summer have focused on the experience of having women actively leading in parts of the service, which is an unusual sight in a shul with a mechitza. When they ask what I think, I tell them that I think the expansion of women’s roles is not the primary issue at Shira Hadasha, but that it acts along with and in service of the broader issue of offering our best tefillot, our deepest and richest communal prayer. To focus simply on when a woman is leading is to miss the point. The greater point is that Shira Hadasha, at its best (and there are moments when it falls short), creates a space for avodat Hashem, the service of God, that is uniquely inclusive, beautiful, and inspiring.


On Sunday evening our Bronfman fellows group concluded a day of touring the Old City of Jerusalem with dinner and conversation at the home of Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber. I had eaten at Prof. Sperber’s house once before, years ago, and had suggested this dinner during our faculty planning retreat in March. The visit immediately became a highlight of the trip.

As we sat at the Western Wall plaza and prepared to leave, I told the fellows about Prof. Sperber’s career as a philologist, scholar of Roman Palestine, and author of the eight-volume classic Minhagei Yisrael, “Customs of Israel.” I told them that he was awarded the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest honor for cultural and intellectual achievements, at the rather young age of 52. But most of all, I told them that as they imagined who they were meeting and where they were meeting him, to think of the character from the Harry Potter series, Albus Dumbledore. Like the Hogwarts headmaster, Prof. Sperber speaks with an English accent, exudes wisdom, maintains encyclopedic knowledge, and lives in a dynamic relationship with the past.

It was this last point, Prof. Sperber’s relationship with history, that ultimately made the greatest impression on everyone. Prof. Sperber began his remarks by talking about how he got into researching and teaching ancient Judaism in the first place. He said that his aim was to help his students (and his readers) appreciate that the characters of the Talmud were real people: they carried money, they wore clothing, they prepared food, they went to the bathroom, they slept and woke up and went about their day. And so his scholarly mission has been to bring to life the words of ancient texts by discovering the objects and practices they refer to.

But this is just the most well-known piece of the remarkably integrated persona of Prof. Sperber. Touring his library, one is struck by not only the number and eclecticism of the volumes, but most of all the interweaving of antique objects from bygone centuries: medieval spindles (yes, multiple) in one corner, ancient lamps in another. Over here maps from the early modern period, and over there the framed certificate of Prof. Sperber’s Israel Prize. Like the fictional Dumbledore’s office, there are nooks and crannies, knowledge tucked away in every corner. And after ascending a spiral staircase, you climb out through a hole in the wall and onto a magnificently simple balcony overlooking the entire Old City, with a clear view of the Temple Mount. It is a breathtaking place.

Prof. Sperber’s remarks to our group on Sunday night ultimately centered around his philosophy of halakha, which he argues must be dynamic. In contrast to the Haredi philosophy most famously espoused by Rabbi Moses Sofer (the Chatam Sofer) of hadash assur min haTorah–that which is new is prohibited by the Torah–Prof. Sperber pointed to the dictum of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook: hayashan yitchadesh, v’ha-chadash yitkadesh: The old will be renewed, and the new will be sanctified. This approach leads him, like Rav Kook, to call for maximum leniency within halakhic boundaries, in such areas as the heter mechira (sale of the land of Israel to enable agriculture during the sabbatical year) and increased roles for women in traditional prayer services among communities that seek such expansion.

What I had failed to appreciate previously is that all these elements of Prof. Sperber’s life–his academic work, his library, his philosophy and halakhic positions–are of a piece. Prof. Sperber has a truly dynamic relationship with history. He does not see it as something that lives separate and apart from him. Rather he lives in it. His library is a living museum; his halakha is a living halakha, trapped neither by the stultifying historicism that characterizes the Conservative movement to his left, nor the ossifying resistance to the present of the Haredism to his right. Prof. Sperber’s life, academic work, and philosophy of halakha are all manifestations of the same impulse: the courage, wisdom, and grace of a man who is fully at home in the world–past, present and future.

I have been teaching this week–as I will be for the next four–for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a group of 26 remarkable North American 17-year olds who spend the summer together in Israel learning, discussing, and exploring Jewish life. It is a tremendous privilege to work with these students, who are exceptionally intelligent, creative, and articulate.

Every morning we begin with text study, and each of the other faculty members (Rabbis Andy Bachman and Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, and Ilana Kurshan) and I teach a class to a quarter of the fellows. The subject of my course–no surprise to regular readers of my blog–is “Where is home?”

Among the texts we’re studying together for this course is an essay by Viennese writer Jean Amery, born Hanns Chaim Mayer, who survived concentration camps and became a philosopher and literary critic. In particular we’re reading an essay entitled, “How much home does a person need?” In the essay, Amery recounts his experiences leaving Vienna and arriving in Antwerp, using his memories as a departure point for insightful and challenging reflection on what it means to lose one’s home.

Amery meditates on a number of powerful dimensions of home, homesickness and homelessness, including place, time, memory, childhood and aging, and technology. He fundamentally identifies home with security–both physical security and the security of language, of knowing and being able to express what is going on in one’s surroundings: “Every language is part of a total reality to which one must have a well-founded right of ownership if one is to enter the area of that language with a good conscience and confident step.” But Amery also recognizes that while homelessness is awful, having a home is also problematic. Home, when imbued with nationalistic fervor, can become an obstacle to being able to live in the world. And in the modern world, particularly in America, home has become a consumer good–not about deep attachments to people or places or dialects, but simply the place to put one’s stuff.

After its opening passage about the laws of the Red Heifer, Parshat Chukat becomes a travelogue of the Israelites’ journey in the desert. There is complaining, searching for water, war, and wandering so as to avoid the Edomites who refused Moses and his people safe passage. In many ways, this is the lowpoint of the homelessness of the Israelites: their utter dependence on foreign entities, their continued despondency that they will ever reach the land of grain and figs, grapevines and pomegranates,” and water to drink. This is a powerless people, a homeless wandering people, whose powerlessness will be even further highlighted next week in the story of Bilaam.

And yet, as the Bronfmanim and I have discussed in our class, the Torah seems to be communicating a powerful message to us about what it means to have a home and to be at home by the story that it tells. The consciousness of exile is woven into Jewish life from the very beginning, when God tells Abraham that his descendents will be “strangers in a land not theirs,” persecuted and ultimately rescued. The 40 year interval in the wildnerness, which we witness this week as Miriam and Aaron are laid to rest, is meant to rear a generation that does not identify Egypt as home. “Home is the land of one’s childhood and youth,” says Amerie. This generation, then, will identify their youthful home as the wilderness, a no-man’s land, a place by definition incapable of being a home.

Yet home they do create. It will take Bilaam to remind them–us–however: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings–your homes–O Israel” (Num. 24:5). Our dwelling places are sufficient. Home can be where we make it, provided we can see it that way. The land of Israel is certainly our home. But to be at home in the land of Israel, we have to remember the consciousness developed in exile and wandering. We have to stand outside home to recognize where home is.

Shabbat shalom.