I watch ESPN while I’m at the gym. Not having cable at home, it’s my chance a few times a week to stay up to date on the world of sports (and keep up with my sons, who manage to find out sports information more quickly than I can).

As I stood on the elliptical machine and turned on SportsCenter this morning, the show was featuring clips of Denver quarterback Tim Tebow. Tebow has achieved notoriety for his very open expressions of Christian faith on and off the football field. And in the clips that they showed on ESPN, Tebow was wearing a microphone during the game. Here was Tim Tebow sitting on the sidelines, humming a hymn to himself. And here was Tebow exhorting his teammates to play hard and win. And here was Tebow “Tebowing,” kneeling and praying after his team’s overtime victory against the Chicago Bears.

Segue to my son Jonah’s basketball camp this week, which is organized and run by Tamir Goodman. Goodman, you may recall, was the subject of a four-page spread in Sports Illustrated and dubbed the “Jewish Jordan” as an Orthodox high school phenom in the late 1990s. Tamir was signed by the University of Maryland and ultimately played at Towson University, which changed their schedule to enable him to avoid playing on Shabbat. He went on to a pro career in Israel, and retired a couple years ago after injuries.

Now Tamir is running basketball camps (Natalie’s project, the iChallenge Ideas Incubator, is sponsoring this community-wide one in Chicago). He is shameless in teaching Judaism and Jewish values through basketball. He wears his kippah on the court. He gets a minyan together to daven mincha (he’s saying kaddish for his father). He highlights how Jewish ideas are mirrored in the ethics of team play, discipline, communication, respect, and all the other middot that it takes to be both a good person and a good player.

Tamir tells lots of stories about how his insistence on keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher, and unabashedly being a traditional Jew, became a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name in public. His teammates, opponents, fans, and the general public encountered a very public Jew, and learned about traditional Jewish life, as a result of his remaining true to his commitments. Most dramatically, his willingness to give back a full-ride scholarship to Maryland, after the school’s failure to alter its schedule in order to be Shabbat-friendly, made a dramatic statement: Shabbat is fundamental, and no career move is worth sacrificing it.

I see a lot of similarities between Tim Tebow and Tamir Goodman. The NCAA created a “Tebow Rule,” banning writing on eye paint, after Tebow wore “John 3:16” under his eyes in the 2009 national championship game and 92 million people Googled the verse (a silly rule, in my opinion; how many people would have Googled yarmulke if Tamir Goodman had made it to the Final Four? What’s wrong with trying to do a kiddush Hashem?). With his unashamed commitment to his faith, Tebow is creating a kiddush Hashem in his own religious community, and, like Goodman, showing that religious faith can be deeply woven into a modern life.

Parshat Miketz marks the low-point of Joseph’s running away from his own culture. The parsha opens with the dramatic transformation of Joseph from a prisoner to the second-ranking figure in Egypt. Pharaoh gives Joseph clothes, his ring, his chariot, and a wife of high social station–all the trappings of “making it.” Joseph names his first-born Menashe, because “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” (Gen. 41:51). Though Pharaoh’s steward remembers Joseph as an Ivri, a Hebrew–one who is “across,” or over or against–Joseph is ultimately unrecognizable to his brothers when they arrive, and he speaks through an interpreter. To his brothers, Joseph is an Egyptian.

What would have happened if Joseph had insisted on maintaining his identity as an Ivri a little more than he did? What if he had said no to Pharaoh? Presumably no one says no to Pharaoh. But presumably no one says no to the University of Maryland basketball program, and four free years of college, either. Joseph was actually in a strong negotiating position, but he didn’t use it. He simply accepted what was offered to him. While he maintained a strong inner sense of faith (as exemplified in the naming of his second son, Ephraim: “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering,” Gen. 41:52), he made his identity a private affair. This put him in a position to help his brothers in the end, but also potentially contributed to the simmering negative feelings among the Egyptians towards the Hebrews.

Chabad has embraced this message as the message of Hannukah: Maintain particularity. Don’t assimilate. Be proud to be Jewish. The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s life was the inverse of Joseph’s: The Rebbe was the only one of his siblings to remain religiously observant. (His daughter was his only blood relative to attend his funeral. N.B. Stan Mazo reminds me of the obvious: the seventh Rebbe had no children. I had heard this story in a lecture by Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet, and will check on which Rebbe he was referring to.) Chabad has taken up his message, and it is their greatest contribution to the Jewish people. Hannuukah is indeed a time to be proud, to be out, to be open about our particularities. As Tamir Goodman reminds us, and as Tim Tebow shows too, we have nothing to hide and a great deal to gain in living an undivided life.

Shabbat Shalom and Hannukah Sameach.


A number of friends have written to me in recent days asking for my perspective on the latest violence by Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria (aka ‘settlers’) against members of the Israel Defense Forces. And at first my reaction was, What is there to say? My rabbinic association, the International Rabbinic Fellowship, issued a condemnation of the ‘Price Tag’ phenomenon. And beyond that, I’m not sure there’s much for me to add: I’m not a citizen of Israel, and every sane person in Israel is saying the same thing: these people are criminals, they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and let justice be done.

But that’s not what the people who wrote to me want, I suspect. What prompts them to write is a deeper challenge to their own identity as American Jews.

Last week I taught a session on Israel’s Declaration of Independence for heads of central agencies of Jewish education that was sponsored by the iCenter. Anne Lanski, president of the iCenter, began the session by asking everyone to introduce themselves by sharing what connects them with Israel. Some in the room were Israelis by birth. Most had lived in Israel for one or more long-term stays. Nearly all had traveled to Israel in the past year.

When it came to me, I responded that what connects me to Israel is that not a day goes by that I don’t ask, “Why haven’t I made aliyah?” This is one of the great unresolved questions in my life and in the marriage that Natalie and I share. Both of us feel a fundamental desire to live in Israel, to be ‘full Jews’ in the sense that A.B. Yehoshua talks about: enabling our Jewish identity, which is central to our lives, to achieve full expression in the way we actually live. The reasons we’re not there are many and complicated. When children are in the picture, when parnassa (livelihood) is in question, it’s not so simple. But the desire burns every day, and virtually every night before we go to bed Natalie and I have the conversation that begins, “Why don’t we live in Israel?” Ani bama’arav v’libi bamizrach.

In his infamous speech to the American Jewish Committee a few years ago, A.B. Yehoshua pointed out that the State of Israel has a relationship not only with its citizens, but with all Jews as a result of the statement in Megillat Atzma’ut (the Declaration of Independence): “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles.” This statement achieved expression in the Law of Return. And as a result, even though I am not a citizen of the State, I am a potential citizen. Ahad Ha’Am put it less politically in his formulation, in which Israel would be the spiritual center of Jews worldwide. I feel this every time I face east to daven, and in the central role that Israel plays in so many other aspects of my life, from the publications that I read to the TV shows I watch (S’rugim, Avodah Aravi) to what my children ate for dinner last night (Tival veggie burgers).

All of which is to say that Israel matters to me, deeply. It is impossible for me to imagine my Jewishness apart from Israel. It is impossible for me to imagine not wanting to be in Israel. It is impossible to imagine feeling fully at home in a Diasporic existence, even in a place as full of blessings as America. For me, the fact that when I get a latte in Israel they write yom tov in Hebrew in the foam–I can’t feel more at home than at that moment.

And that’s what makes so much of the news coming from Israel so tragic and painful. Yes, the news about the sickos who kill Arabs and attack IDF soldiers. Yes, the proposed and enacted laws attacking civil society. Yes, the corrupt and shameful Chief Rabbinate. All of that pains me. It pains me far more than any of the ways in which American society is broken, and that reminds me of where home really is for me.

But what it also does is test my ahavat yisrael. Can I call the Hilltop Youth Jews to whom I’m in some way responsible? Can I see the misogynists in Geulah or Beit Shemesh as my kinsmen? Would I count them in a minyan? Ahavat yisrael is the greatest attribute of my rebbe, Avi Weiss, and has always been the growing edge for my judgmental temperament. But sometimes judgment is warranted, sometimes people have to be cast out, because the survival and integrity of the rest of us depends on it.

Knowing the difference between the times for Hesed and the times for Gevurah is the test implied in Parshat Vayeshev and in the story of Hannukah. The brothers’ othering of Joseph, their attempted fratricide, is the lowest moment in the book of Genesis. Since the time of Cain and Abel, we have been trying to find a way for brothers to live together — Hinei mah tov u’mah na’im shevet achim gam yachad — and here another set of brothers fails the test. Reconciliation ultimately comes, but at the price of years of torment and eventual exile.

Hannukah is the story of a civil war, waged by religious zealots–the Hilltop Youth of their day, perhaps. Yet since the time 1500 years ago when the Rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud virtually ignored the story of the Maccabees, right through our own day, the story we tell about Hannukah is less that of religious extremism winning out over accommodation than of the struggle to maintain integrity, identity and commitment in the face of the pressures to give up. The Talmud made the story not about war in the name of purity, but about keeping the miracle of light in a time of darkness.

I am a believer that, though history has its place, Jewish memory is more important than Jewish history. How we tell the story is ultimately more significant than the events that actually happened. The story of Joseph is a story about the challenges of reconciliation, and the long processes we have to go through to bring it about. The story of Hannukah is about the faith necessary to keep on going, even when we think there’s no way left to do so.

This week, this Hannukah, we need to remember those lessons more than ever.

Shabbat shalom.