Kayam Farm, at the Pearlstone Retreat Center, near Baltimore, MD.

I recently attended a retreat at the Pearlstone retreat center outside of Baltimore. Among the many things that make Pearlstone a lovely place, and a model for something that should exist in many more communities, is the Kayam Farm. Kayam is a working farm that produces vegetables, eggs, and goat milk and cheese—some of which is served at Pearlstone itself, and much of which goes to a community supported agriculture (CSA) initiative.

But what really distinguishes Kayam is the fact that it is rooted in serious Jewish learning. This is more than saying, ‘We are practicing tikkun olam with our farming.’ No—the folks who work at Kayam study the laws of Shabbat and more fully appreciate the meaning of resting from labor (it’s about a lot more than turning off your iphone). They study the laws of tza’ar ba’alei chayim, not causing suffering to animals, which applies not only to how we treat our pets, but to verses in the Torah that mostly have meaning in the context of farming: not yoking different species of animals together (Deut. 22:10), not muzzling an ox when it is threshing (Deut. 25:4), sending away the mother bird when fetching the eggs from a nest (Deut. 22:6-7), and many more.

But most striking, the Kayamers study the agricultural laws of the Torah related to planting. These laws form an entire order of the Mishnah (Zeraim) which has typically not been studied in depth by most Jews, even those who study in yeshivot. Why? Because the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud understood that most of these laws apply only in the land of Israel. With the advent of religious Zionism, these laws became a major area of study and application once again.

The association of Torah-informed farming with the land of Israel is thus one deeply etched into my mind. It’s the idea of the kibbutz hadati, the religious kibbutz. It’s the image of the farmer who rises early to put on tefillin, and then goes out to milk the goats, feed the chickens, and work in the fields. It’s the thought of all of that taking place in Hebrew.

So it was a jarring experience to see it all happening—in Maryland, not the Galil. What does it mean to imagine applying the Torah to agricultural settings outside the land of Israel? On the one hand, there’s something wonderful about it: Jews learning Torah, developing a language of Torah and farming that enables a richer, healthier, more sustainable life. Wonderful! But on the other hand, there was something deeply unsettling about it, as though these good things were happening, but in precisely the wrong place. Most Rabbinic literature deals with the notion of mitzvot teluyot ba-aretz, the commandments that are dependent on the land of Israel, as a question of whether a mitzvah applies outside the land of Israel, not whether one could voluntarily observe it. The very notion of observing the Sabbatical year outside of Israel, for instance, is a non-sequitur both because of the extra stringency inherent in the idea, and because, traditionally, observing Israel-dependent mitzvot has been viewed as a privilege of living in the land of Israel. To a traditional mind, the mitzvah simply doesn’t make sense outside of it.

All of this happened this week, in the days leading up to Shavuot. Shavuot, of course, has a double-identity. In its identity as z’man matan torateinu, the time of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai—outside the land of Israel—it is a holiday accessible and meaningful to all Jews in all places. Jews around the world can study Torah on the night of Shavuot and know that they are part of a people doing the same thing across the globe. But in its identity as chag habikkurim, the festival of first fruits, its significance is talui ba’aretz, dependent on the land of Israel. Outside of Israel, this notion doesn’t make sense, because the first fruits mentioned in the Torah are those of the land of Israel: “When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first fruits…” (Deut. 26:1-2).

We take as a given that Israel is interwoven into the fabric of Jewish life. Yet it is an old trope in American Jewish life that America itself could represent an Israel of its own, that not only can’t we make aliyah because of economic or family ties, but that we actively want to build a Jewish life here in this place. The Reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries took this as an article of faith. The Kayamers of the 21st century are experimenting with a fascinating take on the same theme. Personally, I disagree with the impulse to observe Israel-specific mitzvot outside of Israel. I view the mitzvot of the land of Israel as only fulfillable there, whether they are understood as a legal obligation or a special spiritual privilege. But I can’t help but admire the dedication and creativity of people who are seriously engaging with the questions, who are farming and learning and bringing Israel into a larger contemporary conversation.

Israel has indeed had a busy year: social protests in the summer, the Price Tag hoodlums last month, and now the “Haredi Spring” of Beit Shemesh. I have already written about the former two (here and here), and want to offer a perspective on this week’s events.

There are a bunch of noteworthy things about what is happening in Beit Shemesh: As Allison Kaplan Sommer writes in the Forward, the fact that Beit Shemesh is largely populated by American olim is contributing to the backlash against Haredization. As others have pointed out, the entire spectrum of religious leadership, including Haredi figures, are speaking out against extremism. And as I myself noticed while watching the protest in Beit Shemesh the other night, I can’t think of another time that Limor Livnat (Likud) and Shelly Yachimovitch (Labor) would have spoken in one voice, on the same podium, one right after the other. In many ways, the reaction here is a credit to Israel and the Jewish people.

But it also raises questions. Extremism is a reflection of strains that are within the mainstream. While the mainstream separates the wheat from the chaff, the extreme reminds us of the chaff that lies within. Many have asked, “How can these people claim to represent the Torah?” Torah is a sea–hakol ba, everything is in it. Reading Torah, understanding Torah, is not like reading an instruction manual. Torah requires interpretation, and when interpretation enters the mix, the possibilities become very wide in all directions.

In this case, the extremists are picking up on threads within the Talmud which can be read as putting the onus for uncontrollable male sexuality on women. Now, there are also strains within the Talmud that clearly put the responsibility on each individual to control themselves, to comport themselves with a sense of modesty and humility–not because they are sex objects for others, but because they (we) are God’s creatures and should carry that awareness at all times. Part of the Orthodox community’s reaction against the sexual revolution of the later 20th century has been to articulate a sexual ethic of modesty. And in many respects, this is a very healthy thing, particularly when it applies to the universal responsibility–of men and women–to live with a sense of yirat shamayim (awe of heaven) and avodat Hashem (service of God).

Where things get crooked is when we start to make some people responsible for the sexuality of others–in particular, when we make women responsible for the sexuality of men. As one of my Roshei Yeshiva put it to us years ago, “A true ben Torah should be able to walk down Yafo street [in Jerusalem] in the middle of the summer, see attractive women in tank tops, and not be aroused.” That is, each individual needs to be responsible for what he or she does with his or her sense of sexual arousal–it is not the responsibility of one sex or the other, and it certainly is not about trying to impose one community’s self-described extreme (Haredi) ethic of modesty on the rest of society. If anything, Haredi men should strive to be examples of equanimity.

What has sadly taken place, however, is a misreading of Torah. Here, for instance, is a Gemara from Taanit 24a about Rabbi Yosi of Yokeret (thanks to Mori v’Rabi Dov Linzer for reminding me of this):

He had a beautiful daughter. One day he saw a man boring a hole in the fence so that he might catch a glimpse of her. He said to the man, What is [the meaning of] this? And the man answered: Master, if I am not worthy enough to marry her, may I not at least be worthy to catch a glimpse of her? Thereupon he exclaimed: My daughter, you are a source of trouble to mankind; return to the dust so that men may not sin because of you. (Taanit 24a)

One could read this story as saying that the daughter–and by extension, women–is responsible for the man’s sexual arousal. But to read the story that way is to forget what precedes it: A conversation between Rav Ashi and Rabbi Yosi bar Avin.

Rav Ashi enquired: Did you not frequent the discourses of Rabbi Yose of Yokeret? He replied: Yes. Rav Ashi then asked him: Why did you leave him, Sir, and come here? He replied: How could the man who showed no mercy to his son and daughter show mercy to me?

That is, the Gemara is repudiating the view of Rabbi Yosi of Yokeret, not endorsing it! It is saying that his behavior–making his daughter responsible for the sexuality of a peeping tom–is reprehensible. He is a character without generosity of spirit, someone literally not to learn from. And so Rabbi Yosi bar Avin left him to learn from Rav Ashi.

It is this point, this generosity of spirit, this openness to the world and sense of proper self-assurance, that we need to be striving for. This is the classic difference between the approach of Reuben and that of Judah: Where Reuben offers to kill his own sons if he fails to bring Benjamin and Simeon back to Jacob, Judah takes a more mature, self-assured sense of responsibility. Where Reuben displays short-sighted, narrow-minded thinking, Judah becomes an arev: He takes responsibility for himself and shows magnanimity to his father. Like Rabbi Yosi of Yokeret, Reuben is a teacher we should avoid. Rather we should learn from Judah, and assume responsibility for our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

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.


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.

At the heart of the concept of covenant is a conundrum: Is God’s promise conditional or unconditional? On its face, the idea of covenant would imply that two parties mutually agree to perform certain acts. As the opening of this week’s parasha states, “If you walk in My laws and obey My statutes,” (Lev. 26:3) then “I will walk among you, and I will be God to you, and you will be a people to me” (26:12). Likewise, “If you do not listen to me, and do not do all these commandments” (26:14) then “I will scatter you among the nations” (26:33), and punish you severely. The agreement here is conditional: obey the commandments and be rewarded, disobey and be punished.

Yet if we go back to the original moment of Covenant-making with Abram, we find the situation is not quite so clear: “On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates” (Gen. 15:18). While Rashi interprets this promise as conditional on the Israelites’ continued offering of sacrifices (as symbolized in the sacrifice Abram offers at this moment), Ramban reads it as an unconditional promise: “The Holy One, Blessed Be He, made the covenant that they would inherit the land in any case,” even if, for instance, the Canaanites repented (Ramban Gen. 15:7-8). In Ramban’s reading, God’s promise is unconditional: no matter what, this is your home.

This dialectic of conditional and unconditional comes through in God’s words in Bechukotai: “If they will confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors… then I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land… For their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors whom I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God. I am the Lord” (Lev. 26:40-45). God leaves an opening here, the opening of teshuva, of coming back home. The promise is conditional—you can only stay at home under certain conditions—but it is also unconditional: this will always be your home, whether you are there or not, and you can always come back.

This is one of the great conceptual contributions of the Jewish people, the idea that one can be at home but not be at home at the same time. We both feel at home and are compelled to reaffirm our sense of home, because home is not something static, something we can take for granted. It must be earned and renewed on a constant basis. This is an expression of the paradoxical reality that provides the taproot of Jewish life: the notion that we are at home and are strangers at the same time. “You were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is the memory we are to carry with us all the time, even when we are at home in our own land. We are to be strangers, and yet be at home, at the same time.

Shabbat shalom.

I had a powerful conversation with a student yesterday, the kind of conversation that reshapes things whose form has long felt static, and connects things that have been separate. Our conversation centered around what I’ve come to feel is the she’elah ha-she’elot, the question of questions: Where do you feel at home?

We had been talking about Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the idea of immanence and transcendence: Is God in the world or apart from it? When and how do we sense the presence of God? And if God is separate from the world, how do we have an intuition of God’s being in it?

As we explored the question and shared our personal stories about moments when we experienced an awareness of the divine, I observed that for me many of these questions revolve around the idea of home. Regular readers of know that I often reflect on the way in which we draw boundaries, deciding what is in and what is out, what is same and what is different. And I find that the boundaries we draw are the thresholds of home.

My student (I’m not sharing his name because I have not had a chance to talk with him about sharing his story) observed that he has a deep attachment to the economically depressed, rust-belt big city where he comes from, even though he grew up in the suburbs. “I’m proud of the city,” he said, “but I often wonder whether I really can claim to represent it. I didn’t grow up in the city and I don’t live there. Someone who is a real resident can turn to me and say, ‘You’re a fake. You’re not really one of us.’ But I’m proud of the city. I’ve worked there, I’m committed to it, I stand up for it all the time. Am I at home in it?”

From here we made a critical move, observing that his relationship with Judaism was very similar: he feels proud to be Jewish, he identifies as Jewish, but he doesn’t feel like he has the education or level of commitment to really be called Jewish. In short, he doesn’t feel Jewish enough. And then we both observed that by reflecting on his Jewish identity through the lens of his urban/suburban identity, we hit on an entirely new understanding of the term “suburban Jew”—someone who feels attachment to Judaism and the Jewish people, but is still at a remove from it, without skin in the game.

Parshat Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2) weaves together the people of Israel, the land of Israel, the Torah of Israel, and God the Creator in a powerful way. “When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord.” (Lev. 25:2) Rashi observes that the Shabbat spoken of here “is like the Shabbat of Creation.” The institution of the sabbatical and Jubilee years is an elaboration of the Shabbat that informs our whole orientation to time and space, “the culmination of the creation of heaven and earth,” as we call it in the Friday evening prayer service.

Shabbat, the sabbatical year, and the Jubilee year all point us toward God’s own words: “For the earth is mine, and you are dwellers and sojourners with Me” (25:23) and its analog, “For the children of Israel belong to me. They are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt” (25:55). Our land, our bodies, our beings are of the earth but separate from it, immanent and transcendent at the same time—an image of God.

The great question for both God and humans, from Creation onwards, is, What is home? God seeks a home on earth: “And they shall make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8), a home that depends on us to create it. Likewise we humans need home, in space and time. Our notion of home is constantly being challenged, renewed, and remade as we leave home, long for home, come home, bring guests and new family members into home, and build homes together. Parshat Behar is a rich exploration of what it means to be at home in all these dimensions.

Shabbat shalom.

Greetings from Emek Refaim, the main drag in South Jerusalem. I’m camped out here for a few days doing doctoral research and meeting up with former students and current friends and colleagues.

Avigdor Lieberman & Ted Kennedy:

Who are two people you wouldn't think to put in the same sentence?

The big news in Israeli politics right now is the showdown taking place between two parties in the governing coalition, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas. (Haaretz version here, Jerusalem Post verion here.) Yisrael Beiteinu is the party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose core constituency is Russian immigrants. The party was at the heart of the big conversion debate last summer. Its general aim in this arena has been to create ways for the hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants who are not recognized as Jewish according to halakha (traditional Jewish law) to become halakhically Jewish.

The current debate is over a bill submitted by Yisrael Beiteinu MK David Rotem that would grant government recognition to conversions performed by rabbinate of the Israel Defense Forces, independent of review by the Chief Rabbinate. The IDF has engaged in a Jewish education campaign for the last decade or so, and thousands of soldiers have undergone halakhic conversions as part of it. Yet the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community has largely reacted to this process as it has to other conversion processes that have been taking place outside the auspices of the Haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate: by questioning or dismissing their legitimacy.

Yisrael Beiteinu has decided to make this its fight, and has threatened to withdraw from the coalition unless the bill comes up for a vote. Shas, the sometimes pragmatic, Sephardic-Haredi party, has objected, siding with the Chief Rabbinate, and threatening to withdraw from the coalition if the bill goes through. The cabinet is set to debate the bill on Wednesday.

In talking through the situation today over coffee with a former student, it occurred to me that the debate here bears some striking parallels with the discussion in the U.S. right now about the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants who serve in the army or go to college. The situation of many Russian immigrants in Israel is roughly analgous to that of illegal immigrants in the U.S.–they have grown up in Israel, speak Hebrew, and fight and die for the Israeli army. And yet they are not recognized as Jewish by the state of Israel for the purposes of marriage and burial. In both cases, the proponents of the bills are motivated by a desire for tikkun olam in its most original sense, that of rectifying an inequity in the law. And the message in both bills is the same: if you serve your country, if you become a contributing member of society, we want to find a way to include you.

What is most striking to me about this, however, is that those who promote the DREAM act in the U.S. tend to be on the left. Yet those same lefty Jews would never be caught dead in ideological bed with Avigdor Lieberman, who on foreign policy and defense issues is more hawkish than Prime Minister Netanyahu. But such is the complexity of life in Israel that the equivalent of Dick Cheney on military matters is a parallel to Ted Kennedy on this particular issue of civil rights.