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A people of the Book or A People of the Kindle PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 23 January 2014 13:15

With Hanukkah and Tu b'Shvat behind us, these are generally chilly months, when we hibernate, and more often than not, take a break from holidays marking historical milestones. But there is something of a remarkable historical footnote that took place on January 23, 1492. This date in Jewish history is resoundingly important as it brings to the fore the question of whether we are still a People of the Book or the Kindle.

When we come to the JCCH or many other synagogues around North America, we find ourselves more often than not during a prayer service leafing through a red Hebrew Bible called the Etz Hayim Chumash. While it is a recent edition to Conservative communities thanks to the RA and USCJ, the first-ever printed Pentateuch or Chumash with Megilot was published by a Jewish family named, Nahmias from Spain, who were singlehandedly responsible for bringing the printing press to the Ottoman Empire. On January 23, 1492, the first Hebrew printing press—and the first printing press in any language in the Ottoman Empire— was set up in Istanbul by David and Samuel ibn Nahmias. While their first book was actually a halakhic codex, called, Jacob ben Asher's Arba'ah Turim, their bestseller followed a year later, namely the Pentateuch with Rashi, haftarot with David Kimhi's commentary, the Five Scrolls with the commentary of Abraham ibn Ezra, and the Antiochus Scroll. In this early period of Hebrew printing in Istanbul more than 100 books of remarkable range and quality were published. Every day, countless Jewish readers are asking themselves (con-tinued on page 5)

that same question the Nahmias family asked themselves (albeit under very different circumstances); namely---what book shall I take with me on my next journey? This can actually become a daunting question, considering the hundreds of titles one can download onto a Kindle today. So it is with great pleasure (and relief) that I recently discovered a new tool for guiding our Jewish reading habits today—for those who still read print, The Jewish Review of Books, and for those who read online,http://www.jewishreviewofbooks.com. This popular intellectual review journal was recently established as an alternative to The New York Review of Books, providing a lighthouse through the seas of new publications available in Jewish literature. So the next time you find yourself asking that perennial question, what book shall I take with me on my next journey? Remember you are not alone; rather you are part of an ongoing journey of those who continue seeking the truth in the word, written, printed, online, or kindled.



Last Updated ( Thursday, 23 January 2014 13:21 )
What does it take to be a Jew? PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 27 December 2012 10:00

Emotional multi-tasking!

A person does not say, I am a Reubenite or a Simeonite, but, I am a Jew—Yehudi!”

       —Genesis Rabbah 98:6 Every Jew is marked by a yearning to be grateful for the truth.

       —Sefat Emet, Homily for Hanukkah,  ca. 1902

We are, after all, the children of Jacob, that becomes Israel, but our destiny swerves in the footsteps of Judah. How do we know this? Everyone who reads the Hebrew Bible revels in the dramas of its first book of family feuds where we read of the blessing: “You, Judah, shall your brethren praise!” (Genesis 49: 8). Our Sages reason all this praise for Judah, especially coming from his parents, was due to this lone sibling’s courage amongst the twelve to have confessed the incident of Tamar. While fessing up to our shortcomings within the family may be the hardest thing to do, clearly it is one of the most important according to Judaism.

We praise Judah for his courage to make amends within his family and thus we learn that all those who follow that path of reconciliation, starting right in our own homes, will be called by your name, Judah— Jew/ Yehudi.

To be a Jew is to be grateful. How do we know this? For the very definition of being a Jew is contained in the Hebrew word for “Jew”— Yehudi which originates in “gratitude”—Hoda’ah. With the coming of the holiday season, as we gather with family, friends and community, Hanukkah has something to teach us about gratitude. We are commanded during these special eight days each morning to recite the hallowed psalms of Hallel as well as reciting the narrative ‘Al haNissim in our prayers to recount the wondrous story of the Hasmonean victory against all odds. In a sense we are commanded to be in a state of both “exultation”/Hallel and “gratitude”/Hoda’ah—how is that possible to feel both emotions at once? Sometimes it can feel like emotional multi-tasking—exactly the point!

Exultation is over the victory of the few against the many, of light amidst darkness, of hope in the face of fear. Gratitude is a different posture—being grateful for what we have because, God forbid, things could have been much worse. When we look around us, after Hurricane Sandy, after firms are still downsizing, after marriages crumble to the ground, after tragic deaths, loss and innumerable catastrophes in Israel and the world over, eventually we are forced to stop and say— “Thank God! If any of these things happened to me, I would have been so much worse off!” This may strike many as a “glass half empty” way of seeing the world, but sometimes that is precisely the spiritual wake-up call we need to take hold of Jewish lives again. 

As the children of Jacob who are the community of Israel, all the while imprinted with the footsteps of Judah, let us celebrate this holiday season with hearts overflowing with exultation and gratitude!

Last Updated ( Thursday, 27 December 2012 10:10 )
The carpool question? PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 02 August 2012 08:08
Nu? So, what did you learn today, honey?” Better known as the “carpool question”, parents across North America are asking their children upon pick-up from afterschool Hebrew and Religious Studies. While a sincere question, most of the time, parents are not really “measuring” a child’s Jewish identity, rather they are hoping to merely connect or converse before the next whirlwind of activities. Time and again, experts admit it is especially difficult to develop measures of Israel engagement, religious purposefulness or Jewish identity—so where does that leave parents concerned about Jewish continuity?Think about the question again: “So what did you learn today, honey? And from whom did you learn it?” This second part of the question now requires the one being asked to refocus on what learning means altogether. Recently, I was struck by a practice of blessing that acknowledges this second part of the question—namely, what happens when we learn something from the bus-driver, the mailman or the teller at the bank? What happens when we learn something from someone who is not Jewish? Two blessings exist in the Jewish tradition precisely for expressing gratitude for learning in diverse environments and from diverse teachers:

(1). Upon seeing a Jewish person distinguished in Jewish studies, recite—

Baruch she-halak me-hokhmatolire’av.

Blessed are You who has shared Wisdom with those who revere You.

(2). Upon seeing a person distinguished in worldly studies, recite—

Baruch she-natan me-hokhmatol’vasarva-dam.Blessed are You who has given Wisdom to humanity.Each of these blessings teaches about how to review our day appropriately and see it in a different light (even at car-pool pick-up!). We need to see the world as our classroom and wisdom as something that is not only learned and transmitted inside the class, but encountered and experienced wherever we find ourselves in life and in the world.  We are in the process of reformulating our Lifelong Learning Institute with a new name and a new mission. To extend the avenues of learning into conversations and connectionsthat are more informal—and we want to hear from you. Please feel free to share suggestions for the coming year with congregants Patti Renton ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ), Jeffrey Galperin ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ) and Marian Meyers ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ). We hope to have more diverse opportunities available to making the coming year one where we can expand our horizons and our Jewish identities in new ways.  So as we gear up for camp time, family vacation time and whatever else brings a general renewal before returning to our conventional sites of learning, let us all consider this important practice of blessing that gratefully acknowledges on a daily basishow the true wisdom of ongoing learning comes from all people.May the teaching of our Sages come true in our lifetime, when they ask—“Who is truly wise? The one who has the capacity to learn from every single person.” 
If a person plans and God laughs, then what is prayer if we care? PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 01 June 2012 09:47

“Religion, someone once said, is what goes through your mind as your plane taxis down the runway. It isn’t. What goes through your mind as your plane taxis down the runway is mortality. It’s aeronautics. It’s the space shuttle Columbia.

Religion is what goes through your mind during the N.H.L. playoffs.”

Although the ice has melted and our minds are already on the sunny sands of faraway beaches, these words appeared in the front page of the New York Times Sports Section in May, just before the Rangers were going to reunite with the Capitals for a very tense (and tenuous) Game 7. By now, that game, that series, and even the Stanley Cup are distant memories, but when Shalom Auslander’s words graced the Sports Section, it struck a nerve.

Having grown playing travel hockey, with dreams of someday playing for Team Canada and maybe even the NHL, it would be an understatement to say that playing competitive sports and especially watching playoff hockey were not staples of my religion growing up. 

But even as I have grown and matured somewhat, I still find myself drawn to the powerful energy of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Auslander, now a fiction writer, grew up as a religious Jew and now finds himself questioning everything, including his religion—Judaism (and hockey).

His satirical commentary, “God and the Devils” touched a nerve through its black humor that is worth further consideration when Auslander writes: Nobody is immune. Richard Dawkins himself would sit at Madison Square Garden, squeeze his eyes shut, and whisper, “Dear God, let the Rangers close this out already and move on to New Jersey.” Then, like everyone else, he’d tap the “30” on the left sleeve of his Lundqvist jersey two times, the “30” on the right sleeve three times, kiss the N of “New” on the front of the jersey and the Y of “York” and wait for God to come through.

“I’ll never,” Dawkins would add, “write about you again.”

The charm of Auslander’s satire is that it takes his argument about the possibility of prayer to its most absurd conclusion—even one of the world’s leading scientific intellectuals, specializing in evolutionary biology and avowed atheist, Richard Dawkins, can be found praying to God for the Rangers to win!

So what is Professor Richard Dawkins doing praying in Auslander’s satire set at MSG?

It’s always about more than just the game at hand. When we pray, we tap into the cosmic tapestry of the universe. But how can we do this when evolutionists argue about the unlikelihood of a Creator of any universe, including our own? Rather evolutionists posit that existence is more a function of chance. After all, improbable things happen every day, so why should the naturalistic origin of life be considered impossible?

Odds are when we come together to pray as a community, wherever we find ourselves, we are confronting our mortality and reaching for something beyond ourselves yet within our deepest self. The difference between Dawkins and Auslander is that Dawkins has no room for causation or certainty, whereas Auslander has shed his pediatric Judaism with defiance. His defiance is standing before the ultimate Force of the Universe and accusing the Creator of being a trickster with a wicked sense of humor—

Der mentshtrakhtun got lakht. A person plans and God laughs.

Where has Auslander really learned this aphorism from is anyone’s guess—either from his bubby in the Shtetl of Teaneck, or in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Job—who knows? Regardless, Auslander tries not to care, but he doth protest a bit too much. Truthfully, we all care, but we have yet to find a way to articulate our own unique relationship to the Force of the Universe, the One responsible for everything from the Big Bang to the puck drop at MSG. We began this remarkable conversation over Shavuot at the end of May, with the hope that the conversations continue into the coming year as a community. Given that we do care, the real question is how much space we make for such a Force in our view of the universe at each and every moment. May we be blessed with the courage to be open to this question into our prayer lives, and even pray for the capacity to truly pray…  

Last Updated ( Friday, 01 June 2012 09:52 )
Tuesday, 01 May 2012 09:56

Daily each and every one of us faces the challenge of living our lives while retaining our integrity. I am often struck by how well adapted some people are to coping with the turbulence and uncertainty of life when they have clear values and convictions. These values may have come from making it on their own in the business world or through family experiences and history. Even though every Jew has these core values, sometimes we need reminders. Think of the importance of searching out, reflecting upon and communicating your own personal core values and transmitting them to your children and grandchildren. A kind of ethical will. What could be more important, as Jews and as human beings? 

But how do we react when the messiness of life demands that we revisit, revise and even reformulate our top 10 core values? I recently faced this challenge after having spent a few years formulating my top 10 core values that formed the basis of my recent book on Jewish philosophy. In the book I struggled with outlining for future generations how to think critically about core values in Judaism. Once the book was completed, I felt content. Then a great opportunity came along with its concomitant challenge—would I be interested in having this book of Jewish philosophy in English translated in Hebrew? Of course! Nothing would bring me greater joy knowing that my personal reflections on how to think critically and practice the core values in Judaism would inspire an Israeli audience. Then the Hebrew publisher posed me the greatest challenge— of the ten chapters in the book, would I be willing to drop just one? I agonized over this question for  many months. It seemed impossible. How would you react to removing one of the top 10 core values in your ethical will? How could I forego a core value that seemed so meaningful to Diaspora Jewish life for the sake of reaching Israeli readership? 

This struggle brought me back to the upcoming holiday of Shavuot—the moment when we all stand again at Sinai to receive the Torah. This moment marking the receipt of the Ten Commandments changed us forever and marked our birthing as a nation. As individuals those Ten Commandments still serve as the cornerstone of our moral backbone, the essence of our ethical perspectives on life.  While I could never imagine giving up any one commandment, given this agonizing question, now one spoke to me in a new way—"You shall not kill". Alongside the plain meaning of "you shall not kill" a prohibition against taking another person's life –I was reminded how the Sages of the Babylonian Talmud (Bava Kamma90b) found another significance— this prohibition extended against bringing about one's own death.  

Yet we know in reading the Scriptures, the Apocrypha, and even the histories written after the destruction of the Second Temple and the revolts that followed that there are no shortage of exemplars who willingly put an end to their own lives, be it by suicide or by dying in a battle when there "was a choice," such as Samson, King Saul, Hannah and her seven sons, the "four hundred children who were taken captive to be disgraced,"the zealots in Jerusalem, the fighters on Masada, the victims at Beitar, and others. This is one side of the collective experience of Jewish history.

 So clearly the Sages had what to be concerned about, applying this prohibition to taking any life, even one's own, and extends to committing suicide in order to hasten the end of one's life, another facet of this command struck me. Yet in more mundane way, there is a personal side of Jewish history within the collective that each of us is writing right now by how we live our Jewish lives. In that process of contemporary Diaspora Jewish life, we are constantly confronted with the possibility of living our lives to their fullest according to our core values or taking away from our life when we act against our integrity. "You shall not kill" is a clarion call to never lose sight of who you are, what you stand for, and how you act out that truth daily in the world.

The Hebrew translation of my book remains without a title so far, but hopefully by this time next year, it will be more fully revealed. In the meantime, we approach the celebration of Shavuot this coming Saturday evening of May 26th. Join us as we stand again at Sinai, in prayer, festive meal and learning to ensure we never lose sight of who we truly are at our core and always remember that these 10 core values that bring us together call upon us ever to stretch and to know, to open the heart and to act so.  

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 01 May 2012 10:05 )
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