Archive | September, 2013

Extrovert or Introvert? Channeling the Personalities of the Jewish Holidays

28 Sep

Channeling the Personalities of the Jewish Holidays

"Quiet," the best seller by Susan Cain

“Quiet,” the best seller by Susan Cain

Shemini Atzeret
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
September 26, 2013

(I am indebted to Rabbi Joshua Heller and Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove for introducing me to Susan Cain’s book Quiet and drawing key connections between the book and Jewish life in prior sermons.)

There’s a story of a yeshiva high school that wanted to boost its sports profile. They thought it would be good for recruitment and fundraising. The school was near a river, so they figured they would start a crew team. Unfortunately, they lost every race. One day, they sent one of the students to spy on another school’s team. The student came back to report: “I know their secret! They have eight guys rowing and just one guy yelling.”

We see in this story a certain stereotype of Jews that suggests each one of us wants to be a big shot. When we get together, we are boisterous and assertive, and we actively seek out such opportunities. However, this is not always the case. Jews are as likely as anyone else to favor traits that require good listening skills, patience and quiet. Let me ask you some questions.

Do you prefer one-on-one conversations or group activities?
Do you prefer to express yourself in writing or orally?
Do you enjoy solitude or crowds?
When your phone rings, do you prefer to send it to voicemail, or answer it right away?
Are you risk averse, or a risk-taker?
Do you feel drained after a weekend of social activities even if you enjoyed them, or do you feel recharged?

If you answered yes to the first half of each choice, you are more likely to be introverted. If you answered yes to the second half you are more likely to be extroverted.

There’s a compelling book that has been on the New York Times best seller list for over a year called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. The author, Susan Cain, a self-proclaimed introvert, offers an in-depth analysis of different personality traits. She asserts that modern Western culture, particularly in America, tends to favor extroverts, particularly over the last century. In the early 1900s, Dale Carnegie started his course “How to Make Friends and Influence People.” That reflected a trend then that has only deepened since in which Americans tend to favor style over substance. In other words, our society puts more value in extroverts. Cain argues that this trend has largely been to our nation’s detriment. She illustrates how introverts and extroverts each have essential strengths and that society benefits when they work together.

Cain notes that the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was enriched by both Martin Luther King, Jr. AND Rosa Parks. Dr. King, an extrovert, was the grandiloquent spokesman. Parks, was a quiet, soft-spoken woman who was not one to make waves except when she felt compelled to act as a matter of principle. She was an introvert. The Montgomery bus boycott and the subsequent civil rights movement succeeded in large measure because Parks and King’s personality traits complemented each other so well. Each was essential to the success of the larger cause.

Cain cites scientific research that shows how extroverted and introverted personality traits are hard-wired into people. An introvert can be perfectly outgoing and extrovert can listen and do quiet activities like reading. However, an extrovert derives energy from being in contact with other people, while an introvert derives energy from quiet and from inner contemplation. Neither personality trait is inherently better than the other, but she cites examples showing that our society has suffered by over-emphasizing the virtue of extroversion. As a case in point, the financial meltdown of 2007-2008 she notes was the result of reckless decisions of highly extroverted executives. Over the last few years, it was found that more introverted analysts working at many of the financial institutions issued warnings of the problems with such things as mortgage-backed securities years before the meltdown, but they were ignored by their high-rolling superiors. Their voices were snuffed out. Our entire economy suffered from this lack of balance.

Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret (Thursday, September 26), together remind us of the need for balance. After a week of festivity during Sukkot, the rabbis in the Midrash understood the Torah’s word atzeret to convey stopping or delaying. “‘I have stopped (atzarti) you, from leaving,’ [says God]. [It can be likened to] a king invited his children to a banquet lasting many days. At the banquet’s conclusion when it came time for the children to leave he said, ‘My children! I beg of you, delay your departure by one more day. It is difficult for me to take leave of you.'” As long as the fall holiday season has been, let’s let it linger a little bit longer, our tradition tells us. Up until now, it’s been a big, brash party. Let’s take a quiet moment, one on one.

In another midrash, the sacrifices of the seven days of Sukkot done in Temple times were in honor of the 70 nation of the world. On Shemini Atzeret, just one bullock is sacrificed, symbolizing the relationship of God and Israel. It’s as if throughout Sukkot, God is “working the room” of a big party at which all the nations of the world are guests. At the end though, God wants to have a quiet, intimate conversation with Israel.

For me, the Midrashim suggest that the relative calm and simplicity of Shemini Atzeret is a necessary complement — perhaps, even, a corrective — to the pomp and circumstance of the surrounding holidays. On the High Holidays, the synagogue is like a grand concert hall in which the sound of the shofar pierces our hearts. On Sukkot we have the pageantry of the lulav and etrog and the multi-sensory ritual of dwelling in a Sukkah. Shemini Atzeret lacks the grandeur and ritual of the preceding holidays. The revelry of Simhat Torah we delay another day. The message of Shemini Atzeret is that God is not to be found only in the peak moments of petition and celebration. These serve as catalysts for intimacy with the divine in daily life, not as substitutes for that closeness. Shemini Atzeret reminds me that God seeks my presence as I seek God’s. God needs some one on one time, and so do we. Shemini Atzeret reminds us that the opportunity for a more intimate encounter with God exists every day of the year, with or without a shofar, sukkah, or lulav and etrog. It seems from all of this that God has both an extroverted side as well as an introverted side. An extrovert might thrive in a party with a room full of people, while an introvert would prefer having a more subdued conversation with one other person. The midrash provides an image God requiring both settings.

Within the Torah itself, we find models of both introverts and extroverts. On Simhat Torah we read the end of the Torah, including the death of Moses. Moses is the Torah’s introvert par excellence. Yet, his brother Aaron was an extrovert. They needed each other and complemented each other just like Dr. King and Rosa Parks did in more recent times.

As a younger man, Moses was perfectly comfortable spending 40 years tending sheep- (a solitary activity). When God comes to Moses, he refuses a public role. He says “Lo Ish Devarim anochi”- I’m not a man of words. I’m a stutterer. I’m a back-office guy. In the end, God has Aaron serve as Moses’s mouthpiece to take on the public role. Moses grows into the public role of leadership, but the high points of his life are still relatively solitary. He goes up Mount Sinai for 40 days, just him and God. He is often separated from his family. According to many rabbinic commentaries to Numbers 12:1, when Aaron and Miriam speak against him regarding the “Cushite Woman”- they are saying that he is so enwrapped in holy activities that he is neglecting his wife and family. They can’t let him be. Moses would not be regarded by others as the “life of the party.” Rather, God singles out Moses for praise as the most humble of people.

In contrast, Aaron is the classic extrovert. When Moses is coming back to Egypt, the proactive Aaron is already on the road to meet him. Throughout the encounters with Pharaoh, Aaron is the mouthpiece. Once they reach the desert, when the Israelites want to make an idol, Aaron is there, swayed by the crowd, and facilitates the making of the golden calf. The midrash tells us that Aaron was ohev shalom v’rodef shalom, he loved peace and pursued it. He was aggressive and proactive in social situations. When two people fought, Aaron would go and sit with one and say “My son! See your friend, see how he tears his heart and his clothes, and says ‘how can I stand to see my friend- I’m embarrassed before him because I was unkind to him.'” And he would sit with him until the anger passed. And he would go sit with the other, and say the same thing and sit with him until the anger passed. The two rivals would meet, and they would kiss and make up. Aaron was able to approach people he barely knew and touch them deeply.

What is fascinating about both Moses and Aaron, not only do they complement each other, but they also each find ways to step out of their comfort zones to do great things. For Moses, the man who said “I am not a man of words” – lo ish devarim anochi–wrote an entire book of the Torah called, Devarim—words. It is essentially a series of major speeches Moses delivers to the people on the banks of the Jordan River. We complete that book tomorrow. Conversely, Aaron the High Priest was a highly public figure. He brought many offerings, he wore many types of garments. He washed many times. All eyes were upon him. However, on Yom Kippur, his most important task was in privacy, in solitude, entering the holy of holies, alone.

We should each cherish our essential nature, as introverts and as extroverts. At the same time, let’s recognize that Jewish practice enables us both to live comfortably in our nature, and to feed and stretch the other aspects of the soul. Our tradition bids us at times to make an effort and step out of our comfort zone and go against our type.

As we gather for Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret at the end of this extensive holiday season, we recall our departed loved ones who loved us unconditionally regardless of, or perhaps because of, our personality type. We honor their memory today by reflecting on their being present for us. In some cases, we might express regret that at times they might not have been present enough for us or that we were not present enough for them. If we are lucky, they challenged us to step out of our comfort zones while at the same time remaining true to our essential character. We honor their memory today by resolving to do the same in our present relationships—be true to ourselves while pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones for the sake of strengthening our relationships.

As we pause to reflect on our relationships today, we realize that being in relationship is complex. Only God can manage to perfectly balance introversion traits and extroversion traits. Some people, like Moses and Aaron, can find ways to complement their respective strengths, but we know that even they experienced tension with each other at times. Still, our tradition, calls upon us to imitate God to the best of our ability in order to bring God’s presence into our lives and the lives of others. On Shemini Atzeret, we think about God seeking to linger in our presence because God needs quiet intimacy as much as grand pageantry. Shemini Atzeret reminds us that God and Israel are like a pair of loved ones who seek both intimacy and mutual growth. May the memory of our departed loved ones inspire us to be present for one another, to validate others as we were validated and to challenge one another towards meaningful growth.

#TieBlog #SimhatTorah and #Beresheet

25 Sep
On Simhat Torah we celebrate our completion of the Torah reading cycle, and we begin again--from the beginning.

On Simhat Torah we celebrate our completion of the Torah reading cycle, and we begin again–from the beginning.

It’s a #TieBlog doubleheader as we head into the last round of fall holidays. On Simhat Torah, we engage in the powerful ritual of completing the book of Deuteronomy and immediately returning to read the beginning of Genesis. I think these ties speak for themselves. Hag Sameah!

#TieBlog #Sukkot and #SheminiAtzeret

24 Sep
"And you shall rejoice on your festival...and you should be especially happy."

“And you shall rejoice on your festival…and you should be especially happy.”

Of the ties in my Torah Tie collection, I especially like the ones that have explicit scriptural references. For Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, this tie is particularly apt. Deuteronomy 16, which is read in the Diaspora on Shemini Atzeret morning, describes the calendar of holidays. With respect to Sukkot, the Torah commands (verse 14) “And you shall rejoice on you Hag (Festival, referring specifically to Sukkot)” and then adds shortly thereafter (verse 15) “And you shall be especially joyful.” The tie conflates these verse fragments into one statement, which is a popular song at this time of year: V’samachta b’hagecha, v’hayyita ach sameah. May the season bring joy to all.

Rabbi Bernstein’s YouTube videos on Sukkot

18 Sep

imageFor an overview to the Sukkot holiday, here are three YouTube videos that I recorded in 2009.

Introduction to Sukkot: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huYx1lwtQQA

Introduction to Lulav and Etrog: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELgUzaGQzIM

How to Make the Lulav Shake: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nOPjQaFRzxU

18 Sep
Corn stalks represent the fall harvest, and they can also be used for skhakh, the roof of the Sukkah.

Corn stalks represent the fall harvest, and they can also be used for skhakh, the roof of the Sukkah.

On Sukkot, we dwell for seven days in a Sukkah, a fragile, temporary dwelling. It symbolizes the fragility and impermanence of life, yet is also a time to offer gratitude to God for the divine sheltering presence and the abundance that we are able to enjoy in this world. The roof of the Sukkah is called skhakh and is made of plants. During the day, it must provide more share than sun light, and during the night, one must be able to see the stars. Corn stalks, like the ones on my tie, are a popular form of skhakh where they are available.

Writing the Next Act on Yom Kippur

15 Sep
Sam Lesner, my grandfather, had a storied career as the film and entertainment critic for the Chicago Daily News. Here he is (seated on right in checkered blazer) with  other reporters interviewing Julie Andrews in Austria on the set of "The Sound of Music." Sam began his career by reviewing the Yiddish Theater.

Sam Lesner, my grandfather, had a storied career as the film and entertainment critic for the Chicago Daily News. Here he is (seated on right in checkered blazer) with other reporters interviewing Julie Andrews in Austria on the set of “The Sound of Music.” Sam began his career by reviewing the Yiddish Theater.

This sermon was published in the Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-edward-bernstein/yom-kippur_b_3916468.html

A slightly updated and corrected version appears below.

Writing the Next Act on Yom Kippur
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
September 15, 2013

I recently discovered some lost treasures. My late grandfather, Sam Lesner, of blessed memory, came back to life after 23 years when I heard his voice once again after finding and digitizing some old cassette tapes. My Grandpa Sam was the film and entertainment critic of the former Chicago Daily News. In the early 1930’s, while working in an entry-level job filing clippings in the newspaper’s library, it became known to the editors that he was a trained musician and that he was fluent in Yiddish. As a result, his first “beat” was covering Chicago’s Yiddish theater and reviewing these productions. Nearly fifty years later, he recalled the golden years of Chicago’s Yiddish theater in a lecture to the Chicago Jewish Historical Society. A cassette tape of that lecture in November, 1978, is among the old tapes that I rediscovered this summer. He opened this lecture as follows:

“It has been written that ‘[a]ll the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely the players’ (Shakespeare). For Jews everywhere, that is more than a literary catch phrase. It’s a philosophy for living, for surviving. For, do we not daily reenact our traditions? Do we not daily reenact our faith? And do we not daily rededicate ourselves to continuity of a vast, varied and colorful heritage, the Jewish heritage?

Grandpa Sam continues, “It has also been written that ‘[t]here is that smaller world which is the stage, and that larger stage which is the world.'” (Isaac Goldberg, early 20th century journalist)

“And yet another sage has written the theater is not a game. It is a spiritual compulsion. Once it celebrated the gods. Now it broods over the fate of man. Mensch trocht, Gott lacht (Man plans, God laughs).”

My Grandpa Sam’s voice emerged from the past to discuss the vital role of theater in capturing the human condition and the remarkable interplay between the theater and Jewish values. In reflecting on this lecture, I’m reminded that Yom Kippur is a play of sorts. Each one of us is a player, and we are acting out our own deaths. We wear white costume, just like we dress a loved one to be buried. We have a script, the mahzor (High Holiday prayer book), that guides us with language to confess our sins, just as one does before dying. We fast and deprive ourselves of bodily pleasures that the dead don’t enjoy. We can call these rituals method acting. If ever there was a day to act out as if it’s our last, it’s today, Yom Kippur. Everything up until now has been Act I, maybe also Act II. We can shape the next act and how we interact with the characters in our lives.

Over the High Holy Days, we prepare to raise the curtain on the next act. We reflect on how we can live a life that matters in which we enrich our lives through our relationships with others. In that context, if today were our last day, what would we do to ensure such a legacy? Would we seek to settle old scores and exact revenge for past wrongs done to us? Would we do nothing because a day is too short for anything meaningful? Chances are, we’ve tried those scripts already, and they’re getting stale.

On Yom Kippur, our day of renewal, our tradition provides us with stage directions and a powerful script. The day is further enriched by the improvisational theater that we provide ourselves.

Our stage directions that we’ve inherited call on us to emulate the Master Player on our world’s stage, God. The Torah instructs us lalechet bidrachav, to walk in the ways of God. In the 13 divine attributes, God tells us in the Torah that He is El rachum v’chanun, merciful and gracious God, erekh apayim v’rav hesed v’emet, slow to anger and abounding in loving kindness and truth. The Midrash says, mah Hashem rachum v’chanun, af ata tehiye rahum v’chanun. Just as God is merciful and compassionate, so too you should be merciful and compassionate (Sifre Devarim, Ekev).

Next, we turn to the script of our tradition. The mahzor attempts to capture the complexity of God that we strive to emulate. As I wrote for Rosh HaShanah, in the Un’tane Tokef prayer, we declare that God is zokher kol ha nishkachot, God remembers everything that has been forgotten. In other words, God is the ultimate data bank of everything in human history. Or is He?

God is a versatile cast member who plays many parts. Our rich liturgy offers another metaphor: not God the data bank, but God the parent who uses selective memory. Avinu Malkeinu, zochreinu b’zikkaron tov lefanecha—Our Father Our King, remember us before You with a good memory. Use Your selective memory, God, for good. God knows how to let go, but do we?

Here’s a classic story about not using selective memory. A man complained to his friend that whenever his wife gets angry, she becomes historical. “You mean hysterical,” the friend corrected him. “No,” said the husband, “I mean historical. She starts listing everything I did wrong in the middle of an argument that begins with: “You always…” or “You never….”

Why do we opt for the blame game script? We do so because this satisfies our sense of outrage and indignation. Since we are the injured party, we feel righteous. Our victimhood makes us morally superior as we look down with scorn on the person who hurts us. It provides us with the weapon of guilt to use against the offender. Our mahzor script invites us through prayer to think differently.

Since we pray, and since the rabbis envision us imitating God’s best attributes, the rabbis reach the conclusion that God also prays. The question is what, and to whom, does God pray?

“The rabbis ask: What does God pray? May it be My will that My mercy may suppress My anger, and that My mercy may prevail over My [other] attributes, so that I may deal with My children through the attribute of mercy and, on their behalf, stop short of the limit of strict justice.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 7a)

God understands the enormous negative power of anger and so He prays to be rid of it. God’s vulnerability is a mirror image of our own. God models for us openness to vulnerability and change. So, having engaged with stage directions and a rich script, we now have the task of turning to “improv.”

The renowned Hasidic rabbi and psychiatrist, Abraham Twerski, provides some guidance on how we can essentially write our own play, or at least the next act. He writes about some of his patients feeling paralyzed by resentment and the liberation that forgiveness brings about. He quotes one of his patients saying: “I came to realize that hanging on to anger was not affecting the people who hurt me. They don’t have headaches, indigestion, or insomnia. I do. Why should I suffer because of their wrong behavior? So I just stopped thinking about them, and my anger evaporated. Hanging onto resentment is akin to letting people you don’t like live rent-free inside your head without paying rent. I’m not the kind of person to let people do that, so I evicted them from my head.”

Rabbi Twerski’s anecdote resonated with me earlier this spring in a deeply personal way. I was forced to confront a demon from my life’s first act that was occupying space in my head without paying rent, and I suddenly had to do some “improv” to chart my path. A guy I went to school with from pre-school through high school sent me a friend request over Facebook. It gave me great pause. My recollection is that from preschool through fifth grade this fellow teased me relentlessly. In later grades, the memories of those early years haunted me. We then went our separate ways, and I haven’t seen him since high school. However, as I moved through adulthood and became an educator, any time I encountered the concept of bullying, the image that came to mind was being tormented by this fellow when we were young boys. In recent years, as I connected with more and more friends from childhood on Facebook, I noticed that several old friends from school were friends with my old nemesis. While I have many Facebook friends whom I barely know, I just couldn’t pull the trigger and send him a friend request. My image of this guy from 35 years ago was renting space in my mind. Then, out of the blue, he asked me to be his Facebook friend. Part of me wanted to accept it right away, but I also wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to ask him to bear witness to my pain. I felt it was the honest thing to do.

I wrote him an email. I hit the send button. Then I waited. The next day, I officiated at a funeral. At the cemetery, I finished the service and walked from the grave site to my car. I pulled out my phone to check my email. I saw there was a response to my Facebook message. Despite the long car ride back home ahead of me, I had to read it in full. It was a beautiful, contrite letter that was completely validating. The writer not only apologized for the way he made me feel, but out of his own initiative he went on to describe in vivid, accurate, detail a specific incident from childhood in which he teased me and his deep regret over it. He concluded his letter: “I do understand. I do acknowledge. I am sorry.” I accepted his friend request.

I couldn’t have staged the scene any better. I was sitting in a cemetery. It was the perfect setting to bury the fear, dislike and distrust I had of this person for most of my life. I felt the curtain rising on a new act. I was so moved by the risk this man took in “friending” me, for his courage in responding to me, and for his eloquent and humble note. I said the blessing of thanksgiving:

Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us life and sustained us and allowed us to reach this moment. It was liberating writing back and officially forgiving him and signing off as “Your Friend.”
If life is a play that is carried out on the world’s stage, then sometimes we have to consider that our total life experiences up to the present moment are only the first or second act. We have the ability to shape the next act.

For those of us who have unresolved tensions with people who are living, the time is NOW to get to work towards healing. Our loved ones whom we lovingly recall in Yizkor would expect nothing less from us. We can write the next act of our lives.

Writing a successful next act requires teshuvah, a complete return to shleimut, wholeness or integrity. This process includes saying selichah, I’m sorry, to others for wrongs we’ve committed towards them, and it includes granting mechilah, forgiveness to others for their slights towards us. We say to God, “Selah lanu, mehal lanu, kaper lanu, forgive us, pardon us grant us atonement.” What we expect of God, we must also demand of ourselves.

So, those of us giving free rent in our minds to the anger and resentment that we hold towards someone, we give ourselves a gift to evict those thoughts. Let’s change the script from a tragedy to a story with a happier ending. If there are relatives or friends with whom there is unresolved tension, speak to them on Yom Kippur or immediately thereafter. Say that you’ve given thought to your relationship and want a fresh start. Each of us can raise the curtain on a new act.

We recall our departed loved ones on Yom Kippur because we acknowledge our own mortality. We are acting today as if it is our last day. Recognizing our mortality, as we do now, reminds us of the urgency to change our ways. It may be the last act.

Let us honor the memory of our loved ones with a Jewish Tony Award of zikkaron tov, remembering them for their goodness. Let us bring zikkaron tov, good memories, into our present relationships. Let us not live like we’re going through the motions on stage. Let us live a life that matters.

Israel: The People Who Struggle with God and One Another

15 Sep

Israel: The People Who Struggle With God and One Another
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
Kol Nidre, September 13, 2013

There’s an old story about a rabbi who auditions to be the rabbi of a new synagogue. The interview goes well, but at the end, the president of the congregation says, “Rabbi, there are just three things you’re not allowed to speak about from the pulpit: Don’t speak to us about ritual observance; don’t speak to us about social action; and don’t speak to us about Israel.” The rabbi asks: “Well then, what am I supposed to speak about?” The president says: “Jewish stuff.”

Tonight, I’d like to speak about one of those topics: Israel. We note with appropriate solemnity that this is the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. It’s tempting for me to recount Israeli history and rally us to support Israel’s continued security as our one and only Jewish state.

Tonight, however, I am moved to do something different. I wish to speak not about Israel per se but about how we talk to one another about Israel. It’s all about relationships and, as Rabbi Harold Kushner says, “living a life that matters.” We have a great tension in Jewish tradition between the need to take care of ourselves, the Jewish people and the need to be concerned about the world as a whole. Hillel expressed this tension in his famous statement, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” There is a natural tension between the first two parts of this statement. They are of equal importance–particularism, concern for ourselves, and universalism, concern for others. For the most part, the tension in our tradition between these two forces is healthy. When it comes to the State of Israel, though, conversations among contemporary Jews can sometimes get ugly.

The way in which American Jews talk to one another about Israel is one barometer of the health of our relationships, particularly between different generations. I’m concerned that Israel has become a sort of third rail in Jewish conversations that is best left untouched for the sake of shlom bayit, peace in our family. Many in our community feel that as Jews we have a duty to hold Israel to the highest standards, and it’s our duty to call Israel to account when there is injustice there. Many others say, “Shah, shtill. Be quiet. Don’t wave Israel’s dirty laundry in public. Diaspora Jews have to show a united front in support of Israel.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Los Angeles wrote recently about this tension. He says that for generations, Jews have adjusted as needed in finding the balance between concern for ourselves and concern for others. When we hold on to both, Jewish life thrives. He argues, though, that in recent years the balance is broken. “Perhaps this is the residual effect of living in the shadow of the Holocaust.” He writes that the Jewish people suffer from a collective post-traumatic stress disorder. Some Jews turn inward and think the world is out to get us and that another Shoah, God forbid, can happen any moment if we don’t take care of Israel and the Jewish people first. Other Jews feel that if we don’t aspire to the highest ethical standards and show concern for all people, we sink to the level of our oppressors over the centuries. Feinstein writes: “Instead of an active tension, we are left with severe polarization,” and says further “todays increased polarization will suffocate Judaism.” I appreciate Rabbi Feinstein’s wisdom from which I learn two things: a) there are multiple ways to approach and be supportive of Israel; and b) we need to find respectful ways for fellow Jews to speak and engage in relationship.

Rabbi Feinstein was writing in response to a particularly troubling exchange between two rabbinic colleagues last November that was a microcosm of the tension between the particularistic and universalistic camps. The two rabbis are Daniel Gordis and Sharon Brous. Both, like me, are graduates of JTS. They are both highly accomplished in their respective rabbinates, and I have been inspired to quote both of them on occasion in my sermons over the years. Rabbi Gordis, a renowned public intellectual, made aliyah to Israel in the late 1990s and has provided keen insight on the life of Israelis in a turbulent Middle East. Rabbi Brous is a contemporary of mine and founded the Ikar congregation, an innovative start-up shul in Los Angeles that has attracted hundreds of young Jewish adults in their 20s and 30s. They have a long-standing personal and professional relationship with each other dating back to when both lived in LA. This relationship was severely tested in a public dispute that they had over Israel.

Last November, after hundreds of rocket attacks terrorized southern Israel, Israel launched an air-raid attack on the Gaza Strip to destroy munitions and launch sites. A ground invasion by the Israeli Army was averted at the last moment when the US and Egypt were able to broker a cease-fire. Anytime Israel faces a tense military situation such as this, emotions throughout the Jewish world run high. We anguish over loss of life on all sides, and we anguish over Israel being punished in the court of public opinion over the killing of civilians when terrorists deliberately embed themselves among their own people in order to draw Israel’s fire. In response to the last Gaza showdown, Rabbi Brous published a letter to her congregation reflecting on the suffering of both Israelis and Palestinians. Rabbi Brous writes:

“I believe that the Israeli people, who have for years endured a barrage of rocket attacks targeting innocents and designed to create terror, instability and havoc, have the right and the obligation to defend themselves. I also believe that the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have suffered terribly and deserve to live full and dignified lives….”

Later, she writes, “However you feel about the wisdom and timing of Israel’s response to the Hamas threat, the people of Israel need our strong support and solidarity. At the same time, supporting Israel’s right to protect and defend itself does not diminish the reality that the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable.”

Rabbi Gordis responded with an article in the Times of Israel a few days later in which he criticized Rabbi Brous for being too even-handed. “Yes, we are all deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil. But why does Rabbi Brous not feel that it’s her place as a rabbi to tell her community…which side is good and which side is evil?” The end of Rabbi Gordis’s article gets highly personal, and this generated the controversy:

“As I read Rabbi Brous’s missive, I couldn’t stop thinking about my two sons, both in the army, each doing his share to save the Jewish state from this latest onslaught. What I wanted to hear was that Rabbi Brous cares about my boys (for whom she actually babysat when we were all much younger) more than she cares about the children of terrorists. Especially this week, I wanted her to tell her community to love my family and my neighbors more than they love the people who elected Hamas and who celebrate each time a suicide bomber kills Jews. Is that really too much to ask?”

Gordis continues, “I knew, even before reading Rabbi Brous’s missive, that we Israelis are surrounded by enemies. When I finished reading her, though, I understood that matters are much worse than that. Yes, we’re surrounded, but increasingly, we are also truly alone, utterly abandoned by those who ought to be unabashedly at our side.”
It is clear at this point that two well respected and thoughtful rabbis have different perspectives on Israel. Yet, respect of the other is crucial even amidst disagreement. Living a life that matters requires civil discourse. The question is whether this discussion has gone beyond civil.

It wasn’t long before Rabbi Brous responded:

“Wielding the power of the pen, Gordis sets me up as a straw (wo)man, a representative voice of a naïve Jewish ideology, one that is willing to jettison allegiance to the Jewish people for the sake of some self-congratulatory humanism. Such Judaism, he claims, is ‘utterly universalized… almost entirely divorced from the richness of Jewish heritage and the worldview of our classic texts.’”

“What is shameful is that Gordis knows what many of his readers do not. For years my teacher and friend, he knows precisely what is the character of my Judaism, he knows just how deeply Jewish traditions and texts run in my blood. But it is far easier to cast aspersions on a straw man than engage in discourse with a real live colleague who shares his concern for Israel, the Jewish people and its future but nevertheless sees things differently than he does.”

Rabbi Gordis then wrote a rejoinder. He attempted to take back his more inflammatory personal statements while restating his strong commitment to Jewish particularism, the Jewish concern to take care of ourselves first and foremost.

He writes: “I believe that four thousand years of Jewish tradition are committed to the proposition that particularism is key to who we are, and that the inability to love our people before we love others cuts out the heart of one Judaism’s great sustaining characteristics.”

By this point, numerous other commentators were weighing in on the Gordis-Brous Internet spat. Rabbi Ed Feinstein, whom I quoted earlier, served as kind of an online referee. He writes that they are both Jewish intellectual heroes struggling to inspire contemporary Jews. “That is what makes their controversy so painful to witness.”

Rabbi Feinstein says: “So incendiary is Rabbi Gordis’s critique of Rabbi Brous, it obscures the simple fact: He needs her. First, he needs her Torah.” Rabbi Feinstein says that Rabbi Brous’s teaching of Torah has engaged younger Jews, teaching them to interpret their universalism and humanism through traditional Jewish lenses.

“Second,” Rabbi Feinstein continues, “he needs her conscience. The voice of Jewish particularism needs the balancing voice of Jewish universalism, else it turns chauvinistic, narrow, and cruel. Too easily do we fall into a narrative of victimhood and wallow in attitude that overlooks brutality and excuses all moral infractions.”

“Finally,” Rabbi Feinstein says, “he needs her moral vision. The primary task of Zionism, as Gordis so well understands, was to make a safe place for Jews and Jewish life. But that was never its sole purpose. Zionism was always an expression of Jewish moral aspiration.” For example Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren went on American TV during this conflict and explained in detail how Israel was taking steps to avoid civilian casualties. Because of its moral vision, Israel resisted a call by some to carpet bomb Gaza. Such moral vision is what makes Israel a Jewish state. Rabbi Feinstein clearly favors Rabbi Brous’s concern for more than just Jews in Israel but also the values for which Israel stands. In so doing, he reminds us that there are multiple ways in which we can express our support for Israel and that we can and must be respectful of one another in doing so.

As we think about issues of global Jewish importance, like Israel, we have to consider not only the issues at hand. We have to consider how community conversations about Israel serve as a litmus test for our relationships with one another. We can argue issues passionately, but we must remember that concern for both ourselves and the outside world are integral parts of our rich Jewish heritage. Yom Kippur is a time for us to reconnect with one another, with the synagogue and its traditions, with the Jewish people, with Israel and with God. In this new year, let us not shy away from discussing the vital issues of our day because we fear to offend. At the same time, let us always remember the human beings with whom we share dialogue so that we may listen and be strengthened by our differences. We are a richer, more vibrant tradition because we value both ourselves and others. Finding the balance between the two is sometimes challenging, but our effort to strike that balance is part of living a life that matters. May we all be so blessed.