Tag Archives: Rabbi Harold Kushner

#TieBlog #Tazria #PG-13

27 Mar
Sperm racing to fertilize the egg so that a woman will "Tazria," conceive.

Sperm racing to fertilize the egg so that a woman will “Tazria,” conceive.

As I’ve developed my Torah tie collection over the years, I’m often asked by people with some knowledge of the Torah reading cycle what ties I could possibly wear for Tazria-Metzora. Last year, I partially answered that question with medical-themed tie for the double portion of Tazria-Metzora. The two portions together deal with various medical conditions, including skin disease, that barred victims from participation in Temple worship until they recovered. The Kohanim (priests), while certainly not doctors of today’s standards, were the arbiters of who could and could not enter the Temple precincts.

This year, due to the leap year on the Jewish calendar, the double portion is split into separate weeks. What is a TieBlogger to do? Have no fear–I have just the tie.

Parashat Tazria begins with instructions concerning a woman after childbirth and the purification rites she must go through depending on whether she bears a boy or girl. Rabbi Harold Kushner asks: “Is the normal period of impurity after giving birth one week, and is it doubled after the birth of a daughter because the new mother has given birth to a child who will herself contain the divine gift of nurturing and giving birth to new life? Or is the normal period two weeks, only to be reduced after the birth of a son to allow the mother to attend the b’rit in a state of ritual purity, or because b’rit milah on the eighth day is a purifying rite?” Rabbi Kushner leaves it to us to ponder the answer to that question. In the meantime, the verb tazria literally means, “when [the woman] conceives.” The root z-r-a means seed. In order for her to conceive and give birth, her ovum must be fertilized by sperm, also known in Hebrew as z-r-a, seed. This tie may be PG-13, but it reflects the discussion of conception and childbirth at the start of Parashat Tazria.


1 Nov

Isaac Blessing JacobTomorrow in Shabbat services I will facilitate a discussion on giving blessings, based on the drama surrounding Isaac blessing his sons. Consider the sources in this study sheet. Think of a time when you felt “blessed” by someone else through praise, words of encouragement or the like. In what way(s) were you transformed by the blessing? Let’s begin the discussion now! You can Tweet responses at #blessingAsAgentForChange. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Bernstein

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.

Living a Life That Matters Through a Growth Mindset

7 Sep

My sermon for the second day of Rosh HaShanah, September 6, 2013, was published in the Huffington Post:


Living a Life That Matters Through Selective Memory

7 Sep

Living a Life That Matters Through Selective Memory
Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein
Rosh HaShanah, Day 1, September 5, 2013

Shanah Tovah,
In the weeks leading up to Rosh HaShanah, I’ve been driving around town with my grandfather. This might not seem out of the ordinary, except that my grandfather has been dead for 23 years. Still, he’s been with me in the car. Let me explain.

For years I’ve kept in storage dozens of cassette tapes. Does anyone remember those? My collection includes lectures of great rabbis, great cantors singing high holiday music and lectures from college and Rabbinical School. A few weeks ago, I came across several cassette tapes that are very special to me. In 1987, as part of a high school history project, I took an oral history of my grandfather, Sam Lesner, of blessed memory. He had a distinguished career as the film and entertainment critic for the former Chicago Daily News, and he personally knew many of the great actors and entertainers of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. To research my project, I went to his office with a tape recorder and asked him questions about his life. The result was three one-hour-long cassette tapes, with each hour devoted to a different aspect of his life. The first hour was about his early years and family roots. The second was about his Army service in World War II. The third hour is the story of his career in journalism. I’ve had these tapes with me all these years. I’ve wanted to do something with them, but never got around to it. As technology advanced, the cassette tape become obsolete. I don’t even own a tape player anymore. Due to a confluence of circumstances, I was drawn to those tapes this summer and was able to digitize them. I can now listen to my grandfather’s voice from the past as I drive around Palm Beach County. It is as if out of a heap of forgotten magnetic tape, my grandfather has come back to life. When I listen to him in the car, I picture him sitting next to me.

Around the time I rediscovered my grandfather’s tapes, I read a remarkable new novel that explores the power and limits of memory. Dara Horn, a brilliant young Jewish American novelist who writes meticulously researched historical novels has just published “A Guide for the Perplexed.” The great medieval rabbi Maimonides wrote a philosophical treatise by that name, and it plays an important role in the plot. The novel weaves together a contemporary fictional story with two historical episodes in Jewish history: the multi-faceted work of Maimonides in 12th century Egypt, and the discovery of the Cairo Geniza by Solomon Schechter in 1896 in which he found documents written by Maimonides with his own signature.

The main character, Josephine, or Josie, Ashkenazi, is a contemporary software designer and tycoon. She creates a program called Geniza that is designed to remember every detail of your life and organize it so that it can be easily retrieved when needed. Your child forgets where she put her shoes? The system of digital cameras installed in one’s house interacts with the software so that all you have to do is type in “shoes” in your tablet, and you are shown a picture of where the shoes are. Without spoiling anything, here’s the essence of the plot: Josie gets caught up in an adventure in which while visiting Egypt on business and is kidnapped amidst the post-revolutionary chaos there. In this adventure, Josie’s talent for preserving memories becomes her only means of escape. Another layer of the story is the intense sibling rivalry between Josie and her older sister Judith. The novel is a midrash on the Joseph story in the Bible with Josie and Judith filling the roles of Joseph and Judah in the Bible. In her novel Horn explores the question of whether two sibling obsessed with memory can put those memories in check in order to achieve forgiveness.

The author juxtaposes the Geniza found by Schechter and the electronic Geniza created by Josie to explore a vital question: what happens in a world where nothing is ever forgotten? How valuable would it be to have at your fingertips a detailed record of everything you ever said and anything anyone ever said to you? What would become of our personal memories? Is forgiveness possible when forgetting is impossible?

My grandfather’s tapes are part of my own personal Geniza. I’ve saved so much over the years in various outdated media formats–cassette tapes, slides, VHS video tapes. Hearing the voice of my late grandfather again has been a special blessing, and it has rekindled in me the warm, loving relationship that we had. What if, however, I came across tapes documenting every moment of my childhood? Would I want to relive every moment? I almost certainly wouldn’t waste my time recalling mundane tasks of daily life such as every time I took out the garbage or bought groceries for my mother. When we think about it, it’s clear that we have selective memory. We choose to remember some things and not others. If we were to remember everything, we would be paralyzed. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book called “Living a Live That Matters.” Part of living a life that matters is learning how to sharpen use of our memory tools.

Memory is a key theme of Rosh HaShanah. The Torah refers to this day as Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Rememberance, a name that is repeated many times in our liturgy. Whose memory are we talking about? On the surface, it seems that it’s God’s. It’s as if we seek to jog God’s memory. In our appeal to God for our own benefit, our ace-in-the-hole is zechut avot, the merits of our ancestors. In our Torah and Haftarah selections on this holiday, we read of God remembering Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Hannah and Rachel in their time of need, and we pray that our association with them will bode well for us.

The Musaf Amidah has three supplements, Malchuyot, which praises the majestic God; Zichronot, which praises God who remembers us; and Shofarot, which praises God who was revealed amid the sounds of the shofar. Each unit contains an introduction, ten Biblical verses and a concluding prayer.

The Zichronot section quotes verses that deal entirely with God remembering. The summary statement of Zichronot leading up to the closing blessing contains a phrase that is repeated in the prayer Un’tane Tokef: zokher kol hanishkahot: God remembers everything that is forgotten. In other words, God is the ultimate Geniza, the memory bank of everything in human history.

If God indeed remembers everything, we’ve got a problem. Why do we need to jog God’s memory on Rosh HaShanah? Why do we need Yom HaZikaron? Isn’t God omniscient and omnipotent—all-knowing and all-powerful?

According to some parts of the Hebrew Bible, the answer is no. God’s memory goes astray. God doesn’t always remember accurately.

Consider this verse from Jeremiah 2 (v2):
”Thus said the Lord: Zacharti lach–I remember you, the devotion of your youth, your love like a bride, when you went after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.”

This is God’s memory of what happened in the wilderness when the Israelites wandered for 40 years. Interestingly, this charitable memory is missing many aspects of those years. What about the Golden Calf? What about Korah’s rebellion? What about the constant complaints? What about the sin of the spies? These were dark episodes during that time.

The narrative of the Torah itself tells a more complex story. The Book of Numbers is about God’s consistent frustration with the Israelites in the desert. It’s hardly a story of devotion on the part of the people to God. Certainly God did not forget the people’s rebelliousness. It seems, rather, that God has selective memory.

When our ancestors spoke of God’s memory, they were more in tune with their own memory, including their own selective memory. God remembers what God wants to remember and is not necessarily the big data bank in the sky that we might be led to believe that God is. Rabbi Neil Gillman, based largely on Maimonides, teaches that there is no accurate way to describe God. All we have are metaphors, which are based on our limited human experience. A classic metaphor is that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. No one really believes a giant hand came out of the sky and transported over a million people. Our description of God’s memory in prayer is a metaphor, based on our own experience of memory.

Sometimes memory is a blessing, but sometimes it is not. Through our memory, we are able to tie together our life experiences into a coherent narrative. It is even necessary. Jewish tradition history calls upon us to remember the evil of Amalek and more recently, we must remember the Shoah. In the lives of our families, we recognize how terrible it is when a loved one suffers from dementia or Alzheimer’s. Their loss of memory becomes synonymous with a loss of identity.

And yet, with all the gifts of memory and the curses of losing memory, it is sometimes a blessing to be able to forget. When we want to build a relationship with someone, we manage to forget past slights. In parenting our children, how convenient it is that we can forget the trials of child rearing. Another great literary work on memory is “Funes the Memorious” by Jorge Luis Borges. The main character suffers the opposite of amnesia–he remembers every detail of his life and is completely paralyzed by his memories.

When we don’t let go of bad memories, they can be all consuming, and they are not a blessing. I’m sure many of us can think of family feuds that last so long the parties cannot even remember the original cause of the fight, only that the other side is wrong. In other cases, a fight can last for decades, with both sides remembering exactly the offense done to them, when and where it took place and their feeling of anger and hurt as a result. Think of the healing that selective memory could bring to rifts between parents and their adult children or between adult siblings or between spouses.

Rosh HaShanah is Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. But perhaps more accurately it should be called the day of Selective Remembrance. God, like us, resorts to selective memory. God, like us, does not want to remember the bad times or the sleepless nights of parenting. Instead, God says zacharti lach–I remember the devotion of your youth in the wilderness.

When we turn our memories into Genizas that recall every single slight ever done to us, we become paralyzed by distrust, enmity, and ill will. When we are able to be like God and use selective memory, our personal Genizas are transformed into a life force that inspires us with the wisdom of our ancestors.

The blessing of Zikhronot ends by praising God as zokher habrit –who remembers the covenant. Let this be a prayer for all of us for all of our relationships, to remember the blessings of being in relationship with other human beings. Living this blessing is part of living a life that matters.

Today, we appeal to God’s parental love in order to look over our misdeeds and embrace us with the unconditional love inherent in a close relationship. As we appeal to God’s selective memory, let us also look inside ourselves and pray that God might give us the strength to develop appropriate selective memory, and may we direct it towards healing in our relationships.

Ken Yehi Ratzon