Tag Archives: Torah

The Legacy of Justice Louis D. Brandeis

9 Sep
Justice Louis D. Brandeis

Justice Louis D. Brandeis

“Other people’s money.” Think about that phrase for a moment and what it triggers in your mind. For me, the phrase conjures the notion that when one is entrusted with the care of someone else’s money or property, you have to take special care of it, even more so than if it were your own. Do you know who coined that phrase? Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Justice on the United States Supreme Court. This year marks the 100th anniversary since his nomination by President Woodrow Wilson and the start of his distinguished 23-year term as the first Jewish Justice on our nation’s highest court.

 

Jeffrey Rosen, a leading Constitutional scholar and author of  the recent book Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet, describes Brandeis as “the most farseeing, progressive justice of the 20th century, the one whose judicial philosophy is most relevant for the court today as it confronts questions involving regulation in a time of economic crisis and the preservation of constitutional liberty in a time of technological change.

 

On this Shabbat of Parashat Shofetim, it’s natural for us to recall a towering presence in American jurisprudence and one of the most prominent Jewish Americans in the history of this country. However, there are three specific matters in Parashat Shofetim that invite an appreciation of the Brandeis legacy.

 

  1. Other people’s money: The Torah discusses the appointment of a king. Public leadership is necessary for the security and overall welfare of the community. However, unlike other nations of the time, the king is not divine. The king is a human being subject to the Torah’s laws like everyone else. In this context, the Torah emphasizes the importance of integrity of the office. רַק֮ לֹא־יַרְבֶּה־לּ֣וֹ סוּסִים֒ וְלֹֽא־יָשִׁ֤יב אֶת־הָעָם֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה לְמַ֖עַן הַרְבּ֣וֹת ס֑וּס וַֽיהוָה֙ אָמַ֣ר לָכֶ֔ם לֹ֣א תֹסִפ֗וּן לָשׁ֛וּב בַּדֶּ֥רֶךְ הַזֶּ֖ה עֽוֹד׃     Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses. Integrity of the office mandates not using public funds for personal enrichment. Louis D. Brandeis was passionate about this issue and wrote a book titled “Other People’s Money.” Brandeis was the most important critic of bigness in business and government since Thomas Jefferson. He was a fierce opponent of oligarchs like J.P. Morgan, who took reckless risks with other people’s money by investing in complicated financial instruments whose value they couldn’t possibly understand. Brandeis forecast the crash of 1929 that launched the Great Depression, and his wisdom anticipates the financial crisis of 2008.
  2. As a Justice, one of his great legacies is defining the right to privacy within the Constitution. Here too, there are roots to be found in Parashat Shofetim (19:14). We learn:

לֹ֤א תַסִּיג֙ גְּב֣וּל רֵֽעֲךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֥ר גָּבְל֖וּ רִאשֹׁנִ֑ים בְּנַחֲלָֽתְךָ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּנְחַ֔ל בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃

 

You shall not move your countryman’s landmarks, set up by previous generations, in the property that will be allotted to you in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess.

 

 

In other words, don’t move the fence between your property and your neighbor’s to add to your field. Why does the Torah have to mention such a specific type of theft? The Torah already stated numerous times that it is forbidden to steal!

It is suggested that the Torah is teaching the value of privacy. A fence serves two purposes. It marks the property line between neighbors. It also protects each neighbor from peering into what the other party is doing. Each homeowner can do what he pleases in his yard without feeling that someone is looking over his shoulder. When one moves the fence over and intrudes on his neighbors property he’s not only stealing his physical space, he is also taking away his emotional security. He’s stealing his right to peace of mind. The Torah is more than just a handbook of laws and commandments. It teaches us how to live respectfully with others by ensuring everyone the necessary privacy to pursue his or her individual interests.

 

Brandeis was a champion of the modern right to privacy. He was a visionary in anticipating challenges created through the development of technology and potential encroachment on individual liberty. He writes in one case: “  The progress of science in furnishing the government with means of espionage is not likely to stop with wiretapping. Ways may someday be developed by which the government, without removing papers from secret drawers, can reproduce them in court, and by which it will be enabled to expose to a jury the most intimate occurrences of the home. Advances in the psychic and related sciences may bring means of exploring unexpressed beliefs, thoughts and emotions.”

 

Rosen notes that Brandeis anticipates FMRI technology, brain scans, things that can reveal our unexpressed emotions. And he’s insisting you can’t just focus on the legal principle the framers were embracing – that you had to break into someone’s house and trespass on their lands – you have to focus on the value they were trying to protect, which is intellectual privacy. So Brandeis is challenging us – take the framers values, translate them in light of these new technologies and make them our own.

 

 

  1. Finally, Brandeis was a Zionist who rallied the American Jewish community to support a Jewish state in our national homeland. Parashat Shofetim opens: Judges and officials you shall appoint בְּכָל־שְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ within all your gates, in the dwelling places which Adonai you God is giving you (16:18). Two verses later is the clarion call צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָֽרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ Justice justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you. God promises our ancestors the Land, but it must be a place of justice. In the early twentieth century Jews fleeing persecution began rebuilding a Jewish national home. They sought justice and launched the Zionist project to realize the ideals of the Jewish people in control of their own destiny.  It’s hard to believe today, but American Jews at the time were not sold on Zionism. Many American Jews  a century ago from all points on the religious spectrum were wary of Zionism and concerned about the perception of dual loyalties. Brandeis, on the other hand, championed Zionism and made it an American value. “The highest Jewish ideals are essentially American in a very important particular,” he proclaimed. “It is Democracy that Zionism represents. It is Social Justice which Zionism represents, and every bit of that is the American ideal of the twentieth century.” Brandeis often said: “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.” His influence on President Wilson and the British government helped pave the way to the Balfour Declaration in 1917 that was an important milestone in the path to Jewish statehood.

 

On this Shabbat, Jews around the world are reminded of the necessity to pursue justice and build societal institutions rooted in justice. Louis Brandeis was an outstanding Jewish American whose vision for justice reaches into our own generation. We remember him for his personal integrity, his commitment to liberty and his dedication to Zionism, which transformed the Jewish people. He embodied the Torah’s call צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף. May his memory be for a blessing.

#TieBlog #Vayishlah #JacobWrestles

27 Nov

 

Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being in Parashat Vayishlach and is renamed Yisrael.

Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being in Parashat Vayishlach and is renamed Yisrael.

Parashat Vayishlah presents the climax in Jacob’s journey from a trickster youth who gets his way through deception to a mature adult who faces life’s challenges with integrity. He is about to confront his estranged brother Esau for the first time in 20 years. He fears for his life as he believes Esau is still angry over being cheated out of his birthright. The night before meeting Esau, Jacob encounters a mysterious being on the banks of the Jabbok and they wrestle all night. Towards dawn, Jacob prevails but the sparring partner strikes him in his hip and causes permanent injury. Jacob emerges triumphant but wounded. He is renamed Yisrael- the one who wrestles with God and man and prevails. Later (33:18), Jacob is described as “Shalem,” whole or at peace. Even though Jacob is hurt in a wrestling bout, he is a much more whole person for finding within him the integrity to repair his relationship with his brother.

#TieBlog #Vayera #TheScream

29 Oct
Edvard Munch's "The Scream" has multiple connections to Parashat Vayera.

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” has multiple connections to Parashat Vayera.

When I found a tie with Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” it was clear to me that it would be perfect for Parashat Vayera. The question is what specific connection or “tie-in” it has. The next question is what kind of a scream is represented? Is it a scream of terror or a scream of joy? If the latter, perhaps it’s the aged Sarah expressing her shock that she is going to give birth to a son. On the terror side there are multiple options. It could be Abraham hearing about God’s planned destruction of Sodom and Amorah and his righteous indignation that the just might perish with the wicked. It could be the wife of Lot gazing upon Sodom and Amorah as they burn from fire and brimstone. She turns into a pillar of salt from the shock. Or perhaps it’s Sarah upon learning of the near sacrifice of her son Isaac (Sarah dies at the beginning of the next portion). It could be all of these things, making this one loud, action-packed Torah portion.

#TieBlog #Noah

15 Oct
Noah's Ark

Noah’s Ark

As we turn to Parashat Noah, we are faced with the perplexing challenge posed by the first verse, “Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generation.” Why does the text say “in his generation”? The rabbis of old had a debate. Some say that if Noah could stand out in his age when surrounded by depravity, all the more so in other ages when he would have other decent people around him. Other rabbis aren’t so sure. He was certainly better than the people around him, but he would have paled in comparison to an Abraham or Moses who intervened before God on behalf of people condemned to die. Noah never says anything. He builds his ark and goes on his way. His action (or inaction) stands in contrast to Abraham challenges God directly when Sodom and Gomorrah are doomed to destruction. “Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Gen. 18:25), Abraham pleas, hoping the depraved cities would be spared for the sake of even ten righteous people. Abraham intervened with God on behalf of the righteous. Moses takes it a step further and intervenes to save the guilty, the people of Israel who commit the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). The trajectory of the Torah suggests that Noah was righteous for his time, but would have paled in comparison to the giants of later generations.

#TieBlog #Shemini

17 Apr
Nadav and Avihu play with "strange fire" in Parashat Shemini."

Nadav and Avihu play with “strange fire” in Parashat Shemini.”

We learn when we’re young never play with matches. In Parashat Shemini, Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron the High Priest, bring eish zarah, strange fire to the altar. They are tragically stricken down as punishment. The Torah provides scant rationale, Rabbis throughout the ages have struggled to find an adequate explanation for this incident. Whatever explanation one chooses, there is no ambiguity of Aaron’s shock: Vayidom Aharon, Aaron was silent. Yet Aaron goes on living, establishing Jewish religious observance for generations to come. In our world, we are bombarded by inexplicable tragedies that often leave us speechless. Our best defiance is to go on living and affirm life.

#TieBlog #Tzav

27 Mar
The eternal flame

The eternal flame

Parashat Tzav continues discussion of the order of sacrifices and contains the instruction that the kohanim (priests) maintain a perpetual flame on the altar.

This is also Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath” preceding Passover. We focus on preparing our homes to be rid of all hametz (leavened products)by the start of the holiday. On Thursday night we do bedikat hametz, an inspection of the home to make sure it is hametz-free. On Friday morning we burn the leftover hametz from the search. This week’s tie also evokes the upcoming burning of hametz. Please exercise appropriate caution, and enjoy your Passover preparations.

The finer details of community building

13 Mar

For math aficionados, this weekend is a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. March 14, known as Pi Day. To remind those of us who haven’t been in high school geometry for a while, Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. This is approximately 3.14, but this is only an approximation. We actually don’t know the exact ratio, though mathematicians have expanded the decimal to hundreds more digits. As we were beginning the Shacharit service today on 3/14/15 at 9:26 and 53 seconds, we experienced Pi Day to the fullest extent possible for the next 100 years. I didn’t want that moment to go unnoticed.

Our Torah today reading focuses much attention on precision in the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. This week we conclude the public reading of the second book of the Torah, the book of Shemot (Exodus) and read the two parashiyot known as Vayakhel and Pekudei. These readings follow last week’s reading of the Golden Calf episode, while today’s reading deals nearly exclusively with the construction of the tabernacle and furnishings that our people carried with them in the desert period. It is clear that after the powerful experience of the Divine Presence at Sinai, followed later by construction of the Golden Calf, the people need some tangible, physical reminder of God’s presence. The Torah describes in extensive detail the measurements of the Mishkan, because a house of God must be made just right. Years later, the Tabernacle would be replaced by the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and following its destruction, the synagogue became our spiritual home. In every community, we attempt to make our place of worship a fitting beautiful place that we feel suits God’s presence. At the same time, we are reminded in this same portion that with all of the exactitude of construction, the key purpose of the Mishkan or the modern synagogue is as a place of sacred convocation. God is not present unless people are present creating community with one another.

The Torah reading opens Vayak’hel Moshe et KOL adat b’nai Yisrael. Moses gathered KOL, the entire community of Israel. In classical rabbinic interpretation of the Torah, every word is full of meaning. So many commentators naturally ask why the text adds the modifier kol, for all. Rabbi Harold Kushner writes that this is to restore the sense of unity and shared purpose that had existed at Mount Sinai. Other commentators explain that the simple word kol was to be a constant reminder that our definition of community must include all our members. To be loyal to our calling, the community must include the younger and older; weak and the strong; men and women and children. Every individual, whatever his/her station in life, has a special place in the life of the community. Every person matters (Thanks to Rabbi Melvin Sirner for this spark).

Every day we are bombarded by difficult news stories that might be boiled down to individuals or segments of society forgetting the basic premise that every person matters. I don’t think any of us has to think too hard to think of examples disrespect, discrimination and hatred that exist in our country and around the world. Once in a while, it’s nice to hear good news about people standing up and doing the right thing for others, particularly for weaker, more vulnerable members of society.

This week, there was one such story in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Lincoln Middle School was hosting a basketball game. One of the school’s cheerleaders, Desiree Andrews, a student with Downs Syndrome, was being heckled by fans in the bleachers. This is horrible and disheartening. And then something remarkable happened. Three eighth graders on the team, Miles Rodriguez, Scooter Terrien and Chase Vazquez, stopped the game, went up into the stands, and told the hecklers to knock it off. In response, there has been an outpouring of support for these students, for their parents, for the school and for Desiree. The school renamed the gymnasium “D’s House,” and the Kenosha City Council is honoring the three players for standing up for Desiree.

The story has spread widely on the Internet and social media. One quotation in a news article stood out for me. One of the three boys, Scooter Terrien, said: “It’s not fair when other people get treated wrong because we’re all the same. We’re all created the same. God made us the same way.”
This should not seem remarkable to us—it should be what we consider normal. And yet, for three 14-year-old boys to stop a basketball game to stand up to a heartless, cowardly bully, it gives hope to all of who wish to see our communal homes cultivate and nurture our most precious values. Clearly Lincoln Middle School gets an ‘A’ for creating an atmosphere in which these three basketball players developed values of caring and concern. Their families and broader community that helped raise these boys also deserve credit for raising boys who understand that every person matters.

These three boys at Lincoln Middle School in Kenosha are an inspiration to us here who care about creating a vibrant and caring synagogue community where every person matters.

On this Pi Day, it’s easy to get caught up in the details of the measurements of the Tabernacle and its contents. However, our Torah portion comes to remind us in the very first verse the ultimate purpose of a community, particularly a sacred community. Just as Moses recognized the value of each and every individual, we must do the same. May God grant us the strength to remember that every person matters, that our words and our actions will reflect this core value and that younger generations will look to us as models to emulate.

Amen.

#TieBlog #Mishpatim

13 Feb

The scales of justice

 

I’m getting good use out of my justice ties this week (I actually have three) as we read Parashat Mishpatim. This section is known as the Covenant Code. While the Ten Commandments read in the previous week’s portion lay out general principles for society, this portion provides a foundation of civil law for society.

#TieBlog #Va’era

16 Jan
"Frogs here, Frogs there. Frogs were jumping everywhere."

“Frogs here, Frogs there. Frogs were jumping everywhere.”

Many of us learned the song in pre-school as we were preparing for our Passover Seders:

One morning when Pharaoh awoke in his bed
There were frogs on his pillow and frogs on his head.
Frogs on his nose and frogs on his toes,
Frog here, frogs there, frogs were jumping everywhere.

This week in Parashat Va’era, we read about the first seven of ten plagues that God sent to Egypt to pressure Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free. With the children’s song about the frogs, it’s easy to make light of the plagues and even laugh about them. However, at the Seder we remind ourselves not to rejoice by removing a drop of wine from our wine glasses as we recite each plague. We rejoice that the plagues led to freedom for an enslaved people; we do not rejoice that human beings suffered as a result, so we temper our joy. #TieBlog deems it’s not out of bounds to wear a frog-themed tie when reading about the plagues, so here’s my tie of the week.

Discovering the miraculous in our actions

19 Dec
Rabbi Harold Schulweis, z"l, contributed to the recently published "Keeping Faith in Rabbis." He died December 18, 2014, at the age of 89.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis, z”l, contributed to the recently published “Keeping Faith in Rabbis.” He died December 18, 2014, at the age of 89.

What is the job of a rabbi? We can all think of many things based on our experiences. A rabbi often functions as service leader, preacher, teacher, spiritual counsellor, manager, writer, mediator, strategic planner, fundraiser and many more.

The modern rabbinate continues to evolve. In 21st Century America, we have to ask how contemporary challenges that our Jewish community faces will shape the rabbinate and how the rabbinate must respond to challenges to shape the Jewish community. A new book, Keeping Faith in Rabbis: A Community Conversation on Rabbinical Education, edited by Rabbi Hayim Herring and Ellie Roscher, is a collection of essays that explore the evolving American rabbinate. I am proud to say that I am a contributor to this volume with the publication of my essay “The Roar of the Cat Rabbi: The Vital Role of Introverts in the Congregational Rabbinate.” In coming weeks, I hope to discuss my essay further. For now, I want to turn to another essay in the book, “The Loneliness of the Rabbi,” by Rabbi Harold Schulweis. Rabbi Schulweis died on Thursday at the age of 89. He had an illustrious career as the Rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom, a vibrant Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. I did not know him personally but was inspired by his writing and teaching. He was a powerful and engaging speaker, a brilliant yet accessible theologian and a passionate advocate for social justice. He was a Gadol Hador, one of the giants of the Jewish world in our generation. In his essay in Keeping Faith in Rabbis, he addresses rabbis directly as to their sacred duty.

He writes:
“Rabbis, you are the children of prophets. In you is the solace that comes from loyalty to the conscience that has led you to this sacred vocation. In you is the moral passion that kept the prophet alive, who when he confessed that he felt the derision against him, and was tempted not to mention God’s name was overwhelmed by the word that was “in my heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones.”

There are many things that a rabbi does, but based on Rabbi Schulweis’s teaching, I would like to suggest a common purpose among our various forms of service: the rabbi’s job is to guide others to seek out and discover God’s presence in one another and in our world. When we help others achieve this and add meaning to their lives, we are successful.

The task of finding God’s presence in one another and in our world lies at the heart of Shabbat Hanukkah. On Shabbat Hanukkah we wrestle with two questions: 1)What exactly is the miracle of Hanukkah that we celebrate? 2) Why does Shabbat Hanukkah always coincide with Parashat Mikketz (and is there a connection between the two?—OK, that’s a third question.)

Let’s address these questions. Our ancestors saw miracles in the story of Hanukkah, but differed on precisely what the miracle was. There are two separate Hanukkah miracles described by different voices of our tradition. In our liturgy, we say the prayer Al HaNissim, which praises God for the miracle that delivered a military victory of the weak over the strong, the few over the many, the pure over the impure, and the righteous over the wicked. In the Talmud, however, we find the legend of the single cruse of oil that miraculously burned for eight days instead of just one. Our tradition gives voice to both of these founding myths, and both are valid and important.

So, what does Hanukkah have to do with the central episode of the Joseph story that we read this Shabbat, Parashat Mikketz? They always fall together, but why? On the surface, this is a pure coincidence. Our Torah reading cycle was not coordinated with the cycle of festivals and special days on the Jewish calendar. For this reason, we have the separate Maftir Torah reading and special Haftarah reading that are singled out today for Hanukkah. Nevertheless, our annual mingling of the story of Joseph in Egypt with our commemoration of the Maccabean revolt against their Greek oppressors, begs for closer examination.
The Joseph story is itself the most naturalistic narrative in the Torah. On the surface, God is not an active player. Every event can be read in purely naturalist terms in its descriptions of human behavior. We have sibling rivalry, parental meddling, deception, lust, political ambition, guilt, and revenge. We recognize these experiences from our own lives, and we identify with the characters as a result.

At the same time, there are just too many coincidences in the story for it to be entirely arbitrary: Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave, which leads to his serving in the house of Potiphar, which leads to his imprisonment, which eventually leads to his interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, which leads to his appointment as Pharaoh’s #2, which leads to Joseph’s brothers coming to bow down before Joseph, begging for food. God is never described by the narrative as the direct cause of this chain of events, but Joseph attributes everything to the hand of God and forgives his brothers as a result.

In the Joseph story, God’s presence is well-hidden. God never speaks but is portrayed as working all along, though in ways not apparent to most of the actors. Joseph himself ascribes God’s role in orchestrating the chain of events in his life that ultimately leads to his reunion with his family and his forgiveness of his brothers (Gen. 45:5).

Rabbi Neil Gillman notes a parallel between the Joseph story and the Hanukkah story. If we look at historical accounts of the second century BCE, we find not only the persecution of the Greeks toward Jews, but the internal struggles between the Maccabees and the Hellenists, Jews who sought to live completely immersed in Greek culture. It is a story rife with political intrigue, assassinations, and civil war. The Maccabees emerged as the winners during this period of great strife. On the one hand, their story can be told in naturalist ways: the story of an oppressed people rebelling against an imperialistic kingdom, fighting to regain their freedom and their right to worship as they wished, and winning because of their military might and political sense. It was only subsequent generations, starting with the Maccabees themselves, who interpreted the series of events as miraculous, the work of God’s hand in human history.

We see an interesting phenomenon in the Joseph story and in Judaism’s response to the Maccabean revolt. In both cases, God is seen as having played a role in the unfolding of events, even as God’s presence is not readily apparent at the time the events are happening. By extension, the coincidence of Parashat Mikketz and Shabbat Hanukkah is perhaps not a coincidence at all. It may be our tradition’s way of saying that God is present throughout our lives. Our openness to seeking out and being aware of God’s presence is a step towards adding meaning to our lives.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis helped countless numbers of Jews encounter God’s presence through guiding them to discover God’s presence in other people. In the process, he helped bring fresh meaning to modern American Judaism. On this Shabbat Hanukkah, I pray that we will follow the example of Rabbi Schulweis. Let us tap into our human ingenuity and compassion to bring about good in the world so that future generations will look back at us and say that through our efforts God performed miracles.
Amen.