RDA Blog

Thank you for visiting. Please note that this is a personal website. I write here as a private citizen and nothing contained herein is to be associated with any organizational affiliation.


6/15/16

Speaking notes of my talk  at the Keys’ Community Memorial Service for the victims of the Orlando massacre are here.

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2/5/16

A great light has gone out. Dr. Eugene Borowitz, the world’s leading liberal Jewish theologian, passed away last month. It was my privilege to be one of his students. Here is his obituary from the New York Times. I highly recommend following the link to Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman’s eulogy as well.

His legacy is enormous. As a member of the rabbinic faculty of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, he taught for more than 100 semesters. I was fortunate to have written my rabbinic thesis with him. Integrity–intellectual and ethical–was his touchstone. No one left his presence unimpressed by his gifts, talents and commitment. His influence has guided me every moment of my rabbinate. It will continue to do so. His memory is for great blessing.

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12/22/15

Yoga teacher Eileen shared this sutra with the class the other day. I thought it worthy of reprinting here. It counsels that we cultivate the attitudes of:

Friendliness towards the happy,

Compassion for the unhappy,

Delight in the virtuous and,

Disregard for the wicked.

It is intended to be a guide for relating to individuals, not entities, where of course the wicked cannot simply be disregarded. Otherwise, I thought it wise counsel for our journey through life.

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04/16/15

What is it that makes a great teacher? I’ve been fortunate enough to have several over the course of my life, and the first one (aside from my parents) was in elementary school. I took part in an experimental program designed to cover three years of work in two years time. Charged with the task of teaching us all this was one teacher, Mr. Ronald Rotella. Last month, more than fifty years after we graduated, many of us reunited–with one another and with him.

Here are my remarks from the occasion. Perhaps they will remind you of a teacher you knew–or the teacher you would like to become.

“Mr. Rotella:

We always knew you were a great teacher. We loved you. We respected you. You could even say we revered you. That was about as far as our childhood vocabulary could take us. Now, fifty plus years later, I’m going to try and put it in fuller language.

There is an ongoing national debate on the purpose of education. There are those who say its purpose is to transmit knowledge and tools. Others argue it is to prepare students for the job market. My vote goes to those who say, “The purpose of education is to transform human beings.”

We didn’t understand that when we were kids. We thought the purpose of education was to learn things–things that would somehow help us make our way in the world. For all I know, that’s what the East Meadow School District thought too.

We did learn many things from you: photosynthesis, bacteriology, the French Revolution, the Civil War, the Cold War, and proper English grammar to name just a few. Even during recess you managed to teach us–sportsmanship during kickball. And then there are those three little words of yours I’ve been repeating to myself ever since, “Organize your thoughts!”

Now we can articulate that you taught us a lot more than things. Our EAP years did transform us. Maybe because during those years the love for and the excitement of learning were nurtured to the point where they became an inextricable part of us. We got that in part from one another–it was great to be surrounded by so much innocent intellectual curiosity. But the fountainhead was you.

That love for and excitement of learning cannot be taught the way photosynthesis is taught. It can only be taught by someone who understands, and believes with a passion, that the purpose of education is to transform human beings.

The better part of a lifetime later, Mr. Rotella, we can say that these gifts have blessed us every day since. How fortunate we were to have had you as our teacher. And how fortunate we are to be able to say this to you today. Thank you.”

If you’d like to see video of the occasion, click here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLKrRCXJLfXJFicHATtizkkrKsACqQVS_M

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09/03/14

For friends of Israel a must read on AIPAC. I learned plenty from this and you will too. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/09/01/friends-israel

09/01/14

Some of Israel’s current high minded critics might do well to acquaint themselves with the Hamas Charter. Not only does it call for Israels destruction but also for the widespread murder of Jews (not Zionists). It blames Jews for engineering the French and Russian revolutions and both world wars. It even manages to find enemies in Rotary and Lions Clubs. (You can’t make this stuff up.) If you want to pick and choose, start with Article 22 in this translation provided by thejerusalemfund.org, an Arab website. If you are interested in the role of women in society try Articles 17 and 18. There’s much more so it’s better to read the whole thing if you can. If it does not remind you of Mein Kampf, you don’t know your history.

6/23/14

The recent election loss of Eric Cantor brought the following quotes to the forefront. Cantor, who it seems now will not be the first Jewish Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives,  quoted a Holocaust survivor of his acquaintance to the effect that “Suffering is part of life. Misery is a choice.”

Similarly, current House Speaker John Boehner, also commenting on Cantor’s defeat, quoted Winston Churchill. “Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. The courage to continue is what counts.” I thought this last worthy of inclusion in Pirke Avot, the second century compilation of Rabbinic wisdom found in the Mishnah.

I don’t know that I need to add any commentary to either of these statements. Except to say that they are worth meditating upon and to the extent we can make a them part of our own outlook on life, it will be to the betterment of ourselves and those around us.

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4/9/14

David Brooks writes in yesterday’s NYT  about the relationship between happiness and suffering. I found it compelling reading containing significant wisdom, particularly for those who have suffered a loss–or one day will. Click here for the essay.

4/1/14

David Halivni Weiss holds centrist political views in an increasingly polarized Israeli society. Here is an essay and possibly more important, a music video from a group headed by Tomer Yosef that recounts the “Great Story–Ha-Sipur Ha-Gadol” of Jewish history–and wondering where it will go from here. The video is in Hebrew but there is some translation in the Weiss essay. The rest is worth finding a Hebrew speaker to share with you. Read, see and especially, listen, here.

11/6/13

David Letterman has a new book out and in an interview with David Itzkoff in the NYT  connected to its publication he offered the following observations on tzedaka (not using that word) and happiness:

“…Asked if his work on “This Land” had made him want to contribute to more charitable causes, Mr. Letterman answered that this was something he had “done actively for a long time.”

“But,” he continued, “I’m not going to tell you what it is, because I’m from the old school where if you start talking about it, you’re not doing it for the right reason.”

But whatever cause he chooses, he said, there remains “this huge chasm of injustice, just by virtue of being born in the wrong place.”

All he could offer on the subject, Mr. Letterman said, was a lesson he had learned as “a person who spends a great deal of his time wondering why he’s not happier.”

“I have found that the only thing that does bring you happiness,” he said, “is doing something good for somebody who is incapable of doing it for themselves.”

As a familiar sardonic tone crept back into his voice, Mr. Letterman continued: “It always works. It never fails. And so I guess from that standpoint, it’s not generous. It’s really sort of selfish.”

You could say that it sounds as if the comedian has studied Maimonides’ teaching on the subject (unlikely as it might be). It is better to give anonymously than it is to make oneself known, says the Rambam and the highest degree of tzedaka is to help someone become self-supporting. At the same time, his hard won knowledge as to what constitutes happiness can be fairly characterized as wisdom. Way to go David.

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3/24/13

My Passover message to you is, if you have not seen it already, get yourself to the movie “The Gatekeepers.” This is the documentary that features six former heads of the Shin Bet—Israel’s domestic security agency responsible for the prevention of terror.

The film makes it clear that these very tough, very dedicated and very smart men, try though they might to do right while protecting the people of Israel, face an impossible task. This is only minimally due to shortcomings of theirs and the agency they head. It is primarily because the occupation itself is impossible.

Complicating matters further are political leaders who act like, well, politicians; ideologues both Jewish and Islamic with whom there is no reasoning; and the brutalities inherent in every war, no matter how just.

I won’t tell you the conclusions that the former directors draw, but I will say that it is difficult to imagine anyone not being informed and impressed by what they have to say. At the same time we can take pride that Israel can produce such a movie. It is a powerful testament to the strength of its democracy, even as it is to its shortcomings.

Finally, if there are sufficient “wise sons and daughters” at your seder, “The Gatekeepers” is an excellent place from which to launch a discussion on the Haggadah’s message of freedom from oppression.

Chag Sameach—a happy Pesach to all.

2/18/13

Here is something from a posting I wrote for our CCAR rabbinic list serve. It is part of an ongoing discussion regarding J Street and other organization’s views on how to best support Israel and facilitate peace at this time. There are some references to previous postings but you should be able to extrapolate easily enough. Sadly, it is more depressing than I wish it would be.

“It seems that the core question and point of disagreement among us is, as they say in Israel, “Yesh partner or ain partner?” (Is there someone with whom we can conclude a deal or not?) I appreciate the evidence brought to bear by each side but frankly, I don’t know that any of us really knows the answer. And I don’t expect we will until such time as genuine negotiations commence (yes, with our enemies). But letting the talks take place and having the onus fall where it may is not something either side seems eager to do right now–and it’s not difficult to understand why. The price of failure would be too high.

We all saw what happened after the Palestinians shouldered the blame for the collapse of the Camp David negotiations in 2000. And with the current turmoil in Syria and Egypt, those neighbors might like nothing more than an excuse to turn their unwanted attention towards Israel.

There are also questions about our side’s commitment to a two state solution–at least as far as the current Prime Minister is concerned. The Palestinians can point to statements–and actions–of his government that are as objectionable to them (land continually appropriated for new and expanded settlements) as some of theirs are to us. They too wonder, “Yesh partner or ain partner?” (in Arabic of course).

Again, we won’t know the answer, and more critically we won’t have peace, until such time as the two sides find a way to sit down and hash it all out. Which leads to the other reason why neither side wants to negotiate now–because neither appears ready or willing to make the painful compromises that will be necessary.

It is also worth remembering that the participation of a superpower has been all but essential to conclude Israeli-Arab agreements. It may be true, as has been pointed out, that as soon as you want something in the shuk, the price goes up. Well if the US wants peace, the parties can’t charge America as much as they can charge one another. But how much does the US really want/need a final resolution to this conflict right now and how much are we (or the Quartet, remember them?) willing to pay for it? These too are answers we won’t know until all of the parties get themselves around a table.

The avoidance of all this has given us the path we’ve been on for some time–that of least resistance and inertia. It is the path of concurrent posturing before respective constituencies while kicking the can down the road. I believe it is only a matter of time before this “policy” leads to a new round of bloodshed and recrimination. With Hamas and Hezbollah armed as never before, the consequences for Israel will be greater than ever before.

Better to sit down now and find a way to make the compromises that everyone knows must be made–painful and far from perfect though they be. Then empower the 90%+ of the people who want to find a way to live alongside one another in peace do just that. I hate to think it will take another war before this can happen–but it just may.”

R

1/24/13

Parent of the Year!

At a rabbinic conference I attended that combined study and skiing (really) last week in Vail, Colorado, I was moved to give my “Parent of the Year” award to a particular dad. Unfortunately, I do not know his name, or even what he looks like.

Here is the story. I was in the mid-mountaintop lodge at Vail, where our group was meeting for lunch. While walking from one part of the lodge to another I overheard a young boy, perhaps nine or ten years old, who was tagging along behind his father say, “You know what I don’t like?” The dad immediately responded, “I don’t care.”

This is not always the best way to respond to our children’s concerns but in this instance, it may well have been.

Allow me to elaborate. Vail is not only a spectacularly beautiful mountain, it is one of the world’s finest ski areas. Anyone who is there cannot help but be uplifted. Having the opportunity to ski there it is a greater blessing and privilege still. Being taken by your dad, who had to work hard to be able to bring you, when presumably he could have gone with his buddies instead, well it doesn’t get much better.

Still and all, for some reason our intrepid youngster found the need to focus on something that he “didn’t like.” The dad was having none of it. His response essentially said, “Kid, if you are skiing up here, at Vail, with me or the family, on a school day no less, and want to talk about what you don’t like, you are barking up the wrong tree. Get real. Be grateful. If you have to tell me something, find a way to tell me that. For your sake (and mine), that’s what you need to focus on.”

I hope everyone can appreciate this. Maybe you had to be there. In any event, to you, anonymous Dad, goes my Parent of the Year–if not Parent of the Decade–award.

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12/17/12

My 20 year old cousin was killed by a handgun thirty years ago. For some time after that, as part of my rabbinate and as part of my citizenship, I was a handgun control activist. I felt pride that I, along with millions of other Americans, had a hand in passing the 1993 Brady Law which required an FBI background check and a waiting period before a handgun could be legally purchased.

After that however, the failures were far more numerous than the successes. The pro-gun lobby simply outspent, outworked and sometimes even out-argued those who believe that the bloodshed in this country could be at least somewhat curtailed with sensible gun legislation. In time, I am not proud to say, I let the cause drop from my activist agenda. It was too much of an uphill fight and there were other, more winnable battles to fight.

Things may have changed in the wake of the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. At the very least it seems that people are demanding an honest conversation on the issue. The fact that NBC invited 31 pro-gun United States senators to appear on Meet the Press yesterday and not one accepted speaks volumes. Very well then, we’ll begin the conversation without them.

I for one, intend to be active again. I have signed a petition at https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/ and I invite you to do the same. It has been too long. And it has been too bloody. This is not the kind of nation we deserve. But it is up to us to prove it.

In peace,

R

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11/15/12

On Operation “Pillar of Defense” (Amud Anan)

No country in the world accepts that enemy rockets can be fired into its territory with impunity. Israel is no exception. As Prof. Moshe Maoz of the Hebrew University recently put it in a related context, “Israel does not have a sense of humor here.”

The Hamas regime in Gaza remains sworn to Israel’s destruction and has been firing rockets into Israel for its own internal purposes. Such provocations can only be suffered for so long and yesterday, Israel responded by taking out the Hamas military commander, Ahmad Jabari, with an air to ground missile.

Not surprisingly, it provoked a violent response. As of this writing over 200 rockets have been launched from Gaza into Israel. (Thank you Iran—and others.) Some have been intercepted by Israel’s “Iron Dome” anti-missile batteries (thank you America) but others have not. Though most of the rockets have reportedly fallen in unpopulated areas, there have been fatalities, injuries and destruction. More is certain to follow.

It is unlikely that any long term strategic goals will be fulfilled during this operation by either side. When it is over, both Israel and Hamas will be standing. Given that, it would be best to find a way to end the hostilities as quickly as possible. A cease fire that leads to restored quiet along the Israel-Gaza border will happen sooner or later. It will be best for all concerned if it happens sooner.

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11/7/12

On the surface it seems to have been a relatively quiet election for the Jewish community. Scarcely a mention of us–unlike say in 2000 when we were at ground zero in Palm Beach County, Florida.

But don’t be fooled. We were very much a part of this election’s narrative. As follows:

The Jewish experience in America is the immigrant experience.                                            The Jewish experience in America is the minority experience.                                                   The Jewish experience in America is the experience of striving.                                               The Jewish experience in America is the experience of advancement through education. The Jewish experience in America is the experience of reward through meritocracy.          The Jewish experience in America is the experience of help and opportunity for others.                                                                                                                                                  The Jewish experience in America is the pursuit of fairness and justice for all.

These experiences have defined our families since we first set foot on these shores. And these experiences were affirmed and validated–for us and for others–by the election of 2012.

Enabling us to have these experiences is no small part of what has made America the world’s greatest nation. And enabling others to have them will insure that this greatness continues.

Congratulations to the United States of America on this vital day in our history.

R

11/4/12

Prof. Yehuda Bauer, an Israel Prize laureate and Holocaust scholar of worldwide stature, recently challenged elements of the long-held conventional understanding that the Roosevelt Administration declined to bomb Auschwitz primarily because of American anti-Semitism. In the process he emphasized many of the critical nuances that must be a part of that discussion, including the fact that the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem (the Sochnut), originally opposed the bombing as well.

In an article published in The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Bauer asserted that bombing the camps would have killed many Jews and that even bombing the railroad tracks leading to them would have had relatively little effect as they would have been quickly rebuilt. In addition, the Nazis would have found other ways to continue the extermination, e.g. death marches. He noted that some 50% of Jewish  victims during the war were murdered outside of the death camps.

Dr. Bauer also raised the related question of why the US and Great Britain did nothing to stop the mass starvation that killed 2 million Indians on the subcontinent in 1943. “Was Jewish blood any redder than the blood of others?” he asks. His conclusion, that the best tactic for stopping the annihilation(s) was the defeat of the Nazi regime, is essentially identical to the one that Roosevelt proclaimed, publicly and privately, throughout the war.

To read more of this challenge to the charge that “the US could have saved the Jews but didn’t” and to see how that charge is being used in the political arena even today, click here for an interview with Prof. Bauer in Ha’aretz by Tom Segev (registration for ten Ha’aretz articles per month is free and well worth it) or here for a follow up analysis from FailedMessiah.com. You can download the full text of Prof. Bauer’s original article in The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs (Volume 6, No. 3) here.

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10/24/12

This Election season I have three things to say.

1) Vote! And be sure to cast an informed ballot. By informed I mean one that is not shaped by the torrent of special interest advertising and funds that are accountable to no one and nothing—least of all the truth. This is not a sunny time for American democracy. The unlimited flow of money to politicians, now legal, has been incredibly corrupting. It is no small part of the reason for the gridlock we see in Washington and the fact that our government has subordinated everyday citizens’ interests to moneyed interests. It is also no small part of the reason for the inequality of opportunity that plagues America today. Yes it stinks. But vote anyway. It’s the best chance we have.

2) In the Presidential contest, I will be voting for Barack Obama. I’ve been disappointed by his Presidency in significant ways but I believe he has done as well as anyone could have under the circumstances and that he warrants a second term. At the same time I fear what the Republican Party has recently become. As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor reportedly told Justice David Souter as she retired from the bench, “What makes this harder is that it’s my party that’s destroying the country.” I’m sorry to all of my Republican friends—but your party has become beholden to some very frightening partisans. Please do what you can to save it. It is not healthy for our democracy.

I am also not voting for or against either candidate because of his stand on Israel. Israel and the US have a strategic alliance that transcends party and personality. It is solid because it is in the overriding interest of each country to keep it that way. If anything, I fault Obama for allowing Netanyahu to shift the agenda from peace with the Palestinians to Iran. (And yes, I hold the Palestinian leadership responsible for this as well.) Iran is a serious threat to Israel. But if there is no peace agreement with the Palestinians, and soon, Israel will lose its Jewish majority and become a de facto apartheid state. This is no less an existential threat to Israel than a potential Iranian bomb, make no mistake.

By the way, if you want a President who will stand foursquare with Israel, history has shown you are more likely to get that from a Democrat than a Republican. No need to take my word for it. See this article from former Mossad head Efraim Halevy who makes the point far more persuasively than I can. (And he doesn’t even mention the sale of AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia by the Reagan administration–over strenuous opposition from the pro-Israel community.)

Now don’t misunderstand. Standing foursquare with Israel is not ipso facto healthy for Israel. The case can be made that not challenging some of Israel’s self-destructive behavior has enabled more of the same. But we can leave that discussion for another day.

3) In Florida, I’m voting against all of the proposed state constitutional amendments except #9. Crafted by a highly partisan legislature who chose not to pass them as laws, they have passed them on to voters in a shameful abdication of responsibility. Good luck trying to read and understand them in the voting booth. They deserve a “no” vote just on principle.

Beyond that, I believe most of them are bad law. They reflect what have become hard right positions on issues like religion, women’s right to choose, health care and judicial independence. Others would become de facto tax increases for most Floridians (because they will give special tax breaks to certain designated groups that will have to be made up by the rest of us)–and they claim to be the party of lower taxes. The one amendment I’m voting for (#9) is a homestead property tax exemption for the surviving spouse of a military veteran or first responder. They deserve it and it will have a minimal fiscal impact on the rest of us.

There you have it. Remember to vote—early if possible. (There’s less chance of a foul up that way.) And a thoughtful Election Day to all.

R

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9/21/12

“Why are we working?” “Are we making a living or making a life?” And, “What should we do when we stop working?” To what end is our leisure? Do we become bored “doing nothing” or is leisure our most fulfilling time? If such questions speak to you, and particularly at this time of year they should speak to a lot of us, I commend to you this piece by Notre Dame Professor of Philosophy Gary Gutting. It appeared recently in the online version of the NYT.

G’mar chatima tova to one and all.

9/14/12

Political support has become, for many, less a thought-through expression of a particular ideology and more an expression of a particular cultural outlook. This is true both in the US and Israel–and in many other working democracies as well. Education level, ethnic heritage, religious perspective, and especially, the place in the cultural hierarchy in which we see ourselves, can determine our support for political parties and candidates far more than rational arguments about specific policies. The social, economic and religious groups we belong to are among the strongest predictors of who we will support in democratic elections. The political ideology we subscribe to is often more an expression of cultural identifiers than the other way around. Perhaps it has always been this way, but it is especially apparent now.

For example, if we see ourselves as self-made individuals, having earned our way to privileged status, we are likely to wonder why we should extend ourselves to help others achieve what we were able to do “on our own.” On the other hand, if our perception is that we or those around us were only able to climb the socioeconomic ladder because others built institutions, programs and legal safeguards that enabled us to do so, we are more likely to support people and parties who promise to protect those structures.

Or, if we see ourselves as members of a victimized group or are resentful of a perceived cultural elite, we will be drawn to those who fan that sense of victimization and resentment. And if we see an “other” as being even remotely responsible for our unhappy predicament (and any “other” will do, from an immigrant group to the government itself) we will be susceptible to appeals that cast aspersions on that other, either explicitly or implicitly.

This is in part why it is all but impossible to persuade someone to alter his or her political perspective. It is not a matter of rational and intellectual argument so much as it is one of cultural self-definition and life circumstances. And that is something that is essentially non-negotiable.

I wish you a good election season and a shana tovah.

R

6/29/12

Glory be. The United States of America has taken a huge step forward in making health care affordable and accessible for most–still not all–of its citizens.  Read this from Rabbi Eric Yoffie, immediate past President of the Union for Reform Judaism, writing in the Huffington Post, on why this is a moral imperative. You can also see my post from March 22, 2010, when the legislation originally passed, by scrolling down. The words I wrote then still hold.

6/24/12

Remember the Palestinians? No they have not gone away. And no, the saber rattling over Iran has not made them irrelevant. The Palestinian issue remains a genuine “existential threat” to Israel as a Jewish democracy.

An irony of the past several years, in which Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority has sworn off terror and coordinated with Israel on most security matters,  is that the Israeli government and many Israelis have taken the quiet on the Palestinian front for granted. In an Op-Ed in today’s NYT,  Nathan Thrall, a Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group, points out the myopic folly of such a position.

6/18/12

Here is a link to a revealing interview on the subject of a possible Israeli-Iranian war with former head of the IDF, Director of Military Intelligence and Vice-Premier Moshe Ayalon.  Interviewed by Ha’aretz journalist Ari Shavit, one of Israel’s most respected, Ayalon makes the case for a preemptive strike against Iran. The interview is both sober and sobering and provides more than a small window on the thought of the Iran “hawks” in Israel’s current government.

Shavit is appropriately sharp and challenging on this highest stakes issue. Leave yourself some time to give this article its due. If there is a strike against Iran, the questions that supporters of Israel will have to answer–to others and ourselves–are the ones that Shavit poses. Whether you live in the Diaspora or in Israel, see if Ayalon’s answers sit well enough with you. (If the link doesn’t take you past the paywall, you can register for free and get access to 10 “premium” Ha’aretz articles per month. This should be one of them.)

5/8/12

A fascinating development in Israel with the establishment of a new unity government last night. PM Benyamin Netanyahu and now Deputy PM Shaul Mofaz will oversee a  government comprising 94 members of the 120 member Knesset. Such a government will have stability and therefore power to move ahead on the critical issues facing the country. In theory it will be able to do so without being held hostage by the often parochial demands of small parties and minority factions, which have perennially made it difficult for Israeli governments to function effectively.

The centrist Kadima party has now joined the right of center Likud leaving the left leaning and far right parties largely on the sidelines. As one who believes that if any democratic society is to thrive the center has to hold, this is potentially a very healthy development. Let’s give this new government our best wishes for success and hope that its achievements  measure up to its potential.

5/7/12

Here are three pieces that are pretty much guaranteed to depress you on the state of the nation. Sorry but I think they are pretty much “must reading.”

The first is by author E.L. Doctorow titled “Unexceptionalism: A Primer.” He wrote it for the NYT and it was published on April 28. If there has been a more concise and cutting short essay written that details exactly what has been ailing us I have not seen it. Please read it by clicking here.

Dan Rather, speaking about his new book “Rather Outspoken” on the Diane Rehm show on May 3 told three stories that confirm some of our worst fears about how the news media are functioning in late 20th and early 21st century America.

He recounts how his controversial report about George W. Bush’s absence without leave from National Guard duty during the Vietnam war was accurate in its essence, even though an element of the documentation was faulty. But a “smokescreen,” as he called it, generated by partisans that focused on the faulty documentation prevented the AWOL behavior itself from becoming the campaign issue it deserved to be. In the face of that organized effort to obscure, Rather and others were unsuccessful in returning public discussion to the original charge.

He also told how during the run-up to the Iraq war in 2002-3, journalists were told to “get on board” with the Administration’s program or face being branded as “unpatriotic.” To his credit he accepts that his conduct in the face of this government intimidation was a journalistic failure.

Rather also tells how Viacom (CBS parent company) majority owner Sumner Redstone, who felt that a second Bush Administration was in Viacom’s best interest, intervened to minimize in the network’s news coverage of the Abu Ghraib scandal. He did so (successfully of course) for fear that fuller reporting would harm the President’s re-election prospects.

These three stories that Rather told illustrate in turn how partisan attack efforts, journalistic cowardice and corporate influence, far more than journalistic independence, to say nothing of excellence, are determining the quality of the news we receive. This in turn has a direct effect on the quality of our democracy, which brings us back to the Doctorow essay at the top of the page.

And while we are on the subject of intimidation, I recommend that you see this report on former Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Olmert’s recent trip to New York. Urging caution (about attacking Iran) before an audience of American Jews,

“Mr. Olmert was booed…when he declared that while Israel should prepare the military ability to strike Iran’s nuclear program as a last resort, it should first push for American-led international action against Iran, including sanctions and possible joint military action.

[In response,] Olmert responded caustically. As a concerned Israeli citizen who lives in the state of Israel with his family and all of his children and grandchildren,” he said, “I love very much the courage of those who live 10,000 miles away from the state of Israel and are ready that we will make every possible mistake that will cost lives of Israelis.”

Say what you will about Ehud Olmert, as a Knesset veteran, he knows how to deal with rude and cheap criticism that is designed to intimidate. He also knows how not to wilt in the face of it.  Would that our some of our media leaders show some of the same mettle.

Finally, do me a favor by scrolling down to the RDA Blog entry of 3/11/12 for evidence of how great minds think alike. 😉

I hope to have something more upbeat to share next time.

4/15/12

In a letter published in the NYT, my friend and colleague Rabbi Dennis Ross takes up the current discussion on the role of faith and religion in public life and politics. His conclusion, that “we should promote policies that protect private belief and practice in a way that does not burden, restrict or impose upon the larger spiritually diverse community” is one that I affirm as well. Of course the devil is in the details, the specifics and the commentary, but that is as good a place as any to start. Read his letter and follow the subsequent dialogue here.

If you are not going to read the whole thing, here are my favorite excerpts–and yes, they do affirm the side of the issue that I find  most compelling.

“Rabbi Ross is correct that people of faith have every right and indeed have an obligation to participate in the public square and to advocate for public policy on the basis of their religious convictions. What they do not have the right to do is to insist that their views — because they are based on their faith’s teachings — are privileged…

So long as these actions are based on fact and reason, the protections afforded by the First Amendment are secure. But when a public official bases decisions that affect us all solely on the tenets of his or her religious faith, that person jeopardizes the religious liberty of all.”  RACHEL STRAUBER, New York, N.Y.

“When a religion is convinced that it knows what God wants, it is hard to resist the urge to demand that it be put into law. We Protestants did it to the nation with Prohibition, and many churches now want to do it by putting into law their religious beliefs concerning women’s reproductive lives.” TOM DAVIS, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

“…Barack Obama … wrote in a 2006 article in USA Today: “My faith shapes my values, but applying those values to policy making must be done with principles that are accessible to all people, religious or not. Even so, those who enter the public square are not required to leave their beliefs at the door.” (Rev.) MICHAEL P. ORSI, Naples, Fla.

“Those opposing same-sex marriage, contraception and reproductive rights — as well as those demanding equal time for teaching intelligent design or the display of religious symbols in the public square — don’t seem to be especially interested in protecting diverse religious beliefs.

They want to have it both ways: to use the political process to impose their views on others while claiming the moral high ground of protected religious freedom.” STEVEN BERKOWITZ, New York

Again, you can read the full discussion here.

4/2/12

Here’s 450 words that I put together on the Afterlife. It’s a new and even somewhat humorous perspective for me, maybe for you as well. Enjoy.

3/27/12

Here’s another New Yorker cartoon, this one with more theological sophistication, from the issue of 3/26. If it needs any commentary you could say that it is a mockery not only of the putative  sport-God connection we hear about so often but also the whole notion of intercessory prayer. You can use this one for a chavurah group discussion starter. Enjoy.

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3/20/12

This should speak for itself. From the 3/19/12 New Yorker:

3/14/12

You may have heard about the Jewish school that would not play in the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools basketball tournament because the game was scheduled on Shabbat. A protest ensued, the game was rescheduled, the conflict was resolved and everyone lived to see another day.

But TAPPS may have done itself one better in its relationship with an Islamic school. The Iman Academy SW, a Houston institution, was seeking admission to the group. Among the questions it was asked on the application included the following:

¶ “Historically, there is nothing in the Koran that fully embraces Christianity or Judaism in the way a Christian and/or a Jew understands his religion. Why, then, are you interested in joining an association whose basic beliefs your religion condemns?”

¶ “It is our understanding that the Koran tells you not to mix with (and even eliminate) the infidels. Christians and Jews fall into that category. Why do you wish to join an organization whose membership is in disagreement with your religious beliefs?”

¶ “How does your school address certain Christian concepts? (i.e. celebrating Christmas)”

I’ll say this plainly. The level of ignorance that these questions betray is stunning.  At minimum, it calls for a level of interfaith dialogue to a degree much higher than has evidently been entered into heretofore.

The school chose to withdraw its application in the face of these particulars. Perhaps they too will live to play another day.

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Okay, time for a smile. This from the NYT Sunday Styles section, of all places. Trust me and read it through to the bottom:

AFTER a lengthy interview with President Obama in the Oval Office two weeks ago, Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for the Atlantic, had one more question, and it had nothing to do with Iran.

“I know this is cheesy …” Mr. Goldberg started, but before he could finish, the president interrupted him. “What, you have a book?” Mr. Obama asked. Turns out, Mr. Goldberg did, but “it’s not just any book,” he replied.

Mr. Goldberg reached into his briefcase and handed the president an advance copy of the “New American Haggadah,” a new translation of the Passover liturgy that was edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and contains commentary by Mr. Goldberg and other contemporary writers.

After thumbing through the sleek hardcover book, Mr. Obama looked up and asked wryly, “Does this mean that we can’t use the Maxwell House Haggadah anymore?”

For the rest of the article, click here. FWIW, I’ve heard the Haggadah in question would be an excellent addition to any thoughtful seder. Chag kasher v’sameach to one and all.

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3/11/12

The specter of a nuclear Iran is legitimately disconcerting and yes, dangerous. But for those over here who are cheering the loudest when the subject turns to Israel attacking Iran, I would like to raise the following points.

1) It is Israelis,  not Americans, who will bear the brunt of the war that an attack on Iran will precipitate. Retaliatory missiles will almost certainly fall on Tel Aviv and most of Israel’s major population centers. Do Americans who will pay almost no price (except perhaps increased oil prices) really want to be held accountable for pounding war drums that will lead to extensive suffering and death in Israel? I also find it notable that those who placed the human cost above all when the issue was (peacefully) evacuating homes from Gaza in 2005, are some of the quickest to discount or ignore the inevitably greater human cost now.

2) Von Clausewitz wrote that war is politics by other means. And we can easily say the same about the call for war. It is legitimate to ask, how much of this is politics by other means? How much of it is tied to the American Presidential election? It is not difficult to answer. The candidates for the nomination are attempting to outdo one another–and the President–in being supportive of Israel. Support is most welcome. But belligerence and recklessness is something else. Again, this is a decision for the Israeli democracy, not the American one, to make.

3) How much do we really know? Really now. Do we really know what the Israelis can do? Do we really know how far along the bomb making process is? (Our track record on this question is dismal. viz. Saddam Hussein, 2003 and many more.) Do we really know what the consequences of an attack will be? Do we really understand how quickly things can spiral out of control? Etc., etc., etc.

I am here to raise questions, not to provide answers. But until these questions are answered, can we be just a little bit less militant in calling for militancy?

RDA

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3/9/12

David Remnick, Editor of the New Yorker magazine, is a long-time and a most astute observer of Israel. His Talk of the Town article on Israel leads the March 12 issue of the magazine. You can click on it here and read his thoughts on democracy in general and its current state in Israel in particular. In a brief essay, he touches on all of the major themes in the country today. Go for it.

3/6/12

Happy Purim everyone. And if you’d like to see a snippet from a Purim shpiel by the students of the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem click here. It’s a parody on the current Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon” and is called, appropriately enough, “The Book of Purim.” Enjoy!

3/4/12

Here is the link to the Dahaf survey referred to in the story below.

3/1/12

With Israel’s PM Netanyahu coming to Washington next week to meet with President Obama and to address AIPAC, the subject of a nuclear Iran is sure to be on the front burner. With a US election year overlapping the so-called “zone of immunity” that some Israelis claim is the (short) time in which Iran’s nuclear facilities can be successfully attacked, the fur is sure to fly.

One of the things that many supporters of Israel dislike is the co-option of the term “pro-Israel” by one segment of the actual pro-Israel community. On that theme and another equally if not more important, is an article quoting a survey on what Israelis think about a possible Israeli airstrike on Iran. Click here and keep it in mind through next week’s rhetoric and you’ll have plenty to talk about with your pro-Israel friends.

12/9/11

Here’s some must reading for all who believe President Obama is insufficiently pro-Israel.  It comes from today’s issue of Ha’aretz and is by blogger Chemi Shalev. Click here for the entry.

5/22/11

On President Obama’s Speech on the Middle East—May 19, 2011

Why Israel’s Supporters Should Be Happy—And Why They Shouldn’t

Why Supporters Of Israel Should Be Happy

The President affirmed support for virtually all of Israel’s long held positions.

A two state solution based on the 1967 borders with appropriate land swaps has been the foundation of all negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians for several years now. American and Israeli governments of both parties have acknowledged that any future peace agreement that creates “two states for two peoples” must be based on this principle.

The President affirmed that any future Palestinian state must be demilitarized. This is consistent with PM Netanyahu’s demand as set forth in his major speech at Bar Ilan University in June 2009.

President Obama said that any settlement must “end the conflict.” The Palestinians have yet to agree with this. Israel of course insists upon it.

The President said that the proposed attempt to have the UN General Assembly declare a Palestinian State this September is not the way to go. Israel holds the same.

The President challenged the Palestinians on the fundamental question of how Hamas, which rejects Israel’s existence, can participate in the government of the Palestinian Authority and negotiate peace at the same time.

On the core issues of Jerusalem and the Palestinians claim for the “right of return” the President said that these issues must be negotiated by the parties. This happens to be the case with this–and for that matter all–of the significant issues.

Why Supporters Of Israel Should Not Be Happy

Tension between the occupant of the White House and the Prime Minister in Jerusalem is always uncomfortable. However it is hardly new. Jimmy Carter was not at all fond of Menachem Begin.  (Yet they still managed to produce the historic Camp David accords.) George H.W. Bush was not on warm terms with Yitzhak Shamir. (Unfortunately, nothing so positive came out of that pairing.) The relationship between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu is fraught. That does not mean that it is bad for Israel or good for Israel. But it is uncomfortable.

The focus of public attention on the relationship between the President and the Prime Minister is unhelpful. Israel would be much better served if it was on the Palestinians and their positions that are incompatible with peace talks, much less a peace agreement.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks for perhaps half of Israel. The main opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, endorsed the President’s message and the principles behind it warmly. There is much broader and fuller debate in Israel over these questions than there seems to be in the United States. Discussion needs to be much freer and more sober than it has been.

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One of the questions that people often raise when the subject of Jewish-Muslim interfaith dialogue comes up is “Why aren’t the moderates more vocal in speaking out against the radicals?” As someone who has been active in this field, I can tell you that they speak up much more often than people are aware.  I lay the blame for the inaccurate perception largely at the foot of the media, who are much more interested in the sensational than the moderate.

In any event, here is a story from the Wall Street Journal on Fethullah Gulen, the spiritual leader of a group with whom we have had outstanding relations in recent years. Not only is he critical of extremists, he is a Turk who criticized Turkey over their role in the Gaza flotilla affair this summer.  Read, learn and enjoy.

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June 2

In very brief:

The “Gaza Flotilla” was a deliberate provocation and its organizers were playing a dangerous game—one for which they bear ultimate responsibility for the tragic loss of life. Sadly, a number of well-meaning human rights activists were co-opted by those with a more radical agenda. Even more sadly, Israel did not handle the situation well–at all.  Let us hope that diplomatic efforts defuse the tension in the days ahead.

I encourage you to continue to follow the story through Ha’aretz, The Jerusalem Post and the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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May 12

I recently came across this Buddhist teaching: “After you have achieved Enlightenment, return to the marketplace and treat everyone you meet with compassion.”  I was struck by its beauty–and also by a Jewish counterpoint.

The Buddhist teaching reminds us that the ultimate purpose of “Enlightenment” is not personal, but communal. Enlightenment’s fruits must be shared with those around us if they are to be genuinely meaningful.

Judaism concurs but might phrase the proposition differently.  Rather than saying, “after you attain Enlightenment return to the marketplace,” Jewish practice never really leaves it. For the most part in Jewish life, “Enlightenment” takes place not in some secluded setting but within “the marketplace” itself.

Jewish teaching bids us, in countless texts and teachings, to treat everyone we encounter with consideration, compassion and respect. This is what leads to “enlightenment,” menschlichkeit and a better world for all concerned.  And again, it takes place during–not after–the time we seek the higher path.  I wish us all a good—and compassionate—journey.

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March 28

Some further thoughts on the current state of affairs between the US and Israel. Whatever else there is to say, the Netanyahu government, through its clumsy handling of the Jerusalem settlement issue, has allowed the world’s focus to be diverted from the core defining issue of continued Palestinian rejection of Israel as a Jewish democracy. Whatever one’s political sympathies, it must be recognized that this is a diplomatic failure of the first order.

The US and Israel are strategic partners and that partnership is not about to be broken.  At the same time we should recognize that the US is currently pushing both sides from their respective comfort zonesto see if they are seriousabout reaching an agreement–soon. We should hope for the sake of all concerned that they are.

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March 22

How long has it taken us to become a country in which health insurance cannot be withdrawn from people who become sick?  How long has it taken us to become a country where people do not have to fear bankruptcy and fiscal ruin when they become seriously ill?  How long has it taken us to become a country in which people are protected from the harmful policies and practices of insurance companies more interested in their profits than they are in providing actual insurance? How long has it taken us to become a country in which people cannot be denied insurance protection because of “pre-existing conditions?”

Until now it seems. Long overdue and for all the bill’s flaws–and they are many and serious–not a minute too soon.  Glory be.

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March 17

Some thoughts on the current contretemps between Israel and the U.S. on settlement expansion. From a response to a congregant who questioned whether or not Israel has a friend in the White House.

It’s definitely a mess and as a proud Zionist and supporter of Israel, I regret to say that [the current issue] is one that is entirely of Israel’s making.  Regarding friendship it is essential to remember that great powers (and even small ones) do not have friends, they have interests.  When those interests are at stake, they take precedence over whatever may pass for diplomatic “friendship.” Embarrassing your most important patron and ally the way Israel’s Interior Ministry did is not a way to sustain any form of “friendship,” diplomatic or otherwise.

If there is good news on this it is that the US remains committed to a two-state solution that will enable Israel to function as a Jewish democracy with a Palestinian neighbor hopefully functioning as a viable Arab democracy. I am more certain of the Obama Administration’s commitment to this than I am of the Netanyahu Administration’s. But time will tell.

I encourage you to go to www.haaretz.com or www.jpost.com for Israeli reactions to the issue.

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January 22

It seems that there is no better way to get the world’s attention than by televising a cataclysmic tragedy.I’m writing this in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. It has been a horror of the first magnitude, as we are all aware. When the earth moves, as it has been doing since time immemorial, those of us who build our homes on its unsteady and unpredictable foundation (pretty much all of us) are upended and uprooted. And those are just the survivors.

I wonder why people act so surprised. What will we do if/when the next “big one” hits, say in California? Or when the next monster hurricane comes through South Florida?

The first question is “Will we be prepared?” Not in the sense of having enough drinking water, batteries and emergency supplies. Rather in the sense of having enough emotional reserve to enable us to focus on what we need to do to survive and aid others without wasting precious mental energy wondering “How could this have happened?” or “How could G-d do this to us?”

The answer to the first question can be answered by anyone who studied Earth Science in grade school. The answer to the second is more complex.

After studying that second question for many years I have come to the following conclusion: I don’t know. At the same time, I believe that those who claim a more definite answer are further off base than I am. We have heard people say that the earthquake hit Haiti (or the hurricane hit New Orleans or the tsunami hit Indonesia, etc.) because God was punishing the people there. Then there is the view, Biblically based I might add, that no earthly mortal knows the mind of G-d well enough to say. (Moses, Isaiah and Job, for starters, are in that company.) I encourage people to run, not walk, away from people who claim to know G-d’s thoughts better than those Prophets of old.

Still, if “G-d is truly everywhere,” then where is G-d in tragedies like these? The answer to that is relatively easy as well. G-d is in the response of the decent people who moved heaven, earth and rubble to rescue, feed, clothe, shelter and heal the victims.  To cite but one example, G-d was in the Israeli Army’s rapid response team who, upon notice of the catastrophe, dispatched a mobile field hospital to Port au Prince and immediately got busy doing G-d’s work. It’s not easy to be recognized as a “Light Unto the Nations” these days but that act associated the phrase with Israel in fair-minded people around the globe.  We should take pride, be inspired by the example–and yes, be grateful for the favorable PR.

Disasters are inevitable.  They are a fact of life on the planet we inhabit and they come to touch all of our personal and family lives. We would be wise to carve out the psychic-spiritual space we will need to cope with them before they occur.  And we should be prepared to do G-d’s work for others at a moment’s notice as well.

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Dec. 31

168.  Does that number mean anything to you?  It should.  I’ll give you a moment to think about it.

At a recent conference I attended at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, one of the presenters, a former CEO of a major corporation, wrote the number “168” on the board and asked if it meant anything to us. We collectively scratched our heads. Finally, someone in a large room filled with rabbis and synagogue executive directors came up with the answer: 168 is 24 x 7–the number of hours in a week.

The CEO went on to teach us a truth that is self-evident, though many of us disregard it nonetheless.  No matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, none of us has more than 168 hours to do everything we need to do, everything we want to do, everything we hope to do, during each and every week of our lives.

Let’s pause/shudder and reflect on how many of those hours we put to less than optimum use. How much time do we really need to be watching television?  How much of our online time is productive as opposed to wasteful? How much time (and this one was painful for me) should we be devoting to watching other people play games e.g. our favorite sports teams?  Etc., etc., etc.  I don’t go to the movies that often but I saw one this week that I had hopes for (Avatar.) The special effects were spectacular but when all was said and done I said to myself, these are 2 ½ hours of my life that I am just not getting back.

My pledge to you on the RDA Blog, indeed on the entire website, is that I will do everything I can to make sure you say that the time you spend here will be worthwhile, good use of a small portion of the 168 hours we receive every week.

May it be a healthy and happy 2010, filled with useful productivity and blessing, for one and all.

Best and shalom, R

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Dec. 20

Thought I might as well offer a few words on Tiger Woods.  His statement that he was going to take a leave of absence from professional golf to work on “becoming a better husband, father and person” struck me as powerful.  While it hardly negates what led up to it, if he is sincere, it is grounds for wishing him and his family well.

Forgiveness is essential in Judaism. Without it, we would have an unrecognizable faith. It is the focus of our year’s holiest days and observant Jews pray for it three times each weekday.  Judaism understands that it is a given that human beings will sin, sometimes grievously. But without repentance, the Rabbis taught, it would be impossible to sustain community, friendship or family.

Genuine repentance is neither easy or cheap.  It requires at least three elements.  1) Recognition by the wrongdoer of the wrongdoing. 2) Sincere regret and apology to those hurt. 3) Cessation and non-repetition of the behavior in question.

Sometimes, even when those steps are taken sincerely, too much damage is done for a relationship to be repaired,.  How it will play out in Tiger’s family, only time will tell.  (It is a shame that he does not have the ability to work this out in private but we’ll leave that topic for another day.)  In the meantime, if the rest of us learn what not to do–and what we need to do when we do what we shouldn’t do–he will have given us all a valuable object lesson.  Too bad that for him it was such an expensive one.

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Dec. 17

So on this morning’s NYT Op-Ed page, Paul Krugman and David Brooks weigh in on the Senate health care bill.  What was interesting to me about their respective analyses was that while both fully discussed the shortcomings and complexities of the proposal, Krugman noted that the bill would prevent insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions and from cancelling it when people got sick.  Brooks did not mention this at all and if I am not mistaken, it has been absent from virtually all of his writing on health care reform this year.

As disappointed as I have been with all the legislative sausage-making, and there is a huge amount to criticize, the provisions that will prevent insurers from denying coverage to those who need it most make passage of the bill imperative.  These same provisions should also greatly reduce the number of people who fall into bankruptcy because they have no, or too little, health insurance.  That these kinds of things happen in a country like ours is simply inexcusable.

Yes, it needs to be improved as time goes on but for now, this is an historic opportunity that we cannot afford to miss. Do what is right senators–thank you.

P.S. I have written more extensively on this topic and if you are interested you can find it at the 8/28/09 entry here.