Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Sermon by an Atlanta rabbi" misses the mark

I rarely argue against anything posted on our Ahavat Olam Synagogue discussion list, but I have to counter something posted today purporting to be a Rosh ha-Shanah sermon delivered by an Atlanta rabbi.*

The sermon identifies radical Islam as “the enemy” of our time just as Nazism was so disastrously the enemy three-quarters of a century ago. Further, it says that for Jews not to recognize this today is parallel to Jews in Europe in the 1930's not accepting the reality of the threat posed by the Nazis in their time – which only makes the threat of radical Islam more threatening and largely the fault of those Jews who don't think so.

The writer avoids any mention that both the US and Israel might have done something to elicit such enmity. It is as if it arose spontaneously, a completely irrational aberration in human thinking, with no relationship whatsoever to anything that the USA and Israel have ever done.

On Rosh ha-Shanah, of all days, we need to look at our own failures and misdeeds. This sermon offers not a shred of awareness of any responsibility on the part of either the USA or Israel. No human reality is so thoroughly one-sided as this piece presents. Until we look at our own actions, we will not understand what is going on. Until we see the larger context for the situation – as we try to do especially on Rosh ha-Shanah – we remain trapped in it. The moral reasoning of Rosh ha-Shanah is to engage deeply in critical self-evaluation that leads to change in our own behaviour to mitigate our own role in causing the difficulties that affect our lives and those of others. Jewish teachings further emphasize that precisely those traits in others which most disturb us are those which we most need to look for in ourselves to rectify.

The lachrymose emotional appeal of the piece is an attempt to lead its readers to ignore Israel’s near total dispossession of the entire population of Palestinian Arabs, 43 years of brutal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, decades of occupation of southern Lebanon, massively disproportionate lethal attack on Gaza only two years ago and other continuing acts of aggression. It is not Israel’s mere existence which has led to growing enmity but rather Israel's actions. Similarly, the reader is expected to forget current US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and decades of history, for instance, that the dictatorial regime in Saudi Arabia which produces Wahabi extremists and exports “radical Islam” is itself a direct creation British imperialism at the end of World War I and would not have survived without United States support.

Finally, the piece deserves attention not for what it purports to be but rather for what it is: an  attempt to manipulate those Jews who feel increasingly insecure as they become more painfully aware of Israel’s own deepening insecurity in a world with less and less tolerance for its excesses and excuses.

It is always easier and more comforting to shrai gevalt about others than it is to look at ourselves.


* I thought it was strange that writer is identified only as "an Atlanta rabbi" -- no affiliation, identification or credentials. Rabbis who give sermons are associated with synagogues. Usually, when a sermon is reported, the synagogue where it was delivered is also reported. So, from the outset I was a sceptical. I Googled “Schlomo Lewis”, the supposed author of the sermon, and found absolutely no reference to this name before September 24, 2010, and no reference at all in any context whatsoever other than this one specific sermon which has been published now on dozens of highly ideological blogs and nowhere else. There is no indication of who the writer is or anything at all pertaining to his existence prior to the first appearance of this item in a blog about four days ago. So, now I'm wondering,  “Schlomo Lewis” is either a hidden holy lamed-vavnik in Atlanta who just decided to reveal himself two weeks after he supposedly delivered this sermon or simply a fabrication. – DM

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Jack Layton wrong to censure Libby Davies

Dear Jack,

Shalom to you.  I am a card-carrying New Democrat active in Vancouver and a modest financial donor to the party.  We met a few years ago as you and Libby Davies were walking out of Vancouver City Hall and I was walking in. 

I also am a rabbi with a Vancouver synagogue.  I lived in Israel four different years since 1971.  I am very deeply tied to that land and its people.  My son is there now and my daughter is going in less than a month for a year.   I am involved with Israel daily and know its realities well.

Unfortunately, you make a real mistake in criticizing Libby Davies for her comments about the Israeli occupation beginning in 1948.  (  You fell into a trap, Jack.  A blatantly manipulative political ploy was set up to capitalize on a volatile and emotional issue.  You played right along. 

Libby said that she thinks the Israeli occupation began in 1948.  Well, it did.  I can introduce you to Palestinians living here in Vancouver who were forced out of their homes at gunpoint by Jews in 1948 and their villages destroyed.  That’s occupation.  It happened.  Denying it doesn’t change a thing.

Just look at this map on the left here of the 1947 UN partition plan.  The UN assigned the orange parts to the Jews' control and the pink parts to the Arabs.  Now, look at a 1948 map of the ceasefire lines.  The purple is what Israel held and eventually became its more-or-less acknowledged boundaries until 1967.

Even well before 1948, Jewish organizations launched a well-planned and well-executed campaign to establish “facts on the ground” by planting 57 settlements literally in the middle of the night all over the country.  This was especially true in the southern Negev desert region so that the UN would grant that area to the Jewish state-to-be.  Even though there was negligible and recently imported Jewish population amidst a far larger and very well-established Arab population (in that large orange area in the south), the UN partition granted it to the Jews and not the Arabs.  This is a source of great pride in Israel, well-known to every school child and celebrated in museums.  To know more, see "Tower and Stockade"tourist attraction and commemorative coin.  

To imply that Libby doesn’t support the existence of the State of Israel is nothing but disingenuous manipulation.  You know that’s not true; Libby does support the existence of the State of Israel.  It is Israel’s behaviour that Libby condemns – and rightfully so.

I am surprised and deeply disappointed that you didn’t defend Libby, certainly one of the NDP’s most courageous, clear-thinking and popular MP’s.  You should have turned the criticism back on Bob Rae and Thomas Mulcair for suggesting that, because Libby spoke the truth about 1948, her support for Israel’s right to exist is suspect.  That is a ridiculous accusation.  One thing has nothing to do with the other.  I don’t understand why you succumbed to such simplistic trickery and didn’t have the guts to say what was really going on.

As an active member of the NDP, I would appreciate hearing your reasons for going along with this attack on Libby and this intentional distortion of very significant historical facts regarding Israel and Palestine.  If you honestly didn’t know better, I can excuse it.  You can’t know everything about every issue.  (But you certainly need to check with someone who does.)  On the other hand, if you felt you simply had to bow to political pressure, you and the NDP have lost some of the respect I always have had for you.  I would appreciate a reply.

Thank you so very much,


Wednesday, June 02, 2010

On Monday morning, May 31, the Ahavat Olam Synagogue board decided unanimously to join a demonstration in downtown Vancouver protesting the Israeli attack on the unarmed Gaza humanitarian aid flotilla the previous night.
Five of us came at noon with the Ahavat Olam banner and three placards. Several other members were present on their own or with a different group, Jews for a Just Peace. In the crowd of ~100, I guess about 20% were Jews.
Sharing my experience and reflections is difficult, painful and only very cautiously hopeful. We must each search for understanding and wisdom in our own personal responses. I invite you to share thoughtfully as well, either to me privately or on the Ahavat Olam discussion list at

Why go? – News of the attack reached me by e-mail Sunday before midnight. I watched Israeli TV news and analysis for hours as the story unfolded. I was clear that the Israeli commandos had over-reacted with deadly violence against people who were trying to defend themselves with nothing but found objects – yes, iron pipes, kitchen knives, perhaps even firefighting axes. True, they did not remain non-violent. I wish they had. But there was no reason to kill (as was reported at the time by Israeli government spokespeople) 15+ unarmed activists. All of which is a microcosm of the bigger issue: the years-long siege of Gaza that traps 1.5 million people in a huge open air prison with inadequate food, medicine and other necessities and the continued theft of land and oppression in the West Bank where another 2 million live.
Torah teaches that God demands we “do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour” (Lev. 19:16 לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל דַּם רֵעֶךָ). Further, our sages in the Talmud taught that if we are able to prevent our community from sinning and we do not do so, we bear the guilt even if we do not commit the sin ourselves. As religious Jews we are obliged to speak out against Israel’s actions in this case.

What we did – As soon as we arrived, we were welcomed by others and approached by reporters. Many were surprised to see a synagogue join in. Some even misunderstood our purpose and assumed that we were there to oppose them and support the Israeli action. That is not an unreasonable expectation considering the response of the most of the organized Jewish community. Far more, though, we were thanked for being there. Reports of our presence were carried by CKWX, the Canadian Press, the Georgia Straight ( and possibly elsewhere.
One of our signs read; “Israel – YES!; Murder of Innocents – NO!”. Another quoted Genesis 4:10 as God spoke to Cain after he killed Abel, “The blood of your brother(s and sisters) is calling to me . . . “. The third, made by a member whose grandmother was murdered by Nazis in Poland and whose Holocaust survivor father was there with us, said, “My grandmother did not die so that peacekeepers would be killed in her name.”
At one point, I put on my tallit and sounded the shofar as a wordless cry to wake up the conscience of our Jewish community. Many in the crowd understood that cry very well and thanked us.

No hint of antisemitism, no blanket condemnation of Israel – I was most surprised by the tone and the content of the demonstration. People were very angry and upset. Many were Palestinians, some with family in Gaza. And yet, there was no sign, no speech, no expression of any antisemitism or condemnation of Jews or even of the State of Israel as a whole. Absolutely none. There were repeated chants of “Free Palestine”, “End the Siege of Gaza” and “Shame on Israel” – but never once did I hear anything like, God forbid, “Death to Israel”, “Destroy Israel”, “Down with the Zionist Entity” or any of the many expressions of hate against Israel and Jews that I can easily imagine could have easily been said. There were no signs with a Jewish star equalling a swastika. Nothing like that at all. And, no one at all was controlling the signs or what speakers said. That was quite different from what I expected. I was impressed.

Brief reflection – I believe we did the right thing. I am grateful that a synagogue representing a segment of the Jewish religious community spoke up and was there.
Israel’s actions this week, sadly, will drive an even greater wedge between it and the nations of the world. Even sadder, it will drive many Jews to further dissociate themselves from Israel and from Judaism and even from their own Jewishness.
Along with many Israelis, I hope and pray that, sooner rather than later, more and more Israelis will begin to look at what their country is becoming and commit to finding a better way.
-- David

A few links for further understanding:
Photo courtesy of Lawrence Boxall ©

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Joining a Sufi gathering in California إن شاء الله

   On Wednesday morning, April 28, I plan to leave, إن شاء الله, God willing, for a Sufi gathering in California through the weekend. I’d like to tell you about it.
   My rebbe, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, is a tremendous pioneer, thinker and doer. Born in Poland 86 years ago, he came from eastern Europe as a war refugee, studied and was ordained as a rabbi in the Lubavitcher yeshivah in Brooklyn. He was sent out into the world by the previous Lubavitcher rebbe, Reb Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, as his emissary to bring Jews closer to God. Ever since, he’s been doing that and so much more. 
   Always a seeker, decades ago Reb Zalman widened his horizons considerably. Among many other sources of learning, he became an initiate of the Sufi order of Hazrat Inayat Khan and a sheikh in that order.
   This year marks the 100th anniversary of the arrival of Hazrat Inayat Khan in the West. Each year, leaders and members of six of the Inayati Sufi orders gather to share their learning, their spirits and hearts.  This year, on the 100th anniversary, they invited Reb Zalman to join this gathering. See Reb Zalman asked a minyan of rabbis to go in his place.  I was honoured to be asked to be one of them. 
   I hope to be able to continue learning from Sufi teachers, sisters and brothers, and to be able to share with them from my own learning. I hope as well, of course, to be able to serve as a channel between our communities, our “rivers of guidance” and “streams of the message”.
   I am looking forward to new experiences and learning during the coming days. I ask your blessings and prayers for this journey. If you would like to help my journey with a tax-deductible donation of any size, please let me know and I will tell you how.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Matzah, soft like pita, from a house locked tight 364 days a year

We were living in Yerushalayim in the spring of '01.  Pesah was my chance to take Michal and the kids to see the flurry of activity in a hand-made matzah bakery in action. 
When I was at the Hebrew U back in '72, wandering through the back alleys of Me'ah She'arim a few days before Pesah, I found an amazing old stone matzah bakery.  
With flawless timing and precise choreography, sweating black-clad men with beards covered in flour moved in a well-practiced assembly line.  
In the dim and dusty light, one scooped flour and another mixed in water.  Another took the dough, pulled off just the right-sized bits and passed them onto a long table with guys on both sides.  Two guys hand-rolled the bits into balls and passed them on.  A whole line of guys on each side of the table with wooden rolling pins pressed the dough and passed it down the line until it was flat.  In a flash, other guys ran a prickly roller over them to poke little perforations in them so they wouldn't even think of rising and then hung them in a row over long, long wooden poles.  Still other guys then swung the poles around and, reaching deep into stone ovens, laid down the soon-to-be matzahs on its smooth stone floor so they could bake and be snatched back out again on a long-handled paddle like a pizza baker's -- להבדיל.  

All in less than eighteen minutes from the moment the water touches the flour until the dough is baked -- or else it's not kosher for Pesah.  That's the rule.

I remembered exactly where it was 28 years earlier.  A few days before Pesah, I followed my memories and went back there to find out the best time to bring my family to watch -- and it was gone!  Closed.  Gornish!  Not happening.  They don't do it like that any more!

מה לעשות -- What to do?

One old guy in Mahaneh Yehudah told me to go the night before Pesah to an old stone house on the corner just a few blocks away at Ussishkin Street #60.  Iraqi Kurdish Jews in the neighbourhood keep that house locked up 364 days a year.  No one goes in; no one comes out.  Only on the day before Pesah do they turn the lock and open the door.  They come in, bake their matzah and lock it up until the next year.  
The night before Pesah, we went.  
Come through the door with us and see what we found.

In the hub-bub of activity, a young boy scoops up flour and passes it to his grand-dad sitting in a chair behind him, a big basin between his knees.  The flour is shmurah -- שמורה -- carefully watched and guarded from the moment the wheat was harvested in the field, as it was milled and bagged, right up to this moment.  No water or other moisture whatsoever had come in contact with it -- until just now.  That's the defining characteristic of shmurah matzah.

Then, an older brother pours in the water drawn from a well and kept still overnight.  Someone starts to keep time.  In eighteen minutes the matzah must be baked.  The the older man massages flour and water into a dough.

A younger man takes the whole dough and begins to flatten it out.  The hand-written sign on the wall declares:
כל פרורי חמץ שיפלו אחר זמן
הכיעור הרי הם כעפרא דארעא!א

All bits of hametz that fall after the time of the
basin are as the dust of the earth!

Any bits of dried dough that stick to a table or cling to someone's hands are hereby declared to be ownerless just like the dust of the earth.  They belong to no one.  Consequently, they are not the property of any Jews and do not violate the religious prohibition against any Jews owning hametz.

Another man cuts the dough into right-sized pieces, weighs them on a scale and then puts them on a long table for other guys to roll into balls.

The sign on the wall behind them says,

"לשם מצת מצוה 
for matzah for the mitzvah"

After the balls of dough were rolled flat, this woman marked each one with "סימנים" -- simanim or signs.  She made straight lines on the matzah, either one line, two or three.  I asked her why, what were the simanim for?  She said she had no idea but that's what they always do and they have to do it.  Never heard of "signs" on the matzah?  Ask the rabbi, she said.
He's right here, with the white shirt and black pants.  
The rabbi was only too happy to explain.  One line is "Yisrael", two is "Levi" and three is "Kohen".  That is still a custom that I haven't heard of anywhere else.  But then, what do I know? 

After the matzahs got their simanim, it was time to roll them with prickly rollers to make the little perforations that prevent rising.

And, quick, into the oven!  The ovens are large vertical clay pots set into an earthen counter and heated from the bottom -- just like a tandoori oven or a tabun.  The baker wears gloves and has a round pad.  The rabbi takes a soon-to-be matzah and briskly inspects it.  Simanim?  Check!  Perforations?  Check!  And then the rabbi puts it on the baker's pad.  The baker, in one swift sweep, slaps the still-sticky disk of dough onto the inside wall of the oven.  In moments, it bakes and, as it dries, begins to slowly peel off the wall of the oven.  The baker has to reach in at exactly the right instant to snatch it off the wall before it peels off completely and falls down into the bottom of the oven.

Out of the oven less than eighteen minutes from the water hitting the flour, the finished product is soft and floppy, just like a pita without a pocket.  It smells delicious.  

These Iraqi Kurdish Jews sell it right away.  Neighours line up in the street deep into the night, eager to buy it though a window, take it home for their seders the next night when, from windows, balconies and open doors all over Jewish Jerusalem is heard
"הא לחמא עניא . . .  
Ha lahma 'anya --  
This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the Land of Mitzrayim . . . 
all who are hungry, come and eat."

Intermarriage and babies . . . my decision thirteen years ago bears very sweet fruit

A little more than thirteen years ago, I got a call from a Jewish dad with a non-Jewish wife and brand new baby twins.  Would I help arrange a bris and mikvah to “convert” their baby boys? No other rabbi in town would do it and the mohel wouldn’t do a bris for these boys either.
I get calls often from parents – Jewish dad, gentile mom – wanting to bring their children into the full embrace of the Jewish people and securely under the wings of the Shechinah. It’s common nowadays. 
So, why would no other rabbi agree to this? What’s the problem?
Bob explained. Lisa is actively Christian – not just non-Jewish as many Jewish men’s wives are these days, but actually involved in her church and really, truly a Christian. No rabbi would “convert” the babies if their mom was actively Christian. Everyone said it would confuse the children and you could not raise Jewish kids in a home where one parent – davka the mother – is committed to another religion – davka Christianity. It won’t work; they’ll have no part of it.
Bob added that Lisa deeply wants her boys to be Jews and has no wish for them to be Christian -- but wouldn’t give up her own religion in order to accomplish that.
He waited for my reply.
I thought about it.
I had never been asked this before.
We talked. Deep in my kishkas, I knew that Bob was sincere. I couldn’t guarantee that these babies would grow up to live an integral Jewish life – I didn’t even know these people and I can’t guarantee that about my own children -- but I certainly wanted to give this family a chance to see how it would work. So many people with Jewish heritage and identity don’t pursue any Jewish life. At least, I could help them give it a try.
I remembered receiving a teaching from Rabbi Gershon Winkler that the great medieval commentator Rashi said any rabbi can say no but it takes creativity and courage to find a legitimate and honest way to say yes. I knew that there is no technical problem with a bris and a mikvah when both parents are committed to raising Jewish children. It’s the follow through that other rabbis don’t trust. Something told me I could trust -- or at least give the benefit of a doubt.  "דן על כף זכות"  So, I said, “Let’s do it. I’m honoured you’ve asked and I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”
I called the only non-Orthodox mohel in the Vancouver area, Dr. Neil Pollock, who deferred to my judgment. 
A few days later, we celebrated the bris in Bob and Lisa’s home with great joy and a little crying by both the babies and their parents. Later, we took the babies to the mikvah. Bob immersed their little baby bodies in the living waters of the mikvah, we said the brachas and the Shema and they came out as kosher Jewish baby boys with their whole futures wide open ahead of them. It remained to be seen how Bob and Lisa would raise them.
And, that was that. 
I never heard from them again . . .
. . . until six and half years later, now six and half years ago.
Bob called. Did I remember him?
Well, the boys are both in grade 2 at the Richmond Jewish Day School. One of them, David, loves to wear tsitsis and payes. They’d like to visit. They came to Kabbalat Shabbat. I was amazed. David sang Lecha Dodi with all his heart and soul. Bob and David came again and again to Kabbalat Shabbat, always bringing the most delicious kosher knishes! In addition, they went to Chabad as well as Beth Tikvah, the Conservative synagogue in Richmond. As the years went by, Bob and Lisa planned their Bar Mitzvah ceremonies on Masada in Israel. And now, they’ll come and celebrate with us at Ahavat Olam this coming Shabbat by leyning from the Torah and Haftarah.
I am very gratified that my initial willingness to trust Bob and Lisa has proven to be so very correct. Andrew is proud and happy to be a Jew, perhaps more than most young Jews his age. David’s neshamah soars with his Jewishness. He says he wants to be a rabbi. I won’t be surprised if that’s what he does.
I am thankful to my own guides and teachers – Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the theorists of the Reconstructionist movement and others – for preparing me for my own integrity and clarity thirteen years ago. And, I hope that more and more of us rabbis will become more open and trusting in similar situations in the future.
Come and join us on Shabbat this week. Hear David and Andrew leyn. And, leave the potluck at home!  Lunch is Bob and Lisa's treat.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Purim teaching: If I perish, I perish

   Behind the fun of Purim are serious messages, teachings for life.  Stuart Crown, Ahavat Olam’s treasurer, reminded me of one this morning.
   Esther has to face herself.  She is the queen, elevated to a position of great ease and comfort in the palace, far from want or worry.  To get along, all she needs is to go along.  Keep her head down.  Not rock the boat.  But suddenly, she is called upon to put everything at risk to take a chance – and only a chance -- at saving her people. 
   We each are called to face ourselves, possibly every single day.  Not as dramatically as risking our own lives to stop a genocide, but we are confronted with moral choices every day.  What are we willing to risk?  How much of our comfort?  Our position?
   Esther and Mordechai’s dynamics are instructive.
   At first, Esther objects that the risk is too great.  Insecure, afraid to jeopardize her privilege, “Not me,” she implies.
   Mordechai assures her that if not through her, the salvation will come another way.  What must happen will happen.  He is sure.  But, if she does not step up and do what she must, then she will indeed perish.  Perhaps it is precisely for this purpose that Esther has been elevated to such a position.  Esther gets it and takes on the task.  Knowing she needs support, she calls on her people to fast with her for three days of deep spiritual preparation and then she goes and does what she must.
   Here's what resonates for me:  How am I willing to use my position and my privilege to be an ally and advocate for those who are not so advantaged.  How much will I protect my apparent position by staying compliant, not using the opportunity my position affords me?  May I learn from Esther . . . 

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

There is no mention of God in the Megillah, the story of Purim in the Bible. Some of us take that as a clue that Purim and the month of Adar are about finding the נס נסתר (nes nistar) – the “hidden” miracles -- in everyday life.

The next month, Nisan, is the month of Passover and points to the נס גלוי (nes galui) – the obvious, “visible”, i.e. supernatural miracles -- such as the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea that are in the Passover story.
Adar is the last month of our year and Nisan is the first.
The template seems to be that in the beginning of our journey perhaps most of us need something out of the ordinary to get us going, to open our eyes, to give us an inkling that there is more to this world than appears at first on the surface. In the book of Exodus, God is said to have said that the purpose of those supernatural Passover-connected miracles is to make us believe.
However, by the month of Adar, twelve months later, at end of the journey, by the time we have traveled far enough and have reached some kind of maturity and wisdom, we no longer need the supernatural and can find God in the normal, everyday experience of life.
I think that is a very good teaching and so am sharing it with you. It came to me from the brief teaching below from Bnei Yissachar as well as other traditional teachers.
Among the mystical secrets (in the book Megaleh Amukos) is:

“The angel of the month of Adar is named Avrachiel and there are twenty-five angels below him, all of them with names that indicate benevolence.”
It appears to me that this angel’s name in gematria is numerically equivalent to the word seder [“order” in Hebrew].
In Adar, there began the “hidden” miracles, those which are garbed in the natural order of the world, that is as it has been set in order since the six days of creation.

This is not the case for the "visible" miracles, those which upset the natural order, which are only temporay and occur only by the decree of the One Who is Blessed to change the natural order out of love for "His" children.
-- my translation
Bnei Yissachar is a two volume exposition in on the spiritual qualities of each month in the sacred cycle of the Jewish year written by Rabbi Tsvi Elimelech Shapiro of Dinov (1783-1841) and first published in 1846.  This excerpt is from page 130a.
Megaleh Amukos is a foundational east European work of Kabbalah by Rabbi Nosson Nota Shapira of Krakow (1585-1633) first published in Krakow in 1637.