Netanyahu declines Democrats’ invitation for meeting during visit

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined on Tuesday an invitation to meet with U.S. Senate Democrats during his trip to Washington next week.

“Though I greatly appreciate your kind invitation to meet with Democratic Senators, I believe that doing so at this time could compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit,” Netanyahu wrote in a letter to Senators Richard Durbin and Dianne Feinstein obtained by Reuters.

Durbin and Feinstein, two senior Senate Democrats, invited Netanyahu to a closed-door meeting with Democratic senators in a letter on Monday, warning that making U.S.-Israeli relations a partisan political issue could have “lasting repercussions.”

Republican congressional leaders broke diplomatic protocol by consulting neither the White House nor Democrats in Congress before inviting Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of the House of Representatives and Senate.

Netanyahu has faced criticism at home and abroad for his decision to address the U.S. Congress two weeks before Israeli elections and at a sensitive point in international negotiations on Iran's nuclear program.

In his letter, Netanyahu said he agreed “wholeheartedly” that strong ties between the United States and Israel have been built on bipartisan support. “I also fully understand the importance of bipartisan support for ensuring that our alliance remains strong in the future,” he wrote.

He expressed appreciation for the opportunity to address lawmakers from both parties on Tuesday and said he regretted that the invitation has been perceived by some as partisan.

“I can assure you my sole intention in accepting it was to voice Israel's grave concerns about a potential nuclear agreement with Iran that could threaten the survival of my country,” Netanyahu wrote.

He said he would be glad to address a bipartisan meeting of senators during a future visit to Washington.

Spokesmen for Durbin and Feinstein could not immediately be reached for comment.

A new Zionism waiting to be born

Power corrupts. But so too does powerlessness. The narrative of powerlessness, of perpetual helpless victimhood, corrupts moral vision. In his cover story, Rabbi Wolpe does a masterful job of diffusing the political arguments of Peter Beinart’s book, The Crisis of Zionism. But he does not address the fundamental and disconcerting questions at the heart of Beinart’s concern: How has the narrative of victimhood warped contemporary Zionism and American Jewish identity? How has it distorted our collective discourse? What new narratives are made possible by sovereignty in Israel and political power in the US? And what shall we do with all our power? Like the Wicked Son of the Haggadah, Beinart is castigated, but his question goes unanswered.

The apposition of Rabbi Wolpe and Peter Beinart echoes an old controversy:  At the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Theodor Herzl stood at the rostrum in all his messianic glory and moved the conference with a stirring opening address. Vicious anti-Semitism, he declared, is a permanent feature of European culture. Jews will never live in safety until they gain power, construct a state of their own, and take responsibility for their own political destiny. Far in the back of the hall sat the curmudgeon, Ahad Ha-Am, scribbling in his notebooks. Beware of statehood, he wrote, for power and its emblems are a drug that will distract us from the critical work of rebuilding Jewish culture and twist the Jewish spirit. What we need most, Ahad Ha-Am declared, is not a state for Jews or a state of Jews, what we need is a truly Jewish state. 

They were, of course, both correct. Zionism is an expression of collective responsibility. We took power so that we might protect the Jewish people. But the exaltation of power and the pursuit of material survival has never been the aim of Jewish life. Zionism always expressed a Jewish ethical aspiration. We were liberated from Egypt not solely to live without chains, but to aspire to a vision of a holy people. We founded Israel not solely for our own survival, but to gain the capacity to realize our dream of a just society. Within Beinart’s political argument, questionable as they may be, is a powerful yearning for a rebirth of ethical aspiration within the Zionist conversation. Argue his politics. But do not ignore his question or neglect this yearning.

Between Herzl and Ahad Ha-Am, between Wolpe and Beinart, for that matter, between AIPAC and J Street, there is room for a new Zionism, a third way.  Their debate makes room for a Zionism that speaks from the sacred center of historical Jewish tradition, from the values and visions of Jewish history and faith, but at the same time, a Zionism that holds, with uncompromised tenacity, our hard-earned realism about the world and its evil propensities, and our responsibility to protect our own. Somewhere in the tension between Wolpe and Beinart,  that third way of Zionism is waiting to be born.

On our Seder plate, there will be an ample portion of bitter Maror, in remembrance of our enslavement.  But only one portion, not six. And it will be mixed with sweet Haroset, mellowing the bitter with the sweet. That’s the flavor of Jewish liberation. That is the foretaste of a new Zionism.

Looking for God in All the Wrong Places

Why is it that when Jews seek spiritual wisdom, they’ll go almost anywhere except their own traditions? Look into any cult, any radical new therapy, any metaphysical society or meditating community, and you’ll find Jews far beyond our proportion in the population. And should they come to Judaism, there is a thirst for the esoteric. “I want to learn your spiritual secrets!” an impassioned searcher says to me.

The truth is that the Jewish tradition does contain spiritual secrets to happiness, secrets to finding life’s meaning. There really is a buried wisdom. And where would something so infinitely precious be found?

No, they’re not hidden exclusively in esoteric works of mystical Kabbalah. Nor are they shrouded in obscure gematria — mathematical puzzles concealed in the Torah. To locate this wisdom, you needn’t play your “Fiddler on the Roof” records backward.

If they’re hidden anywhere, the secrets of Jewish spirituality are veiled in plain sight. They are found in the common books of Jewish tradition — in the Siddur, in the Bible, in the Haggadah. But these books are rarely seen as sources of wisdom, containing the answers to life’s deepest questions. For so long, we have taught them as “Bible stories” — charming, entertaining, but devoid of depth and power. We have taught them as decorous, formal ritual, empty of magic and meaning. We have offered them as sacred artifacts to sit in splendor on a shelf, far from the struggles and celebrations of real life. It’s really no wonder that Jews run elsewhere for enlightenment.

“Kedoshim tihyu” — “You will be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” This is a remarkable invitation to the world of Jewish spirituality. What follows is not readily recognizable as spiritual instruction. Indeed, it’s all about behavior. Holiness, it seems, grows out of holy living. But carefully tracing the word kedusha, holiness, in its contexts in Jewish life reveals a deep spiritual secret:

A family, a community of friends, gather at a Shabbat table, a Passover seder, in the Sukkah. A goblet of wine is raised, and a prayer called “Kiddush” is recited. “Kiddush” is a prayer of sanctification. But it is not the wine that is sanctified. Instead, the wine is a symbol of the sanctity, the preciousness, the sweetness of this moment. We are held together by sacred bonds of family, friendship, community and peoplehood. In these concentric circles, we share life — we share our joys, our sorrows, our dreams. These bonds of love, of loyalty, of common purpose, bring holiness and meaning to life. We belong to one another, to the generations that have been here before and that will follow us.

When two people pledge their lives to one another, in love, trust, support and responsibility, the same word is used. It is called kiddushin. When we lose someone close, when death tears our lives apart, we hold tightly to one another and to our loved one and recite a prayer called “Kaddish.” The same word kedusha means sanctification, holiness. And holiness is found in the bonds that hold us together and bring us close to God.

“The extended lines of our relations,” taught the philosopher Martin Buber, “meet in the Eternal Thou.”

Mrs. Shapiro had it right; it’s time to come home.

Ed Feinstein is the associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom. He replaces Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who will be completing a book (along with synagogue responsibilities at Wilshire Boulevard Temple) during the next six months.

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Achre 5757

A couple with whom I’m close had their first child, so I ran to the bookstore to get them our favorite book on child care. I had forgotten the exact title (it was always “the baby book”) and the author’s name, so I thought I’d just scan the shelf until it turned up. Shelf? Try shelves — six of them, each 8 feet long and 10 feet high, and all on parenting. Need advice on building self-esteem, teaching morals, successful potty-training? There are volumes to teach it.

There is no word in traditional Hebrew for “parenting.” No term designates the set of skills, aptitudes and techniques necessary for raising children. This certainly cannot be a concept unknown to Jewish tradition. We are, after all, a tradition obsessed with children. Daily we are reminded: V’sheenantam le’vanech — “you shall diligently teach your children.” So why no word for “parenting”?

The Hebrew for “parents” is “horim”, and if we were to choose a noun form of the word describing the essence of being a parent, we would be forced to choose the word “Torah.” We have no prosaic term for “parenting,” because there is no Jewish idea of parenting skills and techniques isolated from the qualities of character, spirituality, wisdom and love. “Torah” — with all its deep, powerful and holy resonances — is the only possible word for what it takes to raise children. But don’t tell that to my local bookstore.

And that’s just the beginning. Move one shelf over, and you discover that “self-help” is now the biggest section in the store. Feeling anxious? Having difficulty communicating? Missing out on life’s joy? Here’s help. At least, here’s technique.

Americans have an obsession with technique, with doing it right. From home repair to lovemaking to parenting, we have this unquenchable thirst for a better technique. Traditional American pragmatism — the faith in the “right tool for the job” — has grown into a conviction that, for every human problem, there is a discrete technique that will lead to its solution.

Traditional American pragmatism — the faith in the “right tool for the job” — has grown into a conviction that, for every human problem, there is a discrete technique that will lead to its solution

But what about the deeper qualities of inner life, once associated with a good life — wisdom, sensitivity, integrity? I’m sure that in one of those books, there is a better way to fix a clogged sink. But I’m not convinced there’s some trick to fixing a broken relationship or some gimmick to opening a closed mind. Certainly, I’ve learned better ways to talk to my kids, to praise and to discipline, to set limits and to encourage responsibility. But, in the end, successful parenting is not a matter of effective technique but one of right living and sensitive loving. It is “Torah” in the broadest sense.

In the 10th chapter of Leviticus, which we read some weeks ago, the two elder sons of Aaron are killed in the process of offering aish zarah — alien fire. And the issue is raised again this week: “The Lord spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron.” Still, the exact nature of their infraction is a mystery. So are the circumstances of their deaths: Although they were burned to death, their bodies were carried out of the camp “by their tunics.” What sort of fire burns a man to death but leaves behind his tunic intact?

The Midrash posits a fire that entered the nostrils and destroyed in the inner man. From this, we can extrapolate the infraction: Nadab and Abihu entered the holy place with precise technique and skill. But that’s all they brought. No heart. No compassion for the people whose offerings they carried. No awe in the face of God’s presence. They had the technique down perfectly, but there was nothing inside.

Religion, too, can become a cult of technique — obsessed with detail and oblivious to higher purpose, disconnected from the qualities of depth and inwardness. But reduced to mere technique, religion, as with parenting and loving and so much of life, brings only emptiness. In this week’s portion, Aaron is invited back into the sanctuary — the inner place of holiness — to cultivate compassion, forgiveness and wholeness. And we are invited to go with him.

Ed Feinstein is the associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom. He replaces rabbi Steven Leder, who will be completing a book (along with synagogue responsibilites at Wilshire Boulevard Temple) during the next six months.

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