The Confluence of Time, Events, & Place ... Sacred Space

A Theology of Caring by Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan


[Ed. Note: As this blog entry is published, it is Erev Shavuot 5777. We will celebrate the holiday beginning tonight. The story around Shavuot is the arrival at the sacred space, that place where the divine will reveal itself to us. Like Shabbat, the holiday also creates a sacred space in time. This article touches on another way of seeing sacred space, and seems appropriate for this moment in our calendar cycle. For that reason I connected it with this holiday. We at Expired and Inspired, and all of the staff and principals at Kavod v’Nichum wish a Chag Shavuot Sameach to all who are celebrating, and many opportunities to enter into sacred space to all. — JB]

[Ed. Note: Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan has written for Expired and Inspired multiple times. She is a chaplain, and author of several books. Here, she offers us a few brief thoughts that deal with caring – something that is at the heart of the work of the Chevrah Kadisha and those who perform Shmirah. — JB]

Whenever we undertake a caring act, it zips open a portal in God’s abode and God springs into our material world.  Every time this happens, God’s energizing presence spills over into our world and transforms it into a safer, more welcoming and more meaningful one.

A funeral chapel is a sacred space and in its official capacity it reminds mourners to recognize and enter a higher world and respond to its influence. But we do not need physical spaces such as a cemetery for our caring behaviors to invite God along for the ride. Each caring act itself, whether in a chapel or elsewhere, powers up an invisible, portable sanctuary between you and the recipients of your care. This might happen in a botanic garden, a hospital, an airport lounge, a diner. In that moment, God is taking a front-row seat in your spur-of-the-moment sanctuary.

Thus every caring act such as dressing the dead, guarding the body, attending the funeral and comforting the mourners is a cooperative venture between us and The Holy One of Compassion.  Each act constructs a sacred space, and in this sacred space, spiritual healing flourishes both for you and for those you serve.

Rabbi and board certified Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan is author of Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died (Pen-L Publishing, 2014) a series of true anecdotes capped with the deeper reasons she chose her vocation. For more details including reviews, you can go to the publisher’s page or to amazon.com. There is also an audio version of Encountering the Edge: the Audiobook. Comments to the author are welcome by email or via her blog, Offbeat Compassion.

Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan photo

Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan

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KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE

Registration for the 15th North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference, June 18-20, in San Rafael, California, is still open.

Our conference will have intensive workshops on Introduction to Taharah, Infection Control, Communicating about difficult Taharot, Modifying Taharah, Taharah Stories as well as exploring traditional Taharah liturgy, Navigating Taharah Liturgy – A Play, and Taharah liturgy in Maavar Yabbok.

We’ll have an exciting series of workshops on Jewish cemetery issues, including Green Cemeteries, Cremation, Perpetual Care Fund Investments, Record Keeping and Acquiring New Cemetery Property.

What’s different this year is an evolving theme – expanding the work of the Chevrah Kadisha and the Jewish Cemetery by encouraging conversation about end of life plans with the Conversation Project; end of life decision-making with Dr. Jessica Zitter, and communicating about how we die with Dr. Dawn Gross.

There’s much more – see our Preliminary conference program.

Consider a Sunday morning pre-conference field trip to Gan Yarok – an environmentally conscious Jewish Green Cemetery.

Sunday afternoon from 2-5, Sam Salkin, Executive Director of Sinai Memorial Chapel, will facilitate an intensive session on starting & managing a community funeral home. Let us know if you are interested in this session. Attendance is by advance reservation only.

Tuesday afternoon after the conference Sinai Memorial Chapel will facilitate a tour of Gan Shalom Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery with an interfaith section. Again, let us know if you are interested – Attendance by advance reservation only.

And there is an extension to the conference! Gamliel Institute students, and others by approval, can remain for an additional day to participate in the Gamliel Institute Day of Learning. We will have three extraordinary teachers presenting on a variety of texts and concepts that are of interest. This is a fantastic opportunity to study with some of the very best instructors in a small group setting during a twenty-four hour period. Students, contact us to RSVP; if you are not a Gamliel student, contact us to seek approval of the Dean to attend.

Register for the conference now.

We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton, but rooms are limited; please don’t wait to make your reservations. We also have home hospitality options – contact us for information or to request home hospitality. 410-733-3700, info@jewish-funerals.org

Questions? Email info@jewish-funerals.org or call 410-733-3700.
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TASTE OF GAMLIEL

In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six-part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar series. This year’s topic is From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.

Each 90 minute session is presented by a different scholar.

The June 25th session is being taught by Dr. Laurie Zoloth, well known author, teacher, and scholar.  

Taste of Gamliel Webinars for this year are scheduled on January 22, February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. The instructors this year are: Dr. Dan Fendel, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, Rabbi Richard Address, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Dr. Laurie Zoloth.

This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. These online sessions begin at 5 PM PDST (GMT-7); 8 PM EDST (GMT-4).

Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions, and will also receive information on how to access the recordings of all six sessions.

The link to register is: http://jewish-funerals.givezooks.com/events/taste-of-gamliel-2017.

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700 or email info@jewish-funerals.org.    

Click the link to register and for more information. We’ll send you the directions to join the webinar no less than 12 hours before the session.

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester starting September 5th, 2017.

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet on twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). There will be an orientation session on Monday, September 4th, 2017.  Register or contact us for more information.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

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DONATIONS:

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organizations, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent an email link to the Expired And Inspired blog each week by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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Q&A with Rabbi Ed Feinstein


On Sunday, May 11, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, will be feted for his two decades of service to the synagogue. He talks in this edited version of an interview about changes in synagogue life, his theology and what he prays for.

Jewish Journal: Twenty years. Does it feel like a long time?

Ed Feinstein: Some days. (laughter)

JJ: So, how do you think that synagogue life has changed in those 20 years?

EF: In the beginning of the 20th century we were very active and very conscious of creating a new modern form of Judaism, an American form of Judaism. In the middle of the 20th century there were two traumas: The Holocaust and the creation State of Israel. And the community consciously decided to stop the process of re-creating itself. They adopted continuity as a motto. Which meant we weren’t going to continue the creativity that had marked the community in the early part of the century. And for a generation, the community hunkered down and protected itself. It created all kinds of institutions — it created synagogues and summer camps and seminaries; there was a lot of philanthropy. But there wasn’t a great deal of institutional creativity, and ideological, philosophical creativity. And that worked from the end of the Second World War, until the end of the 1980s. But by the ‘90s, that numbness wore off, and the community once again returned, by force, because the kids asked their parents a very powerful question: Why be Jewish? Up until that point, if anyone ever asked that question, what you answered with was a narrative of the holocaust. You dropped your eyes and lowered your voice and whispered something about the 6 million, and the conversation was over. But all of a sudden kids weren’t responding to that language anymore.

JJ: And that’s when you came here.

EF: And that’s about when I came to Valley Beth Shalom [VBS]. So this last 20 years has seen the return of what I think is an enormously energetic creative process of reinventing American Judaism, reinventing Judaism for modernity. We are renegotiating our relationship with the state of Israel; we are finding a way to tell the story of the Holocaust; we are finding a way to tell the story of our own identity. We’re trying to figure out what is our relationship to the outside world. What does it mean there are so many among us who weren’t born Jewish, and yet are participating in the Jewish community? We are trying to figure out our politics in America; we’re certainly trying to figure out our relationship with God.

JJ: Do you the model for a large synagogue like VBS — I don’t know how many families you have…

EF: A million.

(laughter)

JJ: No seriously, about how many is it?

EF: About 1600.

JJ: That’s huge by many standards.

EF: Yeah thank God they don’t all want a bris on the same morning.

JJ: Do you think that’s a good model for the future?

EF:  In order to survive the ups and downs of the economy, institutions have to be big. When the economy tanked VBS made a very clear statement: We will not lose a family because of money. And we were able to keep that promise because the institution is big enough and has a broad enough reach to absorb an economic downturn and still move forward. However, because community is what a synagogue is about, connecting people to people, to God, and to their traditions, it has to be small. So, while the synagogue is an institutional framework that is very big, within it are dozens of micro-communities that are very small. And my job is to bridge those two realities. On Shabbos morning we have 5 or 6 minyanim that are meeting. And people get to pray with the people that they love. We have many many classes all over the city there are classes, there are lunch time classes being offered. We have a number of small groups of people going out to do social justice work. The only time the whole community really meets is on the high holidays. And the wonderful thing about the high holidays is that’s when you get to see all of your friends from all of your micro communities sitting with each other, and you realize how interwoven all of these micro communities are. That’s the model.

JJ: Can you define your theology?

EF: Theology for me begins with the question of “what is the meaning of my existence?” “Why am I here?” What are the passions that get me up in the morning and move me through life? Theology doesn’t begin with the metaphysics with the way the universe is constructed it begins with the realization that my life has meaning, that I matter, that I’m important, that I have significance. And the question is what kind of universe would I have to imagine in order to recognize that my life matters and that I have meaning in my existence. It’s a universe that bears the possibility of repair. If I posit that the universe is so broken and it’s broken pieces could never fit together, then I really ought to go become a Buddhist. Because the Buddhist tradition teaches a withdrawal from the pain of being in the world. But the Jewish tradition teaches a different message. That there’s a possibility of tikkun. And because there’s a possibility of tikun, our efforts to do justice in the world, to bring gentleness to the world, to care for each other, make a difference. That is a faith statement.

JJ: How do you reconcile that against things like the Boston bombings?

EF: The brokenness is still deeply profound.  There is a deep brokenness in this world, and that brokenness is also expressed through human beings. And our job is to try and repair the brokenness. I think the story that all of us wept at is the story of all the men and women who went running toward the explosion.

JJ: Did you grow up thinking you were going to be a rabbi?

EF: No, not even close. In fact some mornings (laughter) I don’t wake up thinking that way.  My mom and dad owned a bakery in the West San Fernando Valley. Dad’s a baker, Mom’s a bakery lady. Mom created a community in that bakery. Go on a Sunday morning, every Jew in America was in that bakery. And there was a sense of belonging and caring in that community. I always want to be part of community.

JJ: So, in a sense, it’s turned out that you’re doing what you imagined, it’s just a different role.

EF: I never would be like this. Because when Rabbi Schulweis asked me in 1993 to come here, this was a dream. I never thought…I fell in love with him when I was 16 years old. I watched him on that pulpit, I watched the magic that he would do; I listened to his words. All through college and rabbinical school, my dad would send me tapes of Rabbi Schulweis’ talks, because I was so taken with the power of his mind and the power of his oratory and the power of his soul.

JJ: So what’s the most fun part of your job?

Friday morning, telling stories to kids. I still do it, I’ve done it since I was ordained, I get on the floor and I tell the kids all these Jewish stories. And I watch their eyes grow wide. The story I love to tell, it’s a true story, the week I was ordained a rabbi, no the week I started my first job as a rabbi, in Texas, Nina, my wife sent me to the grocery store to buy some milk, and I was walking up the aisle. And there was a shopping cart coming the other way, and it had one of the 3 year olds from the nursery school in the jump seat, and the kid looks at me and he looks at his mother and looks at me and he points and says “Look mom, it’s God!” True story.

JJ: And what did you say?

EF: I said God bless this kid, I hope he joins the board of directors. No I realized, you know, you imagine God to wear the face of the people who teach you about God. You imagine religion to have the same emotional tenor of the people who teach you religion.  Too many of us were raised by teachers and rabbis who were cold and forbidding and distant. And if I could be close to kids, hug kids, engage kids, tell them stories that contain the wisdom of the tradition but do it with laughter and joy, that’s a gift to a generation. So Friday morning, you’re always welcome, 9:20 am, you can hear about the boy who turned into a chicken. “Sheldon the Shabbos Dog” is one of our favorites.

JJ: So what’s the least fun?

EF: Oh God. The least fun is when the institution of the synagogue and the sacred community of the synagogue don’t correspond. And they rub up against each other. Dealing with financial issues, dealing with personnel issues, dealing with the business of the synagogue when it doesn’t correspond with the sacred character of the synagogue. The least fun is when — this is too honest, but the least fun is when I don’t have the time or the energy or the presence to actually meet the needs of the people whom I need to meet the needs of. When someone says “I was in the hospital, and you didn’t come,” or someone says “I was in pain and you didn’t respond.” And they’re right. Because there’s one of me and there’s a lot of them and its hard to keep track and its hard to get there.

The torah’s all about this. This is Moses’ complaint to God — he says “What did you do this to me for?” And I know exactly what he feels like. The least fun part of the job is when the doctor says to me, there’s nothing else I can do. Would you like to tell the patient or shall I? And I have to go in and sit with somebody who I deeply care for and say we have to talk about what’s coming next. And you know it’s painful, it’s just so painful. That’s the hardest part of the job.

JJ: Often we look to the rabbi for a solid sense of faith. As a rabbi do you find that it’s hard to be human in those ways?

EF: No, and I’ll tell you why. Because what Rabbi Schulweiss taught me is that that’s not the rabbi’s job. It’s not my job to have faith when all of you have doubt; my job is to put your doubt into words. It’s my job to remind you that you’re not the first person to argue with God in that way. To give you the courage and resolution to get up, and to recognize that your indignation in the face of the world’s evil is in fact the most glorious part of your humanity.

JJ: I think you just hit your theology in a different way.

EF: Absolutely.

JJ: Do you worry about anti-Semitism?

EF: Only among Jews.  I mean that very seriously, and without facetiousness. No, I do not. Yes I worry about Al-Qaeda, like everybody in America. We saw in Boston what happens when two lone wolfs can set off an explosion and ruin a national moment. Like everybody, I worry about that. But in terms of specifically anti-Semitism…no. What I worry about is the viciousness of Jews against other Jews. The perverse irony of Jewish history is that at moments when the outside world is ready to accept us, we find new ways to be self-destructive. Look at what’s going on in Israel. You know, there used to be the joke about what would happen if peace broke out. And in Israel, that is sort of what’s happening right now. They’re beginning to focus on the internal life of the country and all the unresolved conflicts within the internal life of the country are now being recognized.  

At VBS, we have been very successful in creating an environment in which everybody knows that they’re going to hear lots and lots of points of views they disagree with. We brought Jeremy Ben Ami from J Street, we brought Mort Klein from ZOA. And we have brought people from the New Israel Fund. And we’ve brought people from much more Right Wing positions. And I have worked very diligently to say again and again that our job is to listen, to evaluate, to judge, you don’t have to agree, but you have to listen politely.

JJ: Here’s a very personal question: What do you pray for?

Peace. Everywhere. Peace in the world, peace for Israel. A vision for Israel to find its way to peace. A vision for America to find its way to peace. Vision for the Jewish community to fnid its way to wholeness. And personal, I just pray for the capacity to find peace. to find moments of peace and moments of joy, moments of recognition. To me you don’t pray for stuff as much as you stop and recognize what’s in front of you. Prayer to me is not as much petitionary as it is appreciative. So, to get myself to stop worrying, and stop wrestling with the world, and just recognize how blessed I am. You know, I’ve gotten to work with Harold Schulweis for 20 years; what a gift. For 20 years I get to sit next to the greatest Jew of the 20th century, every Shabbos morning, and schmooze. I have five young rabbis I work with, brilliant, wonderful souls. I’ve made friends in this community, the other rabbis in this city are my friends. And I’ve been blessed with a wonderful family. So I ask God to slow me down and help me see the blessings that are mine.

JJ: And what would you ask us to pray for?

EF: Certainly peace. (long pause). I don’t know what I’d ask you to pray for. I’ve asked the community over and over again to live with meaning. To live on purpose. To live with significance. To build lives that matter. To not waste the gift of life. To not waste the moments that are given to us. To not waste the opportunities that have been given to us. To me, this is the purpose of Torah, to teach us how to fill moments with significance, and to take seriously this notion that I carry the image of God and to live that way. I want people to live with significance, and not waste life. So that every day of your life, you know that you matter, that your life matters, that the work you’ve done in the world matters,  that your relationships matter. That’s what we pray for.

A Good Place to Start


The Torah has no title page. It has neither an author’s introduction nor a preface — nothing to tell us why the book was written or how it is to be read. The very first line begins with a complete lack of self-consciousness: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

On this line we find a remarkable comment by the most famous of Jewish Bible commentators, Rashi, Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of 11th century France. Rashi cites a classical midrash: “Rabbi Isaac asked: Why does the Torah begin with Genesis? The Torah should have begun with the verse (Exodus 12:2): ‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months,’ which is the first commandment given to Israel. For what reason does the Torah begin with Genesis?”

Rashi’s commentary on the Torah provides the Jew with a broad survey of law, theology and wisdom — a basic curriculum of Jewish learning. Rashi’s genius is to state the most penetrating questions in the most concise idiom. This one is a gem. Within this innocuous question is a world of debate on the nature of Judaism and purpose of the Torah.

Follow the logic of the question: If the Torah began at Exodus 12, what would we lose? We would lose the accounts of Creation, the origins of humanity, the Flood, the Covenant with Abraham, the lives of forefathers and mothers, the birth and call of Moses. Who would want to delete these stories? Who would expect the Torah to begin at Exodus 12? Only one who understands Judaism as preeminently a system of behavior, a set of religious actions — one who reads Torah solely as a book of law. If Judaism is only about behavior and Torah entirely law, why waste parchment and ink on stories? Who needs Genesis? Start with Exodus 12!

Exodus 12 is not the first commandment of the Torah. The Torah’s first commandment is given to all humanity and occurs in the first chapter of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply.” Exodus 12 is the first commandment given to the people of Israel. It is the beginning of “Jewish time,” juxtaposed to the beginning of universal time at the Creation. Who would expect Torah to begin with Exodus 12? One who believes that the Torah is only for Jews; that Torah speaks in a private Jewish language, with nothing to say to humanity. One who hears the Torah addressing only the Jew in us, only our particularity, and not the human being in us. If Torah speaks only to Jews, and only to the Jew in us, who needs Genesis? Start with Exodus 12!

The Torah begins with Genesis and its narratives to refute the reduction of Judaism to obsessive behaviorism and narrow chauvinism. The Torah begins with Genesis because the behaviors that Judaism demands of us are rooted in the biblical narrative. There we find a distinctly Jewish orientation toward the world — a Jewish understanding of life, of what it means to be human, of good and evil, of God’s presence and involvement in our world. The mitzvot have a vital purpose — to cultivate our spiritual character, to grow our souls and connect our lives with God. Performing ritual acts without concern for their meaning and intent is as hollow as professing beliefs that have no impact on behavior. Meaningful imperative requires compelling narrative.

Even Exodus 12 validates this conviction. Commanded to instruct the people Israel on the detailed observance of the Passover — the sacrifice, the sacred meal, the unleavened bread and the prohibition against leaven — Moses adds one element not explicit in God’s command: “When your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say: ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt….” (Exodus 12:26-27). Rite must be embedded in story. For shared story is critical to the life of a community and to the practice of faith. To truly liberate the enslaved and broken people, Moses gave them back their story.

Those who worry over the future of Jewry cite grim statistics of assimilation, alienation and disaffection of contemporary Jews. But our real problem is deeper than statistics can show – it is the loss of our shared story, the lack of a compelling narrative of Jewish life. Go back to your beginnings, Rashi bids us, and recollect your story. For the source of your collective life and faith is in your shared story.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.

 

Removing Theology


"Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought" by David N. Myers (Princeton University Press, $29.95).

It is a rare exception to find a scholarly volume penned by an academic that speaks with such a resoundingly relevant message to the popular community at large. Professor David N. Myers’ "Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought" is one of those pleasant exceptions.

What does it mean to "resist history"? What is "historicism," and why would there be "discontents" toward historicism in German Jewish thought, or in any intellectual society? Myers refers to the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard as having been opposed "to the kind of historical thinking that reduced human experience to a long series of disconnected moments." In Jewish terms, "historicism and its discontents" means that when a Jew enters a synagogue on Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av), the day that is traditionally fixed as a day of mourning over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the rabbi tells his congregants that "today’s mourning includes the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, plus the expulsion from Spain in 1492, plus the Holocaust," and that all of these tragedies are linked as part of God’s "Divine plan for the Jewish people," the traditionalist (anti-historicist) takes solace in knowing that "in every generation, they seek to destroy us, but the Holy One Blessed be He saves us from them."

The historicist in the congregation understands that while it is religiously enticing to view these tragedies as part of a larger "divine picture," the proper academic understanding of these events involves studying each one as an independent event, each with its own unique set of social, political and economic circumstances, void of any theological implications. To a traditionalist, the rabbi’s interpretation of Tisha B’Av is deeply inspirational, while the historian’s explanations would seem cold and void of any spiritual message. To the historicist, the rabbi’s interpretation is theology, not history, and a proper academic analysis of the various "Tisha B’Av tragedies" would ultimately make more sense to the rational mind.

Myers writes of four German Jewish intellectuals who each, in his own unique way, resisted the strong wave of historicism that was capturing the minds of intellectual German Jews during the 19th century. Philosophers Hermann Cohen and Franz Rosensweig, political leader Leo Strauss and Orthodox Rabbi Isaac Breuer were each passionate opponents of historicism.

I write a review of Myers’ book not as a professional historian with the academic qualifications of adequately critiquing the particulars of his arguments, but as a community rabbi and educator who is continuously challenged with the tension of maintaining Judaism’s traditional theological beliefs in the face of modern academic and scientific research. I write this review as a teacher of Torah who faces the challenge of merging the midrashic wisdom of Rashi with the modern insights of academic Bible scholars and archaeologists. Within my mind, the rational historicist prevails, but within my soul, I hear the voices of Cohen, Rosensweig, Strauss and Breuer.

By examining the lives and writings of these four particular thinkers, whose styles, philosophies and religious orientations are so diverse, Myers demonstrates that the tension between historicism and anti-historicism crosses all denominational and political lines. The fact that three of the four are not Orthodox (Cohen, Rosensweig and Strauss) shatters the conveniently prevalent myth that this tension is limited to a struggle between Orthodox and liberal Jews. Thanks to Myers’ book, we now understand that this tension is not between opposite poles of Jewish theology, rather it is between those who wish to view Jewish history through spiritual lenses — e.g., Max Dimont’s book "Jews, God and History" (Mentor Books, 1994) — versus those who wish to study Jewish history through the less than spiritual lenses of sociology, politics, economics and archaeology.

As a recent manifestation of this tension, Myers cites Rabbi David Wolpe’s now-famous sermon about the historicity of the exodus. Wolpe’s sermon, delivered from his Sinai Temple pulpit on Passover 2001, and the controversy that it generated, serve as a lucid reminder that the tension between historicism and its discontents is alive and well within current Jewish circles.

Like all scholarly volumes, Myers’ book is a challenging read but, in this case, one that is well worth the effort. The intricacies of scholarly lingo are softened by the author’s bold admission in his introduction that his interest in this subject is not a matter of dispassionate scholarly concern, but a reflection of his own personal tensions of living within "the academy and the shul," so to speak.

Myers’ book brilliantly addresses the tension that many Jews — scholar, rabbi, educator and lay person alike — face every day. This is therefore an important read for all of us, as it will continue to help facilitate the important dialogue on how we honestly live with and address these theological tensions within our congregations and classrooms, and within our minds and souls.


Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Let There Be Bart


Do you pray? Do you watch “The Simpsons” religiously? Do you pray while watching Bart and Homer and the rest of the Springfield gang?

Answer yes to any of these queries and you belong at Sinai Temple in Westwood for its unique, February-March Torah study program centered on the theological wonders of that prime-time TV staple, “The Simpsons,” with the sitcom’s eternal life questions being deconstructed by Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei.

“He studied it in rabbinical school, with some of the great masters of ‘Simpsons’ lore,” said Sinai Senior Rabbi David Wolpe, who announced the course after his Jan. 9 Shabbat service sermon.

Wolpe was kidding because Schuldenfrei, Sinai’s newest rabbi, is not an obsessive “Simpsons” fan, but instead will leverage the animated Fox Broadcasting hit’s popular culture stature to create a prism through which to discuss theology.

“I’m not a big TV watcher,” Schuldenfrei told The Journal. “My level of expertise is the Jewish part.”

Slated as every-other Wednesday night classes, “The Simpsons from Sinai: A New Look at God, Judaism and the Torah” will have students watch one episode each evening and then discuss its theological components.

“It’s using ‘The Simpsons’ as a springboard for discussions about Jewish values,” he said. “There are deeper issues to explore that don’t have to be necessarily Jewish.”

“The class is not a joke,” the rabbi said. “The class is a comical way of leading to a serious discussion. “

Schuldenfrei taught a similar course last fall, using 10 “Simpsons” episodes to explore theology with Sinai’s high school-age students. This new course targets the temple’s young adults, with both courses based on Jewish writer and Orlando Sentinel religion reporter Mark Pinksy’s 2001 book, “The Gospel According to ‘The Simpsons.'”

“We as Jews need to understand that Judaism has something to say about the modern world,” Schuldenfrei said. “‘The Simpsons’ are very much a representation of the modern world and modernity. If Judaism doesn’t have something to say about modernity, about the modern world, then Judaism is useless. We’re in modernity. Judaism is not a religion of antiquity.”

The class will be held at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire
Blvd., Westwood, 7:30 p.m., Feb. 18 and March 3, 17 and 31. Price is $5 per
session (members), $10 (nonmembers) or $30 (whole series). For more information,
call (310) 481 3244 or e-mail atid@sinaitemple.org .

Why Jews Don’t Accept Jesus


Why don’t Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah or son of God?

Growing up in Philadelphia, I attended Akiba Hebrew Academy, a private Jewish school. In 11th grade, a Southern Baptist preacher came to speak to our class. He looked around the room, and with a kindly smile said, "You seem like nice boys and girls. But I must tell you that unless you change your ways, you are all going to hell." I admired his honesty, but not his theology. I spent the next hour trying to think of a question that would stump him. As the class was ending, I raised my hand.

"Is Jesus perfect?" I asked.

"Yes," he answered.

"Is the Father perfect?" I asked.

"Yes," he said again.

"And is the Holy Ghost perfect?" Once again, he answered affirmatively.

"Well then," I said, "two of the three are superfluous. Perfection does not need anything. That is why it’s perfect. Since by definition, you can’t add anything to perfection, the idea makes no sense."

He paused for a minute, and said, "That is the mystery of the Trinity."

Since that time, I have been intrigued by the deep division between Jews and Christians over the question of Jesus. It has always seemed as crystal clear to me that Jesus was nothing more than a human being, as it has seemed crystal clear to many of my Christian friends that he was the son of God.

There is a long tradition of back and forth about this question, which has become somewhat urgent now that Jews for Jesus has launched a major outreach campaign in Los Angeles. It is not my intention to try to "prove" to Christians that Jesus is not God. I am neither so imperialistic nor so arrogant as to take upon myself such a task. Rather, in the spirit of pluralism, I want Christian readers to understand why Jews have traditionally rejected the Christian understanding of Jesus’ life and mission. Along the way, perhaps I can offer some clarity to Jewish readers who may wonder about many of the same questions.

I am going to stick to a few broad philosophical arguments. One of the most common — and least enlightening — exercises in religious history is the batting back and forth of biblical verses. I think it is fair to say there is no conclusive argument from the Bible, and that Jews and Christians read similar passages very differently.

1. The primary reason that Jews do not believe in Jesus as the Messiah is that after his arrival and death, the world was not redeemed. There is at least as much suffering, pain and tragedy in the world as there was before Jesus — probably much more. If the Christian answers that the suffering is a result of the world’s rejecting Jesus, two related questions arise, which I will take up below: Why did the majority of those who knew him reject him in his own lifetime (as the majority of the world still does today)? And if suffering is a result of rejecting Jesus, why has so much of the suffering historically been inflicted by (and even upon) those who accepted him, that is, Christians?

2. There is reason to believe Jesus himself was a staunch upholder of the law. That which defined early Christianity, the rejection of Mosaic law, might not have been Jesus’ intention at all. As Jesus says, "Think not that I have come to abolish the Torah and the Prophets. I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them. For I truly say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Torah until all is accomplished. Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men to do so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5).

This is not to suggest that Jesus did not differ at certain points with Orthodox rabbinic teachings. But the points of contact are closer and more numerous than is usually supposed, and the variations, from a Jewish point of view, far more problematic.

3. Some of Jesus’ teachings seem to Jews either contradictory or simply immoral. This does not negate the possibility that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but he was far from perfect in his moral outlook. The idea that eternal punishment would follow from rejecting Jesus seems downright evil. That someone could live a noble life and not be saved, when another could live a depraved and cruel life and through a true conversion of his heart at the end of life still be saved, is hard to tote up on the moral balance sheet. I am aware that many Christian groups reject this doctrine today, but for centuries it was normative church doctrine.

The Jesus who said "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother" (Matthew 10:34-37) is not a Jesus whom I can accept as a moral model. The statement is consistent, however, with the Jesus of Luke 14:26, who says, "If any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."

In addition, the Jesus who withers a fig tree because it did not provide him with fruit when he was hungry seems peevish rather than exemplary (Matthew 21:17-19).

There are many remarkable and wonderful teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. However, they are the teachings of a human being, not a God, and many of them — including the most morally enlightened — are paralleled in rabbinic literature. One cannot truly understand Jesus without understanding the climate in which he grew up. When one studies the Talmud, the image of Jesus becomes sharper — and still very impressive — but less original.

Jesus’ criticisms of the rabbis of his day are echoed in the literature of the prophets centuries before. When Hosea writes, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6), or Isaiah thunders, "I cannot endure sin coupled with solemn ceremonies (Isaiah 1:13), we are hearing the same themes Jesus so deftly expounded later on.

4. The idea of the Second Coming seems to have grown out of genuine disappointment. We are told in the Gospels, "Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death till they see the son of man coming in his kingdom." When Jesus died, true believers had to theologically compensate for the disaster. It remains significant, I believe, that the vast majority of people who knew him did not see Jesus as divine. Unless the entire Jewish population of Jerusalem at the time was either wicked or foolish, they — who knew Jesus far better than we — did not respond to his presumed divinity because he was clearly human.

5. The history of Christianity is not such as would persuade Jews that Christians are in possession of a superior moral truth. The history is too long and painful to summarize here, but many good books are available that elaborate on what the historian Jules Isaac called "the teaching of contempt." The thousands, even millions, of innocents who lost their lives, their children, their hope, from a refusal to be other than they were make it difficult to see Christianity in its historical garb in anything but a dark, forbidding light.

The chronicle of Christian anti-Semitism is one of the most gruesome, disheartening chapters of human history. Even the most abominable tragedy, the systematic slaughter of millions in World War II, the Holocaust, cannot be entirely separated from centuries of Christian teachings of the abjectness of the Jew. As the theologian Elieser Berkowitz put it, the Nazis who killed Jews may not have been Christians, but they were all the sons and daughters of Christians.

6. Although many faiths, including some Roman mystery religions, spoke of a man/god, Judaism sought to keep clear the boundaries between the human and the divine. The blurring was taken to be the sign of betrayal of the tradition.

7. Jesus did place great emphasis on internal spirituality. This was not because he was more spiritually advanced, but because society was more advanced materially. Moses had to set up a system of courts, of civil and criminal law. Jesus was born in Rome, with the most advanced civil society of the time. He did not need to discuss external rites, either religious or civil. They were taken care of by Roman law and the developed Jewish law. In this sense, Islam bears a closer kinship to Judaism; it, too, is a religion of law, necessitated by Mohammed’s melding desert tribes into a religious community, much in the manner of Moses. Hence, as Moses Montefiore said of Jesus, "Public justice is outside his purview."

8. The idea that one can be saved only through Jesus is contrary to simple compassion and justice. Judaism teaches that "the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come." Maimonides writes in a letter that there are non-Jews who "bring their souls to perfection." That is the simple truth that all faiths should acknowledge and celebrate. Otherwise, there can be no kinship. As Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote about attempts to convert the Jews: "How can we take seriously a friendship that is conditioned ultimately on the hope and expectation that the Jew will disappear? How would a Christian feel if we Jews were engaged in an effort to bring about the liquidation of Christianity?"

A related note: There are some today who speak of themselves as "Jews for Jesus." This is nonsense. It makes as much sense as saying "Christians for Mohammed." A Jew who accepts Jesus has cut himself off from the faith community of Jews, and that has been so for 2,000 years. Moreover, that Christians argue with the Jewish community about the legitimacy of "Jews for Jesus" is presumption of a high order. I would not presume to tell Christians who is a Christian and emphatically reject the idea that the Christian community can tell me who qualifies as a Jew.

Many Jewish thinkers have seen Jesus as they have seen Mohammed — as God’s instrument to advance monotheism in the world. Franz Rosenzweig spoke of Judaism as the sun — that is the source — and Christianity as the rays of the sun — that which spreads monotheism to the world. The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides saw Islam and Christianity as the preparation for God’s eventual kingdom.

Jesus exercises a powerful historical fascination. He was, without doubt, a profound and enigmatic personality. Nonetheless, he remains, for many Jews, a man whose wisdom and wit place him among the great teachers of humanity — but is neither a Messiah nor a God.

For those who wish to explore this further, there are no end of books addressing the complex, fascinating relations between Christianity and Judaism. A polemical work, which illustrates how Jews answer the various verses in the Torah taken to be referring to Jesus by many Christians, is "You Take Jesus, I’ll Take God" by Samuel Levine (Hamoroh, 1980). A more ecumenical examination is the work of the renowned scholar Jacob Neusner, "A Rabbi Talks With Jesus" (McGill-Queens University Press, 2000). For those interested in how the rabbis anticipated Jesus’ teachings, one book worth reading is by the Christian scholar Brad Young, "Jesus, the Jewish Theologian" (Hendrickson Publishers, 1995).


David Wolpe is the senior rabbi of Sinai Temple.

Unorthodox Alliance


The idea is supposed to make me tingle warmly: While I sit in my home here in Jerusalem enjoying

the Friday evening calm, thousands of Christian Coalition supporters will be gathering at the Ellipse in Washington to proclaim solidarity with Israel. According to pre-rally PR, my prime minister will speak by satellite hookup, pleased to have the backing of an American constituency more hawkish than most of his Israeli voters. At least some American Jews, including leaders who once wanted nothing to do with the Christian right, may point to the rally as proof of an important new political alliance. With Israel facing a danger to its existence — so they argue — Jews should welcome the help of a group that loudly proclaims its love for the Jewish state.

I’m not tingling.

Having spent years researching the Christian right’s tie to Israel — listening to leading "Christian Zionists," reading their sermons and examining the links of some to Israeli extremists — I have to conclude that this is a strangely exploitative relationship. Accepting the embrace of conservative evangelicals poses problems of principle for Jews and Israel, in return for an illusory short-term payoff. Jews would do better to follow the Hebrew maxim, "Respect him and suspect him," maintaining a polite distance and publicly delineating their differences from the Christian right, even while at times supporting the same policy steps.

The Christian right’s view of Israel derives largely from a double-edged theological position: Following a classic anti-Jewish stance, it regards the Jewish people as spiritually blind for rejecting Jesus. Yet it says that divine promises to Jews — to bless those who bless them, to return them to their land — remain intact. Indeed, it regards Israel’s existence as proof that biblical prophecies are coming true — heralding an apocalypse in which Jews will either die or accept Jesus. Israel is loved as confirmation of fundamentalist Christian doctrine. "The most dramatic evidence for His imminent return," the Rev. Jerry Falwell has stated, is "the rebirth of the nation of Israel." Evangelist Chuck Missler once told me that Israel gets more support in America from Christian fundamentalists than from "ethnic Jews" — yet he has asserted that Auschwitz was "just a prelude" to what will happen to Jews in the approaching Last Days.

Jews who advocate working more closely with the Christian right say this is irrelevant. "These religious beliefs … speak to an unknown future," while evangelicals are providing support right now, Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman wrote recently. This answer misreads millennial belief. To long for the end is to assert that our world is deeply flawed. One whose millennial vision is, "Gonna lay down my sword and shield" says one thing about what’s wrong today. Those who look forward to the Jews’ converting or dying proclaim another, very different "flaw" in our world. It’s no accident that evangelical support for Israel often comes bundled with efforts to proselytize to the Jews.

By ignoring this theology, Jews both demean themselves and condescend to conservative evangelicals. They also risk undermining decades of dialogue with Catholics and mainstream Protestants who have undertaken the difficult task of reassessing Christianity’s attitude toward Jews. It will be hard for Jews to affirm that reassessment if prominent Jewish groups are working closely with Christian groups that negate Judaism.

Does Israel’s current crisis justify ignoring such long-term considerations in order to ensure immediate, tactical backing, as some argue? Living in Jerusalem, I don’t underestimate today’s dangers. But as frightening as Palestinian terror is, it does not threaten Israel’s existence. Palestinian demographics do threaten Israel, as long as it holds all the land from the Mediterranean to the Jordan. Within a few years, there will be a Palestinian majority in that land, and Israel will either cease being a Jewish state or cease being a democracy. No wonder a recent poll showed a majority of Israel’s Jews favoring a Palestinian state. The Christian right’s position, on the other hand, is exemplified by Sen. James Inhofe’s (R-Okla.) statement last March on the Senate floor that Israel should keep the West Bank "because God said so." Rather than support for Israel, this is support for hard-line policies that endanger Israel in the name of fundamentalist theology.

Jews have every reason to speak with conservative evangelicals — in forthright interfaith dialogue, plainly stating differences as well as points of agreement. In the political realm, however, Israeli and Jewish interests are better served by working with politicians and religious groups that champion renewed American diplomatic efforts to end bloodletting in the Holy Land. Seeing negotiators sit down again to talk peace — now that would give me a warm tingle.


Gershom Gorenberg is the author of “The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount” (Oxford University Press, 2002).

Are You There, God?


While the pain of the Sept. 11 attacks still churns like the smoke and dust that continue to rise out of Ground Zero, eight weeks has done something to begin our healing process.

Some of the rawness of our national wound is beginning to abate, allowing us to use the clarity and insight of the still-sharp lens of grief to encounter the big questions about God and humanity that the terrorists threw into our faces.

The questions, of course, are hardly new: How can we square the lethal expression of mass evil with our notion of a compassionate God? Were the attacks the hand of God, God’s withdrawal from humanity, or simply the nature of God’s universe?

Certainly Holocaust theology has dealt with these questions, and as a people the Jews have a too-long record that has enabled us to retain faith in God in the face of unspeakable evil.

"The questions are perennial, but each new instance of evil makes them poignant and powerful," says Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple.

Our grappling with the universe is augmented by the fact that Sept. 11’s ties to religion and God are manifold — some overt, some subtle. The terrorists were acting in the name of God. The Sept. 11 anthem has become "God Bless America." Hundreds of thousands turned to houses of worship in the immediate aftermath, and whether they did so for God or for the comfort of community, what they found was God.

For Jews especially, the timing of the events brought the theological questions into immediate and sharp focus. Within days of Sept. 11, many of us recited the words "Who shall live and who shall die … who shall be at peace and who shall be tormented." Many of us proclaimed our trust in the universe by sitting in flimsy sukkahs with the image of crumbling concrete icons of power still fresh in our minds.

Rabbis and community leaders across the ideological spectrum report that people seem to be yearning for a crystallization of what might have been, until now, a murky lay theology.

"When you are a rabbi, you think you are talking about God all the time, and I assume that my congregation knows what I believe about God because I feel I speak about it often," says Reform Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. But after she addressed theology directly in her Rosh Hashana sermon, the reaction was intense.

"I think that people just listened differently this year," Geller says.

Her High Holy Day sermon and the private conversations she has had with congregants reflect her personal theology and understanding of God.

"God is not in control of what we do to each other. We are responsible," she said in her Rosh Hashana sermon. "The God I believe in doesn’t write in a book of life or death, doesn’t decree who will live and who will die. No, the God I believe in animates a material universe where everything that lives eventually dies…. But the God I believe in has given human beings a way to make meaning out of lives that are finite."

That crashing airplanes into buildings was a result of human free will is a widely accepted belief. The questions arise when we examine the interaction between free will and God’s role in the universe.

"God has set up the world in such a way that people are asked to be good, even though in the end it might not save them," Wolpe says. "If you say, ‘I’ll be good, and don’t let anything bad happen,’ what kind of goodness is that? That’s not goodness, it’s prudence."

Evil acts, then, are a necessary result of God’s letting the universe function as it must.

The outcome of human free will might indeed further the Divine will, says Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

"Human freedom is one of the building blocks for God’s plan," Artson says. "We make choices, and God uses those choices to achieve a certain outcome."

In this case, perhaps God’s hand can be seen in the overwhelming outpouring of goodness.

"There were four evil acts, and then there have been hundreds of thousands of acts of goodness," Artson says. "That is where I tell students to look for the hand of God."

Rabbi Nachum Braverman of Aish HaTorah in Los Angeles takes it a step further, saying that the national and international introspection that has followed Sept. 11 was not only a byproduct of the terror, but perhaps its very purpose — and a sign of God’s love for humanity.

"We live very drowsy and comfortable lives, and the Almighty comes along and blows the shofar and says, ‘You’ve got to wake up,’" says Braverman, noting that the event touched every human being on the planet. "God acts through events in the world to move us to live lives that matter, that take account of the covenant and take account of the meaning of Jewish life. That seems to me consistent with a God who loves us…. I think it’s an expression of God’s love that he calls us to accounting. To permit us to sleep our lives away would be indifference, not love."

While Braverman says he cannot answer whether God had pegged each person who died to meet his or her end that way on that day, he does think it was part of a Divine plan.

"In my own life, the most important discoveries, the most important growth as a human being has come through the greatest pain and terror," he says.

About 10 years ago, his now healthy 11-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer.

"I believe if I make of my life something that matters, it will be because of the door opened through my daughter’s illness," he says.

But other Orthodox rabbis — who share Braverman’s belief that God acts through history and that everything that happens on Earth is part of a Divine plan — are reluctant to ascribe universal meaning to any event.

"I think it’s OK in a small setting for a person to say, ‘This is what it’s done for me,’ and everyone has an obligation to take the events of Sept. 11 and internalize them," says Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, community leader for Yeshivat Yavneh. "But to dictate a specific message can become burdensome and onerous. It is counterproductive to speculate."

In fact, Korobkin is uncomfortable with humans trying to ascribe purpose to God, because God is by definition unknowable.

"We will never truly be able to understand how God works, because the human mind is confined to thinking in a four-dimensional universe [three dimensions plus time], but God works outside that box," says Korobkin.

It is that acknowledgment that allows Korobkin to live with seemingly irreconcilable contradictions in the human understanding of God.

Orthodox theologians have spent centuries grappling with the notion that human free choice coexists with a God who is omniscient, who approves of everything and intends everything that occurs in the world.

Likewise have theologians tried to explain evil in a belief system where it is taken as axiomatic that God is compassionate and just.

So how to explain not only terror attacks but birth defects and natural disasters?

"This world is the corridor to the next world. When something happens here, we only see the tip of the iceberg," Korobkin says, offering one of several classical explanations. "So if a person has a short life in this world, or a tragic life, that is really a small portion of the totality of that person’s existence."

Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom, associate director of Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says even our limited vision of events in this world hampers our ability to judge.

"We are horrified at what happened, but how many others might there have been?" he asks, pointing to other terrorist attempts that were foiled. "Relative to the apparent security in which we live, we were shocked out of the blue. But relative to what people might want to do, maybe it’s a miracle that more things don’t happen," Etshalom says.

Rabbi Stephen Robbins of Congregation N’vay Shalom in Beverly Hills says that in Kabbalistic thinking, evil — the Sitra Achra — is a necessary and Godly part of the continuing process of creation.

"Everything in this world is an expression of God and the will of the Holy One, including darkness and evil," he says. "But evil has an intent, has a purpose, and that purpose is to challenge us to take care of and to protect the presence of the Holy One in this world."

Too much evil blocks the light of the presence of God, he says, eclipsing God. Nonetheless, God has built in a remedy for an evil that results from judging each other harshly.

"The principal of judgment, of strictness, is always mitigated in Kaballah by that of rachamim, of compassion," he says. "If you cannot see that everyone has been created in the image of God, you can’t see that you are in the image of God either, and then we are all separate and all alone, all struggling for survival instead of working to fulfill a purpose and a goal. And when we are locked in survival mentality — as the world is now — nobody survives."

That balance of judgment and compassion cannot just be internal, Robbins says, but must be worldwide.

"It’s so easy to demonize people and create devils who are separate from the Divine human reality in which we live," he says. But we must not let our instinct for compassion be quashed.

"Compassion is not forgiveness, compassion is understanding — understanding how sick these people are, how profoundly twisted in their own rage and pain and darkness they are," he says. "It doesn’t in any way excuse or mitigate what they have done, nor does it distance them from judgment and punishment. But it teaches us that the very thing that twisted them is alive and well and working on others in the world, and those we must heal before they do it again and again," Robbins says.

Wolpe agrees that Judaism has a "very palatable sense that there is evil in the world and that … it has be fought," he says. "We should be very grateful that we are in a powerful nation and that we have the capacity to fight evil now."

While individuals can use this opportunity to examine their role in this world, Wolpe says, we should not let the existence of evil imperil our sense of Divine mercy, whether we attribute it to humanity gone bad or to our limited scope of understanding the Divine, or to a larger picture that includes an afterlife.

"I’m convinced this world is both random and unfair; about that I have no question," he says. "But I also believe that God is compassionate and just, and how that gets sorted out is, fortunately, not my responsibility to figure out — because I can’t."

Alligators Under


I learned most of my theology not from my teachers but from my children. When my daughter, Nessa, was 3 years old, we had a routine. Each night, I would tuck her into bed, sing our bedtime prayers, kiss her good night and attempt to sneak out of the room. Halfway down the hall, she began to scream, “Abba!” An avid reader of Parents magazine, the Torah of parenting, I knew what to do: I walked back to the child’s room and turned on every light. I looked under the bed. “No alligator, Nessa.” I checked the closet. “No monsters, Nessa.” I surveyed the ceiling. “No spiders, Nessa. Now go to bed. Tomorrow is coming, and you’ve got to get to sleep,” I’d say. “Everything is safe. Good night.” “OK, Abba,” she said, “but leave the light on.”

We did this dance for an entire year until, one night, I stopped myself as I was walking down the hall and asked myself: “Who is right? Whose description of the world is empirically, factually correct? The child afraid of alligators under the bed? Or the father who reassures her that everything is safe and tomorrow is surely coming?

The truth is that the child is certainly correct. She doesn’t know the names of the alligators under the bed. She doesn’t know about cancer, about AIDS, about drive-by shootings, about lunatics who steal children. We grown-ups…we know their names, and yet we still insist to our children that the world is safe enough to trust for this one night. All loving parents do this. Even the most hard-boiled atheist says to his kid, “Tomorrow is coming; you’re safe tonight; go to sleep.”

This is the beginning of spirituality, our experience of God’s presence. Perhaps 17-year-olds can proclaim their disbelief. It’s easy for them — they don’t put children to bed each night. They are isolated — there is no one whose life and hope depends upon them. But for those of us who live with others, who live for others, we know better. Having children, rearing children, loving another with all our soul is an exercise in spirituality.

Spirituality is not something added onto life. It is underneath life, just beneath the surface of consciousness. It represents the answers to the ultimate questions of our lives — questions we may never have consciously asked, but whose answers ring through our daily actions. Why do we get up out of bed in the morning? Where do we find the hope, strength, inspiration to go on each day? How do we cope with all that’s terrifying in life?

Judaism is a way, a language, for asking these questions consciously. It is a way of sharing the answers of the generations that have come before us. And it is a discipline for facing our fears, listening to the questions and searching out the answers.

In this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotecha, the journey toward the Promised Land resumes. Interrupted for the two-year encampment at Mount Sinai, the trek through the perilous and mysterious wilderness will now continue. But before the march commences, instructions are given for the kindling of the menorah, the sacred lamps. Judaism is that menorah — the light left on at night, a gift of wisdom and hope whenever we suspect that there are alligators under the bed.


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

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