Tom Fields-Meyer and Sarah Bunin Benor collaborated on "We the Resilient." Photos courtesy of "We the Resilient."

Wisdom of the aged offers hope to Clinton voters


“Estelle L. Schultz, who was born two years before women had the right to vote, marked her absentee ballot for the first female president, Hillary Clinton.”

That’s how it started — with a brief Facebook post in October of a 96-year-old Maryland woman holding her absentee ballot and flashing a big smile.

Before long, there was a website, iwaited96years.com, dedicated to hopeful female Clinton supporters who were born before Aug. 18, 1920 — when the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, was ratified. It featured their stories, 186 of them in all.

Then came the jolt of Nov. 8 and the question of what happens next. For the website’s prime collaborators, Sarah Bunin Benor — the granddaughter of Schultz who made the initial Facebook post at the request of her mother, Roberta Benor — and Tom Fields-Meyer, it was time to get past the initial shock and sting of Clinton’s loss and circle back to the women they featured for advice. The results were independently published last month in a book called “We the Resilient: Wisdom for America from Women Born Before Suffrage.”

“I didn’t realize when I posted it how intense it would be, how it would really change my life for six months,” said Bunin Benor, 42, an associate professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

Fifty-five of the women who appeared on the website responded to some or all of the authors’ questions, which included: When in your life have you experienced personal disappointment, tragedy or unexpected loss? How were you able to overcome those setbacks? When in your lifetime was this country at its best?

Their responses, as well as pictures of their current and younger selves, are featured in the book, whose title was inspired by artwork designed by Los Angeles artist Ernesto Yerena for a protest campaign called We the People. Yerena passed out thousands of his posters featuring Granny Helen Red Feather, a Lakota elder, along with the words, “We the resilient have been here before,” at the Los Angeles Women’s March. Former U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer wrote the book’s foreword.

Though the contributors come from a variety of backgrounds, many spoke of similar issues, such as losing parents, spouses, siblings and children. The importance of education, friends and hard work were common themes, along with stories of subtle and not-so-subtle sexism.

“When I graduated from Florida State College for Women, I applied and was accepted to the Duke University School of Medicine,” wrote Katherine Blood Hoffman, 102, of Tallahassee, Fla. “Duke required that I sign a waiver promising not to marry while in their medical school. I wasn’t even engaged, but I refused to sign because Duke didn’t require the same promise from men. Instead, I chose to enter Columbia University, where I earned a Master of Arts degree in Chemistry.”

Bunin Benor connected with Fields-Meyer, 54, a journalist and author, after he became one of the hundreds to immediately like her original Facebook post. They had known each other for about eight years, both being members at IKAR and Temple Beth Am and living in the same Mid-City neighborhood.

The two talked about collaborating on a project during a break at Yom Kippur services at IKAR and launched the website with the help of Fields-Meyer’s wife, Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer, who has experience in the area. Roberta Benor corresponded with those who submitted pictures and text to the website.

Project participants expressing high hopes about a potential Clinton administration included Madeline Rosenberg, 101, of Hartsdale, N.Y., who died in April, (“Women are getting where they belong!”) and Primetta Giacopini, 100, of San Jose (“It’s about time we got a woman in there! The men have had plenty of time and have just screwed things up”).

Kveller, a Jewish parenting website, did a brief story about the site. BuzzFeed was next. From there, things snowballed. There was coverage in dozens of publications around the country as well as from newspapers in Spain, the Netherlands and India. Fields-Meyer credits all the interest to the “inspiring and optimistic moment in this otherwise rancorous election season.”

As Election Day neared, more and more submissions from nonagenarian and centenarian women came in, including 20 or so from women in their early 90s who were too young. The women born after the cutoff date were, however, highlighted on Facebook.

Only a few of the women featured in “We the Resilient” are Jewish. Still, Fields-Meyer said, given Judaism’s reverence for older people and the wisdom they bring, “In a lot of ways, I feel this project had a Jewish soul and message, a message that it’s really important to listen to these people from previous generations.”

Being featured in the book meant a lot to the participants.

“I’m rather proud,” Rose Kaufman, 103, of Santa Monica, told the Journal. “I’ve seen a lot and I’ve been active with the League of Women Voters, among other things. I think we always have to be hopeful. In other words, we can’t give up.”

Wisdom is the Antidote


In the last two weeks or so, I have read a great deal of statements made by Jewish organizations and rabbis dealing with our immigration policy and the merits of compassion, protest and defiance.  I’ve seen Facebook posts by liberals and conservatives that contain words in all caps.  In general, I’ve seen many statements but listened to little conversation.

I would like to add a different note to this conversation.  The quality we are missing from dialogue today is wisdom.  Wisdom is the key corrective measure to our brokenness today.  Movements and mob mentalities usually feed off of emotions rather than rational thought.  The Jewish community should not get sucked into partisan warfare and bullhorn politics just because it feels good.  We should worry less about feeling good and concern ourselves more with acting prudently and elevating discourse.

We, the Jewish People, are commanded by the Torah to follow the path of wisdom.  Deuteronomy 4:6 states, “Observe them (the laws) faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.’”  We should be elevating the national dialogue, not feeding into a bipolar system consisting of executive orders and mass defiance.  We can choose a third way – the path of wisdom.

Last week, I listened to an interview with legal expert Alan Dershowitz, who explained that Attorney General Sally Yates should have outlined the constitutional legalities and illegalities of President Trump’s executive order on January 27th limiting immigration before she resigned.  Yates was not a hero for resigning.  Our national dialogue, and the responsibilities of her job, required her to bring forward her legal arguments into the public domain.  Dershowitz observed that Yates made a mistake and made “a political decision rather than a legal one.”  I would argue she made an emotional decision, rather than a rational one.

Rational thought had its day in court last Friday. US District Judge James Robart in Seattle heard the case and ruled to suspend the executive order.  Then, the administration challenged Robart’s ruling.  Yesterday, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Robart’s decision.  Whether or not one agrees with the outcome, the US legal system functioned exactly as they are expected.  The courts decided this issue according to legal reasoning and logic rather than hysteria.  I believe the rabbis of the Talmud would have preferred judicial arguments as well.

President Trump nominated Neil Gorusch for the Supreme Court.  Emotions aside, I believe he is qualified.  I heard Rep. Nancy Pelosi describe him as “a hostile appointment” by President Trump.  Even if that’s true, he is still qualified.  President Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court.  I believe he was also qualified for the position.  Garland never even received a confirmation hearing.  The Republican majority in the Senate acted as immaturely as Yates.  They made an emotional decision and covered their ears rather than argue the merits of Merrick Garland’s nomination.

How long can this amazing country last without dialogue or compromise of any kind?  Is no rational conversation about immigration and safety possible?  One that acknowledges the fears and merits of immigration.  Is no rational conversation possible about Supreme Court nominees?  Is it better to vilify every judge in the entire judicial system until nobody is left?

We as Jews are commanded to heed the words of God and the Torah, not to faithfully observe the positions of a single political party.  Too often today it seems like I am speaking with a Jewish Democrat or a Jewish Republican.  If we are more loyal to policy than to values, then why even attend synagogue?  Why not just worship the political party platform?

The Torah is bigger than politics.  It is bigger than policy.  And it has to remain so for the sake of the future of the Jewish People.  The Torah challenges us to navigate through ideas that make us feel good and make us feel uncomfortable.  That is the Divine wisdom of the Torah.  We continue to read it and study it and debate the Torah every week as a community.

We are required to bring wisdom into the conversation, not accept the indecency of today’s shouting.  We must reject our current broken political system and raise the level of intellectual conversation.  As Deuteronomy teaches, our conduct must inspire others to look at us and say, “…that great nation is a wise and discerning people.”

The Jewish People have always offered the world a model of wisdom.  Our Talmud models heated debate that produces a synthesis of ideas – a well-reasoned compromise.  Now is not the time to descend into extreme partisanship.  That does not benefit the future of the Jewish People.  Now is the time to offer our neighbors the antidote to the stagnation and shouting that has enveloped us.

As we say every time we open the ark to reveal the Torah, “Blessed is God who gave the Torah to Israel in holiness.”  God gave us the Torah and now we, as American Jews, must share it with those around us so that we can reason, can reach compromise and can once again seek solutions to our communal problems – together.

Stay open to life’s possibilities


For those of us wanting to bring the boomers’ characteristic boldness and a sense of adventure to this next chapter of our lives — to reinvent society while we remake ourselves — Judaism’s sacred stories offer ample precedent. 

And while we seek new frontiers, keep in mind that our tradition requires that we not only cultivate wisdom, but that we also share that wisdom to change the world. 

Consider, for a start, how our ancestors answered the divine call of destiny. Lech lecha: “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you” (Genesis 12:1-2).

This defining moment in the history of the Jewish people is filled with covenantal promise. Our ancestors Abram and Sarai (to become Abraham and Sarah) responded to the call with Hineni (“Here I am”). What if, instead, they had said to God and to themselves: Why would we want to do this? We have our lives, our circle of friends, our established interests; we are too set in our ways to do this. 

It is a good thing they did not. They opened themselves to possibility, left everyone and everything familiar behind, and journeyed from Haran to wherever God would lead them and created a nation. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

For those who believe that leaving home — what is known — to find yourself is strictly a young person’s mandate, think again. Tradition tells us that Abraham was 75 years old at the time, and Sarah was 65. What are we to make of that? Is there a special calling for us as we enter these years? A new path for us to pursue? 

In “The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis,” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes that lech lecha was a call for Abram and Sarai “to move to a new place, to deconstruct all the structures of the old place of being, and in a radical act of kri’ah (tearing away) … to create entirely new paradigms of reality.” Acknowledging the call to know ourselves in new ways could mean making a major life change, or it could be something more subtle. 

Identifying the call is the first step, acting on it the next. According to Savina Teubal (z”l), creator of the Simchat Chochmah (Joy of Wisdom) ceremony, this next stage of life “is a time to discard the unwanted pressures left by our parents or the culture of our tribe or clan. It is truly a time when we can, when we must, make the effort to give the next generation the benefits of our vision, complete with its realities and its dreams.”

So it’s impossible to emphasize enough the importance of sharing your wisdom.

In his book “From Age-ing to Sage-ing,” Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z”l) puts forth his philosophy of spiritual eldering. It looks like this: We, “the elders of the tribe,” can lead society as wisdomkeepers, inspiring others to live by higher values, and also serve as evolutionary pathfinders, offering hope and guidance to all those searching for models of a fulfilled human potential.

Spiritual eldering is a modern form of the ancient practice of calling upon the community’s elders in a time of need to provide high-level skills, reliable judgment and an ability to see the big picture.

One of the most commented on Torah portions on this subject is one we read just recently, Parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1–12:16). In this section, the Israelites complain to Moses because they don’t like the food — the manna God provides daily.  Moses, deeply distraught by their ingratitude and neediness, turns to God for help with his leadership challenge. “Give me relief,” Moses says. “Or else kill me.”

Yes, it was that bad. 

God responds, saying, “Gather for me 70 of Israel’s elders … and I will draw upon them the spirit that is upon you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone” (Numbers 11:16-17).

Why the elders? They are prized for their wisdom. But how does one define wisdom? Dr. Linda P. Fried, dean of Columbia University’s School of Public Health, explains that wisdom can be broken down into numerous components. It is the ability to: 

• Understand and value knowledge accrued over a lifetime

• Look at complex problems, hold them and dissect them

• Organize around a common purpose for solutions

• Understand what’s important for our collective future

None of this is optional, according to the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides. We have an obligation to guide future generations: “Just as a person is required to teach his or her child, so, too, is the person required to teach his or her grandchild, as the verse [Deuteronomy 4:9] states, ‘And make these things known to your children and to your grandchildren’ ” (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:2).

The journey into later life was a spiritual journey for our ancestors, for the paths they took led them into a covenantal relationship with the Divine. May our own journeys into what comes next lead us to a stronger, more authentic connection to Jewish tradition and to the divine within ourselves. 

We don’t have to know what’s next. As long as we manage to stay open to what unfolds, it’s likely to be quite amazing.

Rabbi Beth Lieberman is director of the Growing in Wisdom Initiative at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills.

One-Day U


Maybe it was because I had just helped my daughter move into her freshman dorm room and I was envious of the deliciously named courses she was thinking of
taking. Or maybe it was because I’ve always been a sucker for pitches like “Conversational Hebrew in One Day!” Or maybe it was because I didn’t know what else to do with my rage about the anti-intellectual matches that the Republican presidential campaign is playing with.

Whatever the reason, I was a sitting duck for a publicist’s offer to comp me to the first “One Day University” in Los Angeles. Judging from the full house paying $259 a pop at the Skirball’s Magnin Auditorium, I wasn’t alone.

The lineup included teachers from Columbia, Harvard, Dartmouth and USC. The subjects were Lincoln, the psychology of happiness, the history of cosmology and the foreign policies of an Obama or a McCain administration. The audience included not only the retirees seeking educational nourishment and brain fitness whom I had expected, but also boomers like me and more than a few people who looked to be in their 40s and 30s and even younger.

Three out of the four speakers really knew how to work a room, making good on the publicist’s promise of a day of engaging “edutainment,” and the fourth — even though, unlike the others, he worked from a prepared text and never left his spot behind the lectern — nevertheless held people’s attention with his material.

All day long, while learning things like the average age for the first onset of depression (14 1/2, compared to twice that a generation ago), and the proportion of the universe containing carbon, oxygen and nitrogen, the elements that people are made of (less than 1 percent), I kept wondering what bound us students together, besides our common jones for knowledge.

The answer came home to me during the foreign policy lecture by my friend and USC colleague, professor Steven Lamy.

In the midst of providing an analytic framework for understanding the traditions and belief systems of U.S. foreign policy, he pointed out the substantive poverty of the discussion of foreign policy occurring during this campaign, despite so many grave foreign policy issues that will face the next president. Security challenges and security strategies? Yes, those are in the campaign mix. But dealing realistically with the global economy, or thinking creatively about using the U.S.’s non-military power, or grappling with the social threat that traditional cultures see posed by the massive exportation of American entertainment, or with the environmental threat posed by exporting our consumerist culture: issues like these — not so much, or not at all.

The reason for this neglect is that the conduct of foreign policy is now all about electoral considerations, and the majority of the American people return the favor by not paying attention to it. The result, says Steve Lamy, is an uninformed American public easily manipulated by power players in Washington who prefer that the wide range of options potentially available for America’s role in the world not be put on the table for scrutiny.

The irony is that there is a rising generation that does see foreign policy as something more than shouting, “9-11!” At USC, as Steve pointed out, the 791 undergraduates majoring in international relations — one of the most popular majors in the college — do know what the Bush doctrine is.

Which brings me to the thread binding the newest alumni of One Day U. Yes, I could be projecting my own feelings onto them. But from the questions they asked the faculty, from conversations I heard during breaks, from the room’s reaction to Steve Lamy’s mention of the foreign policy credential claimed by Sarah Palin with a straight face (you can see Russia from an island in Alaska), I had the strong impression that the people in that auditorium were connected by a common sense of outrage at the demonization of learning going on in this campaign.

To be sure, every campaign, in both parties, relies on bumper-sticker slogans and 30-second ads, and, at least since the 1980s, television has proven itself dismally unequal to the opportunity for covering a campaign as a national conversation about the big issues facing the country.

Yet the way the McCain campaign has turned “elite” into a dirty word, and delightedly derided Obama’s education as effete, and turned the sow’s ear of Sarah Palin’s lack of foreign policy experience into the silk purse of salt-of-the-earth small town values — you have to go back to Spiro Agnew and his bullyboy ventriloquists, Pat Buchanan and William Safire, to find this kind of sneering contempt for educated people.

The neoconservative intellectuals who have fanned these fires have particularly dirty hands. With their Ivy League degrees and their perches as columnists and commentators, their collaboration with the Republican defamation of learning is especially unctuous. By being accomplices to what is arguably the most lying campaign in modern history, they are complicit with the same noxious rejection of reason that has brought us the teaching of “intelligent design” (aka creationism) in our schools; the politicization of science in everything from climate change to environmental regulations; and the intrusion of fundamentalist religious doctrines into the shaping of public policy.

I see adult education as a political act, a refutation of this neo-Know Nothingism. I see reading a good newspaper as a thumb in the eye to this anti-intellectual hypocrisy and to candidates who refuse to hold press conferences. I see the conversation occurring in some online precincts, and among people who have abandoned cable news for actual discussions about issues they care about, as a patriotic response to the political porn served up to us by mainstream media. I see studying and going to the best school you can and learning to think critically as a powerful antidote to the homespun yahooism that is being held up to us as the gold standard of competence.

Sure, some people may have signed up for One Day U because it looked like fun, or to get out of the house, or just because they were curious. But curiosity is a quality that has been lethally absent in the occupant of the White House these last eight years, and if you listen to the team that could well replace him, having a healthy intellectual appetite is wussily un-American.

I don’t doubt that Americans who love learning may constitute a minority. I just hope that enough of them live in battleground states to make a difference.

Marty Kaplan has been a White House speechwriter, a deputy presidential campaign manager, a studio executive and a screenwriter. He holds the Norman Lear Chair in Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Ethical wills hope to ensure that our values live on


I count myself among the most fortunate of 50-somethings because both of my parents are still alive.

Sometimes this weighs heavily on me, like when my mother leaves multiple messages on my answering machine because I haven’t called her back — within the hour. Or when I realize that its totally up to me now if I want to see them, because they can no longer travel by plane.

But I would take these “problems” any day of the week over the alternative and relish the simple pleasure of hearing Dad’s voice answer the phone when I call, knowing that he will predictably hand it over to Mom to do the talking.

Recently, I had one of the hardest conversations with my parents that I have ever had. I realized, as the lump in my throat refused to subside, that no matter what age or stage of life a child is in, talking to your parents about their deaths, especially when a parent is sick or dying, is truly difficult. But it is also very necessary, because it gives parents an opportunity to express and explain their requests and desires regarding death, and it gives children a chance to question, understand and honor the values of their parents.

The issue of whether a child is required to fulfill a dying parent’s request was first dealt with in Genesis, when Jacob instructed his sons from his deathbed, giving them both directives and advice on their future as well as prophetic wisdom about how the 12 tribes would settle in Israel. Jacob’s vision and hopes were fulfilled hundreds of years later, when the Jewish people wandered through the desert and entered the Promised Land.

Jewish tradition teaches that it is a mitzvah “to carry out the directions of the deceased.” This has been interpreted as creating a legal obligation when it comes to disposing of a parent’s assets and possessions, tantamount to a last will and testament. In addition, when a parent instructs a child as to matters of burial, these instructions are considered obligatory, unless the request requires a child to violate Jewish law.

But there are certain directives that, while not legally mandated under Jewish law, are morally expected because they are intended to enhance the well-being of the child. For example, when a dying parent instructs a child not to cut off relations with other family members or tells him to avoid drinking excessively, Jewish law intends for that child to honor his or her parent’s wishes, because they are intended for the benefit of the child. This is especially true when a parent’s wishes are to ensure shalom bayit, or peace in the home.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the latter type of instructions is that they generally encompass or express the values that parents hope will live on in their children and grandchildren. The idea that values should be passed on to future generations has been formally recognized in Judaism through a lovely tradition called an “ethical will.”

An ethical will is an informal, written document in which a parent bequests, not property or assets, but wisdom, values and spiritual understanding. It permits a parent to transmit a spiritual legacy to his or her children through stories, examples and meaningful life lessons in the hope that they will embrace those values in their own lives. It is meant to inspire, enlighten and encourage but never to punish, harass, blame or control a child “from the grave.”

There are no formal requirements for writing an ethical will. You only need the desire to share your values and some quiet time to record them. An ethical will can be written, typed or, if a person is no longer able to write, recorded on a tape recorder. It can be written all at once or in segments, using life-cycle events, such as bar mitzvahs, graduations, weddings and the birth of a child, as a time of reflection and composition.

In some instances, it is appropriate to write a single ethical will for the entire family, but in others, it may be wiser to write separate wills for each child. And, since an ethical will can be given to a child at any time during his or her life, a parent can decide when it will be most meaningful for the child to receive it.

An ethical will is like a window to the soul: It provides a wonderful opportunity to share with our families the ideas, events, people and experiences that have shaped our lives and been important to us. It is a gift — both to ourselves and to our families — if we take the time to write one.

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at alederman@cox.net.

A Building of Wisdom


How do we build a House of God? How do we achieve the spiritual mandate that God placed upon the community when asking of them to build the Mishkan, the dwelling place of God? Anybody who serves a community as its spiritual leader understands that the nature of my question has little to do with the architectural plans of the building, rather it addresses the religious and spiritual atmosphere we are challenged to create within the four walls that we call our “House of God.”

As a spiritual leader who for the past 15 years has served a community blessed with a splendid building, I have learned and continue to understand that edifices are meaningless as Houses of God unless we strive to create an atmosphere inside that befits God’s presence. As much as this issue challenges me within my own four walls, a recent long walk into another community taught me how — and how not to — build a House of God.

A few weeks ago on Shabbat afternoon, my two children and I walked from Westwood to my kids’ Jewish youth group (approximately an hour walk). Every two weeks my kids attend the group, which meets in a school, and it was my turn to walk them there. Upon arrival, we joined the youth group for Mincha. When we finished praying, the kids started their activity, and I walked to the synagogue across the street from the school. I walked into the first room, where the congregants were having Seudah Shelishit while listening to their rabbi speak. I passed on the food, but decided to listen to the rabbi.

He told the biblical story of the prophet Elijah meeting a man named Obadiah. When the two met for the first time, Obadiah knew who Elijah was, but Elijah did not know Obadiah, nor (according to the rabbi) did he even recognize Obadiah as being a member of the Jewish people.

“How is it that Elijah could not see that Obadiah was a Jew?” the rabbi asked.

After all, Obadiah was destined to become one of the prophets of Israel. The rabbi taught that according to the Talmud, Obadiah was a convert from the Edomite nation, and therefore, according to the rabbi, “the pigmentation of his skin was not that of a Jew,” thus explaining why Elijah couldn’t have possibly recognized Obadiah as being “one of his own.” The rabbi then proceeded to share a story of when he and some of his friends had rumbled on a New York City subway with a group of African Americans who claimed to be the “true Hebrews.” The rumble was intense, and the rabbi shared with us that “we all came away bruised, but of course the bruises showed up more clearly on my skin — the pigmentation of a Jew — than it did on theirs.”

Infuriated by this blatant expression of racism, I got up and walked out. I couldn’t believe that I had walked into what I thought was a House of God and walked out feeling angry and spiritually empty.

After Shabbat, my kids and I returned to the school, where a Saturday night parent-student study program took place. I sat with my kids to study Mishnah, and I looked around at a room filled with beautiful people, all engaged in Torah study. There were people from Yemen, Ethiopia, Libya, Morocco, Iran, India, Iraq, Poland, Russia, Hungary, Israel and America — all with their different pigmentations — gathered as Jews to study Torah with their kids. As opposed to the building across the street, I now felt that I was truly in a “Mishkan,” a dwelling place of God. I could feel God’s presence everywhere. I saw the radiance of God’s light shining on each and every face — black, white, brown or otherwise, because God’s light does not discriminate based on pigmentation.

Racism cannot dwell in the House of God, nor can racists build a true House of God. It is for this reason that when God chose an architect to build His own house, He called upon Bezalel, a man whose pigmentation the Torah does not describe, instead telling us that he was endowed with chochmat ha’lev — wisdom of the heart. It takes wisdom — and heart — to bring God into the building.

Daniel Bouskila is the rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

To Hear or Not to Hear


If your life could change in a moment, what would you want it to be?

Most of us quickly consider what we’d want from the world or
from another person: more love, more money, more respect, more health, more learning, more time.

Now, instead of changing factors outside of your life, think about your own character. What would you change about yourself?

Having a clear answer to that question helps define a serious Jew. When we study the expanse and depths of Jewish moral literature, we see that its words are reaching out to us to transform us.

Jews who take the tradition seriously allow and invite its wisdom to reach into and transform us. We can live with greater truth and less falsehood, with greater compassion and patience and less anger, with greater perspective and less “judgmentalism,” with greater wisdom and less small-mindedness.

Here, of course, is the problem with life-changing wisdom that comes from a tradition, or from any source. Unless you want to change, unless you can clearly detect the ways in which you need to transform yourself, you will experience such wisdom directed at you as misaddressed, mistaken and misconceived.

How many of us can remember cogent and timely advice given to us, but we could not understand how crucial it was for us at the time? How many of us have given advice to another out of true love and concern, and seen our advice misunderstood or ignored? We need to be spiritually and morally ready, it seems, to hear the truths we need to hear.

Back in Torah portion Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35), the Israelites were not ready to hear. When Moshe came down from Mount Sinai, the Israelites were cavorting with the molten calf. If we understand this psychologically and archetypically, this cavorting with the calf was a way of not listening, of making ourselves too busy to attend to the truth that was presented to us.

The Holy One has redeemed us from slavery; not just political oppression, the rabbis remind us, but also from a spiritual death. We were steeped in sin. I think of cultures and subcultures today that have gone bad, of nations and neighborhoods where basic human values are forgotten. I think of individuals I have known, wracked by anger, envy, resentment or fear, taken far from the center of their being.
The Holy One addresses us, calling us to lives of nobility, but we don’t hear; a “not hearing” that continues in each of us at one time or another.

And then there are moments when we do hear. This week’s parsha, Vayakhel-Pekudey, is such a moment. After the disaster of the molten calf incident, Moshe provides forgiveness from God for the people. He ascends Mount Sinai and receives another set of tablets, engraved with words that evoke the wisdom of the divine implanted in each person’s heart.

This time, we don’t shut out those words that evoke us into full being. In this week’s parsha, we find the people of Israel donating of their wealth — not to an idol that helps mute the divine, but rather to building a sanctuary that will keep the divine word alive in their midst.

That sanctuary we built in the desert thousands of years ago seems to be the key. There are words in our tradition that can alert each of us to full consciousness — a different word for you, a different word for me. What makes us fellow Jews — Jews in fellowship with one another — is that we listen to the same tradition together, we study together, we work together to keep each other awake.

We must build sanctuaries — communities of learning and devotion, fellowship and service — in which this holy wisdom is preserved and lived out. The Hebrew word root of the name of our parsha, “Vayakhel” also gives us the word kehilla, which means congregation or community.

From a Jewish perspective, from the wisdom of our parsha, these must be communities of meaning, where we are taught how to change our lives, where we are given a vision of what our lives could be become. Our communities can be places where the divine word given to each of us is heard and lived, lifting us to the lives to which God is calling us all.

Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah congregation, as well as provost and professor of liturgy and mysticism at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

Humbling Wisdom


A number of years ago I had to fly from Los Angeles to Cleveland, with a stop in St. Louis. The plane was supposed to leave at 8:45 a.m. and arrive in Cleveland in the
late afternoon. But due to a mechanical problem our flight didn’t leave LAX until 1:30 p.m., which put our Cleveland arrival at midnight on the first night of Chanukah.

As I stood on the very long line to change our tickets for the connecting flights, the fellow ahead of me dressed like Crocodile Dundee turned around, looked at me and said in a deep Midwestern accent, “Hi, my name is John, and boy are you in trouble.”

What a way to introduce oneself, I thought. He continued, “You are going to be arriving after sunset.”

At first I had no idea what he meant. Looking at my watch, I replied, “The way things are going it might even be tomorrow morning.”

“So what are you going to do?” he asked.

“Sleep,” I answered.

“No, I mean what are you going to do about lighting candles?” he said. “Isn’t tonight the first night of Chanukah?”

I thought for a moment that maybe “John” was a real Torah scholar who was raising a legal question about how late one can light Chanukah candles.

Although most authorities agree that one can kindle the menorah as long as a minimum of two people are still awake and can see the lights, perhaps he was referring to the opinion that you can kindle only if people are still walking outside.

But then looking again at him, I said to myself, “This fellow probably isn’t even Jewish let alone knowledgeable about halacha.”

Propelled by curiosity, I asked, “By the way are you Jewish?”

“Not at all,” he answered. “I was born Presbyterian, and now I am a Baptist. Maybe one day I will become Jewish. What do you think of that?”

Deciding it would be best not to answer, I acted Jewish and responded with a totally different question: “How do you know so much about Judaism and Chanukah?”

With total seriousness he said, “You can’t claim to be a religious Christian without knowing Judaism. All religious wisdom starts with Judaism.”

The truth is that we can find an elementary concept of wisdom in this week’s Torah portion.

Pharaoh recognizes Joseph’s uncanny ability to correctly interpret his dreams.

Almost in awe of the profound knowledge that Joseph reveals, the Egyptian monarch declares: “After God has informed you of all this, there is no one so understanding and wise as you” (Genesis 41:39).

Joseph is the first man in the Bible to be called “wise.” But what, asks 20th century biblical commentator Benno Jacob, was so special about Joseph’s wisdom that “all the wizards of Egypt and all its wise men” didn’t possess? The answer, he says, is obvious from the text: “Joseph’s wisdom defeated that of the Egyptians because it emanated from God; it was wisdom that led directly from God to him, and is fundamentally identical with fear of God…. It presents the genuinely Jewish combination of brains and heart.”

True wisdom, Benno Jacob argues, recognizes first that there is a God, and second that He is the source of all our talents and wisdom. There is no room for the haughty who think they are to be respected and worshipped because of their brains or special talents. Humility is the only possible response for men, for all emanates from God.

I remember that in my first position as rabbi when I was a young rookie just out of rabbinic school, one congregant publicly criticized me to the other members because I quoted my rabbinic teachers whenever I had to decide a question of Jewish law. This member opposed me by questioning, “Doesn’t Muskin have any opinions of his own?”

When I was informed of this criticism I was asked for a response. I replied with humor, “I don’t know, I will have to ask my teachers.”

After the laughing stopped I answered that I was actually honored by the comment. The truth is that as soon as we think we know all the answers and we do not need to turn to those with more knowledge and experience, we have demonstrated our ultimate ignorance.

Joseph taught us that our knowledge all comes from God in the first place, and if we have an opinion it better be His.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Tri-ing to raise funds for Israel; gems of wisdom for 5767


Tri-ing to Raise Funds for Israel
 
Forever diffusing the image of schlubby Orthodox slackers who don’t see much of the sun, six members of congregation B’nai David-Judea completed the Los Angeles Triathlon Sept. 10, and raised $8,000 for Israel in the process.Noam Drazin, Ivan Wolkind, David Mankowitz, Sheldon Kasdan, J.J. Wernick and Yigal Newman successfully completed the race at the Olympic level, which includes a .9-mile ocean swim, a 24-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run.
 
But this summer, their rigorous training schedule — a 5 a.m. bike ride and run on Sundays, a 6 a.m. ocean swim twice a week — began to feel frivolous as bombs fell on Israel.
 
“We realized that while we were spending our time running, biking and swimming, many people in Israel were fleeing their homes and fearing for their lives,” said Wernick.
 
Newman, an Israeli, has a brother who was called to Lebanon as a reservist in the Israeli army.
 
The group sent e-mails to family and friends, asking them to donate on their behalf to Amit’s Israel Emergency fund, a favorite charity of Wernick’s recently deceased mother.
 
The group hopes to bring the total up to $10,000 with post-event fundraising, and they plan to continue training.
 
“We started with yuppies and made them into guppies,” said the team’s coach, Olympian Clay Evans. “These guys came to us barely able to swim 100 meters last year and are now right up there in the middle of the pack.”
 
To donate, or for information, visit www.amitchildren.org.
 
— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor
 
Gems of Wisdom for 5767
 
“I learned in bodybuilding that the best way to gain strength was to take my muscles to their absolute limit — to the point of failure — where they were so out of energy that they couldn’t even lift a small amount of weight. Then, after a few day’s rest, they would not only be ready to lift again, but they were now bigger, stronger and able to lift more than ever before,” writes Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on the new High Holiday Web site, “Jewels of Elul” (www.craignco.com/jewels.php). Craig Taubman started the project last year to provide inspirational stories — one for every day of the month of Elul, the last month on the Hebrew calendar, to prepare for the High Holidays.
 
The governor wrote his under the heading “Pushing The Limits,” and it continues: “Just like in bodybuilding, failure is also a necessary experience for growth in our own lives, for if we’re never tested to our limits, how will we know how strong we really are? How will we ever grow?”
 
Taubman, a musician, entertainer and music producer of Craig n’ Co., had been searching for inspiration last year, “and I wanted to find it in the time it takes to brew a pot of coffee,” he said. So he gathered stories from community leaders, teachers, artists and thinkers.
 
“We asked people to write on a deceptively simple theme, ‘What I have learned thus far…,'” Taubman said of the 29 essays.
 
Contributors to this year’s anthology include a young Jewish soldier fighting in Iraq; a recovering drug addict; a Muslim educator; and the producer of Will & Grace, David Kohan.
 
“My mother tried to instill in me an ethos of toughness and self-respect through the oft-repeated aphorism, ‘Never let anybody spit in your kasha.'” Kohan writes. “I have taken those words to heart and have never, not once, served kasha.”
 
“My father showed me by example that a deeply contented life can be had if lived by the abiding principles of kindness, graciousness, respect for the dignity of others, and major denial of all things scary and bad,” he continued. “I, myself, have concluded thus far that life is glorious and magnificent beyond description, and the notion that we live this life fully aware of its inevitable end is fundamentally a comic one. Laughter, therefore, seems the most appropriate response to that Universal Joke.”
 
Most of the jewels are not as funny as Kohan’s. Consider “Echoes for Eternity,” by Max S. Phillips, a 21-year-old Specialist (E-4) deployed in Iraq: “Strength and honor…this world and the next. So on good days, I really do know that my life and mission make a difference for my country and my world. And on the bad days when I have been awake for 24 straight hours and the temperature in the Humvee is over 140, I still know that the guys in my truck are counting on me and counting on the way we work together and rely on each other, despite all the ‘dissing.’
 
“Before I left, my Abba and I were considering getting matching tattoos (I know, not very Jewish). Mitzpah Genesis 31:49 says: ‘For he (Jacob) said, “The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another.”‘ We didn’t need to get the tattoos on our wrists, because the words were in our hearts.
 
“HaShem is watching over us. We are together in this world. My life is creating its own echoes for the next.”
 
The Jewels, which are sponsored by Mt. Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries, can also be ordered online as gifts.
 
— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Perfectly Imperfect


Jewish kids all get A’s. It’s a fact. They’re all well above average. Jewish kids always star in the show, play first violin in the orchestra, win the debate championship. This week the last of the college acceptance letters went out. They all got into Stanford, Berkeley and Brown. Their admissions process began years ago when they stood out in the city’s best nursery programs, excelled in the top elementary schools and shined in the most demanding high schools. And now they will attend the finest colleges. At every stage they were relentlessly tested, measured, evaluated and graded. They wear their scores and grades like a merit badge. My nephew has a 5.2 grade average — on a 4-point scale.

But what happens when they don’t excel? Are we still proud of them? Is there room in the Jewish family for the average or the not-quite-average child? Is there place for C’s and D’s and even F’s? Is there love and acceptance for the child who can’t fulfill our dreams of Harvard? My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, once observed that we Jews practice a particularly cruel form of child abuse. It’s called disappointment.

I worry about children who are told they must get every answer correct. I worry about kids told there’s no room for second best. I worry about the child who must always be the star. If we demand success each time, and leave no room for failure, our children’s dreams will shrink to fit their certainties. They will play it safe and never try too hard, never reach too far, never put too much of themselves into any pursuit. It is entirely possible to exalt the mind while crushing the soul.

If it doesn’t break us, failure can be life’s greatest teacher. What can we learn from failure? That we can start again. That we can ask for help. That we can be forgiven. What does failure teach? That we are limited, finite, fallible, vulnerable, but still worthy of love. Do we really want doctors, lawyers and leaders who only got As in school, and never failed at anything? Do we really expect care or justice or leadership from people who never learned to recognize and confess their own mistakes? From people who never experienced failure as a beginning and not an end? Does a 5.2 grade average give us people of healing, compassion and wisdom?

This week’s Torah portion describes the rites of priestly expiation. Each year on Yom Kippur, the holy place, the priests and, finally, the entire people were cleansed of sin. Arcane and intricate, this rite of expiation is a wonderful gift. Expiation bespeaks a unique kind of divine love. Despite all the reverence and precision of the priests and the Levites in following God’s laws of holiness, the Torah recognizes that the altar and the shrine are subject to inevitable mistakes. Failure finds its way into all human endeavors. But God doesn’t withdraw when we err or when we fail. God offers a process of repair and renewal and return.

It is no accident that this Torah reading is often paired with the following one, as it is this year. Having recognized and wrestled with our imperfection, we are ready to hear the Torah’s most stirring announcement: Kedoshim ti-hiyu ki kadosh ani (You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy) (Leviticus 19:2). God doesn’t ask for high SAT scores or Ivy League degrees. God asks for kedushah, holiness. Kedushah is a unique quality. It includes ethics and ritual and communal loyalty, and yet is broader. Kedoshim tihiyu is God’s invitation to return to the oneness, wholeness and peace of Eden, one act at a time. The pursuit of kedusha is the way we bond ourselves to God, to Creation and to one another. Kedoshim tihiyu demands of us to be godly and care for the world as God does.

The parent proudly relates to me the list of distinguished colleges his kid got into. And I nod and smile and share his nachas. But every now and again a parent will come and tell me, not of a kid’s scores and grades and acceptance letters, but of acts of compassion, generosity and depth. Those moments bring tears of joy.

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.

 

The Waiting Game


If dating was a simple game, we’d all travel effortless paths to love, and we’d enjoy the dating process so thoroughly as to rush toward it with glee it when it’s time. But years of falling into the mosh pit with no one to catch us leaves us jumpy and tentative at best, and although I hate to admit it, I have absolutely fallen into this watchful and wary category.

Yet I have always loved dating. I love getting to know someone new — the chat, the laughter, the best behavior, the witticisms. And the accoutrements have always thrilled me in their deliciousness: the high heels and cocktail dresses, the masculine gallantry, the lingering eye contact, the exquisite restaurants and the luscious new territory of first kisses.

Dating, in the first few years after my divorce, was rather effortless. I’d meet men everywhere — a class, a hiking trail, the library, a party. It seemed that there were available men all over the place, and I just had to be open and friendly to avail myself of a great dating life. And these were nice men. Fun. Lively. Men with manners and senses of humor who knew how to choose a good restaurant and knew how to kiss.

But suddenly all of that has gotten serious. I’m “ready,” as we like to say these days, so dating has taken on a purpose, and now somehow it seems ridiculously challenging just to get to the first date.

Case in point: I expressed my interest to a man I had a professional relationship with. His career didn’t offer him the luxury of doing so (given what he does and what I was affiliated with him for), and after some months of sensing the hey-we-like-each-other vibe, I finally got up all my courage and asked him if he was interested. He said yes, but asked that we wait until there were no professional ties of any kind. Good. Great. A man with strong ethics. I like that. We smiled at each other, and I said I’d wait.

No intrigue occurred between that day and the day of our last professional
exchange, no ethical breaches at all. Just delight and kindness. So when the
exciting day finally came (four months later), when God knows it was
absolutely time to show up with something (if not just a clear explanation),
my ethics boy was suddenly stricken by a wave of fear that he may still be
breeching some code here, and although he said he’d call, he hasn’t.

Disappointed? You could say that. Hugely disappointed. But beyond the particular boy-girl stuff with this man, my dissatisfaction is rooted in the narrowness of my current dating path. I mean, where has all the fun gone? Where’s the delightful electricity of just meeting someone and having those terrific sensations that read, “Hey! You’re great. I’d really like to go out with you,” and then a week or two later, I’m dressing up and we’re heading out. Why has it become a character-development exercise to just get to the first damned date?

These days I’m really trying. I’m not just letting whatever happens happen. I’m not falling into things, or happening into love, or “hanging out.” In fact, I’m not dating at all unless I’m truly interested. I’m telling the truth about what I really want, about what works for me in terms of heart, energy, humor, willingness and easy-going grace.

In the lesson-learning category, I can certainly cite my lack of wisdom, waiting for a man without assurance. But God knows there’s never any assurance where dating is concerned, and that seems to be the point of all this nonsense about mating anyway: its uncertainty is part of its allure. Read “Jane Eyre” or any Jane Austen novel if you need proof on that one. The obstacles only serve to make us fall harder and more passionately when we finally do give it up for true love.

But — somebody help me here — how long does it have to take? How many lessons are required before actually attaining something? Are we turning into an entire generation of lesson-learners with no capacity to actually live in love? Do we even remember what it was like to fall in love without self-invented obstacles blocking our paths?

“The path gets narrower,” my older, wiser girlfriend said to me when I said I was ready for the real thing. “Most times, it’ll be over before it starts. You won’t waste time anymore.”

Although she’s right, I have to admit that I miss the ease of meeting someone without so much on it. Does finding genuine companionship have to be such a job?

What I’m coming to is that “trying” just doesn’t seem to work. Trying is efforting, and I honestly don’t believe that dating should be this much effort at the outset. I want joy, I want delight and I want to fall into the deliciousness of newness, sweet meetings and exquisite anticipation. I don’t want angst before I’ve even donned a pair of stockings for him.

So enough already. Ask me if I’ll wait again? No way. Not a chance. You’re available or you’re not. No tests, no hurdles — no more. Life’s too short to make this big of a deal out of one date. I’ve done my time in the lesson-learning arena. I’m stamping out hope for beautifully blocked men who just can’t seem to get there.

The waiting game, for me, is officially over.

JoAnneh Nagler is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She writes articles, philanthropic proposals and has recently been at work on Fox’s telenovellas “Table for Three” and “Fashion House.” Her newly completed folk-pop CD “I Burn” is online at

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.

 

Bird’s-Eye View


 

One day, Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar was riding his donkey along the coastal road. He was enjoying the beautiful scenery and reviewing in his mind the wonderful study session he had with his rabbi at Migdal Eder, when he encountered a man who was extremely ugly.

“How ugly you are,” said the startled rabbi. “Are all the people in your city as ugly as you are?”

The man responded calmly, “What can I say? Go to the artisan who crafted me and tell him that his handiwork is ugly.”

Upon hearing that, Ben Elazar realized that he had gravely sinned and begged the man to forgive him. But the man refused to forgive him until Ben Elazar spoke to the Creator. The rabbi ran after the man a long way until they came to a town. The town’s people called out: “Welcome, rabbi.”

The man asked the people, “Whom are you calling rabbi?”

The people pointed to Ben Elazar.

“If this is a rabbi,” said the man, “let there be no more rabbis among the Jews.”

Eventually the man forgave the rabbi after a public apology, and Ben Elazar had learned a humbling lesson.

I have always understood the reply of the man as one of acceptance: “This is who I am, this is how God created me, I am not as lucky as you, but you have to accept me.”

But today I read his words from a totally different point of view.

He is not talking with self-pity but with pride, and he does not regard the rabbi as better, wiser or luckier. The man Ben Elazar encountered drew upon the wisdom of Job who said, in reference to the weak and the poor: “Did not He who made me in my mother’s belly make him? Did not One form us both in the womb?”

What the man was telling Ben Elazar was that they were equals, that they were peers and that the same Creator who created the rabbi in his image also created also the “ugly” man. So who is a truer image of God?

The message is a universal one and it is directed to all mankind. How much better would the world be if we looked at people and thought first of what we have in common with us instead of analyzing how they differ from and are therefore inferior to us?

We are human beings, created in the image of God; we talk and communicate, smile and cry, laugh and get depressed. We feel pity at the sight of a helpless animal and frustration when we can do nothing to help. When we realize how similar we are, the road is open for understanding and for appreciating the unique gifts and talents of every human being.

In this week’s parsha, we read about the purification process of the leper. According to the rabbis, the sin of the leper is the sin of judging the fallacies of others and making them known to all, and most of us, like Ben Elazar, are guilty of engaging in this kind of judgment. The leper is rejected and alienated in order for him to experience, even for a short while, the pain he afflicted upon others by judging and rejecting them. When his process of purification is completed, the Torah commands that “the priest shall order two live clean birds … to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered … and he shall take the live bird … and dip … in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered … and he shall set the live bird free in the open country.”

This ceremony is shocking and powerful. The bird is an analogy to the neshama, the soul. The slaughtered bird is the person who was offended by the leper, as our sages have taught us that insulting someone in public is tantamount to murder, and the same follows for gossip and calumny.

The live bird, representing the leper, is dipped in the blood to signify that he is stained by that sin. It is sent free in the open country to tell the leper that on one hand he is now cleansed and free to join the community, but that on the other hand he should always remember his past actions and avoid such behavior in the future. He is also told that once he spread the word, it is very difficult to retrieve it and undo the damage, since it is like a bird that can fly freely everywhere.

Let, then, the clean bird of our soul fly free and unstained in the open country, and let it see, from a bird’s-eye view, only the good and positive in our fellow human beings.

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation.

 

Charmed Blessings


 

First, there was the red string kabbalah bracelet popularized by Madonna; then, the yellow “LIVESTRONG” wristband supporting the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Now, there are blessing rings, which may just become the next national craze in message-imbued jewelry. (If they do, you heard it here first, folks.)

The round silver discs, about the diameter of a quarter, come in 32 different styles, each featuring a cutout design and message. There are blessing rings for peace, healing, journeys, wisdom and serenity. Others recognize teachers, mothers, sisters or pets. Along with the “To Life” charm with a Star of David cut-out, there are “Faith” (with a cross cutout), “Namaste” (with a dove cut-out) and “Angel.”

Creators Howard and Whitney Schwartz of the Whitney Collection envisioned the charms being worn on a necklace, slipped on a key ring or kept in a pocket. Customers, however, have come up with many additional uses for the rings, such as decorating invitations, gifts and floral bouquets; hanging them as backpack zipper pulls, and adorning pet collars. Some, such as “Family” and “Thinking of You,” have been sent to soldiers serving in Iraq.

“‘Peace,’ ‘Love,’ ‘Friendship’ and ‘Healing’ are by far the four most popular blessing rings we have,” Howard Schwartz said. “I think it’s related to what’s going on in our society and around the world.”

This month, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., will begin selling two customized tokens designed by the Woodland Hills-based couple. One will feature a candle cutout with the words “Remember” and “Never Again.” The second, with a compass cutout, will read, “Equality, Justice and Diversity.” The museum will also carry the “To Life” charm.

Schwartz said he was humbled to realize that with the museum’s charms, people all over the world would use his product to commemorate those who lost lives in the Holocaust.

“There’s no greater honor than to have that recognition,” he said.

For retail locations or more information, visit www.blessingrings.com.

 

How Not to Date


Look, I’m not going to tell you how to find “the one,” how
to radiate that “I’m available” light, how to register for wine tasting
seminars and join networking groups.

I have no dating advice. None. I won’t suggest clever phrasing
for your personal ad or how to choose a photo to post on JDate. I’m not an
expert on any of these things, but without bragging, I will admit I’m truly
excellent at one thing: how not to date. I’m aware this skill won’t get me a
book deal or a segment on “Good Morning America.” But it would be selfish of me
not to share the wisdom I’ve garnered in the past year of cutting myself off
from all romantic possibilities. With a subtle yet unswerving dedication, I’ve
raised being single to an art. Just in case you’re interested — say you’ve been
hurt, maybe you haven’t dealt with anger at one or both of your parents,
perhaps you just fear intimacy — I’m here for you.

If you’re horrified by the image of yourself huddled in the
corner of some singles event, clutching a plastic cup full of cheap Merlot,
staring at the “Hello, my name is Dave” sticker on the pressed lapel of a
dentist from Canoga Park, listen up girls.

Let’s start with the small stuff. First, you really want to
make sure your daily life doesn’t bring you in contact with any new single men.
Avoid gender-neutral coffee shops in favor of places that serve CarboLite and
sell bags of Pirate’s Booty. Frozen yogurt is your friend. It has magical
men-repellent powers that I could never explain.

If you must go to the gym, steer clear of the weight room
and instead opt for classes heavy in choreography. Look for names like Latin
Grooves, Booty Ballet, Abs Abs Abs and Cardio Funk Attack. At this point in
American culture, yoga is no longer safe. I repeat, yoga is strictly off-limits
— straight men have found it and they know you’re in there with your low-slung
sweats and no bra. If you must go to yoga, let’s say you just can’t make it to
Burn & Grind, get there late, leave early and don’t look around. Keep your
hair dirty and your eyes on your mat.

The evenings become a little more complicated. If you crave
male attention, maintain a coterie of ex-boyfriends with whom you can go to the
movies from time to time. You will look and feel “taken.”

Eschew invitations to parties in favor of dinner with
married girlfriends. Better yet, make sure you have several married friends
with newborn babies you can visit on Saturday nights.

At this point, the only attractive single men you will meet
are deliverymen: the mail man, the pizza guy, whatnot. Without being rude, you
want to adhere to a strict sign-and-slam policy.

When friends and family offer to fix you up with their
“incredibly attractive neighbor they can’t believe is still single” — believe
it. With the understanding that these offers come from a place of true
generosity, you must reject them in such a way that no more fix-ups come along.
Sometimes a nonverbal response is best. What I do, but please feel free to
improvise here, is wince, let my chest cave in until the flow of air is
constricted and look around at the ceiling. I allow this to go on for an
uncomfortable amount of time before mumbling a non sequitur such as: “Does
anyone really know why Reagonomics failed?”

All of the above may be obvious, and I owe you more than
that.

The need for emotional connection is a cunning foe. Keep it
in check by having some sort of e-mail/phone relationship with someone totally
inappropriate for you who lives far away. What’s working for me right now is a
25-year-old man-child who lives in New York City. You can freestyle here, as
long as you make sure that some part of your soul is tethered to a person who
will never, ever be a real boyfriend.

You may wonder how I put these principles together,
airtight, succinct, elegant. Like most great discoveries, it was accidental.
One day there was moldy cheese, next thing I knew: alone-a-cillin. The turning
point came when, after resisting it for years, I actually peeked at an Internet
dating site. I saw pixilated despair, a need so plain and terrible that I
wanted to slam the door on it like a particularly fetching FedEx guy. It was a
scary discovery. Necessity may be the mother of invention, but fear is its
abusive foster parent.

True wanting, openness, availability, those are scary
things. Those take courage. I however, take a chocolate-vanilla swirl with
sprinkles.

Look, you can put yourself out there, I’m not saying it’s a
bad idea. However, this is just a slice of what I’ve learned about how not to
do so. Because when chance comes, he ain’t serving frozen yogurt. 

Teresa Strasser can be seen Saturdays at noon and 10 p.m. on
The Learning Channel’s “While You Were Out” and is on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.

Five Elements of a Fairy-Tale Marriage


“The Committed Marriage” by Esther Jungreis (Harper San
Francisco, $23.95).

At first glance, the title of Esther Jungreis’ new book,
“The Committed Marriage,” seems a bit redundant. After all, isn’t commitment
the whole point of getting married?

But what Jungreis explains is that, too often, husbands and
wives end up living separate lives in the same house — and even those marriages
that begin on the best footing as joint ventures often lose their way.
“Marriage” addresses a variety of challenges along the continuum of marriage,
from what to look for in a prospective partner to navigating a marriage at
midlife and beyond.

Jungreis’ new release is meant to build on her 1998 book,
“The Committed Life,” in which she discusses how making a commitment to a Torah-based
lifestyle can help people become healthy, wealthy and wise. In some ways,
“Marriage” is an improvement on the earlier work; it is better organized with
stand-alone chapters.

The structure of the book is simple: using as a framework
the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who sent his five most devoted
disciples out into the world to discover the important qualities for a good
life, Jungreis examines how each of these qualities together comprise a good
marriage. Each section addresses a different element the disciples found
essential: to have a good eye, to be a good friend, to be a good neighbor, to
develop the ability to project the consequences of one’s actions and to have a
good heart. Jungreis then relates the element to couples she has counseled.

Among the advice she imparts are:

On being friends in marriage: “The Hebrew term for
‘loving, kind friends’ is re’im v’ahuvim. The word rei’m is derived from the
Hebrew ro’eh, which means shepherd. The relationship of husbands and wives
should be that of shepherds … always keeping a loving, watchful eye on the
other.”

On acquiring “a good heart”: “There are myriad little acts
of chesed [lovingkindness] that can go a long way to generate a good heart and
give us our much-sought-after happiness. You can send an e-mail composed of
just three words: I love you. Make a point of smiling at your mate … as you
pass her chair, you lovingly touch her shoulder, just to let her know you care.
These little gestures require no expenditure, no special energy, but they can
change your life.”

For marriages gone awry, Jungreis tells how Moses dealt
with Korach, a cousin who fomented rebellion against him: “Instead of arguing,
Moses simply said, ‘Morning — wait until morning and we’ll settle it then.’
When troubled couples consult me and one of the spouses is bent upon divorce, I
have often succeeded in forestalling disaster simply by prevailing upon them to
wait until morning. There is always the hope that, if we can buy some more
time, they will perceive their folly and reconsider their decision.”

Despite her sometimes long-winded tales, Jungreis’ ability
to weave Torah and talmudic commentary into each chapter offsets many flaws.
One chapter in particular, “Communicating Without Hurting,” where Jungreis
teaches an especially contentious couple how to talk to each other in more
positive ways, should be required reading for every newlywed.

Jungreis was married to her third cousin, Rabbi Meshulem HaLevi
Jungreis for 40 years, and throughout the book describes their relationship in
almost fairy-tale terms. It can be difficult to believe in marriage in such a
wholehearted way, especially when today’s world often seems to offer no such
guarantees.

But maybe it can’t hurt for even those predestined pairs to
have someone like Jungreis in their corner. And for anyone seeking some
old-fashioned wisdom about love, this book may yet have you believing in the
possibility of your own fairy-tale marriage.

Silence on Israel Is Not Golden


For Avi Davis, truth is a blazing light threatening to blind the unprepared.

There are no moderating factors or gradations, just a division between those who can handle its assault and those who can’t.

In contrast to Davis’ unitary absolutism, traditional Jewish wisdom tends to frame things in twos and threes. So we read in Pirke Avot 1:18, the teaching of Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, that “the world is established on three principles: truth, justice and peace.”

I write as one of those who formulated and then signed “the most recent lachrymose statement on the back page of The Jewish Journal” that draws Davis’ ire. For my colleagues and me, the truth that we live in the Diaspora, rather than Israel, must be balanced by the transnational demand to pursue justice and peace.

Feeling that demand, we did indeed “buy advertising space” in The Jewish Journal — not to weep and wail, but to share our concerns with others in a responsible public way. All of us have spent considerable time, if not lived for some years, in Israel.

I myself paid Israeli taxes, took part in neighborhood patrols and spent hours in my sealed bedroom during the Gulf War. I know the difference between living there and here.

But surely the State of Israel belongs not only to those who live within its borders. This entity that was envisioned, prayed and worked for by generations of our people must exist as, in some sense, the state of the Jewish people. Even Israeli citizens will need to fly home to vote on Jan. 28. But certainly, other ways of joining the national debate are open to Jews abroad who care deeply about “Hatikvah,” the 2,000-year-old hope that is Israel.

The ad titled “One Community, Many Voices” represented one such way. It sketched what we see as the essential ingredients for peace with justice: the end of occupation, withdrawal from settlements and secure borders for both peoples. But our main assertion is captured in our name, which insists that Klal Yisrael (the unity of the Jewish people) is strengthened, rather than undermined, by vigorous debate about pivotal matters.

In our view, having a free and open exchange of ideas makes it more likely that new understandings will emerge. It is precisely our Jewish willingness to challenge even close-to-the-bone sacred truths that wins the respect of outsiders, while making our community deeply resilient, even in hard times.

Davis tells us that his Zionist education traced a strong, red line around criticizing Israel from abroad. As the Oslo process went forward, he bit his tongue rather than express bitter opposition to policies pursued by the democratically elected government of Israel.

What shall we say about such restraint? Is it really admirable? Don’t journalists, public leaders and even individuals in democratic countries engage in a constant process of evaluating the actions of other governments, as well as their own? Clearly, the give and take of public opinion plays a role in moderating conflict, both internal and external, around the world.

Without global reaction, a neo-Nazi might still be in office in Austria, and India might well be warring against Pakistan. By what right and moral standard do we exempt Israel from this court of world opinion, and especially from being judged by those who know and care the most — Diaspora Jews?

Those of us who spent our precious time and dollars on the One Community, Many Voices ad have no desire to micromanage Israeli military and governmental operations. We really do know the difference between living here and there, and we also have our individual lines of work as teachers, rabbis and professionals.

What we claim for ourselves is simply the right to participate in a substantive communal discussion about where, in broad terms, Israel is heading. It cannot be that supporting the State of Israel means agreeing with everything that happens or gets planned there. Like good parenting, loving Israel requires asking hard questions, looking far into the future and spotting internal contradictions.

In order for us to do that effectively, we American Jews need to mount serious programs in which substantive knowledge is communicated, a range of views gets expressed and rational questions may be posed. Unfortunately, these are not the sort of programs being presented currently.

Scholars with genuine expertise on the Middle East and Jewish history are passed over in favor of those who encourage distrust of academic learning. Instead of urging college students to take classes in international relations and other fields that would genuinely equip them to understand world events and represent Israel knowledgeably, huge public relations campaigns get organized to teach them and their parents how to “stand with” Israel. Rather than helping people sort out various ideas and options, too many communal leaders and rabbis are yielding their responsibility to a specialized organization with a single point of view.

Davis’ contention that the forums he participates in or attends mostly feature alternative points of view cannot be disputed by someone who has not shadowed him. Others of us have been exposed to speakers whose idea of providing general, “centrist” background has been to criticize everything different from the Sharon government’s current policies. How can it be, one asks, that it is right to denounce the policies and practices of past democratically elected governments of Israel, while unequivocally upholding those of the present one?

I have in my office a hanging scroll purchased in Israel, on which the words of Isaiah 62:1 are written. While they are, of course, open to interpretation and application, I take them as a watchword for conscientious activism. Often, they help me continue holding to account the Israel in which my people’s past and future are so deeply invested.

Rather than Davis remaining silent when he disagrees and speaking up when he agrees with particular Israeli governments and policies, I would want him and others to join “One Community, Many Voices” in continuing conversation under the banner of Isaiah’s words: “For Zion’s sake, I will not be silent; for Jerusalem’s sake, I will not be still.”


Rabbi Susan Laemmle is the dean of religious life at USC.

A Letter to My Sons


Dear Matt and Steve:

Thirty-five years ago, armed with a letter of introduction from one of your grandma’s friends to the vice president of personnel at Time, Inc., I got my first job. As you guys begin your working lives, and I listen to your efforts, dreams and disappointments, my random-access brain has been retrieving words and phrases from our Jewish tradition.

Work is one of the strongest Jewish values. God provides the ultimate example: He worked a six-day week to create the universe. And when the Tabernacle was built, every person contributed according to his skills and talents. The Talmud reminds us that, "No labor, however humble, is dishonoring."

Unfortunately, I cannot give you a list of beneficial business contacts, but I can pass on something of greater value. My job at Time lasted only nine years, but these words of wisdom from the Five Books of Moses and other Jewish sources can help you weather challenges throughout your lives.

1) Show up for life: Remember that every time God called Abraham, Abraham answered, "Hineni — I am here." Say "hineni" to your lives every day, even in the confusing, disappointing and frustrating times.

2) Get into action: Nothing happened at the Sea of Reeds until Nachshon stepped off the bank. It’s not called footwork for nothing. The Children of Israel had to put one foot in front of the other to get from slavery to freedom. In other words, take the next indicated step.

3) Pause: If there seems to be 17 indicated steps, priorities will become clear if you pause. Acting rashly is never a good idea. Look what happened to Moses the one time he lost his cool and struck the rock twice at Meribah. His rashness kept him from leading the Children of Israel into the Promised Land.

4) Be patient:. Anything we do for the first time, even looking for a job, has a learning curve. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said, "A person must be very patient, even with himself." I would modify that to say, especially with oneself.

5) Ask questions: While you’re in that learning curve, don’t be afraid to ask questions, to ask for help. In the Pirke Avot, Hillel warns "A bashful person will never learn." Asking questions is a sign of wisdom, not weakness.

6) Have confidence: "The man who has confidence in himself gains the confidence of others," says a Chasidic maxim. Remember the 12 men sent to reconnoiter the Land of Canaan? Ten of them reported back with fear: "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them, (i.e. the people already living in Canaan)." Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, had confidence that, with God’s help, they would prevail. Ultimately it was they who led the Children of Israel into the Promised Land.

7) Trust the process: Sometimes what we think is the worst thing that could happen turns out to have been a blessing. The story of Joseph is a wonderful example. Joseph reassures his worried brothers after Jacob dies, "Although you intended me harm [by selling him into slavery], God intended it for good so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people."

8) Seek Balance: Don’t spend every waking moment looking for a job. The Pirke Avot says, "Without flour, there is no Torah; without Torah there is no flour. Only labor and learning together produce a purposeful life." And it’s also OK to have a little fun. Kohelet wrote, "Eat your bread with gladness and drink your wine with joy."

9) Live consciously: Even if you are frustrated or disappointed, be aware of the miracles around you every day. God did not speak until Moses turned to look at the burning bush. Messages may come through small, daily marvels.

10) Know for whom you work: The Hebrew word avodah means both work and worship. Offer your efforts and your work to God. Proverbs says, "Commit to the Lord whatever you do and your plans will succeed."

There is a Chasidic saying, "Everyone should carefully observe which way his heart draws him, and then choose that way with all his strength." My prayer for you, as you go through this sometimes-painful life experience, is that you will learn the way your heart draws you, and find work that allows you to be a blessing in the lives of others.

 

With much love,

Your Mom

Singles Seeking More


A TV show taping might mean a lot of things to people in Hollywood, but it doesn’t necessarily scream: "Killer mate-hunting opportunity!"

Yet, that was exactly the goal of the entities behind a recent taping of motivational speaker Rabbi Irwin Kula’s upcoming show "Simple Wisdom" — one of several events that may indicate that Los Angeles’ maturing Jewish singles aren’t satisfied to simply hook up in the bar or club scene.

Perhaps that was evident by virtue of the evening’s host — or rather, "by virtual." The event — a taping of three episodes of "Simple Wisdom" complete with catered mixer breaks filling up the downtime — was sponsored by the Beverly Hills-based Jewish dating service JDate, a division of MatchNet.com. With the rise in the mid-1990s of the Internet as a matchmaking tool, JDate has become one of many online dating services promising to make dating easier in an age when dating is not so easy.

So why was this crowd of 70 singles gathered, of all things, to comprise the studio audience of a show hosted by the president of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning & Leadership?

According to attendees, it’s not enough anymore to meet over drinks at a bar or barbecue. Kula’s advice-dispensing program, for instance, offered a cultural component — TV-friendly sermons peppered lightly with biblical allusions to Ishmael and Isaac, Cain and Abel.

The singles also felt more comfortable in a venue where meeting members of the opposite sex is not the focus, but the byproduct. And savvy matchmakers, such as JDate, are tapping into that idea.

"We are spreading out and reaching for more diverse events," said JDate CFO Natalie Papagni. "We’ve realized that there’s the potential of the JDate community. They want interactive involvement in events, such as this, connecting more on an intellectual level. They appreciate the quality and the opportunity to experience more diverse things."

"The idea is to create an event that’s not typical with an activity at the center of it," added Talia Vanson, JDate’s national events manager. "If you meet someone, it’s an extra."

The suggestion of turning the tapings into a singles’ night rose during a conversation between Vanson and her Santa Monica neighbor, Harvey Lehrer, vice president of Jewish Television Network (JTN), which is producing 13 episodes of "Simple Wisdom" for a spring airing on PBS.

"We thought it would be an ideal audience for these topics," Lehrer said. "We sort of tailored the night to their interests. Obviously they responded. We’ve got a great crowd."

Dan Azaren, an attendee who works in marketing, was certainly glad he came down to hear Kula expound on the episodes’ topics of intimacy, family and — not by coincidence last — sex.

"He comes across as very sincere," said Azaren, 42. "He tries to relate messages in personal terms and break it down into terms we can all understand."

Haleh Houshim, who at 30-something was perhaps the youngest of the attendees, came down to the studio decked out in a conservatively sexy dress and heels. Houshim was drawn to the nature of the event, particularly the offering of Kula’s prescription for good living.

Linda Caplan, a single mom who has recently gotten back into dating, agreed. "It’s a good way to meet someone without having to go out," she said.

Evidently, there are many Jewish singles all over the world who feel that way. JDate’s Web site boasts a membership of about 380,000, with 15,000 joining per month — that figure is broken down to 285,000 in America; 56,000 in Israel; 28,000 in Canada; and 9,600 in the United Kingdom.

"Everybody uses the word ‘intimacy,’" said JTN President Jay Sanderson, who filled the studio bleachers with audience members. "Looking at the turnout tonight, it’s obviously something they yearn for."

But does dating via computers resolve intimacy and other dating issues? Yes and no. Two JDaters who had just met at the studio tapings and fell into an easy rapport were Azaren and Devorah Cohen, 48. Cohen said she uses JDate to supplement her dating.

"I lead a busy life," Cohen said. "It’s hard to meet people in your age group that have the same values."

Viewing the profiles on JDate, she added, cuts to the chase.

"You can go for months without knowing if they even want to be married," Cohen said. "With JDate, you know upfront. You save a lot of time."

"You’re able to screen and access a large group in little time," Azaren agreed. "But when you go out, there are obvious subtleties that you don’t see [in the profiles]."

Like whether or not there’s chemistry or emotional stability.

"You find out about how old they are," Cohen reasoned.

"Theoretically," Azaren responded with a knowing smile.

When bad Things Turns 20


In 1981, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a 150-page book, published with little fanfare, that changed the lives of the more than 4 million people who read it and made its title, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," part of the vernacular.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the 20th anniversary reissue has been flying out of bookstores and Kushner — who’ll speak at the University of Judaism (UJ) Tuesday, Oct. 30 — has been overwhelmed by interview requests from journalists seeking his wisdom about faith when great tragedy strikes.

"Some people give up on the world because it’s not fair," says the 66-year-old author from Natick, MA, whose new book, "Living a Life That Matters: Resolving the Conflict Between Conscience and Success" (Knopf, $22) is number 10 on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. "Some people will say that the fact that so many innocent people died proves that we can’t depend on God." For Kushner, it shows that "we can’t depend on people without God, without a sense of morality…. But we can’t depend on people who misuse God as an excuse for carrying out angry, destructive acts."

In the new preface to "When Bad Things" — which was inspired by the death of Kushner’s adolescent son — the author reflects on the responses to the book he’s received over the last two decades. In particular, he expresses his gratitude to Christian clergy who made the volume a best-seller.

His "Living a Life That Matters" addresses the human need to find significance, emphasizing compassion and generosity over competition. The practical, anecdotal book draws many parallels to the life of the biblical Jacob.

Kushner says he was struck with some of his themes (for example, the idea that when Jacob wrestles with an angel, he’s actually wrestling with his conscience) while studying sources as co-editor of "Etz Hayim," a new Conservative movement Torah commentary (see page 16).

He acknowledges that people sometimes are tempted to compromise on integrity in their drive toward success. "Good people do bad things," he says. "[But] they’re still good people, despite some regrettable human weaknesses."

For information about Kushner’s UJ appearance, call (310) 476-9777, ext. 246. — Sandee Brawarsky, Contributing Writer

What I Have Learned From the Clinton Affair


I have learned from the Clinton affair how unprepared our technologically sophisticated society is to deal with moral issues, and specifically how to transmit moral wisdom to our children.

Parents ask, “What are we to say to our children about the conduct of the most powerful leader of our country and the world?”

I suggest they sit down with their child before an open Bible and ask, “What are we to say about David, the king and psalmist, who was revealed to be a murderer and an adulterer?” Moreover, what are we to say to children about the patriarchs and matriarchs who are revealed as men and women flawed, yet capable of moral heroism and acts of unsurpassed fidelity.

Let them recover the wisdom of Ecclesiastes who observed, “There is no righteous person upon earth who does good and has not sinned.”

The principle reality of the Bible will help them understand that it is foolhardy to expect from any single person or leader, whatever his celebrity and power, to be a model to be emulated. They will then understand the Bible's fear of idolatry, the deification of any man or woman.

The Bible does not compartmentalize its figures into saints or sinners, heroes or villains. It knows that the sinner can have dimensions of moral character. And this is as true of King David as it is of Oskar Schindler.

Further, if we cannot deal with the Clinton affair, it is because we have reduced the complexity of moral character into a matter of sex alone. Character is a multifaceted quality that includes not only sexual attitudes but also projects and programs rooted in compassion for the weaker vessels of society, protection of the persecuted pariahs, and defense of the voiceless.

In the face of bitter partisan acrimony, I note the wisdom of the sages who warned that when the kettle boils over, the boiling water spills over all its sides. No one, “managers” or defenders, emerges from this trial by ordeal unscathed. “If a man spits in the air, it will fall on his face.” Genuine patriotism calls for a transcendent vision of harmony and purpose beyond the parochialism of partisan politics.


Harold M. Schulweis is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Unpacking Our Baggage


My brother called the other day and asked whetherI had noticed how many people are putting things behind them andmoving on.

“Does that mean they have no baggage?” Iasked.

“Well,” he said, “either people have no baggage oran invisible semitrailer is following them around.”

Princess Diana was dead for three days and notonly was Elton John “putting it behind him,” but he was askingeveryone else to do the same. A man murdered his wife, served half asentence, was released, and the first thing he said: “I’m puttingthis behind me.” A young movie star refused to see her recent projectbecause of bad reviews: “I’m moving on, putting it behind me.” Ateen-age girl, interrupted by having a baby and killing it, returnsto her prom.

How did we get from baggage carriers to home-freewithout unpacking and making sense of our interior?

I was invited to a dinner party many years ago bya brilliant cartoonist and his wife. He was celebrating a moviesequence he had done, which was considered extraordinary for itscreativity and humor. They were hosting some of his friends who werelabeled “genius” during their MIT days. I was the only non-genius atthe table. My dinner partner was a biologist who told me that seagulls can teach us much about human relationships, especially in thearea of divorce.

His thesis was simple: There is such a thing asincompatibility. For gulls, it’s biological — anything that all ofnature would accept as grounds for divorce. Gulls cannot makeexcuses. For them, incompatibility is based on basic differences thatthreaten the gull family survival — death threats, battery andsexual abuse, deep depression.

They do not rationalize childhood trauma,permissive parents, hair in the sink, toilet paper rolled underhandversus overhand — the disguised explanations we humans use to maskthe truer reasons.

Humans, according to my friend, can convincethemselves that petty differences represent insurmountableincompatibilities. They can also render the outrageous as trivial,and dull the painful by treating it as insignificant.

But how does one know the difference between anobstruction and an insignificant event? He said that’s probably whythe marriage vow is phrased as it is: “Till death do you part.” Itforces couples to give matrimony their best effort. Living a life, inother words, takes a great deal of thought.

While he was explaining his theory, I heard one ofthe geniuses say, “I wish the Jews would stop whining about theHolocaust.” Since I was the only Jew at the table and I was talkingabout gulls and divorce, I had three seconds to decide what todo.

The hostess’ face went pale. She tried to put thecomment behind her. And she almost succeeded. In a controlled yetfriendly voice, I made a request: “Could we back up a second here;I’d like to respond to the comment about whining Jews.

“Let’s think about the Holocaust as a metaphor forthe evil that humanity, and, specifically, German humanity, iscapable of,” I said, looking right into the eyes of the genius. “Doyou think, for one moment, that until we can grasp what that evil isabout that my people, who were the object of that evil, can let thatgo? And do you think we are even close to understanding that evil ifsomeone like you calls that process whining?”

And without waiting for an answer, I turned to mygull guy and asked, “If I were a sea gull and that genius was mymate, would I have grounds for divorce, based on the biologicalgrounds of attempted death do you part?”

My brother and I figured out that it’s a betteridea to unpack the baggage, sort out the contents, leave the debrisbehind, and move on with what we have. Otherwise, you’ll end up inthe lost and found.

Columnist Linda Feldman is the co-author of thenewly released “Where To Go From Here: Discovering Your Own Life’sWisdom” (Simon & Schuster).


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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