A few years ago I was putting my oldest daughter to sleep. She asked me what a rabbi does.
Before I had the chance to answer fully, she told me she thought the answer was. “Here’s what you do, daddy,” she said. “Blah Blah Blah…God…Blah Blah Blah.”
After I finished laughing, I told her about some other parts of the work–teaching, pastoring, counseling, and so on. But listening to her words crystallized the essential task: I search for God everywhere, and I listen to voices of wisdom.
She is one of those voices, but there are many more.
Richard Weaver once wrote that the “trouble with humanity is that it forgets to read the minutes of the last meeting.” We are wise to consider his words as we think about the nuclear deal with Iran.
Others have spoken more knowledgeably about its security shortcomings and lack of safeguards. My concern is different. It is captured in a story from my colleague Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin. He spoke with his close friend, a pastor, who adamantly supports the deal. He said to him:
“If you need to defend this deal to your parishioners, all I ask is this: can you also remind them that the Supreme Leader of Iran wants the Jewish state dead?”
The legendary Golda Meir once revealed Israel’s secret weapon—the reason this tiny state survived amidst a sea of countries committed to its destruction.
It was not the nuclear arsenal. It was not the military training. “It’s simple,” she said, “we have no other place to go.”
That insight epitomizes why Israelis today are terrified by the nuclear deal the United States and other world powers has reached with Iran. A country whose leaders routinely call for the destruction of Israel may well have the capacity to build a nuclear weapon, if not now, then in 10 to 15 years, as the deal spells out.
Can’t Israel defend itself? Of course it can. Yet, a potentially nuclear Iran undermines an entire dream and vision.
Michael Oren’s book Ally has unleashed a wave of anger at the former Israeli Ambassador to the United States.
In the wake of his severe criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy, respected Jewish voices have said he has no appreciation or understanding of American Jews. Several have pointed to his renunciation of US citizenship in order to become an Israeli politician as clear evidence of his underlying disdain for his native country.
Others describe his view of American Jews as naive and teeming with “amateur psychoanalysis” and “cheap gossip.” One writer in the Jewish Forward said Oren’s book should be in the “self-help” section rather than in history or current affairs.
Why The Anger?
What explains this vitriolic reaction by American Jews? Oren’s book is both nuanced and empathetic toward opposing arguments. He is a highly-respected historian.
One can certainly disagree with his conclusions, but many of the responses have crossed the line to expressions of personal disdain. This hyperbolic reactions proves one of the arguments Oren makes.
American Jews do feel a distance from Israel. They lack an emotional connection. (You can see the statistics that prove Oren’s argument here)
I didn’t become a rabbi when I finished seminary. I became a real rabbi after my first eulogy. Nothing can totally prepare you for the task of comforting mourners and making sense of death.
And nothing better teaches us what makes for a meaningful and well-lived life.
At its best, a eulogy is a work of art. It takes the events of a person’s life and reveals its beauty and meaning. It gives us a glimpse of the holy amidst the commonplace.
America is the most religious diverse nation in the world. We have witnessed some of that diversity in the range of responses to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. At these times, we need an even greater focus on what ties us together. Toward that end, I share the following written after a recent speaking engagement at a mega-church in Michigan.
Jews don’t tend to have mega-churches. First of all, we’re a small population. The Sunday attendance at one mega-church could well be greater than the entire Jewish population of a mid-sized city.
That was true when I spoke at a mega-church in May in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Jewish population of the city does not match the more than 2,000 people gathered there that morning.
I was at the church to talk about my book on Passover for Christians. But I was also there to build bridges. (The video of the sermon is here.)
It has been said that the task of a rabbi is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Today we are all afflicted.
We are afflicted by the horrific murder of nine people gathered for a Bible study at a church in South Carolina. We are afflicted by the plague of violent racism rearing its ugly head in a House of God.
All of victims were black. All were members of an historic black church. All of them had family, friends, loved ones grieving in shock and horror. Four of them were ministers.
I was on the phone recently with a woman whose husband had passed away. She was telling me about his life, and I began to look down at my cell phone. We had spoken for a long time, and I wanted to finish the call and get to work on another project.
But I was afraid. I was afraid because I knew the widow needed to talk. I did not want to let her down. Yet, I had all the information I needed to lead the funeral service. I was afraid of not getting work done on another project.
These two fears reveal both empathy and impatience. I was sensitive to the widow’s state of mind yet focused on what was next.
We should pay attention to our fears because of what they reveal about us. They give us insight into what matters most. They are rarely simplistic. The opposite of fear is not always courage. It is a fear of something else.
I recently came across an article offering advice to this year’s graduates. One beautiful insight stuck out. It came from my friend Rabbi Lizzi Heydeman.
She noted that God’s first words in the Bible are “Let there be light.” We typically think of these words solely in terms of the creation of the universe. God creates light, then the waters, then the plants and animals and so forth.
Yet, we are not meant to read the Bible solely for information. We also read it for inspiration. These words are not just about the creation of the universe. They are about the creation of ourselves.
“Let there be light” is God’s call to each of us. “Let there be light” inside of you. Let that light shine into the universe.
100 years ago my great-grandfather took a ship from Poland to New York. He eventually made his way to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He soon sent for his two brothers and sister, who made their way there as well.
I don’t think he ever told them, as the saying goes, that the streets in America were “paved with gold.” But he did tell them life was much better here. Economic opportunities abounded. Antisemitism was minimal. The future brimmed with possibility.
History proved him right. Those Jews who came to American survived and prospered. Their fate contrasted sharply with those who stayed in Europe. 90 percent of Europe’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and the Second World War.
After the war ended, Jewish Americans continued to thrive. Thousands of synagogues were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. Jews moved into the middle and upper middle classes. Our population also grew, and by the mid 1960s Jews were five percent of American population. As this timeline of American Jewish history shows, Jews have succeeded in America.