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An open letter to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

 
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Dear Rabbi Boteach,

I am disturbed and offended by your campaign to purchase the Libyan mission’s property adjacent to your home in Englewood. While I join you in support of your condemnation of the Libyan government, its policies toward Israel, and its failure to take moral responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of innocent Americans, I fail to understand why you refuse to abide by the talmudic principle “Dina Malchuta Dina,” the law of the land in which we live must be observed by Jews. As Rep. Steve Rothman explained in a very detailed statement in response to your initial demand that the Libyans be forced to leave the property they own in Englewood, the issue of the legitimacy of their purchase and continued ownership has been adjudicated. Whether we like it or not, the United States courts have determined that they have the right to own that property.

My questions to you are:

1. Why did you choose to buy a home next to the Libyan property if you find living there so painful and distasteful? Would you really want neighbors of every embassy and consulate in our nation to have the right to pick and choose whether that nation has the right to house its ministers and offices in our nation? If a Muslim-American bought property next to the Israeli Mission to the United Nations, should that person have the right to force Israel to sell its residence? If you want Libya to pay property taxes to your town, do you want Israel to also pay property taxes to all the communities where there are Israeli diplomatic residences throughout America?

2. You keep making references in your attacks upon Rep. Rothman to the issue of public aid for private religious schools. Again, Rabbi Boteach, this is an issue that has been extensively debated in our American court system. As a parent who paid day school tuition for two children pre-kindergarten through grade 12, I am grateful that we have the right of school choice for our children and believe that with that right comes the responsibility to support a public education system that is open to all children. My question to you is: How can you square the circle of desiring to maintain a Jewish parochial school and demanding government money? Would you be willing to have your tax dollars equally support Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i, Sikh, Protestant, Catholic, Jain, and Buddhist school systems in northern New Jersey? We are a multicultural, religiously pluralistic community. Can you somehow justify why Jewish schools should get public funds without presenting a plan for how we could afford to have local options for every ethnic and religious group in our community?

3. Will your Jewish think tank be open to all Jews of all religious streams? This is no small matter, since your appeal for funds and support is being made to the entire Jewish community but you have no track record of inclusiveness and recognition of non-Orthodox rabbis, cantors, or academics. As a Reform rabbi who has lived and served in this community for 22 years, I want to invite you to come to the next meeting of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis at noon on Monday, Feb. 8, at the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey and open a discussion on your vision. We can then share with you the exciting progress that we are making through the Kehillah Partnership toward creating a cross-denominational Jewish day camp and retreat center that will serve the full spectrum of Jewish life in our community and that will be located on a property that is being legally and non-coercively acquired by the YJCC of Bergen County in Washington Township for the use of the whole Jewish community. We can also hear from you how you plan to attract Jewish sociologists, theologians, psychologists, social workers, and rabbis of all religious streams to your new center. I am confident that, if your vision is truly inclusive, working together we can find physical space for your think tank that I would hope would be more than just a “Jewish equivalent of the politically conservative Heritage Foundation,” but perhaps an American version of the Shalom Hartman Institute where Jews of all religious and political views come together.

According to the Midrash, all Jews stood together at Sinai. Rabbi Boteach, on this Shabbat of Parshat Yitro, I ask you to consider standing together rather than seeking ways to divide the Jews of northern New Jersey.

Temple Sholom, River Edge, Reform
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Remembering Regina Jonas

Conversion to Judaism is very much in the news today — and for all the wrong reasons. But at the moment, my interest is not in the history of conversion itself, but in the way that it is read into next week’s Torah reading, parashat Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12-17).

The Torah reading opens with God commanding Abraham to set forth on a journey to a place unknown. Abraham sets forth with his wife Sarah, his nephew, all their possessions, and “the souls that they had made in Haran.”

How does someone “make” souls? The midrashic collection Genesis Rabbah, compiled some time in the fifth through eighth centuries, interprets this strange clause as referring to converts. Why did the text say “made” instead of “converted”? To demonstrate that converting someone to Judaism is like creating that person anew. But why the plural? Doesn’t it really mean that he, Abraham, had made or converted those souls? No. Abraham converted the men; Sarah converted the women (Genesis Rabbah 39:14).

 

 

Clouds of glory, clouds of honor

That future generations may know that I made the children of Israel live in booths (sukkot) when I brought them out of the land of Egypt — Leviticus 23:43.

‘Booths’ — clouds of honor (ananei kavod) — Rashi.

When we were young, many of us were taught that the sukkah — especially its essential covering — represents something otherworldly. The structure in which we were dining was meant to evoke the divine clouds that sheltered the Israelites in the desert.

 

 

A tale of two sermons

A few years ago, on the first day of Sukkot, Rabbi Yosef Adler delivered this sermon at Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael, where he serves as spiritual leader:

“During the Sukkot holiday, in birkhat hamazon, our blessing after meals, we recite the following prayer: ‘Harahamon hu yakim lanu et sukkat David hanofelet,’ ‘May Hashem establish for us the fallen sukkah of David.’

Why the image of a fallen sukkah for the Davidic kingdom, he asked. Why not a castle or some other sturdy structure?

 

 

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Cold hearts and sub-Saharan Jews

I remember vividly how moved and inspired I was as a child when — at a very early stage of my Jewish education — I was introduced to the sage Hillel and his own youthful entrée to Jewish scholarship.

Hillel went on to become a renowned scholar, a beloved and oft-quoted national leader, and the founder of an important rabbinic dynasty. The brief story — my first “Talmud lesson” — is familiar. Working as a poor woodchopper, Hillel would devote half of his meager earnings to daily necessities. The other half he spent on the fee required for admission to the bet midrash — the Babylonian academy where Torah was taught by the great Shemaiah and Avtalyon. One winter Friday (during the month of Tevet, the Talmud records) he was without sufficient means to enter the citadel of learning. He was turned away. Undeterred, he climbed atop the roof, to listen to the lesson through a skylight. There he stayed until Shabbat morning, when he was found covered by three cubits of snow. “The snow came down from Heaven,” the text (Yoma 35B) says lyrically. (Even in my New England childhood, that daunting volume of snow fired my imagination!)

 

 

Past imperfect

For traditional communities, the past is normative.

The past, rather than the present, provides the best model for daily life. As the past’s standard-bearer, the traditionalist may even question the legitimacy of the present: Leaving aside technological advances, what moral or spiritual value can modernity offer, compared to the timeless legacy of the past?

Religious traditions especially, which are by nature highly conservative, judge new trends by their conformance to time-honored ways of life. Intellectual innovation, to be sure, may be encouraged, as long as it remains within the boundaries of tradition. In our own society, for example, a hallmark of Talmud scholarship long has been the ability to formulate a novel legal analysis, whose implications are normally theoretical. But in practical matters, custom rules. (There are notable exceptions among halachists of great stature; the Vilna Gaon, for example, often ruled against common practice based on talmudic sources.)

 

 

Support for depression is right around the corner

My friend and I stand in the doorway and survey the room.

A dozen or so chairs are laid out in a wide circle and I can’t tell if the setup is inviting or scary or both. My nerves are like jumping beans in my stomach. My friend nudges my left arm.

“You okay?”

I scan the room skeptically.

“Unclear.”

I watch the arriving participants as they straggle in, some in pairs, more often alone. They all look like regular, decent people. Some seem shifty and uncertain — I suppose just as I must appear to them — but no one screams “crazy” to me. There is no neon sign above anyone’s head that reads:

ABOUT TO CRACK!

 

 
 
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