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entries tagged with: Bruce Block


Local rabbis sign on to new centrist pro-Israel group

Rabbis for Israel offers option between AIPAC and J Street

A new pro-Israel organization that aims to give rabbis a middle ground between AIPAC and J Street has the attention of several local rabbis.

Rabbis for Israel, launched last month by Rabbi Michael Boyden of Hod Hasharon, Israel, bills itself as a centrist group dedicated to a two-state solution with peace and security for Israel. More than 230 rabbis, including six from Northern New Jersey, have signed on to the group’s mission statement.

“I was amazed that so many leading rabbis from all streams and from all over the world, including North America, Israel, and Europe, should have chosen to identify with Rabbis for Israel in such a short space of time,” Boyden said in a statement. “The response shows the degree to which many Jewish leaders are thirsty for an advocacy group that represents the middle ground in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.”

Rabbi Jonathan Woll, of the Progressive Havura of Northern New Jersey in Glen Rock, met Boyden during a visit by the Israeli rabbi to Woll’s now-defunct Temple Avoda in Fair Lawn. When Woll heard of Boyden’s group, he quickly signed on because of its centrist position.

Woll had been an early supporter of J Street, which hailed itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace, but he became disappointed with it.

“When we came to the flotilla incident,” and J Street’s swift condemnation of Israel, “my disappointment … really gave way to some kind of uncertainty in their position,” he said. “I do respect [J Street founder] Mr. [Jeremy] Ben-Ami. I think he’s a highly intelligent individual. His positions are not for the most part untenable.”

Who’s signed on?

Rabbi Bruce Block, Tenafly
Rabbi Neal Borovitz, Temple
Avodat Shalom, River Edge
Rabbi Ken Emert, Temple Beth
Rishon, Wyckoff
Rabbi Debra Hachen, Temple
Beth El of Northern Valley,
Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner,
Temple Emanu-El, Closter
Rabbi Jonathan Woll, Progressive
Havura of Northern New Jersey,
Glen Rock


Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge echoed Woll’s disappointment with J Street, which, he said, wrongly equates equality with equity, assigning equal blame to Israel and the Palestinians.

“They’re looking at it to a certain degree through a colored lens that doesn’t let them see the reality of where the Middle East peace process has gone over the 33 years since [the late Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat came to Jerusalem,” he said.

Borovitz, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey, didn’t shy away from criticizing AIPAC either.

“AIPAC has taken an unrealistic view of the Middle East peace process that is far too hardline for me on issues of the territories and settlements and defending what I think are indefensible actions,” he said. “Both of these very vocal pro-Israel lobbies — and I believe J Street is pro-Israel as well — have found themselves caught up in both American and Israeli partisan politics and are failing to represent a moderate centrist voice that is critically supportive of Israel.”

Disagreeing with specific Israeli policies or actions does not negate overall support of the Jewish state, said Temple Emanu-El of Closter’s Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, who recently returned from three and half weeks in Israel.

He pointed to the recent flap over Arizona’s immigration law. Just because he disagrees with the law does not mean that he will not visit Arizona or stop loving America, he said. Similarly, American Jews need to be able to equally express criticism of Israel without abandoning support of the Jewish state.

“We can be a liberal and love and support Israel and we can be a conservative and love and support Israel,” he said. “It should be something that is part of the core of every Jewish person — even those secular and non-Jewish people who can appreciate what Israel brings to the world.”

For the complete statement, go to


Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18

Laws and commandments

Published: 28 January 2011

Civil law, criminal law, religious law — the Torah does not make such distinctions. We do. It is helpful to us as heirs of both Torah and Western civilization to categorize. For our Israelite forbears it was all one piece: Torah.

The word “Torah” does not mean law. Its derivation is from a root word meaning “teaching,” but it is understood as the kind of teaching that is revealed by a divine source. Hence, one of my teachers used to say, “Let’s just understand the word to mean ‘revelation,’” and then just use the Hebrew, “Torah.”

“Mitzvah,” contrary to popular colloquial usage, does not mean “a good deed.” Though some of the mitzvot are also good deeds, we use the term “ma-asim tovim” to mean — strictly speaking — good deeds. The term “mitzvah” means, quite simply, a commandment.

According to Sefer Ha-Chinuch, there are 53 mitzvot in Parshat Mishpatim. There are 23 positive and 30 negative commandments in this parasha. They are diverse. They include civil, criminal, and religious laws and commandments.

So, what are mishpatim? They are laws. The word itself is roughly analogous to the English term “ordinances,” but let’s understand mishpatim to mean “laws.”

In an article in Jan. 17’s issue of The New Yorker, entitled “The Commandments,” and subtitled, “The Constitution and its Worshippers,” Jill Lepore describes the battle over understanding and interpreting the Constitution of the United States. The parallels to understanding and interpreting the meaning of the Torah and its laws would strike many of us who are students of Torah. The parallels run even down to the fact that the Constitution was originally written by hand on parchment.

Parallel lines, of course, do not meet. Jewish tradition views the Torah as a divinely revealed document. Even religious liberals would see it as a divinely inspired document. But the Constitution, while revered, is not revealed. It is a creation of human minds. Yet, despite these differences regarding the respective origins, there are some striking parallels with regard to understanding and interpretation.

Of course, Jewish tradition holds that there was a two-fold revelation at Sinai: Torah she-bich-tav, “the written Torah,” and Torah she-b’al peh, the oral Torah. The latter is what later came to be written down as the Talmud, composed of Mishnah and Gemara. We need it to understand the meaning of so many of the Torah’s laws and teachings, and to accommodate to new developments and circumstances as they arise in everyday life and in human progress. We want to make sure that we honor the original intent of the Torah.

And that’s the rub in the contemporary battle over the Constitution. What was the original intent of the Constitution’s framers? When confronted with new or changed circumstances unforeseen by the framers, how do we interpret the Constitution in such a way as to honor the original intent?

When poring over the rulings of the poskim — those legal deciders in matters of halacha — we will encounter some who are machmir (“strict” or “stringent”) and some who are meikel (“lenient”) in their rulings. Sometimes it will depend on what they are asked to decide. The same Posek might be machmir on one matter and meikel on another. But in all cases each will state his reasoning, and conclude as to why his decision is in consonance with the Torah.

In this particular portion, Mishpatim, we encounter the lex talionis, the well-known “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc.” clause. Now just how are we to understand this? Were we meant to take this literally? Is there such a thing among our poskei din as an “originalist” such as we have with respect to understanding and applying the Constitution? Hardly! For, whether machmir or meikel, our poskim understood the need for examining the oral Torah and the written Torah in tandem in order to understand both the letter and the spirit of the law. And, when we consult the well-known passage in Bava Kamma 84a, we learn that this passage from Mishpatim (Exodus 21:23-25) was not to be taken literally. Rather, it had to do with assessing pecuniary compensation deemed appropriate for each kind of loss. The only exception would have been “life for life” in the matter of the capital crime of first degree murder.

Lepore’s article points out that those who call themselves “originalists” with regard to the Constitution ought not to lose sight of the fact that, when the Constitution was originally ratified, and even when the first 10 amendments — collectively known as the Bill of Rights — were ratified, women could not vote, slavery was legal, and the country was new with only 13 states. Those who composed “We the people” knew nothing of planes, trains, and automobiles, let alone radio, TV, iPods, and the Internet. How original can one get in interpreting? There are amendments to consider, and Supreme Court decisions to factor.

James Madison, Lepore points out, said that the Constitution is “of no more consequence than the paper on which it is written, unless it be stamped with the approbation of those to whom it is addressed… the people themselves.” Madison must have understood the lesson of Mishpatim. For, when Moses repeated all the laws and commandments given by the Eternal, the people responded, Na-aseh v’Nishma, “All that the Eternal has spoken, we will faithfully do. (Exodus 24:7)”

Felix Frankfurter once wrote that the Constitution “is most significantly not a document but a stream of history.” To parallel that notion, I would say that the Torah, too, is not so much a document as it is a stream of revelation flowing to us down through the ages, teaching us how to live our lives, pursue justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

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