Is It Devotion or Extremism? Putting the Israeli Religious Conflict in Context

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Many of us have seen the disturbing images from Israel in recent weeks portraying Jews against other Jews in a so-called religious struggle. Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon. Such misguided zealotry by a small group of misguided people has a long history in Judaism. A historical understanding is essential to appreciating the underpinnings of today's conflict.

The Talmud (B. Gittin 56a) describes the scene right before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., as the Roman siege tightened around Jerusalem. While the Jews in Jerusalem drew strength in the knowledge that they had a 21-year supply of food and other necessities, a group known as Biryonim, ignoring pleas from rabbis and other leaders, burnt down the food stores in order to force a disastrous war with the Roman army. Who were these Biryonim? Rashi, the 11th-century biblical commentator, defines them as "empty men, with a propensity towards violence."

With starvation now descending on Jerusalem, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the rabbinical leader of the Jewish community, contacted Abba Sikra, literally translated as "Head of the Sicarii," who was, ironically, Rabbi Yochanan's nephew. The Sicarii were an organized group of Biryonim and provide the origins of the term by which the modern-day aggressors are known.

Rabbi Yochanan sought a truce to stop the Sicarii from their acts of violence and allow him to plea with the Romans to end the deadly siege. Abba Sikra's telling response was, "What can I do? If I say anything against the Biryoni agenda, they will kill me!" Despite Abba Sikra's presumed leadership, it was sham — he didn't lead, and no one else did.

The Biryoni, a small group of ruffians, made out to represent the entire Jewish people in the eyes of the world, and they led to the downfall of ancient Jerusalem.

Today we are witness to an unfortunate situation mirroring the realities of almost 2,000 years ago. The world media reports on Jews terrorizing other Jews, but the truth is that it all comes from a tiny, leaderless minority. It's important to note that the actions of these ruffians have received unanimous condemnation from the Orthodox Jewish establishment.

The Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America wrote in a joint statement: "It should be clear to all that this hateful activity does not represent Judaism." Agudath Israel of America declared that "such conduct is beyond the bounds of decent, moral — Jewish! — behavior. We condemn these acts unconditionally."

Rabbinic leaders in Israel, across the Orthodox spectrum, have added their voice to the growing chorus of condemnation. I am unaware of any Orthodox rabbinic figure that has lent an iota of support, or has claimed to be a leader of this group.

While God is infinitely good, we cannot make the same claim for His people. Individuals, no matter the level of piety they attempt to display, are subject to the same emotions and disturbances that affect all mankind.

Be careful not to confuse the actions of some Jews with Judaism. The Talmud tells us (B. Yevamot 79a) that King David declared that a Jew could be identified as being merciful, modest and doing acts of kindness. Actions to the contrary are not Jewish acts. Even when at war, we temper our ferocity with kindness and concern (See Deuteronomy 20).

When the Torah is returned to the Ark, we recite (Proverbs 3:17-18) the verse "Etz chaim hi," which compares the Torah to a "living tree" because, regardless of how circumstances may change, it is relevant throughout all generations. We continue by affirming that "its ways are ways of pleasantness, and its pathways are those of peace."

All Jews must strive to spread the peaceful and loving message of Torah so that we can be a source of inspiration to ourselves and to the rest of the world.

Rabbi Yonah Gross is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood and teacher of Judaic studies at Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia.

Anti-Discrimination Policies Pass

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After months of debate and even a rally organized by the Jewish community last summer, Abington and Cheltenham townships have passed anti-discrimination policies that make a point of including protections for sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.

Despite legal and cultural progress in the realm of civil rights, federal laws only specifically prohibit discrimination when it comes to race, religion, gender and disabilities. As a result, states and municipalities have stepped in to outline additional protection for other marginalized groups, like gays and lesbians or single parents.

Frustrated by stalemates in the Pennsylvania legislature, gay rights advocacy groups and local legislators have pressed townships to pass their own policies. Philadelphia has had one since the 1980s; suburban towns such as Lower Merion and Haverford, added theirs over the past few years. Last week, Abington became the 28th township in the state to adopt such a policy, following Cheltenham, which approved its ordinance in February.

"Cheltenham Township will protect its LGBT residents even while our state continues to condone second-class citizenship," David Flaks, a steering team member of Cheltenham Area Residents for Equality, said in a news release.

In Abington, Jewish commissioners Lori Schreiber, who is openly lesbian, and Steven Kline led the call for an inclusive anti-discrimination policy. Schreiber first brought up the idea in fall 2010. In January 2011, she introduced a law that included the creation of a local volunteer human relations commission to handle discrimination cases through a fact-finding and adjudication process.

Despite support at a public hearing, the measure was swiftly voted down. Opponents said they worried about getting tangled in costly legal issues by taking on matters that would otherwise go to a state commission.

Under the compromise version that passed, the Abington commission would conduct mediation if a discrimination complaint comes up, but any legal action would get referred to the courts of common pleas.

Schreiber said she would have preferred her original, stronger law but at least having the policy "sends a message out to the community that Abington won't tolerate discrimination," and those who disregard that could be held accountable in court.

Ted Martin, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group Equality Pennsylvania, said the two recent victories will pave the way for more towns to pass similar laws.

"We are getting more calls on this subject than you can imagine," he said in a statement.

 

Singer Brings a ‘Music Jungle’ to the Suburbs

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The room was filled with the smiling faces of children. Laughing and dancing, the youngsters sang along to the music, surprising even the song leader with their responses.

Arcadia Plans Student Trip to Israel

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In 30 years at Arcadia University in Glenside, physical therapy professor Jan Tecklin can't recall any students studying in Israel, despite the fact that the university is known for its study abroad program. 
 
 As a local Jew, Tecklin said, "that makes me crazy," so he made it a personal mission to change that. On March 10, he and fellow professor Karen Sawyer will lead a spring break tour of Jerusalem as part of an interdisciplinary freshman course. Of 16 students, two are Jewish. Only one has been to Israel before. 
 
The course is designed to give students an appreciation for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, said Tecklin. Students have already heard history lectures from Tecklin and Sawyer, who is Christian, as well as Muslim guest speakers. During their week in Israel, they'll tour the Christian, Jewish and Arab quarters, museums and other attractions in Jerusalem, plus the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. 
 
Tecklin said he hopes students get a sense of why Jerusalem is such a special place in the world, especially after standing at the Western Wall and looking up at the Dome of the Rock, and then taking a short walk to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
 
In addition to Israel, university faculty will lead freshman trips to about a dozen other countries this spring. After returning home, all the students must offer a presentation at a global expo in April. 
 
The travel study courses have become a staple since the college experimented with its first one to London some 15 years ago, Tecklin said. The university subsidizes the trips so that students pay just $495 out of pocket.
 
The idea, Tecklin said, is that students will be more inclined to pursue a semester or year of study abroad after having a positive educational travel experience early on. He said that the school's study abroad office has already talked to a few students looking into a semester in Israel.
 

Chosenness: Doesn’t It Imply Superiority?

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"If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." God speaks these words through Moses to the people, as they prepare to receive the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.

Reconstructionist Jews have always struggled with the notion of "treasured possession." The idea that Jews might be chosen has felt elitist and unrealistic to many in the movement.

Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, writes in his opus Judaism as a Civilization: "From an ethical standpoint, it is deemed inadvisable, to say the least, to keep alive ideas of race or national superiority, inasmuch as they are known to exercise a divisive influence, generating suspicion and hatred."

He was concerned both about the outside attitude a stance of chosenness would engender, and about the feeling of superiority it might breed among Jews. He considered the concept an outdated method for aiding the morale of the Jewish nation throughout the ages of persecution that Jews experienced.

Kaplan was not alone in questioning chosenness. The Sefat Emet, a Chasidic commentator, addressed potential discomfort at being God's special nation in a commentary on Yitro, this week's portion. He quotes Jerimiah: "The Lord is my strength and my stronghold, my refuge on the day of trouble; unto You nations will come from the far corners of the earth," commenting: "God has chosen the children of Israel as His own portion."

One might think that this would make for a greater distance between God and the other nations. But actually, just the opposite is true. This was God's deeper plan: to bring all nations near to Him by means of Israel. This is one way to understand chosenness — we are chosen to help other people know God.

I worry about the superiority being chosen implies, but I also find a deep sympathy for the concept. I believe that we all have a special calling in this life; that we are chosen for something. Everyone feels special when singled out for praise, for love, or for a special responsibility.

Many of the traditional metaphors Jews have used to conceptualize our relationship to God depend on this special feeling. God is a parent, ruler, lover, and we want to be chosen by these people. Why not by God?

The biblical text itself cautions us not to let chosenness lead to superiority. The designation of the Jews as a treasured possession comes after an exemplary interaction between Moses and his father-in-law Jethro, a non-Jew. Jethro visits the people in the wilderness and Moses receives him with great honor. They speak to each other with respect.

Jethro observes Moses in his role of judge and problem solver for the people, and he offers advice for how Moses can delegate these duties to lessen his own burden, saving his strength for other leadership tasks. Moses listens to Jethro, taking his advice. They part as equals.

The story of Yitro reminds us to understand chosenness in the context of excellent relations with people of other faiths, whom we must see as our own family. We must be able to take advice from them, and to share what we know. Whether we choose to call ourselves chosen or not, our actions will speak louder than our words.

Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]

The Opposite of Slavery Is Freedom of Naming

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This Shabbat, we begin the book of Exodus — Shemot or "Names" in Hebrew. Exodus is filled with drama: Moses demands freedom from Pharaoh, the people cross the sea against all odds, celebrating their freedom on the other side. But these events occur later.

Shemot begins in a smaller way, as its title suggests, with names.

It begins by naming Jacob's sons: "These are the names of the sons of Israel …"

What do names and naming have to do with the great human drama of the Exodus? Does the title "Shemot" do justice to this story?

Rashi gives us a hint by quoting the midrash Exodus Rabbah. He writes: "Although [God] counted them in their lifetime by their names, he counted them again after their death, to let us know how precious they are, because they were likened to the stars, which he takes out and brings in by number and by name … "

This midrash imagines God caring so much for each star in the sky that God gives them each a name. So, too, God cared for the sons of Jacob and showed this care through naming.

It is an old habit of Jews to count people with words rather than numbers, a way of affirming their humanity. People are something more than sheep to be counted and categorized. The fact of human dignity demands a name.

It is in this insistence on human dignity, hinted at by naming, that the great liberation of Exodus truly begins. The opposite of liberation, slavery, begins with a lack of names.

The portion tells us that a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph. Suddenly, there is a shift in the text. We assume that the new king did not know Joseph's name, and, therefore, fails to see the humanity of the people.

This is the precursor to their enslavement. It is easier to enslave and oppress people when we don't know their names or choose not to use them.

This coming Monday is Martin Luther King Day, a perfect coincidence with the beginning of the book of Exodus. The Israelites crossing to freedom from Egypt sits alongside the Civil Rights movement in America as two of the greatest stories of non-violent civil disobedience in our collective consciousness.

Martin Luther King's work was a testament to counting people by their names, and, therefore, their humanity. Dr. King believed that no person should be treated as anything less than human.

Shemot, the Torah portion of names, and Dr. King's legacy can both remind us to work in our daily life toward this naming.

It is difficult for humans to care about the distress of distant others. We are much less likely to empathize and respond to people who we don't know by face or name or story.

That is why it is so easy for the world to stand by even during the atrocities of a genocide. Clearly, no one knows this better than the Jews.

In reading Exodus again and in celebrating the life of Dr. King, we are called each year to be namers. The story of the Exodus on a grand scale is about great leadership, faith and the power of God to deliver God's people.

On a small scale, however, it all begins with the importance of calling each other by name, and that is something that each of us can do.

Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]

Use Power of the Pocketbook to Help Support Jewish State

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From now through Feb. 13, support Israel through the purchase of Israeli goods and products and then catch people in the act of making these purchases. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia wants to continue the momentum of solidarity and support for the State of Israel, generated by the Feb. 2 program at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Pennsylvania campus.

First, support Israel by buying Israeli products online through Israeli stores, by buying Israeli-made products in American stores, or by ordering Israeli consumer products directly from their American-based vendors.

For a complete list of stores selling products that bear the label "Made in Israel," visit the new Israel Advocacy web page at: www.jewishphilly.org.

Daniel Ayalon, Israel's deputy foreign minister, says the Israeli government has launched a new website to make it easier to make online purchases of Israeli merchandise. A wide variety of Israeli foods, wine, art, jewelry, books, Judaica and much more is available at:www.israelexport.org.

Then submit photos or videos of friends, family and colleagues supporting the local Buy Israel campaign. Photos and videos should be upbeat with positive messaging.

Upload/post your photos and videos to the Federation Facebook Page or email them to [email protected] The best photos will be published in a feature in the Jewish Exponent. The best photos and best videos will also be highlighted on: www.jewishphilly.org. Winners, voted by Federation staff, will receive iTunes gift certificates.

Smash Must-Sing TV?

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It's a show about "Let's put on a show!"

But its production values are none that Mickey Rooney or Judy Garland would recognize, and its gamble more a multimillion buck bet than a dime-a-dozen lucky shot.

 

Welcome to the pink-hair coiffed, too.And along the way, it smashes stereotypes that theater can only accommodate the purple-hair set.

Smash, Steven Spielberg and NBC's peacock-strut of a musical about their own week with Marilyn — the series focuses on the ordeal of staging a new musical about icon Marilyn Monroe — is Broadway brave, a gleeful antidote to TV's more saccharine salutes on what it means to be musical and theatrical — and, possibly, fiscally suicidal.

It is all so glamorously de-glitzed as auditions and anxiety are shown to go hand-in-hand in a dance along the precipice that is the proscenium stage.

What they did for love hits home; I have been a Broadway baby since I was 9, introduced to the mesmerizing impact of musicals when seeing my first show, West Side Story, which helped define my own career story along the way. In the thousand or so shows I have seen since — and the dozen I've written, with professional productions staged throughout this country, Israel, Romania and Germany — I have never lost the lull and the lure of the siren call.

Or is that the half-hour knock on the door before showtime?

And here, Smash gives all of us — the theatrical straight, the queens and the curious — an insider's look into what makes the music of the night as ephemeral and exciting as the phantom who traded an opera house for a Broadway stage 24 years ago.

But then, those who think Broadway is a bridge to nowhere haven't been paying attention to the tolls it's been collecting.It is a heavy responsibility for NBC and producer Spielberg, whose entreaty to have a close encounter with a thespian kind would seem anathema to today's ratings-targeted younger generation, ticketed for instant gratification while seemingly more attuned to Pandora than the pantheon of the Sondheims, Lloyd Webbers and Hermans.

Last year was a record-ca-ching season for the Great Green Way. And as far as attracting an "older" crowd — not that there's anything wrong with that — such a stereotype was shattered by the Broadway League's own recent study, finding that the theatergoer's average age is a mere 44.

The laugh's on the naysayers: Something for everyone — comedy tonight (and maybe Tuesday night, too, if you're a Gleek)!

Which brings us back to Smash, given a prime-time showcase for opening night, Feb. 6, the evening after the Super Bowl. And the network does have super expectations for its own Broadway-bound game plan.

With Debra Messing messing with the Lucy-ish image she had cultivated in comedy from 1998 to 2006 on Will & Grace, it all comes crashing down in Smash as she portrays a Broadway composer giving up the soundtrack for the mommy track.

Until she gets a whiff, that is, of the Monroe doctrine of a script that may make a musical out of a misfit.

There is also the Chorus Line crush of rivals for the lead role between intriguing ingenues (Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty — both playing their parts to the hilt) with an I-can-do-that faith in, and yet fear of, themselves.

And then there's the ruthless producer (Anjelica Huston), who could knock the black hat right off of Max Bialystock's blockhead while making him her own prisoner of love.

(And let us not forget the words — and lyrics — of wisdom weaned from the sages of Spamalot that comes into play here, too: "You Won't Succeed on Broadway (If You Don't Have Any Jews.")It is all about eve and mourning — the headaches and the headlines, the joy and the dread, the death wish and the deaf ear turned to critics — all of what it takes to make a Broadway smash at once broad and weighty in appeal.

And in what is a major bet on Broadway brinkmanship, NBC is saying the Peacock will soar and swagger in this American idyll, a series of the saga of "dreamers and schemers."

So, it's the network's call to hit the lights come Monday night.

All the while hoping that it's not lights out by Tuesday.

What Constitutes True Nature of Freedom?

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People tend to think of freedom in terms of negating a pre-existing condition. So they talk about freedom from coercion, from tyranny, from oppression, from constraint.

Few look at freedom's positive side. At Pesach, it's precisely the "freedom to do" that we celebrate, recognizing that without drawing closer to the Divine, physical freedom is just an illusion.

The Pesach story, as told in the Torah passage read this Shabbat, begins with a positive commandment reflective of the Jewish people's dedication to the Almighty and their desire to free themselves from bondage. Each household slaughters a lamb, spreads its blood upon the entryway, and eats the roasted meat, as commanded by Moses. In this way, the Jews are spared from the Plague of the Firstborn, which leads Pharaoh to finally relent.

When the Jews left Egypt, they carried all of the country's riches, and yet, they took matzah, a humble bread. There was not enough time for the dough to rise. But a deeper explanation of matzah is rooted in the Haggadah's term for this central food: lachma anya, the "bread of affliction" or the "bread of the poor."

Although the Jewish people left Egypt in a position of strength, they fled. True power would have been demonstrated by a leisurely stroll. And although they left with all the riches of the ancient world, they carried the most humble of foods.

This paradox can be explained by a story told in the Midrash. When the Almighty contemplated redeeming the Jews from slavery and giving them the Torah, several angels protested. Why choose the Jews, they ask? The Egyptians are idol worshippers, and after years in captivity, the Jews are idol worshippers, the angels point out. The Almighty answers simply that the Jewish people's redeeming quality lies in the fact that He has chosen them.

The Jewish people's redemption — which we celebrate during the seder by considering ourselves as actively being redeemed — happened by no inherent virtue of our own. It happened solely because of Divine benevolence, like a parent accepting all of his children's faults and yet granting forgiveness anyway.

This is the freedom from constraint, granted from on high. And it offers a supremely powerful incentive to fulfill the Almighty's will by following the Torah. Herein lies the concept of positive freedom. The Haggadah is clear: The Jewish concept of redemption is directly connected to the goal of serving the Divine.

We can look at the going out of Egypt, whose name mitzrayim connotes limitation and constraint, as the first step in a long process of entering the Land of Israel, a state of using all of our abilities to bring supernal holiness down into the physical world.

The Haftorah portion read this week records the first Pesach celebrated under the leadership of Joshua; it comes just before conquering Jericho. Before conducting the Paschal sacrifice, Joshua circumcises all of the men, leading the Almighty to declare that the "reproach of Egypt" had finally been removed.

Some of the classic commentaries identify the Egyptian reproach as similar to the angelic claim that the Jewish people were undeserving of protection. By undergoing a mass circumcision, the Jewish people finally demonstrated their commitment to the Torah, making use of their freedom to do something holy.

In the same way, we have the power every Pesach to emerge from all that limits us and redirect our talents and abilities to making our corner of the world a holy place.

Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: [email protected] chabad.org.

 

Exploiting Memory of Child Victims of the Holocaust Is Downright Obscene

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Can there be anything more reprehensible than the recent spectacle of haredi Orthodox Jewish boys wearing yellow stars of David and striped black-and-white concentration camp uniforms at a demonstration in Jerusalem? Offended by Israeli authorities' efforts to curtail abuse of women and girls in haredi neighborhoods, the demonstrators desecrated the memory of the more than 1.5 million Jewish children whose suffering and death will be remembered on Jan. 27 at the United Nations' annual Holocaust commemoration. "This protest," said one of the rally's organizers, "reflects the Zionists' persecution of the haredi public, which we see as worse than what the Nazis did."

The image of one particular boy at the demonstration raising his hands in mock surrender to re-enact the famous photograph of a Jewish child being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto struck a personal chord in me. Sixty-nine years ago, another Jewish boy named Benjamin was living with his parents in the Polish city of Sosnowiec. The month before, this boy, my brother, had turned 5. He was a smart, good-hearted, innocent child who had never done any harm to anyone. But he had already been sentenced to death.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew that Benjamin and virtually every other Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Europe were about to be brutally murdered. On Dec. 17, 1942, the United States, Great Britain and the USSR had condemned the German government's "bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination" of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. Yet Benjamin's fate was not a priority for any government.

Even in the midst of World War II, if the United States, Great Britain, Canada and Australia had announced a willingness to give refuge to Jewish children, Benjamin might still have had a chance.

Instead, after Gerhard Riegner, the director of the Geneva office of the World Jewish Congress, sent a telegram through U.S. diplomatic channels in Switzerland in January 1943 reporting that 6,000 Jews "are killed daily" in Poland, and Romanian Jews are being murdered under dire circumstances, Secretary of State Cordell Hull instructed the American legation in Bern to no longer accept such "private messages."

On an August night in 1943, Benjamin arrived at Auschwitz with his parents and grandparents. In her memoirs, our mother recalled her final moments with her child: "One SS man was standing in front of the people and he started the selection. With a single movement of his finger, he was sending some people to the right and some to the left."

Benjamin went with his father. "Something that will haunt me to the end of my days occurred during those first moments. As we were separated, our son turned to me and asked, 'Mommy, are we going to live or die?' I didn't answer his question."

Benjamin, his father and my grandparents were murdered that night in the gas chambers. Since my mother's death in 1997, he has existed in me. I see his face in my mind, try to imagine his voice, his fear as the gas chamber doors slammed shut. If I were to forget him, he would disappear.

The hundreds of thousands of children killed in subsequent genocides in Rwanda, Darfur and the former Yugoslavia fared no better. The 1948 Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was supposed to protect them. So was the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Rwanda, Serbia and the Sudan are all parties, which affirmed that "every child has the inherent right to life." Their mutilated corpses, hacked by machetes in Rwanda or buried in mass graves in Bosnia, epitomize the international community's failure to live up to this fundamental aspiration.

My brother and every other child murdered in any genocide deserve to be remembered as fragile flames extinguished in tsunamis of hatred, intolerance and bigotry. Exploiting their memory to score cheap political points is obscene.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, the son of two survivors, is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.