Friday, May 18, 2012

You Say Goodbye, And I Say Hello

NOTE: This, my final blog posting for Temple Solel and, will be double posted as the inaugural entry on my new blog ("Seventy Faces").  Please take a moment to explore the new blog and companion website (still under construction!).  I welcome your feedback about how I can improve it.

* * *

All endings birth new beginnings.  And all new beginnings start with endings.

I have lived those dual realities since my new friends at Scarsdale Synagogue (in Scarsdale, NY) invited me to become their new rabbi (as of July 1, 2012) this past fall.  I am honored and overwhelmed to be taking this next step in my career and in my rabbinate.  And my family and I are most excited to be returning home to the East Coast to our family and friends.  And yet: there is also much sadness: Because this new beginning of our's necessitates a certain 'ending' to the life we have loved and known here in San Diego.

As we prepare to wish everyone in California farewell, my family and I have been struck by a profound sense of gratitude. And so, if you will permit me in this final Solel blog posting, I'd like to briefly reflect on the Jewish notion of gratitude, as I say to you all: thank you. Allow me to begin by recommending Alan Morinis' chapter on gratitude in his book Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar.  Morinis is a master teacher who has breathed new life into the practice of mussar over the last few years. All of us can benefit from the practical wisdom that he distills.

He opens his chapter by quoting from the Talmud (my own adapted translation): "Ben Zoma used to say: A good guest says: 'How much my host has toiled for me!  He put so much meat in front of me, so much wine, so much bread - all his exertion was just for me!'  A bad guest says: 'What did my host do for me?  I ate just a tiny roll, a single piece of meat, and I drank just one cup of wine - all of his exertion was on behalf of his family.'"

With tears in my eyes: I look back over these last seven years, and I proclaim: "How much my host has toiled for me!"  There are no words to describe how grateful I am to my fellow staff members, and the lay people I was privileged to work, partner, study, celebrate, and mourn with...for sacrificing a bit of yourselves as I learned from you what it means to be a rabbi.  My new community at Scarsdale Synagogue will be the ultimate beneficiaries of your chesed.  Though the gifts you have given me are far too numerous to mention individually, please know that I cherish each and every one of them - as I cherish each and every one of you.

The only thing that has amazed Amy and I more than the professional kindnesses showered on me as a rabbi has been the way that the entire Temple Solel family welcomed and extended itself to our family.  How blessed we feel that Temple Solel was the place where we had the chance to begin our family.  When I think of our building, I will always think of it first as the place where Siona was named in 2006, and where Avi's bris was held in 2010.  It was in the midst of those rituals that Amy and I learned the essence of what Solel is all about: a place of deep love and warmth.  Like you, we came to intimately appreciate the presence of Rabbi Frank, Cantor Robbins, and more recently Cantor Tiep as we marked those two holy moments in our lifecycle.  What else can we say, but thank you for those memories.

Most of all, I remain humbled by the fact that the temple's Assistant Rabbi Search Committee saw a glimmer of potential in the "green" graduating rabbinical student they met in the winter of 2005.  For the faith that you had in me in that season: I will forever be in your debt.

That same sense of humility is something that I am very much aware of, as I look forward to beginning my new tenure in New York...and as my family excitedly looks forward to our coming move, and the new life that awaits us there.  While it is true that I know much, much more now about what it means to be a rabbi (as compared to seven years ago), I am also aware of the new responsibilities and expectations that await me in Scarsdale.  And so it is that I am in Scarsdale Synagogue's debt as well, for the sacred trust you will shortly place in my hands, and for your belief that we can work together to write the next chapter of SSTTE's history. To my new friends there: I can only say how privileged and delighted I am to be able to begin to dream big dreams with you about what a vibrant 21st century progressive Jewish community can look like.

So, to friends old and new, I say: THANK YOU.

Morinis concludes piously by quoting Psalm 92: "It is good to give thanks to the Lord, And to sing praises to Your name, O Most High, To proclaim Your goodness in the morning, And Your faithfulness at night."

But equally appropriate would be the words of the The Beatles.  To my Solel friends: You (We!) say goodbye....And to my Scarsdale friends: I say hello!


Friday, May 11, 2012

The Corners of Our Fields

This week's Torah portion (Parshat Emor) contains one of the Torah's iconic notions.  According to Leviticus 23:22: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not completely reap the corners of your field, and the gleanings of your harvest you shall not gather.  For the poor and the stranger you shall leave them, I am Adonai your God."

More than any other image in the Torah about the giving of tzedakah, and the obligation to feed the hungry, this is the one that speaks to me the most.  In plain terms, the Torah is making a radical statement: that just because a person might own a given piece of land...It does not mean that he/she actually has the right to claim/keep all of the monetary value of that land to herself.  Let's say the landowner grows corn...According to this week's Torah portion and the mitzvah of peah (literally: a corner), the corn in the corners is left unharvested.  The farmer doesn't get to sell it in the market, or eat it in his home.  It remains in the field.  So that the poor can come by at their convenience (perhaps at night so as to minimize public shame) to eat and be filled.

I also love this idea because it is so radically destabilizing to the capitalism that we have all been brought up to believe in here in America...that what we earn: we get to keep for ourselves!

Not so, according to Judaism. We should be humbled to know that whatever wealth/materialistic comforts we have are gifts that are but lent to us.  And the time is going to come when we are going to be expected to return them.

In the meantime, we are specifically commanded to share what we have with others.  (This would be the cue for Craig's "Share and Be Nice" song...)

The agricultural imagery of the Torah portion might lead you to think that none of this is relevant today.  After all: how many Jewish farmers do you actually know?

But I would argue that the farming piece is the least relevant part of peah.  

Consider, for a moment, the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who wrote this about this week's Torah portion (gender sensitive translation!): "For the wealthy person who cares for the needy of her people merely fulfills her duty to God.  This duty was thrust upon her with every grain of produce that God caused to grow in her field.  This concept of tzedakah is the greatest of the Torah’s social triumphs."

The triumph that Hirsch is referring to is not about farming per se.  It is the reminder and realization that our wealth (represented for us by a physical paycheck, or the numbers on the screen of the webpage of our bank account) comes to us from God...or some other power or Force in the world, depending on your theology.  According to Judaism: we have to share our wealth....because the wealth actually doesn't belong to us in the first place. 

Given how trendy and hip Eastern spiritual practices are right's worth noting that karma is also a long-held Jewish idea.

In the 15th century, Rabbi Isaac Caro (teacher and uncle of the more famous Rabbi Joseph Caro) wrote: "The reason that the poor person is poor is because the rich person is rich.  When your star ascends, his star descends.  [Our tradition teaches us that you, the rich person]  are the reason that he is poor.  And if you do not give to him, what will God do?  God will rotate the universe in such a way that the star that is on top will sink to the bottom, and the star that is on the bottom will rise to the top."

The material wealth that we enjoy is simply the result of a cosmic accident, according to this view.  The wealth had to be split up somehow...and it fell to us, and not to "them."  But if we don't exercise a little humility about that...and if we fail to support those whose needs are significant, then...according to Caro, God will punish turning our worlds literally upside down, so that everyone's economic position is reversed.

The lesson here is clear: if we want to avoid having our universe upended, we need to plant our feet firmly to the stay humbly grounded about who we are, and what it means to be able to acquire and spend wealth.  We are commanded....not invited...but specifically ordered to share what we have with others who need it more than we do.  How wonderful it would be if that generosity of spirit might touch us all, and enable us to feed the world, and heal it, by transforming it into a better place.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

PS: If you are interested in the topic of Judaism and Social Justice, I highly recommend Rabbi Jill Hammer's There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition.  

PPS: 3 organizations that you might make a small donation to (whether it's $3, $36, or $360 - and do it in honor of Mom this Mother's Day weekend!) are:
  • - Mazon is the foremost American Jewish response to hunger.
  • - American Jewish World Service is a leading Jewish organization that sends volunteers to impoverished communities around the world.
  • - Bend the Arc is a new Jewish partnership to fight for a greater sense of justice in our world.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Shout Out to SL: Revisiting Domestic Violence

In the email message that I sent out to my Etanu followers with information about last week's blog posting, I invited readers to request a topic for my final three blog postings.

S.L., a longtime devoted reader of Etanu, wrote back and asked for a re-posting of his favorite I wrote more than 3 years ago (before the etanu website went up!).

Domestic violence remains a troubling issue today.  Since this message was originally written on March 13, 2009 approximately 11 million new incidents of domestic violence have taken place in the United States.  This is based on the statistic that a woman is beaten or assaulted in the US once every 9 seconds.  If that statistic does not make you ill, I don't know what will.

As for Chris Brown and Rihanna...there's mad speculation that they are/were back together (again).  That raises interesting questions about the forgiveness piece mentioned below.  I'd love to hear your thoughts about this important, pressing, and relevant issue for our time.

* * *
Have you been following the maddening/saddening (is that a word?) celebrity news out of Hollywood that has chronicled the incident of domestic violence committed by Chris Brown against Rihanna?  (Check out the blurb in People Magazine.)

Although all domestic abuse is a terrible tragedy, the one good thing that comes out of cases involving celebrities is that at least it gives us an opportunity to be reminded that this is still a major problem facing our society.

You can read all of the statistics on DV here and here

The interesting thing about the Rihanna case is that, soon after being beaten, she decided to (forgive??) or at least take Chris back.  It is now widely reported that they have reconciled and are back together, even as his criminal case is making its way through the Los Angeles court system.

Are there certain things in a relationship that are unforgivable?  And if so, is domestic abuse one of them?  Oprah, a victim of domestic violence herself, seems to think so.  She has publicly admonished Rihanna for getting back together with Brown, warning her that he will hit her again.

I share all of this for two reasons.

First, and most importantly, this really IS a good excuse to take a moment to reflect on the dangers of domestic violence (the video here is very helpful in this respect).  And, we can take this opportunity to remind everyone that there are amazing resources in our communities to help people who are being victimized (or think they might be victimized) by domestic violence.  We have the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline at 866-331-9474.  And we have the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE.  Much closer to home, we have PROJECT SARAH, the San Diego Jewish community’s response to domestic violence.  Find them here or call 858-637-3200.  Or call me instead.  Please reach out to someone if you need help.

Secondly, I mention all of this because I think that the central question that Rihanna’s plight raises – about whether or not there are things in a relationship that are forgivable – is a very Jewish kind of a question.

Although this week’s [March 2009] Torah portion (Parshat Ki Tisa) makes no mention of domestic violence, it is very much interested in the question of forgiveness.

This week’s parsha includes the story of the Golden Calf – the ultimate act of spiritual assault that our ancient Israelite ancestors committed against their partner: God.  In worshipping the idol, they violate the sense of respect and sanctity that exists between them and God so profoundly that I have always read it as an act of violence.

And yet, even before this week’s parsha is over, Moses is able to convince God not to destroy the Israelites who have realized the error of their ways.

I’m always a little bit surprised that Moses was able to pull that off.  How was he able to convince God to forgive those Israelites who so brazenly disrespected God?

For some commentators, they use this as a chance to write about humanity’s imperfections.  We’re always going to fall short, in the eyes of God.  Part of God’s essential self is the attribute of mercy, because God knows that if God wants to be in an ongoing relationship with us, God will have to find a way to forgive us every time we inevitably mess up.

And that is true, to a certain extent, in the relationships we share with other people as well.  The only way that any relationship works is if both people constantly find it within themselves to forgive each other. 

But that brings us back to our original question.  Are there limits?  Are there certain things in romantic relationship that are unforgivable?  Are there certain things that – if we do them – they should automatically lead to the end of the relationship? Is domestic violence one of those things?

I’m not sure what the answers are to those questions.  But I would love to hear what you have to say about it.  

With prayers for the end of all violence in the world…

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jeff Brown

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Meaning of the Blood That's Been Shed

Last week's posting reflected on Holocaust Remembrance Day.  This week, we marked Yom HaZikaron: Israel's Day of Remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terror.

This week's double Torah portion (Parshat Tazria-Metzora) is bizarrely obsessed with all different kinds of bodily fluids.  (We could talk for days about the meaning behind the Torah's fixation of this...but we won't right now.  If you're interested, just read Mary Douglas.  She's the expert.)

Nonetheless, the whole bodily fluid thing got me thinking about blood...and, in the context of Yom HaZikaron....the blood that has been shed over and over and over again...decade after the brave men and women of the Israeli Defense Forces, who sacrifice the prime of their lives to serve a cause greater than themselves: their country....and our homeland.

I happened upon a remarkable midrash (from the historic Jewish community of Yemen) this week that I had never read before.  In it, the author meditates on the story of Joseph (chapter 37-ff. of the Book of Genesis). 

As you may recall, Joseph as a child believes that he is better than his brothers.  Because of his general obnoxiousness, and because his brothers are jealous of the fact that Joseph is their father Jacob's favorite, they decide to sell him into slavery.  To explain his disappearance, they catch a goat, slaughter it, smear Joseph's coat with its blood, and then they present the coat to Jacob as proof of Joseph's death.

The story (and the Yemenite midrash), addresses Yom HaZikaron in two ways.  First: the midrash imagines the soul, and personality, of the goat.  Our rabbis saw the goat as representing the suffering and death of all innocents.  (After all: the goat was innocent!  What did it ever do to deserve such a bloody end?)  In protest, the midrash imagines the goat calling out for justice, and it demands: "Earth: do not cover up my blood!"  And so it is that the midrash affirms that the goat's blood, and the blood of all innocents, remains on the ground (to be remembered) until the arrival of the Messiah.

Yom HaZikaron - a Day of Remembrance.  The blood of our fallen soldiers cries out to us, and demands not to be forgotten....not until there is true and enduring peace in the world....when neighbors will no longer be compelled to fight with each other.

One other reflection about the Joseph narrative, its blood, and the connection to this week's Yom HaZikaron.  In the Torah (Gen. 37:33), Jacob - reacting to the bloody coat that his sons have presented him with - declares: "My son's tunic!  A savage beast devoured him!  Joseph was surely torn (tarof toraf) by a beast."

Responding to the imagery of being torn, the modern Torah commentator and literary scholar Aviva Zornberg writes:
Far beyond their [the brothers'] intent, in fact, is the anguish of teruf, of dismemberment, that they cause in the world.  “The blood of the old man,” as the midrash [Midrash HaGadol 42:22] has Reuben refer to Jacob, is shed.  Something essential in him dies.
Notice how Zornberg uses the Hebrew tarof toraf from the Torah to beautifully comment on the 'emotional dismemberment' that occurs when we find out about the death of a loved one.

She goes on to teach us that a part of ourselves dies when we learn of the death of a loved one.

Imagine the sort of emotional dismemberment that was on the forefronts of all Israelis' minds this week, as the country - and Jews around the world - mourned the loss of every single soldier that has ever died for the State, and every civilian who has been a victim of terror.

Their blood cries out from the ground to us: that we shall remember them and never forget the sacrifice they made.

And so too do we think of all of their loved ones....who may still be alive today, even though a part of themselves perished with their loved ones.

May the memories of the brave and the righteous live on to be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, April 20, 2012

Remembering What We Wish We Could Forget

Yesterday, Jews around the world formally marked Yom HaShoah - Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Yom HaShoah is a day filled with paradoxes.
First paradox: how can we possibly do anything to memorialize or honor the memories of six million?  The number is so immense that it defies comprehension.  Like the picture here, which hints at the enormity of the number without actually listing, or being, six million.  What we remember on the Holocaust is the "idea of the six million" because remembering each of the six million is...impossible.

Second paradox: why are we supposed to remember something so awful and gut-wrenching that normal people would prefer to forget it?

The Torah itself seems to know of this paradox.  Deuteronomy 25:17-19 recalls the tragedy that the Amalekites brought against our ancestors, and what we're supposed to do in response to it:

Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way, when you were leaving Egypt, how he happened upon you on the way, and he struck those of you who were hindmost [i.e. defenseless women and children], all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God.  It shall be that when the Eternal your God gives you rest from all your enemies all around, in the Land that the Eternal your God gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens - you shall not forget!

Take a look at that last clause: we should wipe out the memory of Amalek - and at the same time, we should absolutely not forget it.

How is it possible to simultaneously wipe out a memory and remember it?

This is the paradox of Holocaust remembrance.  For what sane human being would not want to forget it?  Wouldn't it be easier on all of us if we could just pretend that the death of six million didn't happen on our watch?

(Brief tangent on "our watch": I think one of the most troubling parts of Holocaust remembrance for those of my generation and younger is that it's history to us.  We didn't live through it.  Some of the teens that I talked to about all of this yesterday thought about the Holocaust the same way they think about ancient Roman history - as something in the distant past.  Young people today don't realize that the Holocaust happened...basically yesterday.  This really hit home for me personally yesterday when I realized that my maternal grandmother (who is alive and well in Florida) was born before Anne Frank was.)

I have two thoughts concerning the nature of Jewish existence.  As Jews we wrestle with what we are supposed to think, and believe.  And, we wrestle with what we are supposed to do.

Regarding thoughts and beliefs: for me, the core question that grows out of the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism in general, is whether something like the Holocaust could ever (God forbid) happen here in America.  And, since I am constantly polling my teenage and adult students about this, I can at least anecdotally report that most American Jews react in disgust to my question.  They are insulted at even in the insinuation that America might be capable of turning on its Jews.

Like them, I pay tribute to the virtues of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, and to the Judeo-Christian ethos that lies at the heart of what constitutes American law and values.  But, although it brings me no joy to type these words, my own reading of Jewish history teaches me to be more realistic.  For me, I must acknowledge that there is at least a chance that such a horror could happen here - however unlikely.

(Everyone should absolutely read Philip Roth's The Plot Against America for one fictionalized vision of what such a scenario could look like.  And, from Jonathan Sarna, the dean of American Jewish historians, everyone should read the recently released When General Grant Expelled the Jews to learn about the real life events that have come closest to federally-sanctioned anti-Semitism in the US).

For me, the acknowledgement of the chance of such a horror repeating itself directly informs my own Zionism.  To put it as simply as I know how: I support the existence of the State of Israel so that - God forbid - it will be there for me, my family, and my descendants if we ever needed to (God forbid) flee there for safe haven.  We have not yet discovered the silver bullet to rid anti-Semitism from the world.  It still exists. And it could rear its ugly head again.

Regarding what we are supposed to do after reflecting on the Holocaust: Rabbi Emil Fackenheim z"l said it best when he wrote of an imagined 614th commandment created out of the Holocaust: a responsibility on the part of all Jews to keep on being Jewish, and perpetuating Judaism, lest Hitler score "a posthumous victory."  The longer Judaism remains alive in the world, the longer we insure that Hitler was actually defeated.

What are each of us to do to perpetuate Judaism?  That's too large of a question and will have to wait for a later post.  For now, it is enough for us to rise up from the end of Yom HaShoah and act...simply with the determination to affirm our identity as Jews, our pride as Jews, and to express a commitment to do what we can to pass the torch of Jewish life on to our next generation.

Thanks for reading and remembering.  I welcome your replies, as always.

Rabbi Brown

Friday, March 30, 2012

On Reclining

I just recently had my first chance to catch a movie at the new Cinepolis movie theater that opened near my home in La Costa. Yeah - it was more expensive than the typical movie.  BUT IT WAS AWESOME.  If you haven't been to one of these luxury movie places, you should check it out.  It is totally worth the splurge.

By far, the best part of the experience for me was the (reserved) seat.  It was a state of the art leather recliner with easy push button control to extend it from seat to (practically) a 180 degree flat bed.  Combined with the 'eat at your seat' food was like enjoying all of the comforts of watching a movie at home, with the added benefit of catching a first run movie on the big screen in the theater.  The best of both worlds!

In light of the fact that Passover is once again upon us (it begins next Friday night), I couldn't help but remain fixated on the simple luxury of reclining.  For the rabbis who crafted the Passover seder as we know it 2000 years ago, reclining represented the epitome of freedom.  A free person gets to do what they want when they want it (within reason of course).  How better to represent that than with the image of sprawling out, and relaxing?  (And how great is it that the folks of Cinepolis get that!)

Now the kind of reclining that the rabbis have in mind for a Passover seder was very particular: you were supposed to lounge on a floor of padded mattresses.  Passages in the Talmud advise leaning on one side (I believe the left, but don't quote me) because the rabbis thought that there was less of a chance that you'd choke on your food if you were leaning to that side!

But how many of us actually sprawl out on the ground for our seders today?

Today, we eat our formal meals seated around a table.  Lounging on the floor is not generally seen as a socially acceptable option.  Some families that want to keep the religious tradition of lounging alive in the modern context will have everyone sit in formal dining room chairs (or, if your seder is like the ones I attended as a kid: folding chairs!) and add some kind of small pillow or cushion to it to make it feel more "relaxing."

Now, in full disclosure, I've never been to a seder where the host has done this.  But I have been to plenty of crowded seders in my life....and it boggles my mind as to why anyone would think that adding pillows/cushions to an already overly cramped space would make things more comfortable.

If we are serious about wanting to authentically explore the value of reclining at a contemporary seder, I would politely suggest that we all make plans next year to have a La-Z-Boy seder!  Now...I tried to do a search online for a picture to illustrate what I mean....and I came up empty-handed.  The best I can do is ask you to take a close look at the picture below, and then imagine that you had these fancy recliners set up all around your dining room table.  Now that would be a seder!

Or for another fantasy seder set up: Consider this picture of President Obama's conference room aboard Air Force One:

Do you think those chairs recline?!

Well...the reality is that most of us don't get to travel in first class presidential luxury.  We're relegated to coach (where it turns out that there are all sorts of newfangled devices to prevent the seat in front of you from reclining on your knees!).  And I wonder if our own seders are also the equivalent of celebrating in Coach?

Even if it's not realistic to expect to be able to recline in a leather La-Z-Boy around your table next Friday are a few quick suggestions on how you can bring a heightened sense of luxury/splurging to your seder table:
Whether you recline every night or just on seder night....or whether you never recline at all....wishing you and your families a happy, healthy, and meaningful Passover,

Rabbi Brown

Friday, March 23, 2012

Who/What Calls Out to You?

I have been quite distressed about the events that played out in France earlier this week.  If you tuned out from the world over the last few days, then you missed the fact that an Al Qaeda sympathizer (and French citizen of North African descent) shot four Jews (including several children) connected to the Jewish day school in Toulouse, France and three French paratroopers.  The shooter is now dead.  For me the shocking anti-Semitism that sprang forth from this man's fundamentalist Islamic identity is only a tiny bit more disturbing than the fact that a human being would be able to commit this kind of heinous violence in any context.

The incident got me to thinking about the broader philosophical question that asks: where does our morality...our sense of right and wrong...come from?

This week, Jews all over the world begin reading the third book of the Torah: Sefer Vayikra (the Book of Leviticus).  Vayikra, the Hebrew name of Leviticus as well as the name of this week's Torah portion, means "He [God] called."

Responding to the fact that the portion opens with the announcement that God specifically called out to Moses, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, founder of Modern Orthodoxy in 19th century Germany, suggests that the Torah uses these words to emphasize Divine Authorship of the Torah.  Which is to say that vayikra, to Hirsch, is proof of an actual, direct, personal revelation from God to Moses.  And, for Hirsch and traditional Judaism....that Moses passed the contents of that revelation (i.e. message from God) to the Israelites who.....after a few thousand years ultimately passed it down to us.

For Hirsch and for traditional Judaism: our morality...our sense of right and wrong comes directly from God.  We know that we're not supposed to do X because the Torah says so.  And we know that the Torah is "right" because God authored it.

There are many, many Jews in the world today who embrace that theology.  And not just in Orthodoxy.  There are even some members of our own Reform community who think about the text (and God) in that way.

Although it is my job as a rabbi to respect that view, and to support those whose faith journeys have brought them to that place, I myself cannot embrace that way of thinking about our sacred text, and about God.

Over-venerating a sacred text, and justifying violence out of a belief that a person's sacred text is the 'absolute truth' is in my opinion extraordinarily irresponsible.  It was extraordinarily irresponsible of this Muslim fanatic in France (whose name I cannot bring myself to type here) in exactly the same way that it was extraordinarily irresponsible of someone like Baruch Goldstein to massacre innocent Arabs or for Yigal Amir to assassinate Yitzchak Rabin.  Goldstein and Amir, both so-called observant Jews, believed that their interpretations of Judaism justified their respective acts of violence.

There is, of course, a wide wide gulf between a person who believes that Scripture was authored by God, and a person who uses that belief to justify acts of violence.  Nonetheless, for me, there is a certain danger even in believing that the text was divinely authored...because it brings us that much closer to the slippery slope of authorizing violence in the name of God/tradition.

(I hope some of you will disagree with me on this point!  Would love to hear from you about it.)

But let's say you agree with me...that the Torah was not authored by God.  Where does that leave us?  What is the source of our morality?  If we do not believe that God authored the text, then what makes the Torah special?  And if it is not 'special', then how/why should we rely on it more for moral guidance than any of the other great texts of our Homer or Shakespeare?

I wish that this blog posting gave me the space to begin answering that central question!  There are so many different answers that modern Judaism offers to it....answers from thinkers whose names are Buber and Rosenzweig and Kaplan - Jewish philosophers who 'privileged' the Bible because it is the sacred text handed down by our people....but who did not 'over-privilege it' - by presuming divine authorship.

Anyone who cares about their Jewish identity outside of an Orthodox context should be spending more time studying these thinkers!  But in the meantime, I want to turn the tables and ask you: Who/What Calls Out to You?  How are you guided in the moral choices that you make every day?  How do you distinguish between right and wrong?  Are your choices based on words that are printed in a book (Bible or otherwise)?  Are they based on values that a role model taught you?  Are they based on a set of rules that you/your conscience deduced for yourself?  On this week in which we celebrate vayikra, Who/What Calls Out to You?

I'd love to hear your always.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown