Talk Turkey

This year’s Thanksgiving will certainly be different than that of years past. Our meals will be smaller, our gatherings migrated to Zoom and other video chat platforms. And yet we still come together to give thanks for what we have and the blessings that fill our lives.

Over the years I have pointed out the Jewish connections to Thanksgiving. One of my favorites is the name of the holiday. In Hebrew the bird we call turkey is known as hodu, but it also means “give thanks”, which means that the Hebrew for Thanksgiving, Yom Hodu, is particularly apt.

In an even weirder twist, the word hodu also means India in Hebrew, while in English Turkey is a separate country. It seems that the names for the bird come from misunderstandings about its place of origin. While the turkey originated in North America (that’s why we eat it on Thanksgiving after all), Europeans first encountered the bird through intermediary countries.

One point of origin was Turkey and so in English it was known as the “Turkey fowl”, while other languages, including Hebrew, connect it with India (“Indian fowl”), either because of Christopher Columbus’ mistaken belief that he had reached India when he came to North America, or because they imported the birds from that country.

There is a final, amusing legend that connects the turkey, Columbus, and the Jewish people, but is almost certainly just a myth. The first Jew to reach the New World may have been a man named Luis de Torres, a translator in service to Columbus, who expected that he would find the lost tribes of Israel on his journey. He needed someone who could speak Semitic languages so he purportedly employed a Spanish converso who had been born Yosef ben HaLevi HaIvri.

De Torres stayed on Hispaniola after Columbus left and his fate is unknown, but he was probably killed by the natives. He and another explorer were the first to encounter tobacco, and legend has it that de Torres gave the turkey its name when he mistook the bird for a parrot, which is called tukki in Hebrew. This is story is almost certainly false since turkeys don’t really look like parrots, and the origin of the word through the importation of the birds through Turkey is fairly clear.

No matter what you call it, this year our turkeys are going to be smaller with fewer mouths to feed around the holiday table. As we partake of our meal, let’s take a moment to contemplate hodu: to give thanks for all that we have, and also consider the strange and wonderful journey of language through human history.

From Israel with Love

As a fan of my hometown San Antonio Spurs, I have been incredibly blessed to watch the team win 5 championships in 15 years and make the playoffs for 22 seasons in a row. So this year it was a bit odd to watch the NBA Draft and see my team pick a player in the lottery at number 11. The Spurs are used to finding overlooked gems late in the draft rather than the big stars, and this year I was hoping the team would get a chance to take a well-regarded Israeli prospect, Deni Avdija.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as the 19 year old forward for Maccabi Tel Aviv was snapped up by the Washington Wizards with the 9th pick, two slots before the Spurs. The large and active DC area Jewish community will get to enjoy the native son on their team instead.

Avdija’s background is particularly interesting. His mother is a Jewish Israeli former track and field athlete, while his father is a Muslim Serbian-Israeli former basketball player. It’s easy to see where Avdija gets his athletic background. His father came to Israel to play professional basketball and stayed, something others have done as well.

Israeli professional teams, like their counterparts in Europe and America, are always on the lookout for international talent. Sometimes they bring over American college basketball stars who couldn’t break into the hyper competitive world of the NBA. Teams also import aging professional stars whose best days are behind them. Occasionally, these players fall in love with the country and make Israel their home.

One such example is Amar’e Stoudemire, a former NBA all-star who traced his lineage back to Jewish ancestors. After finishing his career playing for Israeli teams and becoming a citizen, he decided to further his exploration of Judaism and eventual converted. This coming season he will join his old friend and teammate Steve Nash as an assistant coach for the Brooklyn Nets.

Israel has a long history with the NBA, sometimes taking talent and sometimes giving it. Avdija will join Omri Caspi as Israelis taken in the first round, but over 55 years ago Israel was on the receiving end of NBA lottery-level talent from America. Trenton’s own Tal Brody was selected 12th overall in the draft by Baltimore Bullets, but decided instead to play professionally in Israel, reaching legendary status as he led teams to championships.

In history, what goes around comes around. In 1965 the Bullets lost out on the chance to add Brody’s point guard skills to their team. In 2020, their predecessor, the current Washington Wizards, get a bit of compensation as they bring in some fresh Israeli talent. Who knows, perhaps Avdija will create a legendary career of his own.

Smart is Good

Two important voices who preached the importance of knowledge left us within hours of each other. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom died on November 7 and Alex Trebek, the host of the TV game show Jeopardy!, passed away on November 8. At first glance they had little in common – one was Jewish, the other not – but they both championed intelligence in an increasingly anti-intellectual age.

I grew up watching Jeopardy! almost every evening. I loved challenging myself to get as many answers (phrased in the form of a question) right as possible. I wasn’t the best at sports, but I killed it in Jeopardy! and enjoyed impressing anyone who might watch with me, from my grandmother to my future wife, who to this day still says “You should go on Jeopardy!” any time I answer trivia correctly.

Trebek presided over the show with a cool, but encouraging demeanor. He was the king of nerds, but demonstrated that one could be well-dressed, smooth, and confident as well as smart. He was even popular with the ladies of a certain age. My Bratislava-born grandmother always said, with a twinkle in her eye, that he was “so simpatico”.

Rabbi Sacks demonstrated the other end of the knowledge spectrum. While he was certainly a brilliant mind, his intellectual persona did not derive from the recitation of facts and trivia. Instead he looked to the deep wells of wisdom from the Jewish and secular traditions to help make civilization more humane. While many of his fellow religious leaders moved toward zealotry and extremism, Rabbi Sacks argued for pluralism and common ground.

During rabbinical school I read his book The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations for a class in Jewish ethics. The book was written after the attacks on September 11, 2001 and represent Rabbi Sack’s argument for the possibility that the various religions of the world can live in peace under shared values. While his argument may not have been original, the fact that an Orthodox rabbinic leader was willing to embrace pluralism was especially important in an increasing intolerant world.

Rabbi Sacks has come to be known not just for his publications, but also for the Torah that he taught online. His thoughts and questions on the weekly portion are popular because he was not afraid to tackle difficult issues in an intellectually honest way. He invited you on a quest for knowledge – one that might end up taking you throughout the Jewish tradition, but the ultimate destination was into the depths of your soul.

Trebek and Sacks showed that you don’t need to be pigeonholed by a high IQ. Indeed it can be cool to be good at trivia, and Jewish knowledge can, and in fact should, be shared with the world. These two men, at different points in my life, were inspirations, and our world is a little less smart without them.

Keep Talking

As votes continue to be counted and our 2020 anxiety shifts from worrying about the election to worrying about the results of the election, thoughts turn to the interpretation of what these (early) returns might mean. I suspect that that most people are feeling disappointed right now, regardless of political affiliation. Republicans are upset that it appears the president has lost the possibility of a second term while Democrats are crushed that there wasn’t a landslide in favor of Biden in addition to the realization that there is a diminishing chance that they win the Senate, not to mention losing seats in the House.

Our crazy pandemic election may contribute a bit to this overall feeling that no one actually won the election. It is much more exciting to celebrate victory right after the votes are cast than to finally be declared a winner days later. The ballots that are counted in the next few days and weeks might change the characterization of the election as candidates who squeaked by learn that their victories were actually quite substantial, but by that time the nation may have moved on after forming an initial narrative.

During this indeterminate period when it seems everyone feels like a loser, it might help to look back to a Jewish story from the Talmud for a little solace. In the tractate Bava Metzia, a group of rabbis debate a question of law. On one side is a large group of rabbis who share the same opinion. On the other side is only one voice, Rabbi Eliezer, who is outnumbered, but uses miracles to prove his point. The other rabbis are unimpressed so Rabbi Eliezer pulls out the big guns. A voice from heaven supports his argument.

What happens next is fascinating. The rabbis respond that “[the Torah] is not in heaven” and anyway Jewish law follows the majority of rabbis. Up in heaven, God smiles and says “My children have defeated me.” The story is an affirmation of the Jewish value of democracy, but it also should provide some comfort to the loser of the debate. Rabbi Eliezer really does hold the right opinion; God is on his side, but that does not mean he will win the earthly contest.

Elections are not arbiters of the truth with a capital T. Instead they allow communities to function and figure out questions of governance and policy. If you were on the losing side of election or are disappointed that so many people in the country hold positions you find objectionable, that doesn’t mean you are wrong about what you believe. Like Rabbi Eliezer, you may be right, with God on your side, but the key to our system is to accept the outcome and move on, even if you are not convinced by the other side.

I pray that once we have a full picture of this election that everyone, from the highest offices in government to the average citizen, will accept the results, but that does not mean it is time to stop working or caring about the ideas you believe in. The ancient rabbis may have defeated God, but they didn’t stop arguing or trying to convince each other of the rightness of their position. American civilization, like Jewish civilization, is a long, sometimes heated and contentious, conversation. We have no choice but to keep talking to each other.

Warrior for Peace

Today is observed as Yom Rabin, Yitzhak Rabin Day in Israel. It marks the yahrzeit of the general and prime minister who made peace with the Palestine Liberation Organization and was assassinated by a Jewish extremist 25 years ago. I remember the day vividly as we in America heard the tragic news on a Saturday night. I quickly went online searching for information on the early Internet during a chaotic time.

Much has happened in the decades since, including the transformation of Rabin’s legacy. In the immediate aftermath, Rabin was hailed a warrior for peace, someone who was willing to risk his life to give a better future for Israelis and Palestinians. Bill Clinton famously ended his eulogy with the words “Shalom, chaver”, “Goodbye, friend.”

As Israelis and Palestinians have become disillusioned with the peace process, if not with peace itself, Rabin’s image has shifted. For many on the left, he was a monumental figure who embodied the desire of a generation to end war and occupation. They focused on the final years of his life. This was Rabin the Nobel Peace Prize winner.

But of course Rabin was more complicated than that. He was a war hero, a general who took part in the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from the town of Lydda. As the Israel Defense Force chief of staff, he oversaw the victory of the Six Day War in 1967, although it led to a nervous breakdown on his part. He famously declared that the IDF should “break the bones” of Palestinian protesters during the first Intifada.

This picture of Rabin the founding father of Israel and warrior is one that is embraced by those on the right who condemned what they consider his grievous mistake of shaking PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s hand on the White House lawn in 1993. Ironically, after 25 years of failed peacemaking, many on the left choose to remember the militaristic side of Rabin as well.

For this year’s 25th yahrzeit, American’s for Peace Now held an event to celebrate Rabin’s legacy, and they invited New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. At first she accepted the invitation, but then, under pressure from Palestinians and other progressives, she withdrew. It is amazing and disheartening how far the quest for peace has fallen in 25 years. A man who was once an icon of the search for harmony and reconciliation, who literally died because he was willing to give land for peace, is now considered, in some circles, just a colonialist oppressor.

Fortunately, there were some other progressives at the Americans for Peace Now virtual event, albeit lesser known. Rabin’s example of transformation and hope is not dead. In fact, his life should be an inspiration for us at a time when Israelis and Palestinians seem locked in place with no solution on the horizon. If someone with Yitzhak Rabin’s past could overcome war and violence and say “[e]nough of blood and tears”, then anything is possible. You never know who might step forward to be the next hero for peace.

Elections Have Consequences

In American high anxiety reigns as we look forward to Election Day in less than two weeks, while in Israel leaders are now facing the consequences of an election that took place months ago. Right before the coronavirus shut down much of our normal life, the elections for the World Zionist Congress concluded weeks of online voting. The result was an increase in overall turnout and a victory for Orthodox parties in America.

This week the newly elected delegates to the Congress are meeting virtually to set the agenda for a number of important institutions in Israel and around the world. One third of the seats go to America, one third to the rest of the world, and one third to Israel. The American delegates are determined by the elections that concluded in March while the Israeli delegates are apportioned based on representation in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. There are various methods of choosing the delegations from the rest of the world.

Usually, leadership positions in organizations like the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund are distributed by consensus. The various Jewish groups understand that they need to be inclusive and allow many voices to participate in decision making. This year, however, right wing and Orthodox parties struck a deal to seize control over top posts at the expense of liberal and non-Orthodox factions.

While the leadership of the Reform and Conservative movements acknowledge that they must create space for the newly ascendant Orthodox groups, there is a fear that diaspora Jewry might continue a path of alienation if it sees a takeover of the Congress by parties who seek to delegitimize liberal Judaism. As a result, the left of center coalition sought to push off a vote on the new leadership.

In addition to the delegates determined by country, there are seats also reserved for Zionist organizations like Hadassah and Bnai Brith, but these participants have not voted for leadership positions in the past. This year, however, the Conservative and Reform movements urged them to exercise their right to vote in order to preserve the consensus of the past. The result was a delay in the vote to today, the final day of the Congress, and there are some indications that a more equitable compromise has been reached.

It’s not hard to draw comparisons between the politics at the World Zionist Congress and in America. Extreme partisanship has overwhelmed the desire for consensus while norms and traditions are pushed aside as groups struggle for power in the face of changing demographics. Elections are a crucial component in democracy, but they also lead to anxiety as we await the results and try to figure out how life will change as in the future. As the saying goes, “elections have consequences”, but at the same time democracy doesn’t end even when all the votes are counted. After the election may be when the real work begins.

Life in the Clouds

What is life and what are the conditions needed for it to begin and thrive? These are questions that drive planetary scientists but also theologians. This week we begin again the reading of Bereshit, Genesis, which starts with the creation of the earth and the beginning of life on our planet. While the first chapter of Genesis does not describe a scientific process, it does give an order to creation.

A close reading of the litany of God forming the universe highlights some contradictions. This week in religious school, the 6th and 7th grade teacher, Sharon Brooks, pointed out to the children that vegetation was created on the third day while the sun was created on the fourth day. We all learned that plants require sunlight to grow so how could they be created before their source of energy?

The lesson reminded me of science’s on going search for life beyond our planet. Many researchers speculate that life might exist in underground oceans on icy moons such as Europa or Enceladus. No sunlight would penetrate the thick layers of water ice on these worlds, but we know that while life needs energy to survive, it doesn’t necessarily need light. On earth, undersea volcanic vents surrounded by darkness are teeming with life.

There are so many mysteries about life that we don’t understand. The more we look at it, the less certain we are. Perhaps that is one lesson to take from the odd order of creation in Genesis. And the questions keep coming. Last month scientists announced that there may be life on Venus, our closest planetary neighbor. It turns out that the atmosphere of the planet is filled with a molecule whose existence is best explained by the presence of microorganisms.

This news was exciting for me because I have long felt that Venus gets short shrift in favor of Mars as a destination for exploration and colonization due to a terrestrial bias. Venus, while having a reputation as a hellish place, is actually more hospitable, as long as you stay away from the surface. Unlike Mars it has gravity similar to ours, protects against radiation, and if you stay in a sweet spot way up in the atmosphere the temperature and pressure are close to high altitude spots on Earth.

How cool would it be to explore Venus from floating airships in Venus’s clouds? All you would need to go outside is a heavy winter coat and mask to provide oxygen. No spacesuit would be necessary but you would need protection from the acid rain. We could fulfill our dream of living in Cloud City, like on the Star Wars planet Bespin.

The news about possible life on Venus may inspire more missions to the planet although humans are not likely to go any time soon. In the meantime, we will continue to ponder the great questions of life: How did it begin? Are we alone? Like the observations made from telescopes and spacecraft, our reading of Genesis may not answer these questions, but they help us continue to explore our place in this continually surprising universe.

Torah at the Center

While all of the Jewish holidays pose particular challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, Simchat Torah may be the most diminished. The central ritual of this holiday includes actions that are potential spreaders of the virus: loud singing and packed in dancing. How can we possibly celebrate the holiday in a safe way?

Our answer at Adath is to plan an outdoor Torah service on Simchat Torah, Sunday, October 11 at 11:00 AM. If the weather cooperates we will gather in the open air for socially distanced hakafot (Torah processions). Live instrumental music will accompany us as we march outside without singing or dancing. It won’t be as much fun as what we are used to, but it may be more in line with the original custom. After all, hakafah literally means a circuit, to walk around or encompass, as we put Torah at the center of our gathering.

At our outdoor service we will read from the Torah safely as we finish the book of Deuteronomy and begin again with Genesis. So we will be able to experience some of the traditions of Simchat Torah in a modified form. This year, I hope, we will also take a moment to think about how we can, in other ways, make Torah the central focus of our lives.

What does Torah mean to you? How do you study it, live it? There are so many creative ways that we can apply our talents and creativity to the endeavor of Torah. One example is the Torah Stitch by Stitch project created a few years ago by a Canadian woman. It is a collaborative effort to fashion a cross stitched tapestry of the entire five books of Moses by people all over the world. Jews, Christians, Muslims, nonbelievers and everyone in between have contributed to the project by stitching 4 verses in Hebrew along with their own illuminations of the text.

The result is a beautiful, homey and profound statement on the power of the Torah. Cross stitch is really a fascinating form with a seeming amateur simplicity combined with a digital, pixelated, almost hi-tech quality. In some ways it’s the perfect medium for our times and for the timeless Torah: at once bespoke and futuristic, authentic yet fashionable.

Torah Stitch by Stitch is also a great effort for the coronavirus pandemic. While part of the Torah has been put on display, the work is unfinished but is ongoing during the pandemic; one artisan even created a panel depicting the virus. Everyone can complete their piece in the safety of their own home and the Canadian government has even given the project a recent grant “to keep Seniors meaningfully engaged”.

Walking through the giant Torah tapestry would be a wonderful Simchat Torah exercise. In fact it is the inverse of our normal ritual. Usually our dancing circles surround the Torah, while the massive cross stitched text envelopes the viewer. This year we will have to settle for pictures on the Internet, a small glimpse at the potential of collective creativity around our most sacred possession.

When a Wall is not a Wall

One of the blessings of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has forced us to question assumptions, practices and old ways of thinking. Most of life is lived through inertia: we do things a certain way because that’s always the way we have done them. But now that the coronavirus has upended our set patterns, we are forced to challenge expectations.

I have been building sukkot ever since I moved out of New York City and had the land and storage space to do so. Usually I never think about the walls of the structure. After all, the essence of a sukkah is the roof, called in Hebrew schach. It must be made of something that grows from the ground, is cut, and cannot become ritually impure.

This year, however, the walls of a sukkah are the main focus. In order to avoid infection, we need to maximize airflow and it turns out the laws of sukkot make this relatively easy. A sukkah need only have two full walls and part of a third. Depending on the situation, one can easily create a cross breeze in the structure.

In addition, the walls of the sukkah can be made of anything. The rabbis of the Talmud even discuss the possibility of using an elephant (their ruling: it depends on whether you tie the animal down, because the beast might move, rendering the sukkah unkosher). Lattice, which we used for the Adath sukkah, is ideal as it lets air in easily. In my house we are using an old trampoline net.

Rabbi Joshua Heller, in a post with COVID-related sukkah instructions, also proposes the ultimate “unwall”: a series of strings around the hut at 9 inch intervals. In addition, he reminds us that the walls of the sukkah only need to reach within 9 inches of the ground and extend for 40 inches, and they need not even extend all the way to the roof.

Clearly there are ways to make COVID-friendly sukkot, but we do need to be careful about inviting guests. With the proper airflow a sukkah can be constructed so that sitting in it is essentially like sitting outside. Many people have hosted dinners and other gathering on their patios with proper social distancing. The same guidelines would apply to Sukkot. If you have enough room to stay 6 feet apart from your guests, it should be OK to have them over.

Sadly, I have heard from a number of people that they are not building their sukkot this year because of the pandemic: if they can’t have anyone over, why bother. While I understand the sentiment, and not everyone has the ability or size to modify their sukkah, I hope people will find a way to celebrate the holiday.

At Adath we have opened the synagogue sukkah for people to sign up and use on their own since we won’t have communal gatherings there. Our expectations may have changed during the pandemic, but there is no reason to ignore Sukkot, whose message about the fragility of life is needed now as ever. On this holiday we celebrate the need for protection and safety in a troubled world. May we all find a bit of that reassurance this coming year.

RIP RBG

The Jewish community and our country as a whole lost a great figure on the eve of Rosh Hashanah last week. The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one final blow in a year full of trauma and loss. Justice Ginsburg was a strong, creative force for change who helped ensure that the law would be applied equally to everyone and she has been praised by people across the political and cultural spectrum.

The near universal mourning for Ginsburg, however, creates some odd situations. While she was a public figure and an icon, the Notorious RBG was also a Jewish woman, and sometimes that is difficult for non-Jews to understand in a predominately Christian country.

First there was the idea that floated out into the Internet that in Jewish tradition someone who dies right before Rosh Hashanah is considered a tzadik, or righteous person. I had never heard this notion, and it seems that many other rabbis had not either. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Union for Reform Judaism, suggests that the idea may be a reading of a passage in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b).

That text suggests that the completely righteous (tzadikim) are immediately sealed for life on Rosh Hashanah and don’t need the Ten Days of Repentance to receive a good judgement on Yom Kippur. Jacobs generously proposes that someone read this passage to mean that Ginsburg, last year on Rosh Hashanah, was given a whole year of life because of her righteousness. Such a creative reading, Jacobs notes, not only strains the plain meaning of the text; it is also theologically problematic.

While the nation was learning about Rosh Hashanah because of Ginsburg’s death, it also received some inaccurate information about Judaism. The Guardian newspaper, in its obituary, wrote that she “abandoned her religion” because women were not treated equally. Many pushed back on the assertion, which is the result of a non-Jewish understand of religion. While Christians might abandon their faith because of theological disagreements or a lapse in practice, many secular Jews, including Ginsburg, remain fiercely loyal to their Jewish identity regardless of synagogue affiliation or participation. The Guardian subsequently changed its article to read that she “moved away from strict religious observance”, which more accurately reflected Ginsburg’s life as a proud and knowledgeable Jew.

Indeed, during her funeral service at the Supreme Court, my friend and colleague Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt recited psalms and the El Malei memorial prayer. After a series of firsts in her life, she continues to break ground as “first Jew and the first woman to lie in repose at the court and to lie in state at the Capitol”.

While Ginsburg was universally embraced, some Jews felt the need to hold on to her as a uniquely Jewish icon. Many on social media memorialized the justice with the words “rest in peace”, which some Jews unfortunately took offense to, stating that it was incorrect to use this phrase for a Jewish person. Such an idea is news to me, since as I rabbi I have used those words at countless funerals given that it is the conclusion to our El Malei prayer.

Such protestations are an example of an overzealous defense of Jewish tradition against the encroachment of Christianity and represent an unfortunate lack of education. Many Jews are under the mistaken belief that our tradition does not have a heaven or hell. While our conceptions of the afterlife might be different from other religions, they are central to our beliefs.

I don’t know what Ruth Bader Ginsburg thought about life after death, but I do know that her legacy, her words, and her deeds will be an inspiration for Jews and all people long after she is gone. As we Jews say when someone important leaves us: zecher tzadeket livracha, may her righteous memory be a blessing.