Acclamation for Methuselah

In the book and movie Jurassic Park, scientists extract DNA from the blood in ancient mosquitos trapped in amber to produce modern versions of long dead dinosaurs. The results, predictably, are disastrous as the previously extinct beasts rampage and kill. It’s a fascinating idea, science reviving the dead, and now researchers in Israel have done just that. They didn’t bring back the T Rex, but instead the noble date.

15 years ago, scientists at Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel grew a date tree from thousand year old seeds found in an archaeological dig, which they named Methuselah. Since then they have grown more trees from ancient seeds, enough to pollinate a female palm in order to produce dates.

Appropriately, the first tree to grow dates for harvest is named Hannah, in the Bible the mother of Samuel. This Saturday, in the Haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we read the story of how Hannah was infertile but desperately wanted a child. She prayed to God and was blessed with becoming the mother of one of the greatest prophets in Israel.

The scientists were looking to revive the ancient Judean date, long extinct but noted in literature for being one of the best varieties in the world. It now appears that they have done it and the result, according to the New York Times, is a “chewy texture and a subtle sweetness”. Who knows, perhaps someday we will be able to purchase them in the supermarket labeled, as the kibbutzniks joked, “the dates that Jesus ate”.

In Jurassic Park, author Michael Critchon uses the story as a metaphor to warn of the potential dangers of science. Just because you might be able to revive dinosaurs does not necessary mean that you should. Technological advances always come with unintended consequences.

There is probably little to fear of these new-old dates. They are not likely to go on a rampage through the desert. Instead they are a beautiful metaphor for the State of Israel, the revival of the Jewish people’s sovereignty in our ancient land. They are also a compelling story for the High Holy Days, which is why we read about the births of Isaac and Samuel on Rosh Hashanah. Even in dark times, when all seems lost, there is hope. Nothing is gone forever. Instead, each year we are given the possibility to fulfill our dreams, to “renew our days as of old”.

From Synagogue to Home

A crisis often exposes what is important in life. In normal times our actions are guided by inertia as often as intention. We do things because that is always the way we have done them. But when we face a challenge we have to decide what is critical and must be preserved at all costs, and what can be done away with. The High Holy Days, transformed by crisis this year, have given us an opportunity to remember and embrace the things that are most precious about this time of year.

Normally we file into synagogues in great numbers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and listen to the themes of the days delivered in song or speech. This year will require a bit more initiative and innovation on everyone’s part. So what are the essential elements of the Days of Awe, and how can we preserve them in authentic, but new and meaningful ways?

The mitzvot, or obligations, of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are actually quite simple. On both holidays we are required to light candles in the evening and say the proscribed prayers, but of course we are obliged to pray three times every day of the year. The liturgy of these days has built up over the years, but many of the piyyutim, the poetry, are included as custom and not required. On Rosh Hashanah there is a special Kiddush over wine or grape juice and we are obligated to hear the shofar blown. On Yom Kippur we don’t eat, drink, wear leather shoes, bathe, apply lotions, or engage in sexual relations.

When you think about it, the mitzvot of the High Holy Days are pretty modest and are summarized in the above paragraph. If you simply do those things, you have fulfilled your obligations. The various customs, tickets, ushers, security, flowers, etc. have been added over the years for all kinds of reasons, but aren’t necessary to the holidays.

Of course there is more to the Days of Awe than their mitzvot. We also must seriously consider our actions this past year and try to do better. This process of teshuvah requires us to reconnect with God and the people around us, which is a major challenge in a year like this where so many of us feel cut off and isolated.

We are used to doing most of the mitzvot of the High Holy Days in synagogue, but there is no reason they must take place there. One can pray anywhere; the shofar can be blown at home. If you are not able to go to synagogue, you can still tune in to services at home, but it’s important to think about creating an inviting space for prayer in your house. How will you enhance your intention through the clothes you wear, the scents you smell, the objects you see around you?

Rather than extremes of wearing workout clothes or the suit and tie you are used to wearing on the High Holy Days, consider finding a special, but comfortable outfit that reflects the mood of reflection. Set up the space where you are streaming with Judaica and pictures of family and friends. Try to reduce distractions by removing or covering your keyboard or mouse to prevent you from surfing the web during the service. The Rabbinical Assembly also has a helpful guide in making your Zoom experience Shabbat and Yom Tov friendly.

The High Holy Days are usually thought of as synagogue holidays, but this was not always the case. In the Talmud, the sage Abaye mentions important symbolic foods on Rosh Hashanah, and these became a seder, in the mode of Passover, in the Sefardic and Mizrachi traditions. The Rabbinical Assembly has a beautiful new haggadah to help bring some of the important themes and customs into our homes. May these new (to some) rituals bring us closer to the essence of our most power of days.

The Warmth of Peace

This week, for the first time ever, an Israeli passenger jet took off from Tel Aviv and landed in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The historic occasion was the establishment of official relations between Israel and the UAE, marking the third time an Arab nation has made peace with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan.

The difference between this agreement, known as the Abraham Accord, and past Arab treaties, is that there seems to be a genuine sense of warmth between the two countries. With Egypt and Jordan there are deep, high-level security and political ties, but the media and average citizens tend to be anti-Israel, resulting in what has been referred to as a cold peace.

The warmth of the new Israel-UAE relations could be the result of two developments. While the announcement of the Abraham Accord was a surprise bombshell, the two countries have been cooperating and building a relationship for years. The official cementing of ties is only the result of work that has been accumulating from the bottom up. In addition, while Israel fought multiple bloody wars against Egypt and Jordan, it has little negative baggage with a country like the UAE.

One important question is whether this new alliance will encourage other Arab nations to establish relations with Israel. So far, there have been encouraging signs. Saudi Arabia allowed the El Al jet to use its airspace for its historic mission, and there are indications this will be a permanent change.

In a year of chaos and confusion, the Israel-UAE deal is a bright spot. Peace is always a good thing, and it’s exciting to think about the possibilities of Arab-Israeli cooperation. The sky’s the limit as these two thriving nations join hands in cooperation and mutual respect.

The Eyes of the Persecuted

57 years ago today, August 27, hundreds of thousands of people were preparing for a historic mass march on Washington which would become a turning point in American democracy. It would be the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech but also powerful addresses by the John Lewis and Rabbi Joachim Prinz. On that same day, thousands of miles away in Accra, Ghana, the great civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois died at the age of 95.

The news of his death was announced, rather reluctantly because of Du Bois’ embrace of communism late in life, the next day to the huge crowd on the national mall: “at the dawn of the twentieth century his was the voice that was calling to you to gather here today in this cause.” I learned of this intersection of history on a visit this week to the W.E.B. Du Bois Boyhood Homesite in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

The national historic site consists of a trail though the property when Du Bois grew up and which he later owned. There are displays along the way with pictures, quotes, and explanations of his life and influence. The path leads to the footprint of the long ago demolished house. There one must imagine the home he occupied as a child and which he had a deep attachment to.

One of the organizations Du Bois cofounded, the NAACP, helped organize the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and is still going strong today. Unfortunately its Philadelphia chapter has been in the news because its president posted an anti-Semitic image on his Facebook page. The national organization has now taken control of the chapter and removed the local leadership.

Du Bois most likely would have been saddened by his organization’s association with hateful images toward Jews. Early on, he understood the barbarism of the Holocaust spoke out against it.

Earlier, he also had a keen understanding of how different groups in America saw each other. In a 1923 interview in the Forverts Yiddish newspaper, Du Bois explained it this way:

“When the immigrant from Eastern Europe meets the Negro in New York,” Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois told us, “he is curious. He has never before seen a colored man; he therefore gazes at him as something new and novel. In his next step, through the process of Americanization, the immigrant will be told to avoid the Negroes, not to have any dealings with them, etc., etc. and later the final step, he will unconsciously begin to absorb the current prejudices against Negroes.”

These new immigrants had no ill will toward African Americans because they knew nothing about them. It was the process of Americanization which created prejudice.

Du Bois was no idealist about harmony among different groups. In the interview he says “a persecuted people sees other people with the eyes of the persecutor.” With a lack of knowledge about the other, we tend to form our opinions from what we see in the media. The great challenge is to overcome this divide and see others as they would like to be seen, to develop deep empathy so that we can see other people with the eyes of the persecuted. That is how many Jews eventually came to identify with and support the civil rights movement, and how we today can help in the fight to truly end systemic racism once and for all.

Bring it Home

It’s been 5 months since our world changed. For many, it felt like being grounded by our parents: no more going out, the party’s over. Everyone has responded in their own way. Some love the fact that the Internet and streaming platforms can bring the world to our screens. Others are not interested in Zoom or any video conferencing app.

These changes have had a profound effect on all aspects of existence, including synagogue life. While Zoom services have brought many new participants each week, others who were shul regulars have no interest in a digital option. So what is someone who won’t do Zoom and can’t attend an in-person service to do?

This is a question I and many other rabbis have been asking ourselves as we try and create a plan for the High Holy Days. Our first holiday in quarantine, Passover, was relatively simple to plan for by comparison. Most Jews celebrate Pesah with a Seder (or two) that they prepare in their home or attend in someone else’s. The main concern was integrating Zoom into our traditional domestic celebration.

The High Holy Days presents a complex challenge because the fundamental way we Jews commemorate these days is through large in person gatherings in our synagogues, probably the most risky behavior anyone can engage in during a global pandemic. For 5 months few of us have participated in any gathering of more than a handful of people indoors.

So how can we create a meaningful High Holy Day experience? At Adath, our solution is to try and create multiple options, with different platforms, for people to have a spiritual and meaningful experience. God willing, there will be will indoor in person options (limited to a maximum of 25), but all of our services will be available on Zoom for those who remain at home. There will also be outdoor options: Tashlich and Shofar service on Rosh Hashanah and Yizkor on Erev Yom Kippur (with a Zoomed Yizkor on Yom Kippur day as well).

This is not a year in which Jews will simply be able to walk into shul, slide into the pew and passively experience reflection, repentance and atonement. The months of Elul and Tishrei have always been a time for work on our own, but personal commitment, initiative and creativity are vital this year. That is why we will provide resources for people to bring more of the holidays home for themselves and their families. One great idea is to create a Rosh Hashanah Seder based on the Sephardic tradition of having special symbolic foods on the holiday table that go beyond the basic apples and honey.

My colleague Rabbi Nicole Guzik recently wrote a piece encouraging us to not “opt out” of Judaism this year. It is easy to despair and decide that doing Jewish in a time of pandemic is just too difficult or not worth the effort. After all, the High Holy Days aren’t going to look and feel like what we are used to. But this is specifically the time to commit. If our ancestors were willing to hold on to their heritage under brutal conditions of oppression and poverty, we can do so during a global pandemic.

We must ensure that there is strong, vibrant Jewish community after all of this is over, and that means making a personal commitment to engage in Jewish life. One way to begin is to sign up for Jewels of Elul. You will get a thought each day of the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, an opportunity to start the important personal work necessary for a truly meaningful Days of Awe.

A Second First

When Joe Biden named Kamala Harris as his running mate this week, news organizations commented on a number of historic firsts: the first Indian-American and African-American woman to be named to a national ticket. She would not, however, be the first person of color to hold the position of vice president if elected. That distinction goes to Charles Curtis, Herbert Hoover’s vice president and a member of Kaw Nation.

Most mainstream news outlets failed to note another potential first in her nomination. If she were to win, her husband, Doug Emhoff, would become the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president, even though her step-children would not be the first Jews in a first or second family (Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka is Jewish, but she converted).

When I informed my family of this fact they noted it with muted enthusiasm, which perhaps is a good thing. Jews have entered the upper echelons of American political life to such an extent that having a Jewish second spouse only registers a ho-hum reaction. After all, twenty years ago an Orthodox Jew almost became vice president himself.

Success is good, but maybe it also breeds complacency. We are used to seeing Jews in power or close to it, but we should also celebrate these historic firsts. In a time of increased anti-Semitism in America, we should remember that non-Jews in this country love us so much that they are willing to marry us, and long gone are the days when such a union would damage a political career.

While Harris herself is not Jewish, she does have a Yiddish-ish nickname. It seems that her step-children call her Momala (rhymes with Kamala), which they may or may not have intentionally pulled from the Yiddish word for “little mama”, mamaleh.

The Harris-Emhoff marriage is indicative of so much in America today: the melting pot, blended families, power couples, and social media (Emhoff is a big cheerleader for his wife on Instagram). Their partnership also embodies the large tent that is American Judaism; it’s not just the literal Jews who represent us, but those adjacent to us: the spouses, allies, and friends who support us.

If They Could See Us Now

What would your ancestors who lived a hundred years ago think of you today? We like to think that they would be proud of us, that the hard work they put into making a better life for us has paid off. On the other hand, would they be disappointed? Have we truly lived up to the expectations they set for us?

The reality is that we cannot know the answer to these questions because our ancestors are long gone, but what if we could talk to them? That is the premise of a new movie starring Seth Rogen called An American Pickle. In it, a Jewish pickle man falls into a vat of brine that preserves him for a hundred years. He meets his only descendant living in a very different Brooklyn and is baffled by the changes he sees.

To promote the film, Rogen went on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast and discussed a number of Jewish issues, the most controversial of which was Rogen’s comment that “[a]s a Jewish person, like I was fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life. You know, they never tell you that […] there were people there. They make it seem like it was just sitting there.” Some took issue with Rogen’s simplistic portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while others regretted that someone who went to a Labor Zionist sleepaway camp for many years would not have received a better education.

Rogen’s comments are one more example of the increasing divide between the establishment Jewish community and some liberal millennial Jews. What I found more interesting was the discussion he and Maron had about their Jewish identity as it relates to their ancestors. Both grew up in the West, but have relatives from New Jersey. They talked about their shared working class family history.

Rogen noted that he came from a family of postal workers and plumbers and that his grandfather looked askance at the younger generation’s middle class ways. For Rogen and Maron, there are tough Jews and soft Jews, and most of the current generation are the latter: people who don’t work with their hands, have advanced degrees, and live lives of relative comfort.

Of course the immigrant generation had to be tough: as Rogen points out, virtually every Jew in America has grandparents or great grandparents who fled someone trying to kill them. Immigrants also had to work long, difficult hours just to get by. Ultimately, our ancestors made these sacrifices so that their children and grandchildren could have better lives.

While much has been gained by the advancements of the Jewish community in America, we should also acknowledge what has been lost. I don’t necessarily agree with Rogen that we have gone soft, but as Jews have assimilated and spread out through the country we have lost some of the warm communal feel of the old days. Long gone are the corner delis and walking neighborhoods with shuls on every block. So what would our ancestors say if they could see us now? Perhaps with a little bit of astonishment and some amusement they might shake their heads and tell us, “What a country.”

Plausible Hatred

Today, July 30th, is the Jewish commemoration of Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. It is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, when we remember the destruction of both temples in Jerusalem, by the Babylonians and the Romans, and many other terrible events such as the expulsion from Spain. This moment in our calendar is a time for reflection on the tragedies in our history.

For centuries, Jews have grappled with the question, how do we derive lessons from these awful events? While it is important to acknowledge our pain and mourn our loss, we also have to move forward with lessons learned. Traditionally we understand that the temples were destroyed because of our sins. In particular, according to the Talmudic rabbis, the First Temple was destroyed because the Israelites worshiped idols, committed acts of violence, and engaged in sexual indiscretions.

The rabbis then note that right before the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jewish people were not idolaters and were peaceful and generally pious people. So why then did God destroy the holy sanctuary? There answer is that the people committed the sin of sin’at chinam, baseless hatred (Yoma 9b). Sin’at chinam has become almost a cliché in recent years as Jewish leaders encourage us to stamp out this phenomenon which we still face today.

But what exactly is baseless hatred? Is it an excessive dislike of someone? If so, what would be an appropriate hatred? Is the sin of sin’at chinam taught to just encourage us to love other people more and try to give up our feelings of hatred? A few years ago Yair Rosenberg, writing in Tablet magazine, pointed out that very often we get this concept wrong.

Rosenberg gives numerous examples of people accusing their ideological opponent of sin’at chinam, which for him misses the point. He quotes the historian Isaiah Gafni, who jokes that “I am not plagued with sin’at chinam. The people that I hate really deserve it!” He’s not wrong. Usually we have a very good reason to hate someone: they have offended us; they hold a position we find odious; they have treated others with disdain.

Rosenberg argues that the point of sin’at chinam is that it must spur us to look inward. If you accuse someone else of baseless hatred, the concept has gone over your head. The ancient rabbis, when giving an example of this idea, tell the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza (Gittin 55b) in which a man mistakenly invites his mortal enemy to his party. When the man shows up to the affair, the party thrower kicks him out in front of several rabbis in attendance who do nothing. The humiliated man then goes and denounces the Jews to the Romans, leading ultimately to the destruction of the temple.

The moral of the story is not that man who threw the party shouldn’t have hated his enemy; it’s that the rabbis stood by and did nothing as a man was humiliated. They had no reason to hate him and yet they allowed him to be thrown out. The rabbis of the Talmud engage in a healthy dose of self-criticism, understanding that sin’at chinam is ultimately about their failing.

Needless to say, in our highly polarized country, hatred of all kinds is a real problem, but it would be disingenuous of me to argue that we are guilty only of baseless hatred. This is not an episode of Star Trek where the people who are black on their right side are fighting against the people who are white on their right side. We all have very good reasons for our opposition to the other side, but are we truly prepared, like the rabbis of old, to look internally at our own flaws.

With sin’at chinam in mind, I hope you will join us for Examining Racism: Looking Inward First, a two part workshop that begins August 4 at 7:00 PM and will be facilitated by members of Not in Our Town Princeton. In order to make meaningful change we must begin with ourselves and understand the biases we carry and how they profoundly affect us and those around us.

Plenty of Fight Left Over

After many long months without professional sports in America, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League are all set to start, or restart, their seasons in the next few weeks. I am looking forward to watching my beloved San Antonio Spurs once again, even if they have little to no chance of making the playoffs after 22 straight years. It’s going to be wonderful having the distraction of sports bring some normalcy to our lives, even if athletes playing in empty stadiums and arenas will make for a weird sight.

Rather than focus on games, since March sports discussions have centered either on the necessary COVID protections athletes will need or social justice issues. There have been some inspiring stories, like the WNBA star Maya Moore, who took a hiatus from basketball to work on criminal justice reform. She recently got to witness the release of Jonathan Irons, whose conviction she helped overturn.

When the NBA restarts its season next week it will have the words Black Lives Matter on the court, and many of its players, coaches and staff have marched in protests against police brutality and spoken out.

There have also, unfortunately, been examples of anti-Semitism from athletes and other celebrities in the name of social justice. Philadelphia Eagles player DeSean Jackson posted a quote falsely attributed to Hitler stating that the Jews “will blackmail America”. Many condemned his social media post, but others defended him, leading to some difficult reckonings in my personal fandom.

Former NBA player Stephen Jackson, who helped the San Antonio win the 2003 NBA championship, initially defended DeSean Jackson until he too apologized. On the other hand, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whose Lakers used to destroy the Spurs in the 1980s, wrote a piece in the Hollywood Reporter condemning these recent anti-Semitic incidents. Sometimes your heroes disappoint you, and sometimes your enemies make you reassess your hatred.

Abdul-Jabbar made a point that one undertone from the controversy over these statements is a certain apathy to the experiences of others. The writer Jemele Hill also argues that just because one may be part of an oppressed community does not automatically make one sensitive to the plight of others. Jews are guilty of this too: our own pain can sometimes blind us to the suffering of other groups.

One of the important principles of Judaism is kol Israel areivim zeh bezeh, “all Jews are responsible for one another”. We understand that ultimately, we must rely on each other because we cannot expect others to do so, but that doesn’t mean we should sink into pessimism about all non-Jews. While our first priority is to fight for ourselves, we have plenty of fight left over for anyone who is in need. We hope, and expect, that other groups will rise up to defend us in turn so that together we can work towards justice for all.

Disease and Culture

Jewish customs and traditions have been especially challenged during the coronavirus pandemic. We are used to gathering in groups, hugging and kissing at services, weddings and funerals. Our traditional methods for combatting illness – communal prayer and visiting the sick – are not only unwise; they could actively lead to an increase of cases. As has been the case for millennia, disease is not only a scientific challenge; it can also reshape culture.

How will Jewish life be reshaped by the coronavirus? Perhaps it is too early to say, but there certainly will be effects. Elon Gilad, writing in Haaretz in April, traced Jewish responses to disease from Biblical times to the present. He noted that while the story is told that Jews died in fewer numbers from the Black Death than their Christian neighbors, there is no evidence for such a claim. He writes, “possibly the idea that Jews were for some reason less susceptible to the disease was a rationalization to explain why Christians reacted to the Black Death by indiscriminately slaughtering Jews. Epidemics to this day often lead to the persecution of minorities.”

Indeed we see today that the coronavirus has disproportionately affected communities of color in the United States. Those without the resources to protect themselves from an outbreak are especially susceptible, including in the Native American community.

Of course, this is not the first time that disease has struck the native peoples of this continent. Jake Page writes in his book In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians that “it may be no exaggeration that European-borne disease killed more American Indians in those first few decades [of contact] than were born in the next four hundred years.” (p. 102)

European disease, especially smallpox, was devastating to the native population and had profound effects on the culture. Very often the disease spread to a tribe or group even before first contact with explorers or colonists. Inter-tribal trade would bring smallpox to outlining areas so that by the time Europeans arrived in some locations, the societies had already been completely transformed.

Sometimes the devastation of new diseases caused the consolidation of tribes and the concentration of political power in one group or leader. European colonists took advantage of the fact that their illnesses did much of the conquering before they even arrived.

Unfortunately, pandemics are still with us, still wreaking havoc, particularly on the most vulnerable. But the traditional Jewish responses are also still appropriate, the three principles we embrace on the High Holy Days: teshuva, tefila, tzedakah. As teshuva teaches, we must be able to change our ways by wearing masks and staying apart to stop the spread. We still need the power of prayer, tefila, and now as ever the justice that comes from tzedakah can help to heal the damage caused by disease, not only to individuals, but to society as a whole.