Back in the U.S.S.R.

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Ascending our friend, Vladmir, in the streets of Minsk

This Pesach, I had the privilege to travel to Belarus with HUC-JIR to support Jewish communities in their celebrations of Pesach. I had hoped to write regularly about my experiences there, however the country remains politcally oppressive in many ways, particularly when it comes to freedom of speech and criticism of the State. As a result, I was considerably cautious in what I posted online – not wanting to jeopardize myself or the communities that I was working with. Over the next few days, this will instead be something of a retrospective of my time there. I’ll have much to say about the experiences we had in individual communities across the country throughout Pesach – I’ll update each of them in their own post. For now, I’ll begin with some observations from my initial encounters with the people and places of Belarus.

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Belarus is a difficult country to describe. As I walked the streets of its cities, towns, and villages, I often felt as though I was traveling backwards through time and space. The country is not so much a confluence of East and West, as is Israel. Rather, Belarus appears to be a country that confronts a confluence of the worlds outside of and the inside of its borders; wanting desperately to reap the benefits of the wider modern world, yet exerting extreme pressure to keep its citizens in a very specific place.

Belarus is the last Soviet country remaining in the world. One president has presided over the country for two decades, changing the rules of democratic voting to suit his own needs. Oligarchs rule the country, and there is little question of the imposing power of socialism that still grasps the land. Yet the Adidas and Levis stores are footholds of American-style capitalism, and the iPhones in the hands of its youth are a sign of the relative freedom of access to international media. This is certainly not Turkey, with its shuttering of Twitter and clamping down on the internet. Yet criticizing the government in the press is a criminal offense, and while freedom of speech exists, it is clearly limited. When speaking about the government, people either proudly proclaim their love of “our father, the president,” or speak in hushed tones, looking over their shoulders to see who might be listening.

Landing at the airport, anyone of us would be forgiven for thinking that we had stepped back in time to the 1960s U.S.S.R. We were given immigration papers that we were required to have every hotel stamp, in order to track where we were traveling within the country. We were informed that each community we visited was required to verify that we had spent time with them, and indicate what we were doing there. Stepping out of the airport into the pouring rain, I was once again confronted with the clichéd image of Eastern Europe as a cold, grey, landscape.

In some places, Minsk feels like a cosmopolitan city, with streets lined with cafes and boutiques. But then you gaze upwards and see the imposing, brutalist architecture; the looming presence of Lenin, immortalized in iron statues on corner after corner after corner; the hammer and sickle emblazoned on red stars high over head. The KGB (yes, it still exists) occupies a fortress on the main thoroughfare. While it is certainly a beautiful city, its beauty is propaganda, a tool designed in an almost sinister way to ensnare the minds and hearts of those who walk its wide streets.

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Victory Square, in downtown Minsk. The red letters on the buildings read: “Heroic deed of the people is immortal.”

Early one morning before sunrise, in a taxi on the way to the Minsk train station, Arseni – our Interpreter – was conversing with the driver in Russian. Like in Israel, taxi drivers in Belarus are often a wealth of knowledge and insight, sages on wheels. They seem to be quite open to frank conversations, immediately speaking with anyone who will listen. From my severely limited grasp of the Russian language, I could tell that they were speaking about the upcoming International Hockey Tournament taking place in the city, and the infrastructure improvements that were taking place. Later, Arseni relayed to us that the driver had told him how disappointed he was in the selective nature of these upgrades, only in places that the international media was going to see. He said, “I want to live in the country that I see on the news.”

On our train ride from the metropolis of Minsk through the countryside to the city of Babruysk, we asked Arseni about the role of music in the country. “Yes, we have a lot of talent,” he told us. “Maybe it comes from not being allowed to express ourselves publicly. This builds up inside us and comes out in music.” I was struck with a powerful blow by the eerie poetry of his words. Sitting in the suffocating train car, I immediately felt a profound sense of confinement; wanting to get up and express some iota of freedom, even if only by walking around. An odd feeling to have, given that were were in the country specifically to celebrate the freedom of Pesach.

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Walking the “streets” of Babruysk

Arriving on the train to Babruysk, I can only describe my first sight of the city as something out of the film EuroTrip – its stereotyping of the Eastern European countryside frighteningly accurate:

While Babruysk and its sidewalk-less streets was a challenging city to navigate, our next destination – the picturesque town of Grodno – could easily be mistaken for any old European city, complete with cobblestone pedestrian walkways, pristine buildings, and inviting parks along the river. It is stunningly beautiful, spared from destruction by the Nazis “thanks” to their swift conquering of the region. But much of this beauty is superficial: one night, after leaving the darkness of a cellar pub, I learned that walking on the grass in Grodno is prohibited, a punishable offense. Enter said pubs, and you learn that foreigners are often viewed with suspicion – leered at and seen as prime targets for scamming and cheating.

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Grodno’s park, with grass you are not allowed to walk on

Belarus – the difficult country to describe – was also a difficult country to spend time in. As challenging as it was, our time with the Jewish community there was still a resounding success. It was astounding to observe the differences from our visit to Lithuania the week before. Lithuania – a modern, advanced country and member of the EU – has a comparatively minuscule (yet incredibly optimistic) Jewish community.

Lithuania carries some curious historical baggage when it comes to its relationship with its Jewish community. Having been occupied by the Russians during and after the Second World War, there is a fair amount of animosity among Lithuanians towards anyone who sided with the Soviets, even if it was against the Nazis. Of course, the Jews of Lithuania allied themselves with the Russians, and as a result, the current Jewish community finds itself in the unfortunate place of being stuck between an allegiance to its Lithuanian home, yet thankful to the Russians for helping end the Shoah. As a result, Judaism has found a significantly more comfortable home in Belarus, and is thriving there. As one of the Jewish scholars we met in Vilna joked, “there are plenty of rabbis fighting with each other in Belarus.

I was fascinated by this sociological paradox. Stephanie poignantly remarked to me, “even when we’re on the right side of history, we’re on the wrong side of history.” Fortunately, our time in Belarus was a clear indication of how the Jewish community there has emerged on the right side of history. In more places than we were able to visit, over 1,500 Jews celebrated Pesach with Belarus’ Progressive Jewish communities.

Over the next few days, I’ll share more thoughts on our experiences in the communities we visited. For now, as I stare out the window on our flight home to Israel and I count down the minutes until I will again be surrounded by the sounds of Hebrew (as abrasive as they may be at the airport), I am profoundly thankful to have had these experiences in the country that gave birth to my great grandfather.

The Absence of Presence

We landed in Vilnius after midnight in the pouring rain, further bolstering the picture of Eastern Europe as a dark, cold, rainy place that is not-so hospitable to the Jews. Fortunately, I’ve discovered that this is a mostly unfair image of what is actually a pretty vibrant place these days.

A short bus ride, and we arrived at our apartments for the week. Or rather, we arrived near our apartments for the week. The bus could not fit down the street, so we had to disembark (after midnight, in the pouring rain), and carry our luggage down a dark, winding alley (the streetlights were out). It looked exactly like what you might picture a winding, Lithuanian street to look like after midnight, in the pouring rain, with no illumination.

After searching for the address “Skäpo Street, between 8 and 10,” we were greeted by the proprietor, who promptly apologized that the street lights were out. “The city is trying to conserve energy,” he informed us.

And with that, our group was ushered into the courtyard, where we waited for our room keys (in the dark, in the pouring rain). Luckily, Lithuania is in the same time zone as Israel, so there was no jetlag to combat. I quickly fell asleep, only briefly admiring the Soviet-style decor of our room.

Awake the next morning (yesterday), I went out in search of coffee. I met the Lithuania that isn’t cold, dark, and wet, wandering the streets looking for the address that Foursquare had pointed me to for the recommended coffee shop. Turns out that Lithuania – or Vilnius at least – is fairly serious about their coffee, and I was pleased when the barista responded to my awkward pointing to the word on the menu that looked like coffee, asking in near-perfect English “which roast of freshly ground coffee would you like?”

Coffee in tow, I made my way back to our residence, noting the architecture that our guide has described as “Soviet-Style, also known as no-architecture.” It’s an intriguing mix of interwar generic Eastern European buildings with soaring pagan-influenced meeting places, but is mostly brutalist – typical of places which Communism has reached out and touched. I felt like I was in a pre-Pierce Brosnan James Bond movie.

The day was spent visiting places where the once-vibrant Jewish community of Vilna thrived. With virtually nothing left after the Nazis stormed through the city, the experience was more about seeing non-places. It was an encounter with the absence of presence – and the presence of absence.

An interesting question was posed to us – “given the opportunity, would you rebuild any of the great synagogues that were here?”

Perhaps an answer will come later after I have more time to reflect on the wider experiences. For now, I will only share that part of my own reflection on that question took place as I drove through the streets of Vilnius in a taxi cab, after getting lost from my group.

More on that later, as well.

This is About as Amateur Anthropology as you can Possibly Get

One of the highlights of this year living in Israel has been the Israel Seminar that takes place all day every Wednesday. In this class, we are engaged in the continual process of peeling back the layers of Israeli society, politics, history, and culture. As part of this class, I was recently sent with a team of fellow students out into the field to interview Israelis about their thoughts on local and national issues of importance.

Early in the morning a couple weeks ago, we boarded the train, taking the same route that the Ottomans used over a century ago to get to Jerusalem. We travelled to Beit Shemesh – a city about 30 km from Jerusalem – which over the past decade has been the focal point of tensions surrounding gender issues, immigrant rights, political corruption, and the relationship between Haredim and secular Jews.

Our goal was simple – speak with a diversity of people, ask them questions about their thoughts on the pressing issues of the day, and get it all on film. As our instructor slyly put it, “this is about as amateur anthropology as you can possibly get.”

You can watch our sheepish attempt at amateur anthropology (in Hebrew) up top. I’m working on getting English subtitles soon.

We F*cking Won

A week ago, 2,400 kilometers from where I normally spend Shabbat these days, I found myself in Krakow’s progressive shul for Kabbalat Shabbat. I was spending the week in the Czech Republic and Poland as part of my training to be an Educator/Tour Guide this summer, and had just spent the entire day at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Needless to say, the arrival of Shabbat was a welcome respite from the downtrodden atmosphere of the morning and afternoon.

Beit Krakow meets in the Galicia Jewish Museum, which houses a collection of stunning photos of Krakow’s Jewish past and present. Singing the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, we were surrounded by pictures of the former glory of this city, and of the destruction that took place there.

When most Jews conjure up an image of Poland in their head, I would imagine that it is dark, grey, and grainy, and looks something like this:

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This is certainly the image that I had long had inside my own head. That is, until I travelled to Poland for the first time two years ago. The fact is, Poland – Krakow in particular – is experiencing a Jewish cultural revival, where the country is re-embracing its heritage as a center of modern Jewish vibrancy. In truth, when we think of Poland, the image in our minds should look something more like this:

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Krakow Jewish Culture Festival

On Shabbat last week, as I prayed, surrounded by members of the Krakow Jewish community, mere steps away from where the mass genocide of Jews once took place, the image of Poland as a sad, grey place was further pushed from my mind.

As the rabbi chanted Shema and arrived at the paragraph about tzitzit, she walked over to a young boy – maybe two years old – who was sitting on his mother’s lap. She handed him her tzitzit. He gathered them in his hands, brought them up to his lips, and kissed the fringes.

I nearly lost it. Inside my head, a voice called out, “WE WON! You tried to kill us, but we are still here, vibrantly celebrating Judaism on the very spot where you tried to exterminate us. WE WON!”

Having spent a considerable amount of time at Auschwitz, at Birkenau, at Terezin;  seeing the remains of Judaism in Europe, I don’t minimize the importance of remembering the dark, grey history of our past there. But I don’t believe that memory of the Holocaust needs to be based solely on a dark, melancholy view of the past.

We must also look to the present and the future. Survivalism is not a compelling framework for Judaism – we have to offer meaning in the here and now. Young Jews should travel to Poland to see the death camps. But they should also see the Jews who bring their children to shul on Friday night. The should see Krakow’s Jewish Cultural Festival. They should see the JCC there, with its young, new rabbi. Doing this, it becomes more difficult to keep that grainy, grey image in our head.

And that’s a good thing. If we’re going to have an identity based on the Holocaust, it should be one where at the end, we get to rejoice and shout out for all to hear… They tried to end us. But we f*cking won!

Shards of Memory

We Jews have a long memory.

There is a kabbalistic teaching that before we are born, we possess a complete memory of human existence. We have a full understanding and a full knowledge of the world. And once we are born, emerging into this world, this magical gift vanishes. From birth, we have forgotten everything, and must begin to remember everything.

This Shabbat Zachor, we are enjoined to remember what the nation of Amalek did to us on our exodus from Egypt – how they ruthlessly attacked us from behind, targeting the weak and undefended. Our parasha ends with the striking commandment – lo tishkakh! Do not forget!

Yosef Yerushalmi, in his book Zakhor, writes that we are the only people on earth who elevated the act of remembering to a religious imperative. We are commanded constantly to remember this, remember that, don’t forget this, don’t forget that.

Joshua Foer, the journalist and 2006 USA Memory Champion, teaches that there is scientific research that reinforces the value of our Jewish idea. At the neurological level, the act of remembering involves re-actualizing. Every time we recall a memory, we are actively re-engaging that memory at the level of the neuron and re-contextualizing it ever so slightly in light of who we are in the present.

Foer draws attention to how we are commanded to re-engage with our Jewish memory in the present context of who we are today: We don’t just eat matzoh, we are commanded to have a conversation about what it means to eat matzoh. We don’t just put the Shema in mezuzot and in tefillin, we also put in the paragraph from V’ahavta, which reminds us to put these very words on our doorposts and in our tefillin.

“The instructions on how to remember are so holy that we have inextricably paired them with the line that we are supposed to be remembering.”

We don’t just remember what Amalek did, we read the reminder not to forget what Amalek did. In this way, we are ritualize the learning of why this evil was so bad, and the imperative to prevent this type of evil from ever occurring again.

At the same time as we ritualize and re-actualize our memories, remembrance becomes a way to prevent unwanted recurrence. Rabbi Irving Greenberg teaches us that naiveté and amnesia always favor the aggressors. He focuses on the importance of Shabbat Zachor as an opportunity to prevent this naiveté and amnesia:

The Amalekites wanted to wipe out an entire people, memory and all; amnesia completes that undone job… [this is why] it is a special mitzvah to hear this Torah reading.

And yet, as Rabbi Greenberg notes, Zachor is a mitzvah that has made modern Jews uncomfortable. Our modern, progressive thinking encourages us to forgive and forget, to move on and be happy.

But when memory – through re-actualizing and re-engaging – is directed towards the present and the future, it becomes upended, and radically transformed into something new. The innovation of Jewish memory – very much unlike other types of memory – is that it has never been about the past, rather it is about who we are now, and who we have the power to become.

Through the religio-biological examples of Joshua Foer, we learn that part of our obligation as Jews and as humans is to build up our minds, Just as it is our responsibility to gather up the kabbalistic shards of creation and return the world to completeness, it  is also our job to collect all of the shards of our memories.

Rabbi Google & Emergent Jewish Leadership

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“In an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, [Google] also cares about a lot of soft skills — leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn. This will be true no matter where you go to work.”

Thomas Friedman, How to Get a Job at Google

Many of my fellow rabbinical students will often jokingly quip that we are training to enter an already redundant field, given how easy it is to google the answers to many Jewish questions, without the need to learn with or consult a rabbi in person.

Yes, Google has changed my job, making it more challenging in some ways. But Google is a visionary organization, and I’m not going to rant about how the internet has destroyed Jewish community life. Truth be told, the Jewish world could learn many lessons from Google’s forward-thinking perspective.

So here’s just one (or a few, really…)

The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman has a great piece outlining how Google goes about interviewing and selecting prospective employees [see: How to Get a Job at Google]. These are the things Google looks for:

  1. General Cognitive Abilitythe ability to process on the fly
  2. Emergent Leadershipthe ability to step in and out of leadership
  3. Humility & Ownership – the ability to embrace boldness, responsibility, and others’ ideas
  4. Intellectual Humilitythe ability to embrace failure

The number-one thing that Google doesn’t look for? Expertise.

Surprise! While much of the North American professional world is otherwise obsessed with stacking up institutional leadership experiences and traditional resume-building, Google’s model upends this notion. It is one from which the Jewish world could learn much. Here’s what I think we can borrow from them:

When Google speaks of General Cognitive Ability, they don’t mean how smart one is in terms of I.Q.; they’re looking for “the ability to process on the fly… to pull together disparate bits of information.” This is a great perspective on the power of liberal, progressive Judaism. There is value and power in learning from our texts, but Jewish leadership should not be solely concerned with amassing as much knowledge as possible; we must also be able to find meaning in all of the “bits” of modern existence, and quickly respond to the needs of our constituents. More on this, and the tension with accumulating knowledge, later…

Google presents Emergent Leadership in opposition to traditional models of leadership, which valued answering questions such as “Were you the president of the chess club? Were you the vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there?” Google doesn’t care about these things; they care about how one is able to face problems with the ability to step in and out of leadership roles appropriately. In this light, we should be less concerned with how quickly one rises to become Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, and more concerned with how quickly said Executive Director is able to make room for others to lead within the organization. We should be less concerned with filling traditional institutional roles just for the sake of maintaining continuity, and instead concern ourselves with the divine Jewish concept of tzimtzum – the ability to step back and make room for others to lead.

Moshe Rabbeinu – the Jewish leader exemplar – is our prime model of Humility and Ownership. Perhaps Google turned to him for inspiration, when they wrote about their valuing “the sense of responsibility [and] ownership to step in… and the humility to step back and embrace the better ideas of others.” Anavut (humility) goes hand-in-hand with the previous value of tzimtzum. We should be bold in our leadership, fostering personal and communal ownership of the role of Judaism in our lives. But we must also be humble, acknowledging that we do not have all the answers, and that there is a vast ocean of good Jewish ideas being brought to the world. Liberal Judaism doesn’t have all the answers to how to live life Jewishly; there is much we can learn from the ownership models of Orthodox Judaism and organizations outside the bounds of our own religion.

It seems to me that humility really drives much of Google’s model of leadership. Friedman’s article notes that Google isn’t just looking for humility in how people make room for others, they are looking for Intellectual Humility. Laszlo Bock, the Senior Vice President of People Operations for Google, aptly quotes that “Without humility, you are unable to learn.” Bock points to the fundamental error that many successful people are prone to: “If something good happens, it’s because I’m a genius. If something bad happens, it’s because someone’s an idiot or I didn’t get the resources or the market moved…”

How often do we rush to blame others for our own failures? As a result of his own greatest failure, Moshe Rabbeinu doesn’t get the greatest reward – the ability to enter into the Promised Land. But he ultimately embraces his failure and doesn’t try to blame others. Bock teaches us Google’s model of intellectual humility:

“What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’ ” You need a big ego and small ego in the same person at the same time.”

This embraces the same dichotomy of ownership and humility – we need Jewish leaders with big egos to present radical ideas on behalf of their communities. At the same time, we need these  leaders to be balanced with small egos so that when they fail, they can be open to failure, change their mind, and keep going.

How about Google’s least important value – expertise? In this respect, Google’s model sits in tension with Judaism, where we place great emphasis on learning and amassing untold amounts of textual knowledge. Google says:

“The expert will go: ‘I’ve seen this 100 times before; here’s what you do.’ Most of the time the nonexpert will come up with the same answer… because most of the time it’s not that hard.”

This doesn’t square well with Judaism’s focus on specific textual and ritual knowledge. As Jewish leaders, it is our responsibility to teach others how to become experts in their Jewish lives; how to maintain ownership of their Jewish lives. This most certainly involves encouraging expertise and excellence.

But we can take Google’s understanding of traditional expertise, and reframe it in a model of Jewish leadership that shows us how to approach those who are not yet experts. We can and should value Jewish expertise and hold it up as an aspirational value. It’s just that how we encourage others to get there is not via the traditional way; it is through Google’s four-pronged approach to hiring.

We should not merely encourage Jews to amass a resume full of textual knowledge. The old trope of “this is what Jews do” is increasingly meaningless to most Jews. We need more Jewish leaders who understand this, and who embrace a model of leadership that speaks to the ways in which Jews search for answers today.

Jewish spiritual leaders should embrace the concepts of a holistic, progressive paradigm (General Cognitive Ability),  tzimtzum (Emergent Leadership), anavut (Humility and Ownership), and the character of Moshe Rabbeinu (Intellectual Humility). 

In this way, we will encourage visionary ways of living Jewishly that can’t simply be found from Rabbi Google.

Parashat Pekudei: Living with Integrity and Authenticity

This is the d’var torah that I delivered this week at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.

A boy dreams of a mysterious treasure, hidden in a far-off land. He travels through the deserts of North Africa, in search of the enigma that has appeared to him in his sleep. Journeying with him is an old man, a keeper of ancient wisdom. Through his travels – as is the case in most stories of this type – he learns much about life and his place in the universe. Together on their quests, the boy and the old man are each in possession of stones bearing ancient magical powers. The old man’s stone has the power to turn lead into gold. The boy’s stones have the power to divine the will of God. These are the stories at the heart of Paolo Coehlo’s allegorical legend, The Alchemist.

The world of The Alchemist presents two types of stones that each offer a vision of how to succeed in life. One: search for gold. The other: search for God’s truth. In our own world, there often appears to be two similar approaches to success. One is to direct ourselves outwardly, and search for practical ways to succeed in life. We search for wealth, power, and success in our endeavors. The other is to direct ourselves inwardly, and search for spiritual, introspective success; the things that make us feel worthwhile and valued. It often seems that people swing heavily in one direction, and struggle with finding a connection between succeeding both inwardly and outwardly.

This week, in parashat Pekudei, there appears a symbol of the intersection between our inner and our outer selves. We read of the formation of the bigdei s’rad – the vestments for the Kohen Gadol. Shrouded in secrecy and mysticism, the vestments include the names of the twelve tribes engraved on precious stones, along with the urim and tummim – stones of a mystical and prophetic nature. These are also the names that Coehlo gave to the prophetic stones in The Alchemist. Together, these priestly stones were powerful cultic objects that had the ability to divine the will of God.

The stones and precious gems of the bigdei s’rad carried a great physical and figurative weight. Girded with the names of the twelve tribes emblazoned across his breastplate and on both of his shoulders, we can imagine the awesome sense of responsibility Aaron must have felt towards his clansmen. But for our priestly ancestors, the power of these words was not just figurative, and their weight was not just a matter of their physical mass. When the Israelites wanted to determine the will of God in matters that were beyond human comprehension, they consulted the stones of the priestly vestments. Through the engraved words, the High Priest the power to communicate with God and interpret God’s will.

Towards the end of The Alchemist, Coehlo writes:

God created the world so that, through its visible objects, men could understand His spiritual teachings and the marvels of His wisdom… The world is only the visible aspect of God. And what alchemy does is bring spiritual perfection into contact with the material plane.”

We may not think of alchemy as the most Jewish of subjects, but perhaps a momentary lapse into near-paganism is not so inappropriate, given the cultic nature of the priestly garments. Coehlo suggests that the physical world is a visible reflection of the Divine – whom we cannot see – and that there are ways to bring our two worlds closer to one another. In the same way that our earthly world is meant to be a reflection of God’s domain, how can we make ourselves a reflection of God, upholding the charge that will come later in the Torah – קדושים תהיו – “you shall be holy”?

One answer, I believe, lies in the stones of Aaron’s priestly garments. The stones bearing the names of the twelve tribes are described as being “engraved like seals” – פתוחי חתם (Ex. 28:11, 21; 39:14, 30). The Re’em, Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi, a fifteenth century Greek-Ottoman Talmudist, argued that “the engraving is not of a seal, because a seal is not engraved, but that of the signet, which is made to seal letters” (Sefer ha-Mizrachi, Ex. 39). How is a signet engraved? For its messaged to be received, the text needs to be engraved backwards so that when it is stamped, it appears forwards. Rashi agrees, noting that the letters were engraved “inwardly” (Rashi Shemot 28:11). Our text appears to imply that on the Kohen Gadol’s powerful garments, the names of the twelve tribes were actually engraved backwards. What a peculiar site this must have been!

If this is so, and they were written backwards, for whom were they intended? Even Aaron would have had difficulty reading them, looking down upon his chest.  The words of these backwards-engraved stones would appear correctly only if impressed upon something else, or if viewed from within himself. The Rabbi Maharil Diskin, a leading biblical commentator of the nineteenth century, in an attempt to resolve this peculiarity, proposes that the engravings on the stones actually did appear in the right direction. In his view, something mystical and supernatural took place, such that the stones appeared to be engraved both inwardly – as the text suggests – and outwardly, in a way that could be perceived by all. His solution was that in truth, they faced inward and outward at the same time.

We are presented with these stones, very earthly objects hewn out of the rocky desert, yet clearly bearing heavenly, esoteric meaning. According to our teacher, Abraham ibn Ezra, these earthly stones function as mirrors for celestial rocks. A poet, exegetical genius, astronomer, and astrologist, ibn Ezra taught that the names of the Israelite tribes on the stones were symbolic of constellations, and that they mirrored the celestial equator – the imaginary dividing line of the zodiac. He believed that the priestly stones were an instrument corresponding to the arrangement of the heavens, and that when used properly, could even predict the future. He wrote that, mysteriously, “these things can only be grasped by the mind… They were divided in a way that could be perceived by the eye” (Ibn Ezra Shemot 28:6).

The division of the night sky into the zodiac is something that can only be understood by our minds – when we look up into the heavens, we do not actually see twelve distinct areas. For ibn Ezra, the priestly garments are tangible reminders of this important connection to the heavens. They hold up a mirror to the relationship between the “upper” and “lower” worlds; between who we are now, and who we have the potential to become in the future. Ibn Ezra is expressing the connection between the micro and the macro; between the inner and outer. In the same way, Judaism is a framework for connecting to something larger than ourselves. We don’t exist merely within our own selves; we connect ourselves intimately to a community around us.

This week’s parasha presents us with an eminently important question: “how do we live our lives with integrity and authenticity both inwardly and outwardly?” The priestly vestments – a seemingly anachronistic instrument for our contemporary, anti-caste sensibilities – offer a model of how to exist in relationship to God and to those around us. Just as the Maharil Diskin suggested that the stones of the vestments appeared the same facing outwards as inwards, we are meant to live our lives in such a way that we appear the same facing in towards ourselves, and out towards the world. In this way, we can bring about a truly divine existence and mirror God’s holiness.

Yet there is a tension in this idea. Often, the image we broadcast to the world is not that which is emblazoned within our hearts. At times we are victims of what the ancient Greeks called akrasia – knowing best but doing worst. At others, we present ourselves in ways that betray our innermost selves. Indeed, the very word for clothes – beged, comes from the same shoresh as the word for betrayal – b’gidah. The relationship between vestments, and our inner selves is echoed in the Talmud: Rabbi Inyani bar Sason says that the Torah includes the laws for the priestly vestments and the laws for the sacrifices so close to each other, in order to draw the connection between our physical behavior and our spiritual purity (BT Zevakhim 88b).

Rabbi Hanina taught that the various accoutrements of the vestments are actually able to atone for impure thoughts, arrogance, brazenness, slander, neglect of civil laws, and idolatry (BT Zevakhim 88b). Now the notion that we should be honest and just in whom we present ourselves to be is a deceptively simple idea, perhaps even an obvious one. Yet it is one which often remains unaddressed. In many ways, searching for the answer to this question is at the heart of our journey as future k’lei kodesh.

Earlier on his journey through the desert, the boy in the Alchemist was accompanied by an Englishman who was himself in search of the titular character. Pondering the meaning of the urim and tummim, the boy struck up a conversation with the man:

Why do they make things so complicated?” The Englishman responded: “So that those who have the responsibility for understanding can understand… It’s only those who are persistent, and willing to study things deeply, who achieve… That’s why I’m here in the middle of the desert.”

Our heritage is born out of the desert, out of mysteries, and out of the quest to bring ourselves closer to the ideal of who we can be. This is the quest to get closer to God, to become the mamlekhet kohanim that we are meant to be. If we are persistent; if we look beyond the words that occasionally appear backwards; if we are willing to look at ourselves deeply, reject betrayal, and portray ourselves outwardly as we are inwardly; then we will have the ability to become mirrors of the Divine.

This week, as we conclude Sefer Shemot, may we go from strength to strength on this journey.

If you really want to make someone look good, just call everyone else a Nazi

Originally published at The Times of Israel.

Via xkcd
Via xkcd

Sometimes things so apparent don’t seem apparent at first.” This hackneyed statement is what Richard Friedman wants us to believe when it comes to Canadian PM Stephen Harper and his relationship with Israel. What is apparent for Mr. Friedman, is that powerful forces of Hitlerian evil are still out to get the Jews, there is an international antisemitic conspiracy that has targeted Israel, and that Stephen Harper has apparently distinguished himself as a sort of courageous moral truth-teller who can save the Jews.

In an opinion piece here at the Times of Israel, riddled with dark allusions to Nazi Europe and the international quest to eradicate Jews, Friedman wants us to believe that the world is teetering on the edge of a neo-Holocaust, and that only the Canadian Prime Minister can save the Jews, comparing him to Danish King Christian X. Out of this worldview, Friedman has this to say:

What happened in Denmark proved that the Holocaust could have been prevented. If more European leaders had been courageous enough to stand up on behalf of their country’s Jews, it’s likely substantially fewer Jews would have been murdered.”

This may be historically true, though we can never know. That said, it holds no water as a precedent for a modern foreign policy. In this framework, Canada is supposedly Denmark, Harper is King Christian – the vanguard of the Jews – and the world has regressed to the dark depths of the 1930s. Jews are about to be murdered, and only Canada can save us.

While much can be said about Stephen Harper’s pro-Israel agenda, there is a peculiarity lurking in Mr. Friedman’s recent article. Previously, he has written that Jewish professionals in North America should “refrain from suggesting what Israel should or shouldn’t do,” and instead become what amounts to international Hasbara agents, “helping the media, general public, and… Jewish communities understand the context and rationale behind Israel’s decisions and actions.

Because Friedman isn’t willing to be openly critical of Israel and its policies, he instead turns his focus to the international sphere, praising or critiquing what others have to say about Israel. In his attempts to shelter Israel from any constructive criticism, he builds an association fallacy – essentially a reverse Reductio ad Hiterlum – where he refutes his imaginary opponents’ views by comparing them to views that would be held by Hitler, arguing:

There are powerful forces on the planet who would gladly continue Hitler’s work.”

Can we please talk about the Holocaust with a little more depth and less hyperbole? In the world of internet journalism, there is nothing easier than succumbing to Godwin’s Law when you’re really grasping at straws. Don’t like what someone has to say but can’t come up with any constructive critique? You can always call them a Nazi!

Apparently the opposite also holds true for Friedman. If you really like someone (for example, the Prime Minister of Canada) and want to make them look good, just call everyone else a Nazi. Because Friedman is among those who consider it verboten to say anything negative about Israel in the public sphere, it is much simpler for him to paint a picture of a world where there are evil Nazis out to get us, and lob anyone who disagrees with his view into that group.

But the hazards of doing this are exactly what Dr. Mike Godwin was pleading against when he formulated the law that bears his name. A few years ago, Godwin explained the origin of the now famous principle:

I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis to think a bit harder about the Holocaust.”

Admittedly, Friedman isn’t labeling any one person a Nazi or comparing any specific person to Hitler. But his article is riddled with naive overtones of a battle against the evil forces of the Nazis and the redemptive forces of the Allies. His comparison simply doesn’t honor the complexities of Israel and international relations, nor the memory of the Holocaust as a catastrophic event without comparison. Friedman presents a crudely simplistic understanding of the Holocaust and antisemtism that doesn’t do justice to the reality of Israel’s place in the modern world. Does he really believe that Israel in 2014 – with its advanced army and unprecedented regional strength, not to mention its backing by the USA – can be compared to the state of Eastern European Jews before the Holocaust?

It is certainly true that antisemitism exists today, and in many places significantly so, but this is not 1938 Europe, and any attempts to define the world in this manner are quite simply unrealistic and ignorant. Just this week, Anshell Pfeffer – Haaretz’s military, international and Jewish affairs journalist – lucidly noted that the most pernicious form of antisemitism today does not come from some international cabal, but rather from deep within ourselves:

Anti-Semitism exists today on the furthest margins of Western society, in obscure sinecures, on the Internet, but perhaps most prevalently in our feverish imaginations.”

Pfeffer goes on to argue how antisemitism has transformed in the 21st century from the external injustices of “persecution and open vilification of Jews,” to something of an internal psychosis: “something we define ourselves, something we discover and too often invent where it isn’t at all clear it even exists.”

Perhaps Pfeffer’s argument is also somewhat naive and simplistic in areas, ignoring cases where antisemitism represents a true danger. But he is spot on in his assertion that when it comes to Israel, any notion of the “scourge of antisemitism” is no longer about something others are doing to us that we have no control over. Jews today have the ability to define our own lives – both in Israel and abroad. Any suggestion that there is an international threat to Jewish existence is not only shameful in its simplicity, but also in its implications for the discourse surrounding Israel and Jewish life. Pfeffer notes:

Our fear of anti-Semitism has begun to mirror the hatred itself in its irrationality and in the ways it hinders any serious debate.”

At this point, it should be noted that none of this critique of Friedman’s paradigm has even addressed whether Stephen Harper and Canada are deserving of his praiseful comparison to King Christian and Denmark. So just a few words in this respect:

Friedman argues that Harper is deserving of praise due “to the simple fact that supporting Israel… is right and just” simple fact, indeed. Friedman doesn’t define what he means by support. Is it just being a cheerleader on the international stage? Is it towing the line of whatever the Knesset has to say? It it being an international hasbara agent?

We are left assuming that this praise is based on Harper’s “understanding of Israel’s unique security dilemmas,” yet Friedman offers as flimsy proof only the news coverage in Canada of his visit to the region, which was supposedly reflective of “the depth of [his] emotional commitment and support.” This completely misses the hearty and open debate that took place in the Canadian media on the implications of Harper’s one-sided vision of what it means to be pro-Israel. (See here and here and here and here and here for just a smattering of what it means to have a little more nuance when it comes to speaking about Israel).

Unfortunately, Friedman also seems to have missed what the Israeli news had to say about Harper. Wouldn’t that be a much more significant indicator of Harper’s supposed “kingly” strength? While much of the media here got caught up in the pomp and circumstance of the PM’s visit, as anyone truly familiar with the place Canada plays in international politics these days can tell you, there was little to say about the substance of Harper’s visit, precisely because there was virtually none to speak of.

As I’ve previously noted, The sad reality of Harper’s visit was reflected most accurately in a steely oped from Ha’aretz, noting the ultimate insignificance of Canada’s role:

With all due respect to the Prime Minister of Canada, his relevance in the international community, his influence on what goes on in the Middle East and his ability to help Israel in matters of life and death are inversely related to the size of his country.”

Setting aside his seemingly ignorant grasp of the reality of Stephen Harper’s and Canada’s role in international affairs vis a vis Israel, Friedman should consider the implications of his Holocaust-oriented paradigm of Judaism and Israel. As the Executive Director of a Jewish Federation, he should know better than to reduce Jewish life and discourse on Israel to such simplistic understandings. As someone responsible for encouraging vitality in Jewish life, Friedman should be presenting an aspirational view of Judaism and Israel, rather than the dark, gloomy, and backwards-looking fear mongering he speaks of. Such a person would be much more worthy of the kingly appellation that he wishes to bestow.