“In the Face of Evil” – For Shabbat Toledot, November 21, 2014

“The encounter with death must precipitate a showing of protest, a bitter complaint, a sense of existential nausea and complete confusion. I want the sufferer to act as a human being, God says. Let him not suppress his humanity in order to please Me. Let him tear his clothes in frustrating anger and stop observing mitzvot because his whole personality is enveloped by dark despair and finds itself in a trance of the senses and of the faculties. Let him cry and shout, for he must act like a human being.”

This is a teaching about death and mourning from the great Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, one of the 20th century’s great rabbinic minds and the acknowledged founder of American Modern Orthodoxy. I choose to share the Rav’s reflections for two reasons. First, because they speak to me of exactly the overwhelming emotions I’ve been feeling following the massacre in Jerusalem this week. “Frustrating anger.” “Dark despair.” Second, because the Rav’s own grandson, Moshe Twersky, was one of the four Jews slaughtered during their morning prayers on Tuesday, along with the police officer who died protecting others from death.

It is almost incomprehensible to me, what happened: two Palestinian terrorists, cousins from East Jerusalem, setting upon worshipers as they recited their prayers for health, for sustenance, for peace. Armed with axes, guns and knives, they killed the officer and the four rabbis, and left eight others wounded – four in critical condition. The photos from the scene were almost beyond description: prayer books soaked with blood, tallitot soaked with blood, blood covering the left arm of one of the victims still wrapped in tefillin.

The Har Nof neighborhood where the attack occurred is not a hotbed of Zionist expansionist doctrine. It is not a settlement. It is not anywhere near the Green Line. It is a beautiful, quiet neighborhood in far West Jerusalem, largely populated by Modern Orthodox families, many of them (including the rabbis who were murdered) English-speaking olim from America and Britain. It is a neighborhood where one of the terrorists worked as a clerk in the grocery store near the synagogue – because, as one neighbor said, giving jobs to Arabs was just the right thing to do.

And so these murders are particularly shocking and confusing and evil. In recent days, several Israelis, including a 3-month old baby, have died at the hands of Arab terrorists – slashed with knives while they walked on the streets of Tel Aviv, run down by a car at a Jerusalem light-rail station. But this one feels different. This time, terrorists slaughtered people inside a synagogue, a sanctuary, a sacred space. It was not just an attack on Israelis. It was not just an attack on Jews. It was profane. It was blasphemous. It was, I believe, an attack on God.

It feels like it is connected as much with the past as with the present. It is of one with the accounts of the Aseret ha-Rugei Malchut, the Ten Martyrs, the 1st century rabbis whose deaths at the hands of the Romans we read about on Yom Kippur afternoon. It is of one with the slaughter of Rhineland Jews by the Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land. It is of one with the Shoah. It is the slaughter of Jews – not for being Israelis or settlers or Zionists – but for being Jews.

Rav Soloveitchik calls this “experiential memory…[which] somehow erases the borderline separating bygone from present experiences. It does not just recollect the past, but re-experiences whatever has been…it actually merges past with present, or shifts the past into the present.” That’s what it means to be a Jew, right? To have that collective memory – that memory that contains so much pain.

To suffer in those memories as though they happened to us, as though they happened just yesterday. The rabbis of the Talmud distinguish between what it calls “old” historical mourning and “new” personal mourning. But an act like this merges the two.
And so must our response. As Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote, “[Man] must not take evil as something inevitable . . . just because such a response would be an exercise in futility.”

We cannot accept this attack as just another inevitable consequence of the conflict between Arabs and Jews. We cannot allow the world to shrug its collective shoulders and say – well, what do you expect, given Israeli occupation and settlement building? We cannot. There is no excuse – none – for an act so depraved and so heinous. And as we move from our immediate shock and revulsion, our response must be built on this premise. Again, quoting the Rav: “Emotions, like the tide, reach a high mark, make an about face, and begin to recede. The Torah has therefore recommended to man not only to submit himself to the emotional onslaught, but gradually and slowly to redeem himself from its impact.”

Redemption. Maybe that’s exactly the right word. The very earth has been tainted by the blood spilled on Tuesday. It is the world that must be redeemed. And so it is the world that must take action.

It seems to me that the Jewish approach to mourning that Soloveitchik writes about gives us a path ahead. Three stages, like the three stages of grief after death.

The first is what we call “meito muttal le-fanav,” when the dead lie before us. That’s what we went through on Tuesday. The horror over the gruesome photos and details. The anger over such betrayal of both humanity and Divinity.

The time period when, as the Rav teaches, we are supposed to scream and cry and moan, when we are permitted – even commanded — to vent whatever we feel inside. Even the desire for revenge. The world must allow us to do this.

The second period includes shiva, the 7-day period following burial, and sheloshim, the 30 days after. We step back from our everyday patterns and responsibilities, knowing that when we return to them, our lives will be different. The world must acknowledge this difference, that something fundamental has changed. Humanity is torn, like the black ribbon is torn. While we could stitch it up, it will never be the same. There will always be a scar.

From sheloshim, we enter the twelve-month mourning period. This is traditionally reserved for the children of those who have died. But in the wake of this slaughter, we all mourn together. If this was indeed an attack on God, then all of God’s children have both the honor and the responsibility of making it right. Yes, there are practical and political issues to be dealt with, from security to settlements to the bloody mayhem being unleashed throughout the Middle East. Issues we feel are intractable or simply out of our hands. But, as Rabbi Soloveitchik taught, the responsibility of the mourner is not just to feel but to act. “However alive the experience of destruction might be,” he wrote, “it is the intellect which commands the emotions to respond to the historical memories of a community.”

This slaughter must be placed in the context of our historical grief. Alongside the destruction of the Temple, the murders of the Rhineland, the flames of the Holocaust, it is clear evidence to the world that Jews are being slaughtered because they are Jews. There must be worldwide revulsion. There must be worldwide mourning.

There must be worldwide penitence for allowing – even for enabling – the unrestrained and unconscionable Jew-hatred that has swept across the earth like a plague and that has led us to this moment.

And we Jews must always hope the world will do the right thing. Our history – filled as it is with both our old, historical mourning and our new, personal mourning – may lead us to doubt this will happen. But we have not survived all of the efforts over all the centuries to destroy us just to give up now. As Rav Soloveitchik taught us:

The mourner is not the individual but the nation, the covenental community, which must never lose hope or faith. No matter how difficult times are, no matter how great the loss is, however dreary and bleak the present seems, the future shines with a brilliant glow full of promise. The messianic hope has never vanished; the people have never been enveloped by the dark night of despair.

Ken yehi ratson. May this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
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©2014, Audrey R. Korotkin

Rabbi Judy Abrams and Other Voices – For Shabbat Noah October 24, 2014

In the Mishnah, the early sage Yehoshua ben Perachia taught: Aseh l’cha Rav v’na-keh lecha chaveir. Establish for yourself a teacher and acquire for yourself a companion. Sometimes they turn out to be the same people. Sadly, I lost a great rav and chaveir this week with the sudden death of Rabbi Judith Abrams.

Judy was that rare combination of intellect and passion. Armed with ordination from HUC, class of 1985, she then went on to be the first woman ever to earn a Ph.D. in Talmud from Baltimore Hebrew University. She was a dynamo in person, urging her classes to respond, to react, to grab everything they could find in the text. She wrote prolifically – everything from children’s high holy day prayer books to a book on Jewish parenting that she co-wrote with her husband, to regular weekly lessons from Torah that she posted on Facebook.

She is most famous as a great Talmudist, and she had a great gift for making Talmud study accessible and inviting, and its stories compelling and relevant. She wrote many books on the Babylonian Talmud. Most recently, she dove head-first into the Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud, or, as she put it, the “other Talmud.” She invited colleagues to study with her in person, on her internet site, and in weekly conference calls.

Our paths first crossed just after I was ordained, when I was asked by the CCAR Journal to review her book on Illness and Healing in the Jewish Tradition. It was a treasure, a beautiful compilation, translated into English, of Jewish texts from Bible to modern day, dealing with the mitzvot of seeking healing and giving healing, of coping with pain and suffering, of medical ethics, and of the sacredness of health in Judaism. She wrote me a note thanking me for the kind, supportive review. It is still one of my go-to books when I’m looking for sources on healing and health.

Our paths crossed again a few years ago, when I was asked to lead the team writing the below-the-line spiritual commentary for the new high holy day prayer book that’s now in the works – and I had the honor of having Judy as a member of my team. In partnership with Suzanne Singer, a wonderful colleague from California, Judy produced lovely and thoughtful notes, midrashim, introductions and commentaries. I don’t know that any of it will actually make it into the final version of the book, but I do know how much I enjoyed reading them.
And just a couple of years ago, Judy taught the closing shiur, the closing lesson, at the Women’s Rabbinic Network conference in Memphis. And that’s when I think I figured out Judy Abrams. The conference was dedicated to making our voices heard. Women are not only a small minority in the rabbinate, we also make up only about 20 percent of columnists and pundits whose names and faces appear in newspapers and on tv and on web sites. Our training was not just in how to get a letter to the editor published – but in recognizing the value of our words, that what we have to say does matter. And that we should raise our voices and our profiles to speak to bigger audiences.

Judy brought us a text that made everything fit into place for us. It was a short sugya – a short excerpt – from the Babylonian Talmud. It was sort of a random list of quotations from rabbis about, essentially, what turns them on sexually.

For one it was gazing at a woman’s pinkie and thinking what more there was to see. For another, it was a woman’s leg. For Rabbi Shmuel it was kol b’isha, the sound of a woman’s voice.

This single reference to kol isha, found in three places in the Talmud, is the foundation for every halakhic rule that banishes women to the balcony, or behind the mechitzah, or on the other side of the road. Every rule that says a woman cannot speak in public, or cannot sing in public, or cannot appear in public – even at non-religious events throughout Israel. That forbids the Women of the Wall from praying together, out loud, at the Kotel, the holiest space in the Jewish world. Every time a woman’s voice is stifled, it’s because Rabbi Shmuel just couldn’t control his own urges. That’s it. That’s the reason.

Judy’s shiur clarified everything we’d been doing for four days, all of our studying, all of our training. It helped us understand how we enable and empower those who keep us quiet when we take ‘no’ for an answer. It inspired us to come back to our congregations and our communities and know that our words and our ideas and our beliefs matter, and that they must be heard and respected.

I personally think that’s what Judy Abrams was all about: Making voices heard. Every voice. It’s not accidental that she called the Yerushalmi the “other” Talmud. The other voice – whether it be a Palestinian rabbi of the third century or an American female rabbi of the 21st century – has intrinsic worth. The Talmudim, both of them, are full of such voices – contradictory voices, voices of anger, of conciliation, of minority opinions nonetheless preserved by the majority.

She brought life back to all those voices with her studying and her teaching and her shiurim and her conference calls and her books. Children’s voices should be heard – so she wrote for them. The voices of people who are sick and in pain should be heard – so she wrote for them.
The fact that she herself suffered from chronic illness for years made her attentive and sensitive to the voices that are sometimes ignored or suppressed by a society that often is too busy or too preoccupied to listen.

She used every avenue at her disposal to make all those voices heard. From her scholarly works to her prayer books, from her web site to her weekly conference calls, and most recently to her weekly Torah commentaries posted on Facebook for us all to share. She spoke with passion and with conviction, and with a sensitive ear tuned to current events and how Judaism helps us make sense of a world of confusion.

Just a few days before she died, she posted a shiur about ebola and tracing the treatment of patients back to the directives in the Books of Leviticus and Numbers. She included questions for conversation about how we can handle our feelings and maintain our humanity in the face of such a disease. I have a copy of the teaching for anyone who wants it.

Judy did this all with a great sense of humility. She was never the chacham, the sage, but always the talmidit chacham, the student of sages. B’ezrat ha-shem, she always began her shiur: Please God, help me give those who read my words a little morsel of enlightenment.

I wish she had stuck around a few more days to witness the joyous scene at the Kotel this morning, as the Women of the Wall defied the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate and snuck a small Torah scroll into the women’s section. They not only read out loud from it but for the first time ever, celebrated a full service of bat mitzvah at the holiest site in Judaism. She would have relished every second of it.

In the introduction to her book on illness and healing, Judy wrote, “the selections here were chosen to be inspiring, empowering, and provocative.” This was the essence of Rabbi Judith Abrams, and this is her legacy.
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“Who Am I This Time?” Yom Kippur Morning 2014

Please allow me to introduce myself. Most of you know me as Audrey, or Rabbi Audrey, or simply Rabs. But my “old person” name is Ruby. And, because I love nature and the cool, breezy weather of this season, my hippie name is Windshine Moonflower.

My aura is yellow, a sign of my rational, intellectual nature.

If I were a character from the Bible, I would be Abigail – King David’s first wife and a woman of strength and integrity.

If I were a super-hero, I would be Iron Man – outgoing, charming, studious and a little full of myself. But my ideal superpower would be telepathy, which would allow me to connect with the feelings and thoughts of others. And if that’s just a fantasy, well, my real-life superpower would be the ability to make random things explode.

I know the state of Pennsylvania in general like the back of my hand but score only 93 percent in my knowledge of Pittsburgh. Although that’s really not so bad, considering I’m from Philadelphia.

If I were a past US president, I’d be the bold, brainy and witty Thomas Jefferson. And of course my canine companion would be Einstein from the movie, “Back to the Future,” since there’s nowhere in time or space that Einstein cannot go.

I’m a maven when it comes to the English language but my German needs work.

My alter-ego in the world of witchcraft is Albus Dumbledore (duh). And my archnemesis is Justin Bieber. I suffer fools not at all.

I didn’t know any of this about myself until recently. But it’s amazing how much self-awareness you can gain just by taking a handful of on-line quizzes.

If you’re on Facebook or some other social networking site, it’s hard to ignore them. They’re so tempting. They’re fun, they’re quick. They’re sharable.

The questions are sometimes way too easy. I mean, who can’t tell the difference between something attributed to Terry Bradshaw the quarterback and Carrie Bradshaw the character from “Sex and the City”?

Sometimes they’re way too pandering. When it comes to being a powerful woman of the past, of course I’d love to have been Mata Hari. But I’m guessing Tokyo Rose was not an option. And I don’t think anybody got US presidents Calvin Coolidge or Franklin Pierce, or a Biblical character like Korach or Lot.

Sometimes they’re just plain silly. I mean, I got a perfect score on my knowledge of cooking terms, scoring a ranking of Top Chef. But as you all know by now, I have no idea how to cook and should not be trusted near sharp knives. Or even dull ones.

And sometimes they’re just plain wrong. There is absolutely no way that the NFL I really should be rooting for is the Denver Broncos. I mean…no way.

But we all stop and take them. Why? Maybe we’re intrigued by the fact that we can so vividly remember that character from a TV show we haven’t seen in 40 years. Maybe we are curious about what aspect of our personalities make us more like Jefferson and less like Lincoln. Maybe the color of our aura really represents the way we express our attitudes and emotions to other people.

And so maybe these quizzes are an appropriate thing to ponder on Yom Kippur morning. After all, this is the time we take to ask ourselves: Am I really the person I think I am? Am I the person other people think I am? Am I capable of being person I think I should be?

Sometimes the person we end up being is the result of a seemingly random mix of the people and places and events that we bump into in life.

Don’s late friend Toby Balding was a horseman all his life – and a good one – in part because he came from one of Britain’s oldest, most famous and most respected racing families. But his son Gerald used the family’s interest in horses very differently. His great-great grandfather sold horses to all the circuses in Britain. Gerald ended up in the circus as a career. “Circus is a thing of magic,” Gerald wrote recently. “I realized that for two hours you could take people away from their lives and give them something totally joyful, without any angst or depression.” He could have said that about an afternoon at the racecourse. But his life just took a different direction.

Sometimes the person we end up being, is the result of other peoples’ expectations about who we should be.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Who Am I This Time?” a hardware-store clerk named Harry Nash becomes a local sensation as an actor in community-theater plays. But that’s because he doesn’t just act as the character – he becomes the character. He stays in character every hour, every day, for the run of the play. And then does it all over again for the next one.

Truth is, Harry Nash is a boring guy living a boring life. Once he shakes off whatever character he is this time, he reverts to his own nervous, socially awkward self. He lives for the characters he plays. He lives in the characters he plays. Stanley Kowalski. Faust. Paris. Romeo. And since that’s what people expect him to do, he seems to think himself unworthy of having a life of his own.

But sometimes we have enough faith in ourselves, enough trust in the way God made us, that the person we end up being is the person we aspire to be.

The philosopher Martin Buber shared this short Hasidic tale:
“A rabbi named Zusya died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, ‘Why weren’t you Moses or why weren’t you Solomon or why weren’t you David?’ But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, ‘Why weren’t you Zusya?'”

Each of us has a bit of Zusya (and maybe a little of Harry Nash) in us: Capable of goodness, maybe even greatness, but limited in our self-confidence.

Maybe we think our lives up until now have been only a random jumble of people and places and things. But it’s possible that, if we look back, we might actually see that we’ve been traveling on a path all along, and that these interactions have been part of a plan to make us what we are. To put us in this place, at this time, for some particular Divine purpose.

Maybe we think our lives up until now have been all about other peoples’ expectations. But it’s possible that, if we look at where we are now, we realize just how much we have learned from our parents and teachers and mentors. And it’s possible that, by soaking in and synthesizing all that knowledge, we are now ready to make choices for ourselves.

In the end, that’s all God expects of us. That’s what God teaches us in this morning’s Torah portion. We are put on this earth to learn, to grow, to do – and to choose.

Rabbi Judah the Patriarch said: “Which is the right course for a man to choose? That which is an honor to him and gains him honor from men.”

We just need to have enough faith in ourselves, and enough trust in the way God created us. So that when we ask ourselves, “Who am I this time?” we can answer: “I am the person I aspire to be.” Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not in a month or a year – but sometime in our lifetime.

May we live each day with this aspiration. May we make the choices that lead us to this aspiration. May this be God’s will and our own. And let us say together: Amen.
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©2014 Audrey R. Korotkin