Pain and Punishment: Shabbat Tazria, Friday, April 8th 2016

Imagine, if you will, that you are a woman in childbirth in ancient Israel. What a joyous day it is to give birth to a child – a child who will carry on the traditions of your ancestors, and who will work to sustain the family and enrich the community. As a woman, you, too, should be celebrated – for the power you have to give birth. For the lifeblood within you that makes human life possible.

But according to the Levitical laws in this week’s Torah portion, you are a contagion. The power you have to give life makes you dangerous, even evil. After you give birth, you are isolated, shut away from your family and your community, for 40 days if you give birth to a son, or 80 days if you give birth to a daughter, who also has that power of life within her. And when your days of isolation are over, you must bring a chatat, a sin offering, to the priest – the man who will perform expiation on your behalf.

This seems like no way to treat a new mother. But those are the laws in this ancient, patriarchal society, in which the fear of the life-blood translated into isolation, and even punishment, for a woman’s pain.

But lest you think that this notion only belongs in the ancient world, think again. Because isolation, shame, fear, and sin are the guiding forces behind the battle over reproductive rights in 21st-century America. A battle brought into the news headlines when presidential candidate Donald Trump stumbled most inelegantly into the middle of it.

In case you missed it, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews was asking Trump about his views on abortion law – something you’d think he would have thought of at this point in the campaign. But Trump only recently declared himself “Pro-life” – the misleading name that anti-choice groups give to their cause – and apparently he didn’t get the memo.
To Matthews’s surprise, Trump said that, if abortion were to become illegal, and he hoped it would, that women who obtain abortions should be punished.

That caused a collective gasp, not only from those of us who believe in a woman’s right to choose, but also among those who do not. You see, the anti-choice folks have strict talking points when it comes to such things, and you’re supposed to say that the doctors should be punished but not the women, because the women are victims. Within hours, Trump changed his tune, to adhere to the anti-choice orthodoxy – but not before exposing the hypocrisy of their movement.

Women who seek abortions are being victimized in this country, but not by the health-care providers who have the courage to care for them, under sometimes dangerous conditions. They are victims of a system that has isolated reproductive care in stand-alone clinics, as though it is abnormal, dangerous or even downright evil. They are victims of a proliferating range of state laws that limit the time, place, and conditions under which they can access what are supposed to be constitutional rights; that deliberately make it more difficult and more expensive for both women and their doctors; and that increasingly criminalize intention – why a woman is seeking an abortion in the first place.

The result is isolation, shame, and punishment, perpetrated mostly by male politicians, who seem to have put themselves in the place of the high priest of old, who had the power over women at a time when they were most vulnerable.

Just this week, members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives fast-tracked legislation limiting abortion to 20 weeks of gestation when federal law established in Roe vs. Wade gives a woman to 26 weeks, and outlawing the most typical type of surgical abortion used in 2nd-trimester cases. The bill didn’t even get a hearing before being approved in committee and sent to the House floor for a pending vote.

Governor Wolf’s office already has said he’ll veto it. And we’re fortunate that we have a governor who supports reproductive justice, unlike in Ohio, Texas, Indiana, Florida, and elsewhere. But the fact that many lawmakers think they can score points in an election year by limiting reproductive rights should make us all worry about the over-reach of politicians into the most intimate and difficult choices we make. And about the way these laws victimize women, isolate them, label them, and punish them.

There are, of course, many people who oppose abortion for any number of reasons, some of them rooted in their own religion’s teachings. But the thing is – religious teachings vary from one religion to another, from one sector of one religion to another. It should be up to an individual to follow his or her beliefs. It should not be the role of government, at any level, to rule that one set of religious beliefs trumps another. Some religious traditions teach that life begins at conception, that a fetus at any gestational stage is a human being entitled to legal protection. Judaism teaches something different.

And that’s really important for me, as a woman, as a Jewish woman, as a Reform Jewish woman, and as a rabbi who counsels people who sometimes have to make these powerful, and difficult, and life-changing decisions.

Our Jewish tradition places the life and well-being of the mother above all other considerations when it comes to abortion – a principle that comes from the Torah itself. Exodus chapter 21 describes a situation in which two men are fighting and a pregnant woman is accidentally injured. If the woman dies, the man who strikes her is considered a murderer. If she lives but the fetus is lost, the man must pay monetary damages to the woman for the injury to her. In other words, the fetus is not a nefesh, not a human being, and so the death of a fetus is not considered to be a capital crime.

But what about abortion? Where do we stand there?

The Halakhah not only permits, but actually requires, abortion, when it’s necessarily to safe a woman’s life – even up to the time when a woman is about to deliver. The Mishnah, which dates from the 3rd century, is actually very graphic in its description: “If a woman is having difficulty in giving birth, we cut up the fetus in her womb and remove it limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over its life. If the greater part already is out, we do not touch it, because Ein dochin nefesh mipnei nefesh, one life does not take precedence over another.”

In other words, the fetus is not a human being until the greater part of its body already has come out of the woman. Even until then, abortion is required on the woman’s behalf.

From this Mishnah, we have two distinct legal traditions that emerge, but both allow or even require abortion in at least some cases. The great Maimonides said the reason we do this is because the fetus comes under the legal category of a rodef, a pursuer, who in Jewish law must be killed to protect its intended victim. If you follow the reasoning of Maimonides, as many Orthodox authorities do, you’d probably conclude that abortion is only permitted when the woman’s life is in danger.

But there’s a second, and equally legitimate and widely accepted, reason given by the pre-eminent Torah and Talmud scholar Rashi, who explained it this way:

“For as long as it did not come out into the world, it is not called a nefesh, a living thing, and it is permissible to take its life in order to save the mother. Once the head has emerged, it may not be harmed, because it is considered born, and one life does not take precedence over another.”

Rashi’s reasoning leads some later halakhic authorities to broaden permission for abortion beyond the threat to a woman’s life to her well-being, be it physical or psychological. And it’s because of Rashi that we as Reform Jews have long argued in favor of reproductive choice on religious and moral grounds.

As early as 1929, the Central Conference of American Rabbis declared urged “the recognition of the importance of the control of parenthood as one of the methods of coping with social problems.” By 1947, the CCAR was calling for Planned Parenthood services in hospitals and other agencies “and urges that the Board of Directors of health and welfare agencies permit their professional staff members to make maximum use of these services as a community health resource.”

Our congregational arm, the Union for Reform Judaism, also publicly supported reproductive rights state by state, as early as 1967, six years before Roe vs. Wade standardized abortion rights on a national level. The appeal was for each state to, quote, “permit abortions under such circumstances as threatened disease or deformity of the embryo or fetus, threats to the physical and mental health of the mother, rape and incest and the social, economic and psychological factors that might warrant therapeutic termination of pregnancy.” Several times since, both the URJ and the CCAR have affirmed this position.

We do not treat abortion lightly. We caution that it should not be treated as a form of birth control. But we also recognize and condemn the inequities in our rapidly multiplying and punitive state laws. Laws that subject a woman to unnecessary and potentially dangerous medical procedures. Laws that discriminate against women of limited means, who have neither the time nor the funds to make multiple trips to far-away clinics. Laws that embrace untested or discredited medical theories. Laws that undermine the ability of clinics to provide timely, safe and effective reproductive care. Laws defunding Planned Parenthood, which not only punish women who seek abortions but also those who simply want to get basic health care.

We support reproductive rights because our Jewish teachings tell us that this is the right thing to do. But as the CCAR declared in 1975: “As we would not impose the historic position of Jewish teaching upon individuals, nor legislate it as normative for society at large, so we would not wish the position of any other group imposed upon the Jewish community or the general population.” In other words, my decision, based on my beliefs, is my business.

As a rabbi, I have the blessing and the responsibility of counseling people at the most difficult and private moments in their lives. I know there are all sorts of reasons for a woman to seek an abortion. Every situation is unique. None is helped by an intrusion of political posturing, or the imposition of somebody else’s stated beliefs, into the intimate lives and decisions of women and their families. Not in Harrisburg. Not in Washington. Not anywhere.

As Jews we believe our tradition gives a woman the freedom to make these choices. As Americans, we believe that the Constitution’s separation of religion and state compels others to recognize that freedom.

Ken yehi ratson. Let us not only pray, but let us work toward this goal of empowerment and justice and freedom. And let us say together: Amen.

©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin


Culture and Context: Shabbat Shemini, April 1, 2016

Almost every day, in my Facebook feed, I see an article that’s getting passed around the clergy circles telling us how we need to be cool and relevant to keep our congregants engaged and informed. So imagine my surprise yesterday, when I read a blog on the Christianity Today web site that started out this way: “I don’t care if the church is culturally relevant.”

Obviously the blogger, Karl Vaters, wanted to get everybody’s attention, and he certainly got mine. The rest of the blog was less dramatic. “No I don’t want us to wallow in some old-time, glory days that probably never were,” he wrote, “But cultural relevance is not the answer. It’s better to be relevant than stale. But being relevant isn’t enough. I want the church to be better than relevant. I want us to lead.”

Vaters’s argument is that when we fixate on cultural relevance, we are always chasing trends that – by definition – are soon irrelevant. It makes us followers. And it makes us just like everybody else – because of course we are always all chasing the same trends – instead of staking out a place of difference. A place of leadership.

Vaters argues that we can do that, even in small towns and small congregations. Instead of battling for cultural relevance, he writes, we should shoot for what he called ‘contextual reality.’

Contextual reality means meeting the challenges of OUR real lives, of dealing with OUR real issues.

Vaters lists a bunch of ways to do that: being personal rather than generic; inviting outsiders in rather than creating a culture of insiders and outsiders; and getting our hands dirty – as it were – rather than keeping a distance.

I saw these and I thought. But those are things that we’re already doing.

We in small congregations know that nobody can be anonymous. When anybody new walks in that door, as Don and I did for the first time, I can guarantee you that Mel and Sissy want to know who you are, where you’re from, and how you ended up in our building.
When anyone in the congregation is sick, or suffers a loss, we don’t ‘activate’ our caring community. We ARE a caring community. We take care of each other as we take care of our own. We call, we run, we cook, we bake, we pray. When anyone is celebrating a simcha, we rejoice, we share food and gifts and laughter.

But sometimes that’s not enough.

Let’s face it – we are in a small community, in an ever-shrinking congregation, in a fairly isolated part of rural Pennsylvania. I’ve served a lot of congregations in circumstances like ours, and they all have one thing in common: a tendency to the status quo. The same prayers, the same songs. There is comfort in continuity. But there’s no growth, there’s no energy.

So I do strive for a level of cultural relevance. Over the summer, I’ll be incorporating into our outdoor services some of the new, cutting-edge melodies I learned at Songleader Boot Camp last month.

I always share ideas and perspectives from contemporary writers and Torah commentators. I encourage people to keep up with what’s going on in Israel. It’s important for this congregation to stay relevant to the rest of the Reform movement, to the rest of American Judaism, to the rest of the Jewish world.

We may not accept or incorporate everything. But we give it a shot – be it a prayer, a song, even new liturgy – to see if it speaks to us.

As a result, we HAVE become more engaged in the wider Jewish world. We took the opportunity to test out early versions of the new high-holy day prayer book and provide our feedback. We haven’t adopted it yet, but that’s not to say we won’t in the coming years – just as we did with Mishkan T’filah for Shabbat. It’s new. It’s challenging. And it’s important that we DO continue to grow and learn outside of our comfort zone.

The fact is that Judaism, over the centuries, has done a pretty good balancing act: maintaining a sense of community and peoplehood while adapting to the outside world. And I’m not talking about Reform Judaism, necessarily – I mean traditional Jewish life.
We see in Jewish legal texts, written over a period of two-thousand years, how individual Jewish communities around the world have dealt with their own challenges of assimilation, discrimination, and cultural dissonance. They sought guidance from the greatest authorities of their time, from the academies of Babylonia to Maimonides in Spain and later Egypt, to the poskim of renaissance Western Europe, to the rebbes of Ashkenaz.

But they held for themselves the right to issue their own takkanot, their own rules that worked for their own communities, based on the advice they received.

Reform Judaism is, I believe, a great expression of this evolution, of acknowledging that different Jewish communities in different places have their own needs and priorities and circumstances. Our Responsa Committee gets all sorts of questions about how to Jewishly resolve unique problems with bigger underlying conflicts of Jewish values. And we issue conclusions, rather than commands.

The truth is that Reform Judaism has different expression in different places. More Classical in small towns like ours, more conservative in Canada, more Israeli in, well, in Israel. But the truth is, as well, that Judaism as a whole has always been that way.
Which brings us to what’s happening these days in Israel.

In January of this year, you may recall, a consensus agreement was reached regarding the difficult issue of egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The agreement – which included the Israeli government and the Reform and Conservative movements – called for a renovated, expanded prayer space at Robinson’s Arch for mixed-gender worship.

It incorporated this area into what’s been known traditionally as the Western Wall – the Kotel – the holiest space in the Jewish world. People would come into the Kotel plaza and be able to choose where to go:

To the left, to the Northern end of the plaza for traditional, gender-segregated worship, or to the right, to the southern end of the plaza, for egalitarian prayers.

The good part: The agreement gave Israeli government support and financing, really for the first time, for a recognized space along the Western Wall for men and women to pray together in a non-traditional setting. The bad part: The agreement meant that we would cede control of the traditional areas of the Kotel to the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate.

We would abandon a quarter century of work on behalf of the Women of the Wall to pray together as they wished in the womens’ section. It was a victory for Reform and Conservative Judaism, but a loss for Orthodox women who just wanted to pray together, as the Israeli courts have rules that they ought to be able to do.

At the CCAR Convention in Israel last month, my male and female colleagues went to the Robinson’s Arch site and worshiped together, read Torah together, and rejoiced together in that holy space without interference.

That happened just last month. That was then. This is now.

Now, the agreement is falling apart. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu, under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox in his government, backed away from the deal. Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who had agreed to it, flip-flopped as well. Religious Affairs Minister David Azoulay, who has a history of saying nasty things about non-Orthodox Jews, refused to implement the deal.

Bibi says there will be “new talks” – which is to say, the issue will now be dragged out for months and years, as it has been before. As John Oswald wrote in The Forward this week: “It comes down to modern day politics and ancient patriarchal power that refuses to change with the times — and believes it has the final say on what it means to be a Jew, Reform and Conservative critics say.”

Yes. Yes we do.

The ultra-Orthodox men who control not only prayer space and purse strings in Israel, but also have say over the personal status of every citizen, who can marry whom and where one can be buried, insist that they are simply implementing the rules that have been set down in the Torah and enforced by the rabbinic tradition ever since.

The tradition says – that’s nonsense. The truth is, as I said earlier, that Judaism always has always evolved to remain relevant to each and every generation – without compromising its basic ethical tenets and commitment to peoplehood. That is Judaism’s special gift.

If Judaism had never evolved, we would be living under a system like the one that we see in this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, the section of Leviticus that deals with the ordination and anointing of Aaron and his sons as the high priests of the tabernacle. Such a Judaism would be completely patriarchal and hierarchical, with one family controlling decisions over personal status and life and death.

Actually, when you think about it, that’s the kind of Judaism the Chief Rabbinate and its minions have set up in Israel. It’s a pretty cushy deal. They are the bosses. They make the rules. They believe they can ignore the Israeli courts, as well as the court of public opinion, as long as it empowers and enriches them.

This situation is untenable. It is unacceptable. And it will further isolate Israel from the wider Jewish world. Yizhar Hess, the head of the Conservative movement in Israel, called it “a nightmare scenario from a Jewish and Zionist perspective.” And my Reform colleague Rabbi Gilad Kariv, who toiled for years to make the agreement possible, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz:

“We call on the prime minister to make clear to his ultra-Orthodox partners that the unity of the Jewish people and the connection between the state of Israel and world Jewry cannot be held captive to street battles within the ultra-Orthodox community, and to take a clear and public stand against the continued incitement of ultra-Orthodox politicians against millions of Reform Jews.”

Judaism has come too far to succumb to the desire of a handful of ultra-Orthodox rabbis and professional politicians to regress to an ancient past – to return to what that Christian blogger, Karl Vaters, called “the old-time glory days that probably never were.”

We know in our own little corner of the Jewish world that we have to resist the temptation, on the one hand, to retreat into stasis, and, on the other, to chase after every pop culture trend.

We are what we are. We are the sum of all of our experiences as a community, and as a people with thousands of years of evolutionary tradition. To be true to ourselves is to be both contextually real and culturally relevant. This unique ability is what has allowed Judaism to survive for millennia when, by all rights, it should at some point have disappeared into the abyss that eventually swallows even the greatest cultures and empires.

The greatest threat to Judaism is not change. The greatest threat is the refusal to recognize the need for change.

We must support our Reform movement and our Reform colleagues in Israel. We must continue to use the power of our voices and our pocketbooks to effect necessary change in Israel. Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin


Pekude: All Good Things Must End. Friday, March 11, 2016

As a wise person once said, even good things must come to an end. Most recently, that was said by the Downton Abbey character Thomas Barrow, a self-hating, smarmy and often loathsome under-butler, who recently made a grand transformation to relative niceness after a failed attempt at suicide. Barrow sort of epitomizes all the things that, for better or worse, made Downton Abbey a must-watch on Sunday nights, for me and millions of other fans, until its concluding episode last Sunday.

Barrow was always looking out for himself. He connived against other servants and against the family that paid his wages, the Earl of Grantham and his wife and their daughters. For at least a season, he tried to get a lady’s maid to dig up dirt on them, threatening to expose her own somewhat sordid past. On the other hand, he was good at his job. And he seemed to have a soft spot for the family’s children, who adored him.

A lot of the Downton characters had good and bad traits, both upstairs and downstairs. Some were vain but successful. Some were hapless but kind. And then there was the dowager countess, played by the unsurpassed Maggie Smith, who was always ready with a quick rejoinder – sometimes sharp, often thoughtful, and always hilarious. She always got the good lines until this season, when – in an effort to wrap things up with a big bow – series creator and writer Julian Fellowes let loose a bit and stuffed some measure of real humanity and humor into characters that often had come across as stereotyped or two-dimensional.

There’s another good thing that comes to an end this week: our annual reading of the Book of Exodus, Sefer Shemot. We have been taken on a literary journey and a religious pilgrimage. We began with Moses in the river, and we end with Moses finishing up the construction and dedication of the Tent of Meeting, where the God he found in a Burning Bush would dwell among the chosen people Israel. Along the way, a rag-tag bunch of kvetching former slaves were saved at the sea, entered into a divine covenant at Sinai, practiced idolatry with a golden calf, and were chastised and then forgiven who knows how many times by the God of their salvation.

Moses has gone from a deposed prince, “slow of speech” and unsure of himself, to the self-assured leader of Israel. Like the script writer and the dowager countess, God gives Moses many of the best lines, be they cloying, critical, or wise. And, like the dowager, Moses is transformed from a man in the grip of his past to a man who not only accepts change but one who shapes the future.

Moses and the Israelites are just beginning their journey, of course. The Book of Leviticus will outline for them, and for us, many of the laws and rituals that made them a community – an extended family. Later on in the year, the Book of Numbers will pick up the narrative of their wanderings, and, in Deuteronomy, Moses will use his farewell address to both chastise and inspire the second generation he has guided through the wilderness, just to the border of the Promised Land.

We read this story every year. So we know that the people will, in turns, be faithful and then turn on their leaders and whine about their God. We know Moses will go through periods of self-doubt, and God will occasionally seem petty, sometimes vengeful, and often generous. For now, if we wipe our minds of what we know is to come, we end the Book of Exodus on the precipice of a new beginning.

There’s been much talk of a Downton Abbey movie some time in the future. But how much time will have passed? After all, the series has taken us from 1912 and the sinking of the Titanic, through the life-changing horror of World War One, to the eve of 1926, a time of relative hope and prosperity in which each character, most satisfyingly for us, finds love and happiness.

Should the saga continue, we know that happiness will be challenged by the historic events that will overtake the family and their moment of bliss: The financial crash of 1929, the rise of Nazism in Germany in 1933, and the dark death of World War Two.

But of course, the Dowager Countess pragmatically predicts clouds will roll in. At the wedding of her granddaughter – the previously ever-so unhappy Edith – she says: “With any luck they’ll be happy enough. Which is the English version of a happy ending.”

And maybe that’s the Jewish version of a happy ending, too. After all, we’re only a week away from Purim, the over-the-top holiday when we remember the murderous aims of our enemies. We know Esther will triumph. But we also know that our people will be threatened, and despised, oppressed, and even murdered, in every corner of the world, in every generation – until, and including, our own.

Just yesterday, Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas rejected yet another in a long string of peace offerings made on behalf of Israel. Vice President Biden reportedly offered a settlement freeze and an Arab capital in East Jerusalem, in return for the PA recognizing Israel as a Jewish state and dropping the demand for a so-called ‘right of return” for Palestinians to move back to Israel. This rejection – which was as predictable as some of the plot resolutions in the Downton Abbey finale – came after Abbas praised as martyrs this week’s latest round of Palestinian terrorists who murdered, among others, an American graduate student. After Biden publicly upbraided him and demanded he apologize, Abbas refused to do so, and offered only insincere sympathy that an American had died.

President Obama had hoped to bequeath to his successor a more promising situation in the Middle East than he’s had to deal with for eight years. But Abbas does not have the courage or the desire to say yes to peaceful coexistence. He has not prepared his people for anything but war and hatred and bloodshed. And that clearly will not change any time soon.

Israelis have showed great resilience and courage in the face of this latest intifada. They have learned to deal with the status quo, as frightening as it is. Because right now, they have no alternative. So they too will put on their costumes and their smiles for Purim this week, and be happy enough, in our Jewish way.

For now, as we approach Purim, our Torah this week gives us this vision a pleasant pause, if not a happy ending: Moses and the Israelite people, free at last, are in covenant with God, celebrating the creation of the Mishkan, the tent of meeting, that will be God’s dwelling place in their midst. We can at least take a little time to rejoice in this, no matter what the future brings. And like our brothers and sisters in Israel, who have learned to live and love in the moment, we say – in the words of cousin Isabel’s beloved Lord Merton — “how perfectly marvelous.”

©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin



“Of Unknown Origin” – Shabbat Vayigash, December 18, 2015

This week, the Temple received an e-mail from a volunteer with the Memorial Scrolls Trust, which is based in Westminster Synagogue in London. They’re in the process of confirming the location and well-being of all of the Czech Torah scrolls administered by the trust – a process that requires us to give them an update every five years.

For those of you who might not be aware, our small community has the honor of keeping in trust one of about 1,500 Torah scrolls from communities around Prague that were wiped out by the Nazis.
A handful of Czech Jews tried bravely to salvage what artifacts they could from their communities. But one by one, they followed all the rest, transported to the Nazi death camps at Terezin and Auchwitz. Only two curators survived, unable to care for what remnants remained of the Jewish population of Bohemia and Moravia.

Eventually, 1,564 Torah scrolls were salvaged and transported to London, where they were sorted, repaired as best they could be, and placed in the safe-keeping of communities all around the world.

The Nazis, as we know, kept meticulous records of people and things – even tattooing numbers on death-camp prisoners. That’s why the Trust knows the history of many of the scrolls, or at least the towns where they came from. But the information tags on some of the scrolls were lost. And apparently ours is one of those.

The volunteer from the trust who got in touch with us described our scroll, Memorial Scroll Trust Torah number 986, as an “Orphan Torah Scroll” with “an unknown town of origin.” That makes it all but impossible to return the scroll to its rightful owners, and to the community where it belongs.

An orphan Torah Scroll is a sad thing to consider. But an orphan people – well, that’s a terrifying prospect. Yet that’s just what our ancestors face in this week’s Torah portion.

The family of Israel is being torn from its homeland. The land had been promised to Abraham by God for all the future generations of his offspring. Yet just two generations after Abraham, famine has swept through Canaan, and all of them must sojourn to Egypt in order to survive. Israel’s beloved son Joseph – the great-grandson of Abraham and now the vizier of Egypt – takes them all in and arranges for them to settle in the region of Goshen. He’s intent on keeping them far away from areas heavily populated by Egyptians, whom he knows might resent the newcomers’ arrival and the nepotism that got them there.

Israel and his family settle into Goshen as shepherds, presuming they will have to stay in Egypt at least seven years – the length of time that the famine would last, according to Joseph’s dreams of prophecy. But God had other plans, as the Eternal had told Abraham: “Know for a certainty that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years,” God said, “And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great wealth.”

The Pharaoh whom Torah says “knew not Joseph” – the one who would oppress his extended family with hardship and drive them into slavery — was counting on the Israelites forgetting where they had come from, forgetting they even were a family. Generation after generation born into slavery, he must have thought, would surely break them, so that they would consider themselves nothing more than disposable and replaceable cogs in Pharaoh’s labor force.

Abraham’s God clearly was counting just the opposite: that the people would remember who they were, where they had come from, and what kept them together. And somehow that’s just what happened. We’re not quite sure how and why. But in Deuteronomy (26:5) we are told: וַיְהִי־שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב “And there they became a great a populous nation”

Not just populous, mind you, but a “populous nation.” The rabbis of the Midrash teach us that’s why God redeemed Israel: “a populous nation. This teaches that the Israelites were distinct there, in that their clothing, food, and language was different from the Egyptians’.” In other words, over four hundred years, they refused to orphan themselves, and therefore they were redeemed.

Now, more than three-thousand years later, we face the same threat of becoming an orphan people.

It is no secret that, in many parts of the world, the Jews are still as much a despised people as they were in Egypt. Throughout northern Europe, Germany, France, Belgium, and the UK, Jews have been targeted, attacked, even killed. We’ve had similar attacks in our own country – some deadly.
Not to mention the anti-semitic graffiti, the desecrated Jewish cemeteries, and the bullying of Jewish children. Not to mention the Boycott-Israel movement, which is gaining traction across college campuses and among groups of American academics. Not to mention the common ground that civil rights groups like Black Lives Matter are finding with pro-Palestinian organizations, adopting a model of shared victimhood at the hands of their oppressors.

The targeting of Jews by people who ought to be our partners in justice has gotten really bad. So bad that, a couple of weeks ago, an offshoot of Black Lives Matter publicly condemned Rabbi Susan Talve of St. Louis. Rabbi Talve has been a friend and colleague and public partner of BLM since Ferguson. She has won many awards, and much admiration, for her social justice advocacy. Yet they turned on her just the same. Her crime? Being a Jew who is a Zionist and loves Israel.

For that, Rabbi Talve was labeled with the hashtag #realterrorist. For that she was denounced as someone who supports “genocide and international apartheid.” For that, the inaply named Jewish Voice for Peace chapter in St. Louis attacked her for refusing to condemn what it terms Zionist colonization of the “indigenous people of Palestine” – an oft-used phrase by those who deny any Jewish historical presence in the Land of Israel.
Rabbi Talve is being accused of being a fake, because – according to these groups – she cannot be both a social justice activist and a lover of Israel.

This is where we find ourselves today – once again, condemned, attacked, and even killed for the crime of being Jews.

These so-called civil rights groups might say it’s because of the plight of the Palestinians. Others like the European Union might cite Jewish settlements across the Green Line. But many of them would find some reason, any reason, to hate Jews. We’ve been blamed in the past for the Black Plague. For killing Christian children for their blood. For insidious plots to take over the world. There’s always a reason.

In his new book about Europe in the early 20th century, Ian Kershaw quotes a Russian sociologist: “Jews are hated everywhere. They are hated by people regardless of their class or education, political persuasion, race, or age.” That was in 1921. Before settlements. Before the unification of Jerusalem. Before the founding of the modern State of Israel. Before the Holocaust. At a time when Jews were characterized, less like Zionist imperialists and more like Bolsheviks and anarchists. There’s always a reason.

But the method is the same. Cut Jews off from their history, their land, their inheritance. Limit their opportunities for making a living to lending money and selling liquor – and then blame them for craving cash and leading good people into sin. Equate Zionism with terrorism and Jewish identity with genocidal intent. Force us to become orphans.

For four hundred years, the sons of Israel and their clans refused to bow to the Egyptian intent to forget. Their faithfulness is credited for our survival as a people, as a nation, as an extended family. We, too, must resist the powerful forces in the world today that would orphan us from our past, from our homeland, and from our identity as kingdom of priests and a holy people. From our mission to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.

I am disappointed and really angry at our rejection by the very people who ought to recognize us as partners – historical partners – in the cause of civil rights and human dignity. But we cannot accept their demand that we choose one part of our identity over another – or we are truly lost.

“If I forget thee O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning.” This is the lament of the Psalmist from Israel’s exile to Babylon some twenty-five hundred years ago. If we were not orphaned in Egypt, or in Persia, or in two thousand years of diaspora, we will not be orphaned now.

An orphan Torah scroll is sad. An orphan people is unthinkable.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


Why History Matters – Shabbat Lekh Lecha, Friday, October 23, 2015

It was not the message they were expecting.

Many friends and colleagues of mine were in Jerusalem this week, as Reform Jewish delegates to the World Zionist Congress. It’s a meeting that takes place every five years, to reaffirm and advance the cause of modern Zionism. First held under the leadership of Theodor Herzl in 1897, the World Zionist Congress spends a lot of time, effort, and money on the ties that bind Jews throughout the world to the land of Israel and the State of Israel.

It’s a great honor to be selected as a World Zionist Delegate – but my friends arrived in Jerusalem this week at a very dangerous time. In recent weeks, scores of Israelis have been killed or injured by Arabs – many of them residents of East Jerusalem — who have set upon Jews randomly on the street with knives, guns, and even ramming them with cars.
Security cameras have captured Arab teenagers wandering the streets with knives in their hands, looking for unsuspecting targets. One camera captured the moment an Arab behind the wheel of a car sped up and took aim at a group of ultra-Orthodox men at a bus stop, ramming one so hard that he was thrown six feet in the air.

Israelis are afraid to take their kids to school, afraid to go shopping. One colleague shared her Israeli husband’s first-hand account of sipping coffee with a friend at an outdoor café when an Arab went running past them, others screaming behind him – get the terrorist, he just stabbed somebody! The friend, without a moment’s hesitation, put down his coffee and ran down the terrorist, hog-tying him with a belt till the police came.

Then he returned to the café, sat back down, and went back to his coffee and his conversation.

This is the new normal for Israelis that awaited my friends. This is why they were so anxious to hear the speech from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it was not the message they were expecting.

Netanyahu claimed that the grand mufti of Jerusalem had given Hitler the idea for the Final Solution, for the extermination of Europe’s Jews. He said that Haj Amin al-Husseini, the man overseeing the Muslim holy sites of Jerusalem, told Hitler not to deport the Jews, but to burn them.

Bibi made jaws drop for a number of reasons. First, it’s simply not true. It’s factually, historically, incorrect.

Second, his assertion has distracted the world from the Jewish blood now being shed all across Israel. Third, it has emboldened Jew-haters and anti-Semites across the globe, who now turn to each other and say, “See, we told you. It’s the Jews’ fault. They hate Arabs so much that they’ll lie to get what they want.”

Instead of engendering world support for Israel and condemnation of Arab blood-lust against Jews, Bibi managed to do the opposite – at a time when we can least afford it.

Let’s face it – the world’s news media already have trouble getting the story right. From the BBC to the New York Times, the reports and photos out of Israel emphasize Arabs shot dead in the streets – all but ignoring the fact that those Arabs are terrorists who were shot in the act of attacking Jews with knives, guns, and cars.

What’s really aggravating is that Bibi didn’t have to stretch the truth. The fact is that the Grand Mufti was both an admirer and an ally of Hitler, who who pledged his support to the Nazi cause in a meeting with the Fuhrer in 1941. The fact is that Al-Husseini was angling for the creation of a united, independent Arab entity across the Middle East, playing Germany against the British and hedging his bets on who would win the war.

It was Hitler who said in that meeting that the extermination of the Jewish people was at the top of his must-do list. But the fact is that he agreed with the Mufti that Jews should not be allowed to rebuild their homeland in what was then British Mandate Palestine – something that Britain had supported as far back as 1917, in the wake of the First World War and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.

And here’s why Bibi’s mistake is so costly: Because it’s obscuring what’s really going on in Israel today. Which is that the Palestinian leadership is trying to rewrite the Jews out of the history of the Jewish homeland. The homeland for which Jews yearned during two thousand years of exile. The homeland promised to by God Abraham in this week’s Torah portion:

“I will establish my covenant between me and you and your seed after you in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God to you, and to your seed after you. And I will give to you, and to your seed after you, the land where you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”

The current Palestinian leadership, including the so-called “moderate” Mahmoud Abbas, has resurrected a hundred-year-old canard to gather the masses in a bloody uprising against the Jews.

“Protect Al-Aqsa at all cost,” they declare – and the people listen and obey. It was indeed Mufti al-Husseini who, back in the early 1920s, first promoted the lie that the Jews were threatening the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount. Twenty-five years before Israel’s independence, forty-five years before the reunification of Jerusalem in the war of 1967, the Mufti first called out the people to “protect Al-Aqsa” at all cost and trained terror groups of Fedayeen to attack and murder Jews. From that time on, over and over again, he raised the false specter of a change in the status quo at the Temple Mount to goad Arabs into rioting. Over and over again, Arabs ran into the streets eager to spill Jewish blood.

This is the same lie – the same tactic – that has led to this month’s Arab riots across Israel and Arab attacks on Jews by knife, by gun, and by car.

There is no change in the status quo. Israel could have taken over the Temple Mount in 1967 when it captured the Old City of Jerusalem, declared it wholly Jewish, and destroyed the Muslim sacred spaces as the Romans did when they obliterated all trace of Herod’s Second Temple. But Moshe Dayan promised that Israel would not do that, and that promise has held.

Yes, the charge is as much of a murderous lie today as it was 100 years ago. But today, the use of social media – as well as the public speeches by Hamas and the PLO – have made the situation exponentially more explosive. And so has the presence of Arabs who work for the United Nations agency caring for displaced Palestinians.

According to a group called “U.N. Watch,” based in Geneva, a number of Arabs on the UN payroll have taken to Facebook with photos and even music videos. I’ve seen some of these postings. They glorify terrorists who have stabbed Israelis, and calling on others to “Stab Zionist Dogs” or “fight until you defeat the aggressor.” One even published a handy-dandy, easy-to-follow graphic of where to stab a Jew for maximum effect.

This is actually the second time in the past two months that UN relief workers have been caught posting terrorist messages on their Facebook accounts. UN Watch called on the relief agency to fire 10 employees for using the cover of their jobs to promote violence – and, as of yesterday, the UN said it had “disciplined” several agency employees including suspension and loss of pay. The UN purported to be shocked at their graphic incitement to violence. But I’m not shocked at all.

After all, this is the same agency that, for decades, has kept the Palestinian Arabs in a state of statelessness, teaching generations of children in Gaza to hate Jews, allowing Hamas to turn their schools into rocket-launchers.

But what happened at another UN agency this week was a surprise. And again, it goes to the heart of the real story: that the Palestinian leadership is getting help from the Arab world in trying to rewrite the Jews out of the history of the Jewish homeland.

This week, UNESCO, the UN body responsible for the preservation of historical sites, took up an Arab resolution that would declare the Kotel, the Western Wall, to be an integral part of the Haram al-Sharif, as the Temple Mount is known is Islam. That is, UNESCO was ready to declare the holiest site in Judaism not Jewish at all but culturally, historically, religious, and archaeologically exclusively Muslim.

The resolution also referred to Jerusalem as, quote, “the occupied capital of Palestine,” even though no such entity exists now or ever has existed.

Keep in mind, that this also is not a new tactic. For decades, the web site of the PLO specifically denied there were any Jewish historical or religious sites in Jerusalem, and Palestinian leaders across the board have continued – to this day – to peddle the lie. This, despite the clear archaeological evidence of a Second Temple and historical evidence of the House of David as well. This, even despite the guide to al-Haram al-Sharif published by the Wakif itself nearly a century ago, which ties the religious significance of the site for Muslims to its history for Jews.

“The site is one of the oldest in the world,” according to the guide, which was published in English in 1924 for the benefit of Muslim pilgrims to Jerusalem. “Its identity with the site of Solomon’s Temple is beyond dispute. This too, is the spot, according to the universal belief, on which ‘David built there an altar unto the Lord, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings.’” Here, the guide quotes from Second Samuel, Chapter Six – citing Jewish scripture to reaffirm millennia of Jewish connection to this holy space.

Thank goodness, international outcry over the UNESCO proposal ensued. The United States bashed it as an incitement to violence. And so did UNESCO’s own Director-General, who said it potentially (quote) “could be seen to alter the status of the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls, inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.”

Let’s be clear: The head of UNESCO herself said it would be the Arabs, and not the Jews, who would be changing the status quo at the Temple Mount.

In the end, the resolution was changed. But it passed with a condemnation of Israel’s stewardship of the Holy Sites. And it declared Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs to be listed as Islamic sites – co-opting two Jewishly important places to which Jews have been making pilgrimage for hundreds of years. At both sites, as at the Temple Mount, mosques have been built over existing Jewish shrines – in an effort to de-Judaize sacred spaces whose importance traces back to the Bible itself.

Here’s the crux of the matter: Israel exists, Israel will continue to exist, and Jews will continue to come to Israel and live in Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Over and over again, the combined Arab armies of Egypt and Jordan and Syria have tried and failed to make the holy land Judenrein. And if their military might did not succeed in 1948, or in 1956, or in 1967, or in 1973, a relative handful of Arabs murdering Jews on the street in cold blood will not do the job either.

The PLO and Hamas and the others know this. Their vile rhetoric aside, they know they cannot wipe the Jewish state of Israel off the map. So they’ve taken another tactic. They’ve tried to wipe it out of history. They’ve tried to convince the world that Jews never had sovereignty in the land. That there was no Second Temple and certainly no First. That the modern state of Israel is in no way connected to the two thousand year-old dream of returning to Zion reflected in our Bible and our poetry and our music.

They’re now getting help from UNESCO, which has de-Judaized two important Jewish holy sites and tried to take away from us the most precious place on earth. They’re getting help from so-called scholars among the Palestinians, such as the Gaza university dean who proclaimed this week that it’s okay to murder Jewish women and children.

“The Jews of Palestine are fair game today,” declared Dr. Subhi al Yaziji – again invoking a non-existent entity to try to deny Jews our history, if not our present.

And they’re now getting help from the ignorance and antisemitism rampant in the so-called BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions), which deliberately rewrites Jews out of the history of the Middle East – notwithstanding the obvious fact that, if there was never a Jewish temple or a Jewish presence in Jerusalem, then there also was no Jesus and no basis for Christianity.

The Palestinian leadership banks on international ignorance of history, and hatred of Jews, to win the public-relations battle. It is not to the credit of the world that they have had some measure of success. The MSNBC news network had to issue an apology this week for using a series of maps put out by the BDS movement to try and explain the street violence of Arab against Jew. The maps are absolutely false. They completely distort the last century of Middle East history. But the fact that a reputable news network would accept them as fact is a pathetic reflection of what the world really understands about the Middle East and Israel – and how much the world really cares.

There’s always some reason given why Arabs murder Jews in cold blood. It’s the settlements. It’s the fence. It’s Jenin. It’s Gaza. But Arabs were murdering Jews in cold blood decades before there were any fences or any settlements, or any talk about Gaza or the West Bank.
Here’s the real reason, explained beautifully this week in an essay by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former head of the Union for Reform Judaism:

“What kind of a national movement unleashes 13-year-olds to do its dirty work? How does a child sacrifice, or at the very least an after-the-fact justification of child sacrifice, bring honor to the Palestinian cause? Once again, the leaders of Palestinian nationalism have led their people down the long, cruel path of violence, suffering, and death.” And Rabbi Yoffie repeated the words he spoke in 2001, after the Palestinian leadership walked away from a remarkably brave offer of peace from then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak: “The Palestinian national movement is one of the most stupid, murderous, and bloodthirsty national liberation movements in all of human history.”

It is sad, and pathetic, that these words are as true today as they were 14 years ago. It is unconscionable that the Palestinian leadership, which has plundered billions of dollars from international donors and robbed their people of a hopeful future, is not held accountable for its crimes against either Jews or its own people. It is unacceptable that Jews in Israel are afraid to send their children to school, that they themselves are afraid to go to the market.
Israel will protect her people, with all the power she has. And she will have the right to do so – as long as it takes, as much as it takes.

I am no fan of Benjamin Netanyahu, who through two terms as Prime Minister as far back as 1996, has yet to come up with a single strategy to resolve the Palestinian problem. It is to the discredit of the current Israeli government that it has no long-term plan in place – not even the kernel of a proposal – to separate Israel from the Palestinian territories once and for all, and thus remove any doubt as to the cause of the violence against Jews.

But, as Rabbi Yoffie writes, “all decisions regarding a long-term solution must wait until there is calm and quiet on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Afula and Raanana. When terror reigns, thinking stops and fanaticism thrives. The terror must end, and Israel must do what is necessary to end it.”

It is with sadness that I end my remarks tonight on this note, but, tonight, there is no alternative.

Let the terror end and the talks begin soon, so that at a time will come when, as the prophet Micah wrote, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more. But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken it.”

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2015 Audrey R. Korotkin