Do Not Shy From Controversy

The world is full of controversial issues.  Issues that will not simply go away by ignoring them.  If we are concerned with their outcome because we have a stake in them, be it financially, politically, emotionally, or otherwise, then we need to take a position and work in what ever way we can and are comfortable to bring a peaceful and humane resolution. Ideally, a resolution is reached through dialogue, education, respect and sensitivity, and compromise. 

I believe the decision by the Presbyterian Church to divest of three businesses because of their relationship to Israel and the Palestinian cause is such an issue.  Recently I posted an article which appeared in Haaretz to our Temple Facebook page which was written by a past URJ President, Rabbi Eric Yoffie.  As most of you likely know, the current URJ President, Ric Jabobs, has also spoken out and written about how Church’s vote undermines Presbyterian-Jewish relations.  Others present a view which supports the actions of the JVP organization and their promotion of the divestiture. 

One Rabbi, A. Hirsch posted an open letter expressing great pain and supreme disappointment over the Church’s action. He took the church’s decision firmly and critically to task.

As a temple with an active adult education learning program, and a congregation which embraces life-long learning, Vassar Temple need not shy away from controversial topics.  In fact, we often meet such issues head-on through adult education classes, rabbi sermons, private conversations, and also use of social media.  Such is ONE of the ways to use a blog.  To bring to light issues which do concern us in hopes of fostering constructive interactions.  The blog is a better place for this post, so I will be removing the Facebook post.   

This year Vassar Temple will present an adult education lecture series on the subject of Borders.  While the curriculum and details are not yet available, I encourage our members and friends to come to this free program and see & hear first hand how Vassar Temple approaches controversial topics in the most healthy and interesting way!    



Torah Study Notes 6-21-14

June 21, 2014


Korach – . 1002 The people are in the wilderness with no particular goal or destination. In the last Book of Numbers there is description of the random wanderings. LL: One would think there would be a focus on the location of wells. Also, the wilderness is an incubator of sorts wherein the people grow in number and become hardier. The Haftarah for Korach is First Samuel, Ch. 11, verse 14 to chapter 12, verse 22. There is a significant difference in that here Moses appeals to God whereas Samuel appeals to the people.

16:1 “You have gone too far!” The people remonstrate with Moses and Aaron. What gives them the authority to be the leaders? “…for all the community are holy…” “Why do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?”

16:4 Why does Koresh want leadership? Note the problematic translation of the phrase “he took.” Here Moses appears to humble himself (but “falls upon his face” is a colloquialism and we are not sure of its exact meaning.) and sets a test for selection by the Eternal. Bringing fire pans is part of the ordination ceremony that has been described previously in the ordination of Aaron and his ill-fated sons.

16:8 “…do you seek the priesthood too?” From a literary point of view it may be that several Koresh stories have been drawn together to produce this text – possibly from a variety of sources. Note that Koresh is a descendant of Reuben – the eldest of the twelve brother sons of Jacob. His challenge may be an aspect of primogeniture. This is clearly a question of “apostolic authority” – who has God chosen. But it is also a question of waning effectiveness as a leader.

16:12  “ Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them…” Moses appears to be concerned as to why this particular challenge by a second group has occurred. This is not a priestly Levitical challenge. CL There are usually two conditions for uprisings – that people feel that they are oppressed but also have the ability to express their will. Here, the rebels are confident enough to express their displeasure.

16:16 Everyone lays their fire pans before the tent of meeting. For the purposes of making the story work everyone, from both rebelling groups, is made a Cohan. Note that to be chosen by God is transformative. What is central in Christian thought is God’s grace – the transformation occurs when you are  baptized or born again. But what is the discernible difference between being chosen and thinking that you are chosen – self righteousness? In Judaism you are deemed chosen because you have inherent qualities of leadership.

16:16 continued – the Eternal appears to the whole community and threatens to annihilate them. Previously the appearance has been in the form of a pillar of fire. But God again seems to be speaking only to Moses and Aaron. They need to convince themselves as to what they wish to happen. Compare the decision in Iraq to eliminate the entire Baathist leadership after the fall of Saddam.

16:25 Moses tells the people to leave the tents of Dathan and Abiram who have challenged his leadership. This is an ongoing political drama. Here the people in general are given an opportunity to support Moses.

16:27 Dathan and Abiram and all of their people are swallowed up by the ground. Then a fire went forth from the Eternal and consumed the 250 men offering the incense. Again, this appears to be a blending of two story traditions. This is confusing because there is no reference here to Koresh and his supporters. Compare to the ending of Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark. The evildoers are punished. Or is this a question of “burn out” among those whose passions rose to a self-destructive level? What does religious passion lead to? Burning up? Excessive behavior? Here the destruction is metaphoric as a lesson to succeeding generations. No one is killed except in a literary sense. We are instructed by entertaining hyperbole. Also, this sequence suggest punishment for more than rebellion against Moses and Aaron. It is punishment for apostasy – a rebellion against God.

17:1  The burned fire pans become a warning for those who might challenge apostolic authority in the future. In many respects Torah is Greek tragedy or vice versa. Almost everyone dies but there is always someone left to carry on – and presumably to tell the tale. A mode preserved by Shakespeare.     

Torah Study Notes 6-14-14

June 14, 2014
p. 979 Sh’lach L’cha
13:1 to 34 Notables scout the land of Canaan. PG: Examination of the exegesis in the Talmud is another way of studying these passages. See:

See hand-out from the tractate Sotah “Promised Land or Permitted Land.” The Rabbi’s suggest that the scouts went with trepidation and low expectations. The aftermath of their observations of the land is the wandering in the dessert. Note the change of name from Hosea to Joshua. There is also a powerful notion of representation of each tribe – effectively a tribal council for decision making. PG: This is a constructed narrative which does not even attempt to be a presentation of historical facts. It is recognition that they needed to have a generation born in freedom before establishing a society. We see these problems today in Iraq and Syria. Transitions from one form of government or way of life to another are always problematic. The spies had to fail in order to give this amalgam of former slaves an opportunity to develop their own culture. The scouts had to be individuals who returned with a negative report. Compare verse 22 in the text. They traveled north through the Negev. See p. 997 for map of travels. Caleb and Joshua are distinguished from the others. Joshua has been previously mentioned as the person who started to accompany Moses up Sinai. Caleb went to Hebron – which was to become the capital of Judah.
Ahiman, Sheshai and Talmai are mentioned as influential individuals to give support to the scouts report.
“Hebron was founded seven years before Zoan.” This emphasizes the fertility of the land by comparing it to a very fertile place in Egypt. Yet Hebron is very rocky which is why the dead were buried there. The suggestion of the Rabbi’s is that each of the scouts saw what they wanted to see. Rather than a conspiracy they all saw the same thing and came to the same conclusion. It was too risky to enter the Promised Land at this time.
“Caleb calmed the people about Moses” The people begin to question the leadership of Moses. They look upon Caleb as a “yes man” and ignore him.
“He is stronger than we are.” The response to the question whether God has the power to deliver on his promise.
“It is a land that uses up its inhabitants.” See p. 981 verse 30. “Devours it settlers…” means that they will not be able to retain their own identity. RL: What was the justification for the indigenous people losing their land? PG: They were no longer worthy – which is also the argument as to why the Israelites would eventually lose their land. Martin Buber has noted that there is always a previous indigenous people. The passage of time makes the inhabitants “indigenous” but it is God’s land and He decides who will settle there.
The notes on page 977 state “The story exhibits a number of internal difficulties and contradictions. Biblical critics see two different accounts: one from the P tradition which has the scouts exploring the whole land, and another from the J/E tradition that relates a somewhat simpler expedition.”

A Special Thank-You to Our Teachers

A beautiful early summer evening provided the backdrop for our annual picnic and outdoor service. As an added treat, religious-school director Dr. Joel Hoffman offered a few words of thanks to the teachers whom he supervises.

He started with Argentina’s northern Patagonia region, of all places, recalling when he had traveled there to lecture some years ago. His hotel room there faced an inner courtyard, which is why he had no way of knowing what exactly was happened when his sleep was interrupted first by someone shouting “no, NO, NOOO!” and then by the sounds of gunfire.

Next came the emergency vehicles, more shouting, and more gunfire. But he had no visuals, because he couldn’t see the street. He did know that Argentina hadn’t always been the most stable of countries, so he was doubly worried.

After a fitful sleep marked by nightmares, he learned the next morning that the shouting had been at the television in response to a tense last-minute soccer play, and the gunfire had been in celebration after a dramatic end to the game.

He was relieved, but hardly relaxed.

Fortunately, Dr. Hoffman told us Friday evening, he had been invited to a Shabbat service that evening in a nearby town. The host congregation turned out to be a small, entirely lay-led group. But at the service, with its recorded music and informal atmosphere, Dr. Hoffman found a community and a respite from a difficult week. “A base of spirituality,” he told us.

Then he asked us if the teachers of those Argentine lay-leaders had any way of knowing what affect their teaching would someday have, how their teaching had so positively influenced a weary traveler.

So too, the lessons our teachers teach here reach beyond the students as we see them now, like ripples on a pond that extends behind the horizon. We never get to see the full benefit of teaching.

Torah Study Notes 6-7-14

June 7, 2014
Prologue by PG: The Israelites are about to begin wandering in the desert. A close reading of each section here doesn’t entirely make sense – but it does from the perspective of an overview,
p. 952
8:1 The making of the lamp stand – a menorah. LL: This works well from the perspective of metaphor. The lamp stand is the basis of the “light” of understanding and knowledge. PG: If you are starting on a journey you want to make sure the lights will be working. Note that the author here is interested in origins. At the time of writing the lamp stand existed and the people are here being told this is how God wanted it. The menorah is hung by the tabernacle – also a symbolic location.
8:5 The purification of the Levites. A complex procedure. See footnote 6 on page 952 – The Levites were only purified, not consecrated like the priests. Recall that the Levites have been mentioned previously – why is this introduced? It was not previously about purgation and purification it was genealogy. Note the important role of Aaron. Rather than a specific clan it is suggested that any Israelite may step into the position – just by volunteering. There is a strong tension between priestly leadership via genealogy and volunteerism. See Richard Elliot Friedman on this subject.
In the Middle Ages the priesthood was hereditary until about the year 1000 when priests were forbidden to marry and were required to remain celibate. Typically the second son of the noble would become the priest. The designation of “Cohan” was post-exilic where claim was made of descent from Aaron. The nobility always had last names. Jews did not until the time of Napoleon when it was mandated. See The Cohanim Project at the University of Arizona.
8:13 A reference to the experience in Egypt. The Israelites were enabled to leave by a slaughter of the Egyptian first born – here the first born are taken by God as Levites into his service. Throughout most of the previous Torah the second or younger child has been chosen for special favor. There is a story about Emmanuel Kant, who was very ethical and never lied, he is said to have responded to the question “May I ask you a question?” with the answer “No.” One must be pragmatic and recognize that the ideal cannot be attained. AF: What is the purpose of all this detail? PG: In most ancient societies sacrifice was intended to propitiate the gods. The first principal is Buddhism is “All life is suffering.” And life was very difficult for most people in ancient times. ShF – this was also part of establishing a community by bringing everyone together through ritual. SN: This process also establishes a class of people who do not work. Further, we are haunted by the slaughter of the first born of the Egyptians to this day. PG: The text here has set up extreme situations in order to clarify what is being discussed. The situation of slavery in Egypt was radical and therefore demanded a radical solution. PG: We now sacrifice as a way of thanksgiving – all life is a blessing – turning the older axiom on its head. This is one answer to the question “How do I go about thanking God.” The arc of Torah is the movement from being the property of Pharaoh to being the property of God to being truly free within a covenanted society. LL: Is the translation of the word “Mine” proper here in the sense of the word today? Does it mean owned by me or a part of me. The latter is suggested in the New Testament. PG: That would have to be studied by a philologist but the translation appears to be accurate in the modern sense of the Hebrew. The notion of a covenant with God is so radical that it becomes a challenge for the people to fulfill their role. SN: The emergence of nation states was similarly radical in that it moved populations away from the divine right of kings.
8:20 et sec. Retirement at the age of 50. Note the range of 25 to 50 for service as a Levite instead of 30 to 50 as mentioned previously. This suggests two different traditions being amalgamated here.

Vassar Temple Confirmation

Left to right: Rabbi Paul Golomb, Wayne H. (top); Olivia D, Ally B, Brianna E (bottom).

Left to right: Rabbi Paul Golomb, Wayne H. (top); Olivia D., Ally B., Brianna E. (bottom).

Though bar or bat mitzvah marks the transition from childhood to Jewish adulthood, the decision to celebrate bar or bat mitzvah is usually made by a child’s parents, precisely because the would-be bar or bat mitzvah celebrant is still a child while the plans for the ceremony are underway.

Confirmation, by contrast, gives young Jewish adults the opportunity to make what is often their first major Jewish decision as adults: will Jewish study be a central part of their lives?

Yesterday at Vassar Temple, four young Jewish adults — Ally, Brianna, Olivia, and Wayne — answered that question with an enthusiastic “yes” by leading their congregation in worship and by offering words of Torah.

In keeping with Jewish tradition, their remarks bridged their religious and secular worlds. Neither focusing too narrowly on the minutia of Jewish text nor ignoring their Jewish values, they spoke about human dignity, our obligation to care for the world, and the enduring value of Judaism.

The issue of global climate change speaks directly to our Jewish obligation to care for the world, as Wayne reminded the congregation. He spoke in favor of dealing with climate change now, and not bowing to pressure from those whose financial interests align with dismissing the problem.

The minimum legal drinking age is not a mere number but a decision about people’s welfare, Ally said as she argued that lowering it back to 18 would help people more than it would harm them, and, in addition, that a drinking age of 18 would better match the other rights and obligations that people earn when they turn 18.

School-wide dress codes have significant benefits, Brianna noted, but she still spoke out against them because in her eyes they do more harm than good. They make it harder to hold people accountable for their actions, restrict expression, contribute to inequality between men and women, and even indirectly promote misogyny.

Judaism focuses on this world more than any potential world that might follow, which is one reason Olivia said she was glad to confirm her Jewish identity. For her this was a particularly conscious choice because her family background gave her two clear paths in life, only one of which was Jewish.

“The world is based on three things,” our sages teach: “Torah, service to God, and acts of kindness.” It was a joy for me — and, I know, for the congregation — to see how these four young Jewish adults incorporated Torah and kindness as part of their service to God, continuing a tradition that began hundreds of generations ago, and, thanks in part to them, shows every sign of continuing for untold generations to come.

Left to right:  Ally B., Brianna E., Olivia D., Wayne H.

Left to right: Ally B., Brianna E., Olivia D., Wayne H.