The Bearable Lightness of Jewish Being: A Hanukah Message from Rabbi Golomb

Hanukah begins Wednesday evening, November 27 with the first candle. You should place the Menorah in a location where it can be seen from outside, such as on the ledge or a table by a front window.

Ever wonder why we (Americans) drive on the right side of the road, and the British on the left? There are a number of explanations floating around, mostly having to do with swords and ox carts. Whatever the true historical circumstance, however, we can be confident that it arose out of widespread custom, and then became both practice and law. And thus, we are reminded that some legal norms are not a matter of legislation and/or monarchical fiat, but rather represent popular tradition.

The Jewish observance of Hanukah is a case in point. Over the course of the year, we celebrate a number of sacred occasions: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot/Simhat Torah, Purim, Passover, Shavuot. All of these holidays have their origin in Scripture. To be more precise, all but Purim are mandated (or in the case of Simhat Torah, inferred) in the Torah. Purim comes from the biblical book of Esther. Hanukah, on the other hand, is not to be found in Scripture. The events that generate its observance are rather found in two books (Maccabees I & II) that not only are not biblical but were suppressed, and were only preserved as “hidden books,” or Apocrypha.

The celebration of Hanukah did not present itself as a religious-theological event in the same vein as the Exodus from Egypt, the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, or the need to account for one’s failings and ask for forgiveness during the 10 Days of Awe. It rather had to break through the strictures and conventions of official custom and practice, and literally present itself to a resistant religious establishment. Little wonder, then, that the Talmud (compiled by the sixth century C.E.) had to ask the question: “Just what is Hanukah?” The Talmudic Sages very well knew that Hanukah was being celebrated by Jews annually in the early winter and with the lighting of lights, but actually did not know why!

Hanukah therefore arose as a popular celebration whose origin and development is buried in unrecorded history. We can nevertheless determine something about its underlying themes and purposes.
First, there is light. The observance of Hanukah asks principally one thing from us: that we light lights on each eve of the holiday. A story is told about a single container of sanctified oil lasting for eight days, but the incident is not recorded in either books of the Maccabees, although both give extensive detail about the restoration and rededication (hanukah) of the Temple in Jerusalem following the Jewish victory. No, Hanukah is a festival of lights precisely because it is the darkest time of the year. Rather than giving in to the darkness, we choose to illuminate the night!

And then there is the Maccabee story itself. While the documentary history of the Jewish revolt against Antiochus and his Hellenistic (Greek) empire might have been suppressed, the basic tale was known. The inhabitants of Judea – Jerusalem and its environs – were put under systematic pressure to live according to the practices and customs of the Greeks. Under the leadership of a priest from Modin, Matethais, and his sons, the people resisted. When an Anitochan army approached, they fought back, achieved an unlikely and stunning victory, restored the partially destroyed Temple, and reasserted their dedication to the One God of Israel.

Sure, the victory is remembered, but what is truly important in the persistence of this celebration is that they fought at all. Individual lives were not at stake. Antiochus, unlike Haman in the Purim story, had no interest in killing anyone. What he wanted was not Jewish lives, but rather the Jewish soul. The underpinning message of Hanukah is: how much do you value being a Jew? What risks are you willing to take in order to preserve your Jewish identity; your own and your children’s children?

Hanukah does not seem to ask very much from us: just a thirty-second ceremony to perform each of eight nights. Actually, however, it asks a great deal. In world in which virtually everyone around us – neighbors, friends, schoolmates and business associates – are engaging in certain ways in order to prepare and celebrate this particular time of year, Jews choose to do something quite different. For eight straight nights, we announce that we are distinct, with our own history and sense of identity. In today’s pluralistic culture, our actions entail very little risk, but they are no less an act of distinction, of even defiance against the pressures and demands of a conforming society.

It is a small act, really: taking a candle and with it, light another candle. It dispels the darkness, however, and reveals a Jewish soul.

Rabbi Paul Golomb

Vassar Temple will celebrate the Tenth Night of Hanukah with its annual Candlelight Shabbat Service on Friday evening, December 6. Dinner at 6:00, and the service at 7:30. You are welcome to bring a Menorah and nine candles for lighting during the service. Follow this link to our Facebook event.


Yom Kippur 1973: On a Fortieth Anniversary

Today, October 6, 2013, is the fortieth anniversary of the first attack by Egyptian troops across the Suez Canal, beginning a month-long battle known as the Yom Kippur War. The initial military action took place on the morning of the Day of Atonement, when Israel personnel stationed along the Canal (which had been established as armistice line between Israel and Egypt following the 1967 Six-Day War) were not on high alert. Many positions were overrun and Israel incurred its largest number of casualties since the 1948-49 War of Independence. In a coordinated action, Syria began attacking positions along the Golan Heights. The third nation to lose land in the ’67 conflict, Jordan, chose to stay out of the battle.
Before the war was called to a halt, Israeli troops had Egypt’s Third Army (their elite fighting force spearheading the drive into the Sinai Peninsula) fully surrounded and liable to be obliterated. Israeli tanks had also stunted any Syrian drive and were on the road toward Damascus.

The Yom Kippur War has been touchstone ever since. Egypt’s initial success became the basis of a mythologized sense of restored Arab glory and dignity in response to its spectacular defeat six years earlier. Its ending, however, served as a realistic assessment on the part of the Egyptian leadership (Anwar Sadat was the President) that military confrontation with Israel could only lead to further disaster, and that diplomatic means had to be pursued.
Hence, Israeli and Egyptians negotiators began to meet face-to-face shortly after the war, first leading to a partial restoration of Egyptian control in the Sinai, and then, with Sadat’s dramatic visit to Jerusalem, a full-scale diplomatic treaty and mutual recognition. Through Sadat’s assassination in 1981 (at the eighth anniversary celebration of the War), Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011, and the army-led coup earlier this year, the treaty has held.

The impact on Israel was also decidedly mixed. Israelis were stunned by the generally unexpected attack. It has been a matter of controversy to this day just what Israeli intelligence knew and did not know in anticipation. Given that over three thousand soldiers were killed, almost every family was touched by a loss, either directly or as a neighbor. The political establishment was shaken. A socialist-labor coalition that had ruled the nation from its founding was weakened. By 1977, Labor’s control was broken.

At the end of the month, Israel’s military superiority had been reinforced, but it did not make a difference. Since the Yom Kippur War, every Israeli government has been politically weakened by engaging in military action, and have fallen in the next election. [Lebanon, 1982; 1st intifada, 1988; 2nd intifada, 2000; Lebanon (again), 2006; Gaza, 2009.] Even in winning, there has always been a loss.

I remember hearing a newsradio report of the initial attack as I woke up on that Yom Kippur morning. I was serving as a student assistant Rabbi in a large congregation on Long Island. The Senior Rabbi was strapped with the challenge of maintaining a sense of solemnity and serenity in the day’s services even as the news – incomplete, spotty and not always accurate – was being filtered through the congregation. An air of unreality hung over the synagogue that day.

It was not until days later were we aware of the initial success of the Egyptian troops. Yet, as the war unfolded, most of us never feared for the fate of the Jewish State; a very different attitude than we generally had in the months and weeks leading up to the Six-Day War.

To this day, the Yom Kippur War brings up conflicted feelings. It was a victory that was a loss. It has been treated as proof-positive by both sides in the internal Israel debate of the rightness of their position. The right point to the significance of a land-buffer in dealing with hostile neighbors, thus reinforcing their conviction that territorial compromise is dangerous. The left argue that the War showed conclusively that acquisition of extra territory was immaterial to Israel’s well-being, and that only measures to reduce and eliminate hostility will ultimately succeed.

Yom Kippur 1973. It was and remains a bittersweet and ambiguous legacy.

Rabbi Paul Golomb

The US and Syria

The adage, Those who forget history tend to repeat it, is only partially correct. Even those who remember history tend to repeat it. The economists Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart demonstrated this curiosity in their highly regarded book, This Time is Different. After all, that is the key to why certain things seem to happen over and over again. We know what happened in the past, but insist that what is occurring now is just not the same. So, here it is: déjà vu all over again!
The parallels to the run-up to the US invasion in Iraq eleven years ago are distressingly similar. Bracket out the claims of weapons of mass destruction, the situation in Iraq was becoming more dire. Sanctions and the no-fly zone were increasing the suffering to the Iraqi people but having little effect on the Saddam Hussein government. Something had to change. Today, the situation in Syria – after two years of increasing sanctions – has become more volatile and intolerable. Again, something has to change.
While the WMDs turned out to be a mirage in 2003, a deadly chemical attack did indeed occur in August. I do not know for sure that Assad perpetrated this crime, but it appropriate to claim that the Syrian government, by virtue of being charged with the well-being of its population, must take responsibility over it. Assad issues denials (they may even be sincere), but is silent about what his government intends to do in order to assure that their own stockpiles are secure and untouched, or what steps might be taken to prevent another attack.
Finally, up to now, the dance has been nearly identical. The US is taking the lead in calling for action. (This France is the principally supporter while the UK demurs. I wonder if this is the case because Iraq used to be within the British sphere of influence, and Syria within France’s?) The White House has called for congressional authorization, and has also pursued the effort of creating an international consensus, including outreach to the Arab League and the United Nations. All the while, it reserves for itself the option of individual action.
Consider the time-line eleven years-ago. The Bush Administration began making noise about Iraq shortly after the attacks of 9/11. They began a concerted effort to confront Saddam in September 2002; received support of Congress in October, but did not begin an actual attack until March. Right now, it just September. Noise has been made, but there has been no movement of troops or ships.
Is this time different? One must hope so. The action in Iraq was poorly conceived and evenly more poorly executed. It was also clear – both at the time of the action and in retrospect – that a significant element in the Bush Administration’s overall strategy was to exhibit and maintain an overwhelming American military presence in the world. Saddam Hussein was not the object this strategy, but rather its excuse.
We must expect that the principal – the only real – objective in the case of Syria is that WMD’s – chemical, biological or nuclear – are not used. The current Administration has expressed no interest in exhibiting military might. The threat of the employment of force, we should trust, is a tactical measure that can only be successful if 1) it is credible, and 2) it is being utilized in the context of pressing certain key players – Russia and perhaps Iran – to join in a coalition laying responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in Syria at Assad’s feet.
Must Assad go? Two years ago, the protests in Syria represented a popular uprising expressing their dissatisfaction with the government in power. Now, it is more a conventional civil war. Assad, it is evident, has always had support from diverse elements of Syrian society. Compare it with Qaddafi’s Libya. When the “Arab Spring” came to Libya, in relatively short, key personalities in the power elite began to defect, and the ruling structure crumbled. More than two years into the Syrian protests and precious few significant personalities have joined the opposition. I do not know whether Assad’s support within the country is positive (appreciation of his rule) or negative (fear of what the country would be like in case of the government’s downfall), but it is reasonably stable.
The current situation – even when the incident of a chemical attack is bracketed out – is horrendous: over two million have fled the country, and two million more have been internally displaced. It could get worse, and probably will. [Query: has the per capita fatality rate reached that of the American Civil War, which was fought with considerably less lethal weapons?] The war, however, cannot persist indefinitely. Most probably, when it does come to an end, both sides can fairly be declared the loser. And the nation, in a pattern already being played out in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, will continue to endure tension and occasional outbreaks of violence for years to come. We can only pray that over that miserable stretch of time, institutions will develop that permit some form of responsive and responsible government.
In the meantime, I believe the for the US and any allies, military engagement is not simply the last resort; it is the very last resort.

Paul Golomb
Sept. 9, 2013

Vassar Temple and the Community Hebrew School

Following discussions among Jewish community professional and lay leadership, and also within the congregation, Vassar Temple has decided to create a comprehensive two-day-a-week Religious School involving both Hebrew and Judaica. It will be withdrawing from the Community Hebrew School. The following is a letter that will be published in the Jewish Federation’s monthly, The Voice.

At the conclusion of World War I, the Jewish leadership of Poughkeepsie responded to the lack of well organized religious instruction with the creation of the Community Hebrew School. Jewish education was housed in its own building, and then subsequently in the Jewish Community Center. After World War II, the management and direction of the School (CHS), was placed in a separate Board with members drawn from the four Poughkeepsie congregations. Surely, other early twentieth century small American Jewish communities sought to cooperate in Jewish education in a similar fashion. Only Poughkeepsie, however, sustained such a program into the twenty-first century.

The CHS has always been a noble idea. It was predicated on collaboration among Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations, and such cooperation can hardly be taken for granted. It has been dedicated to the notion that the Hebrew language binds together all Jews – secular, liberal and traditional – and that students from all backgrounds can indeed learn in the same classroom. While the goals of community-wide cooperation remain central, the noble idea represented by the CHS has run its course.

By the beginning of this century, an increasing number of families were choosing to turn to independent tutors for their Hebrew education rather than the classes housed at the Jewish Center. The overall program has experienced a rather dramatic decline in enrollment through the last decade. Something had changed.

It would be both unfair and wrong to suggest that the difficulty arises out of the CHS itself. There has been no discernible drop in the quality and dedication of the teaching staff, or in the soundness of the curriculum. The changes are rather to be found in factors beyond the CHS control: in the demographics of the Dutchess County Jewish community, and in the subtly evolving nature of Jewish identity and affiliation. For central and southern Dutchess County, the Community Hebrew School is the answer to a question the area Jews are no longer asking. The promotion and development of Jewish and Hebrew education must now move in a new direction.

[Before continuing, in the northern part of the County, it must be noted, the presence of a community-based Hebrew program is still valid. We maintain our support of the school that is running in Rhinebeck, and promote its value for its Jewish community.]

We, at Vassar Temple, wish to laud the diligence and commitment provided by the staff and leadership of the Community Hebrew School in promoting Hebrew education for over nine decades. While we are convinced that evolving times and circumstances require Hebrew to be imparted as part of comprehensive Jewish education in ways that go beyond the scope of the CHS, we also remain dedicated to its underlying values of cooperation among the varied segments and streams of the local Jewish community, and to its common hopes and aspirations. We are certain that just as the Community Hebrew School represented a collaborative effort to address a fundamental Jewish need back in 1919, we will continue to create and implement new programs and ideas that represent the full community. Just as the Jewish community of Dutchess County welcomed innovation and planned for the future in the early 20th century, we look forward to embracing the challenges of the 21st together as well.

Submitted by:
Bob Abrams, President
Bob Ritter, Vice-President
Alan Kaflowitz, Chair of Religious School
Dr. Joel Hoffman, Education Director
Rabbi Paul Golomb

Making Shobbos by Rabbi Golomb

The following is a short excerpt from an essay on The Sabbath and its Discontents.

Keeping Shabbat is always and inevitably a balancing act, mediating among a set of hopes and aims. Certainly, from week to week – perhaps from day to day – we switch our principal priorities. Now, I wish to connect to my Jewish heritage; now, I want to feel closer to God; now, I seek a real break from the rigors of the week.

The aim is misty, but what about the beginning? I am not referring to the conceptual beginning, but the practical one. Where does one begin in the overarching aim of simply keeping Shabbat? Keep in mind: wherever you begin, you are in the middle. I am going to recommend a few starting points.

Have Friday Dinner as a Family. As a child growing up in the suburbs, my family’s dinner was usually a bifurcated affair. My father tended to come home after his commute from the city at a time that my mother considered too late for me and my brothers to eat. If anything, the distribution of meals has become more fragmented, particularly with the prevalence of microwave ovens. Dinners can be prepared plate by plate, so even siblings can be – and usually are – on their own eating schedule. The simple act of seeing to it that the family comes together for dinner on Friday, in and of itself marks the occasion as special.

Light Candles. Few observances are both so simple and so accessibly meaningful. As evening draw nears we rely without a second thought on electric lighting in order to dispel the dark. Lighting candles on the eve of Shabbat is, from a practical standpoint, wholly superfluous. It can only be taken as symbolic, pointing us away from the everyday and ordinary.

Cut Some Everyday Activity Out. Is Shabbat different from the rest of the week at all? Consider doing something different. Start with low-hanging fruit. Cut out unnecessary use of money, for instance. You could gas up the car on Friday. Or turn off the ringer on your cell phone, and avoid taking calls unless it is family or an emergency. The Sabbath is not only about difference, it also about liberation; freeing oneself from the burdens of the week. When stopping the taking of or making phone calls, or staying away from commerce, feels like a release and not a restriction, then a little bit of Shabbat has been achieved. You figure it out. How far can you go?

* * *

The suggestions I have offered all point toward the fundamental notion of making Shabbat different. Of course, each day in manifold ways is different from each other. Modern life is not an assembly line in which the same items roll before us requiring repetition of the same action. It is precisely because each has its own distinction; not only each Tuesday in contrast to Monday, but this Tuesday in contrast to last week, and the week before, and before… Thus, the Sabbath must not be merely different. It has to be consciously distinct. One must make a point of pulling the family together, or lighting candles, or putting the cell phone ringer on vibrate. On Shabbat, the difference does not come to us. We need to make it.

Once you have found a way into Sabbath consciousness, here are a few more simple activities that make Shabbat a delight.

Bless your children/grandchildren. It is a traditional practice for a parent to pronounce the “priestly benediction” [May the Eternal bless you and keep you…”] over each child in the family at the commencement of the Sabbath evening meal. The blessing is beautiful; traditionally preceded by the words “May God make you as Efrayim and as Menasseh” toward boys, and “May God make you as Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah” before girls. The content, however, is much less important than the very act of blessing itself. Indeed, merely reciting the formula of the priestly benediction is not enough. Those are words taken from an ancient text. Yes, they are significant in their continuity with generations past, but they are only words. A blessing should be drawn from the heart.

Jewish worship includes a twice-daily recitation of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, conventionally known as Shma and v’Ahavta. The scriptural passage begins with affirmation of God’s Oneness, and calls upon us to love God intensely – which fundamentally means, I believe, to love all God’s creation. We are then commanded to impress this notion of love upon our children. Twice-daily, therefore, we are reminded of our responsibilities to the next generations. How lovely and meaningful it is to express our deepest wishes and hopes for our children at the beginning of each Sabbath.

Read/study a Jewish text. I am confident that you are well-read; indeed, you probably enjoy thinking about and discussing that which you read. Chances are, however, most of that reading is at best marginal to Judaism. The Sabbath can afford an opportunity to connect with one’s Jewish heritage through its extraordinary literature.

Which text? The easiest choice is the weekly Torah portion (par’shat ha-shavuah). The Pentateuch is broken into sections – technically pericopes – in order to assure that it be read in its entirety over the course of a year. There are many publications of the Torah organized in this fashion. As a rule, they consist of the Hebrew and English translation of the text, supplemented by an array of commentary, marginalia and explanations. The extra material provides both context and texture to any reading. Further, most of these publications include the weekly prophetic reading (Haftarah), though usually with much less explanatory additions. Sometimes, however, the poetry of the prophets, or occasionally the content of the prophetic text, might be preferred as a source of study.

While Torah and Haftarah are easily accessible, and also provide a systematic course of study each week. I would like to emphasize that any self-consciously Jewish text will do: collections of rabbinic midrash, passages from Mishna or Talmud, medieval Jewish poetry, excerpts from Maimonides or Judah ha-Levi. There are more contemporary choices: anthologies of Jewish folklore or short stories, or segments from the writing of modern Jewish thinkers such as those already mentioned in this book. There is a whole world of literature out there. It is entertaining, insightful, inspiriting, and it all connects you to your Jewish identity.

Lose your watch. Abraham Heschel called the Sabbath “a sanctuary in time.” Sanctuaries are physical protections; walls and a roof that can give its inhabitant both respite and security. The Sabbath, Heschel averred, can providing the same respite and security by “walling” one off from the rigors and anxieties of the work. Yet, it is not only a sanctuary in time, but also a sanctuary from time.

Modern family life is ruled by the clock. There are deadlines to meet, appointments to get to, soccer practice and dance lessons our children have to attend. A day cannot be passed without constant references to our watches. There are, however, occasions when we take our watches off (figuratively if not literally). They are vacations, when there is no place in particular we must be, and nothing special we must do. Most people consider their vacations a liberating experience. Put your watch aside each Shabbat (at least some Sabbaths at first) and see if a vacation of sorts cannot be created each week.

All of these Shabbat activities that I have listed are easy. They require very little physical, intellectual or emotional output. And yet they are also quite hard to do, for the very fundamental and obvious reason that most Jews simply do not do them! And the reason we do not do them is because we have not done them. Lighting candles, or reading a Jewish text each Sabbath could be rather effortless, once we get used to doing it. The action is not hard; it is the starting of it that poses difficulties.

* * *

So, let me add one more consideration: do not start alone. The components of the Sabbath are rest, family and heritage. These elements are, in and among themselves, natural and intuitive. But above all, Shabbat is a Jewish religious practice. As described earlier, religious practice is neither intrinsically natural nor intuitive. It takes practice! Certainly, acquiring a practice can done totally on one’s own volition, but doing so is invariably difficult. Acting in concert with others is considerably easier. It is useful, but hardly necessary to connect with an experienced guide. Nothing I have suggested, however, requires much instruction. All you really need is someone else – one or more individuals – willing to engage in the Sabbath along with you.

A story is told in the name of the Hasidic master Hayyim of Tzanz: A person was lost in the forest. Every path he tried seemed to fail. As despair was beginning to overtake him, he encountered another person. “Ah,” he thought to himself, “surely this one will show me the way out.” When he inquired about the proper path, his new acquaintance admitted to being just lost as he. “But this much I know. All the paths we have tried so far have not worked. Let us join together and forge a new way. Thus, we will succeed.”

Israel’s Elections, the Early Line, part 1 by Rabbi Golomb

Israelis went to the polls on January 22. In this and a following post I will attempt to make a few initial conclusions about the somewhat surprising results.

Most of the commentary and analysis leading up to the elections suggested a rather handy victory, for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and for the right-wing, religious and nationalist parties. It did not turn out that way. The coalition of Netanyahu’s Likud party and the nationalist and mostly Russian bloc, Yisrael Beiteinu [“Israel is our house”], which controlled 42 seats in the last Knesset, was reduced to 31. Since this single list garnered the most votes – the next largest faction is a brand new list called Yesh ‘Atid [“There is a future”] with 19 seats – Netanyahu will almost certainly put together the next government. It will probably be weak and short-lived.

How Israeli Elections Work

Before proceeding with my observations, let me describe briefly the Israeli electoral system, since it is radically different from the American system.

First, and most important, there are no representative districts in Israel. The contest for seats in the 120-member Knesset is decided by proportional allocation of contesting parties. On election day, voters receive a ballot that presents all the parties running. (By-the-way, there is no early or absentee voting. Eligible voters must be present in the country, on active duty in military units, or serving on embassy or consular staffs. If you are traveling, you cannot vote. Thus, it takes only a day or so to get the complete final tally.) Voters then mark one party. There are no individual names on the ballot.

If a party achieves a minimum threshold – 2% of the total – it is eligible to have a representative in the Knesset. On last Tuesday’s election, 13 of the roughly 30 parties on the ballot met the threshold. Likud-Beiteinu received slightly over one-quarter of the total. The actual individuals who will be sitting in the Knesset is determined within each party, usually through the vehicle of a party convention or caucus. At that time, the party creates a numbered list, 1 through potentially 120. If a party merited, say 12 seats (10% of the vote), the first 12 on their list would then become members of Knesset (MKs).

Once the election is over, the system is similar to Canada or Great Britain’s Parliament. If no single party commands a majority of the Knesset seats, a working government must be created out of forming a coalition of parties. The Knesset itself is both the legislative and executive authority of the nation. Thus, MKs hold all the ministry positions (akin to the Cabinet in the United States), as well as that of chief executive, Prime Minister. The head of the dominant party is usually Prime Miinister, and he (there was one ‘she’ in Israel’s history: Golda Meir) then parcels out ministry posts (usually called ‘portfolios’) to leaders of other parties, until a ruling government commanding at least 61 votes has been formed.

This government can rule for four years, unless: 1) the Prime Minister decides to call an early election, usually done when he believes he and his party are particularly popular, or 2) there is a successful vote of no-confidence – which tends to happen when one or more parties in the government decide to defect – causing a ‘constitutional crisis’ which requires a new election.

Two Newcomers

It will be a number of weeks from now before a new government is formed. I can nevertheless make a few firm – and a few somewhat less firm – conclusions from the election itself.

First, Netanyahu – who is now Israel’s second longest serving Prime Minister (after David ben Gurion) – is simply not popular. He is certainly liked and respected among a certain portion of the electorate, but he clearly does not elicit much passion. Even more to the point, the record of the last four years has been decidedly ambiguous. Nothing particularly bad happened, but nothing especially good occurred either. My sense is that an American style poll of Israelis on the topic of whether the country is heading in the right direction, would reveal a rather low positive response.

Netanyahu’s “victory” was much more a matter of the inability of the established political leaders of other parties to create much enthusiasm for themselves. Clearly, the two individuals who produced the greatest amount of passion were two newcomers: the secular-centrist Ya’ir Lapid and religious-nationalist Naftali Bennet. Their personal successes are intriguing and instructive.

Lapid has been a well-known TV personality. His father was also a media star who led his own party to short-term success a little over a decade ago. Ya’ir is ideologically similar to his father, but has chosen to steer a less stridently anti-Orthodox path. The 19 seats he now commands arose out of two currents in the public mood. One is a sense of injustice within the social fabric of the society, particularly with respect to the ultra-Orthodox population who receive a very large portion of the state benefits and broadly shirk the responsibility of military duty. The second is a mood of suspicion and dissatisfaction with all the established parties and their representatives. No one on the Yesh ‘Atid list has ever been in the Knesset before.

The American-born Bennet (he came to Israel as a child), on the other hand, reorganized and rebranded an old established party, the National Religious Party, whose roots go back into the earliest years of the Zionist Movement. The party, moderate and pragmatically Orthodox, had once been a fixed feature in governing coalitions from the time of the founding of the State. Over the past two decades, however, the NRP transformed somewhat into the chief representative of religious nationalists, the settlers’ movement, whose principal concern has been preserving West Bank lands that have been acquired by Israelis, and annexing them into the Jewish State.

The party’s fortunes have been negatively affected by inroads on the part of the untra-Orthodox among the moderate Orthodox, and by the nationalist-annexationist tendencies of other parties, particularly Likud. By 2009, the NRP had been reduced to 3 seats. The prospects for 2013 initially appeared to be even worse, as Likud combined with the equally nationalist Beiteinu party, and also purged some its own more pragmatic members from the top of their list. Netanyahu appeared to be preparing to swallow the NRP whole. Clearly, this did not happen. Bennet, a software entrepreneur and multi-millionaire, renamed the party Bayit Yehudi [Jewish Home], gave it some vigor, and drew from the same anti-establishment mood that propelled Yair Lapid to significance.

Yesh ‘Atid and Bayit Yehudi combined for 31 seats, equal to that of Likud-Beiteinu. Although dramatically different in outlooks, the success of the two does reflect that a significant portion of the voters want something new.

Public and Silent Worship, Part III: Reforming Reform by Rabbi Golomb.

Worship in the synagogue is roughly 2000-years-old.  The prayerbook (siddur), however, is only about 1100-years-old.  One reason for this time gap is that in the days before the printing press, the creation and distribution of a large number of siddurim was simply impractical.  More to the point, the competing notions of keva (consistency) and kavanah (devotion) tended to tilt toward the latter in the early centuries of worship.  The prayer leader (sh’liah hatzibbur) had a good deal of latitude in how he wished to express established rubrics that determined the order of worship.      

With the creation of a siddur, however, keva began to overtake kavanah.  People prayed the words that were before them.  Further, the siddur itself began to expand.  Jewish communities were comfortable with including new prayers and readings, but uncomfortable about dropping established ones.  By the middle of the nineteenth century, a standard siddur (now printed and widely distributed) had become rather long and unwieldy.  Many of the additional prayers and liturgical poems were thematically repetitive.  Thus, began the era of prayerbook reform.      

From the start, Reformers made two important changes in the siddur.  They began to cut down the length, particularly eliminating redundant prayers and readings.  And they introduced a translation of the service into the vernacular (German, French, Yiddish, and English, among others).   Reducing the size of the siddur also reduced the length of a service.  When combined with increasingly larger portions of worship being recited in the vernacular, a tacit understanding within the congregation was achieved.  Congregants would make a point of being present at the start of the service, and staying through to the end.  The pace of worship would be dignified; not excessively fast, and virtually all of it would be recited aloud.      What happened to kavanah

Classic nineteenth and early twentieth century Reform Judaism put a great deal of stock into idealist reason; that is, a non-metaphysical rational understanding of the world about imbued with a progressive spirit.  Jewish liturgy was therefore translated or paraphrased to be both scientifically sound and socio-politically optimistic.  The liturgy was designed to say just what most of the congregation already believed.  Kavanah was built into the service, rather than being something brought by the individual to worship.      

Toward the latter half of the last century, Jewish optimism in the inextricable progress of civilization began to be shaken.  A liturgy that exuded idealist reason began to ring a bit hollow.  Even after the experience of the Holocaust, however, it was not shattered.  Reason and progress still animated most of those who joined Reform congregations, but it could no longer be the sole basis of kavanah in a Reform service.  The Movement responded to a new reality – it reformed! – and created a new type of prayerbook (Gates of Prayer) that attempted to tackle a variety of approaches to worship with a variety of prayer themes.      

The newest siddur, Mishkan T’fila, has made an important modification.  Gates of Prayer offered a variety of services, each one of which was thematic consistent.  Kavanah could be brought to bear on the service, only if the theme of that day’s worship resonated for you.  Mishkan T’fila, on the other hand, brings a variety of themes together on each two-page spread.  A worshiper has a choice.  You can read (or sing) along with the prayer leader.  Or, you can read to yourself one of the alternative prayers.  Or, you can meditate and create a prayer of your own.  Public and silent worship is combined; kavanah is preserved.    

Vassar Temple’s late starting Shabbat service maintains this more conventional approach to Reform worship.  It is a reform of classic Reform.  No doubt, future congregations and siddurim will modify the approach in order to suit yet unknown developments in Jewish thought.  From near the start of the synagogue worship service, Jewish prayer has been a combination of keva and kavanah, achieved through a combination of public and silent worship.  Vassar Temple employ two ways of preserving this most basic element of the service

Public and Silent Worship. Part II: The Private in the Public by Rabbi Golomb

If you went to an American public school, you began each morning with the Pledge of Allegiance; day in, day out, five days a week for thirteen years (Kindergarten through senior year of High School).  This regimen comes to over 2300 recitations.  I would wager that you can recite the 31 words (29, if you went to school before 1954, and did not say “under God”) to this day.  It is pretty well burned into your memory.  But, what did it mean?      I am not referring to proper definitions of the words of the Pledge, but rather to what import did have on you; what was the overall aim and purpose in reciting it daily?  Did it work?  If one of the purposes was that you would remember it, it probably was successful.  Has the Pledge actually reinforced a sense of allegiance in you, to either the flag or the U.S.?  Maybe!  I am certain, however, that one purpose was indeed achieved: the school as an institution had publicly bonded itself to the country and its flag.      

This last assertion is important.  Reciting the Pledge may or may not create within you a sense of patriotic loyalty, but your saying the words established that loyalty for the institution in which you said it.  Thus, from the institution’s point of view, not everyone actually has to speak the words of the Pledge.  Somebody does, but you might be exempt.  During the recitation, you might let your mind wander.  Occasionally, you might even focus on the words of the Pledge – not all the words, perhaps, just a phrase or two – and ponder what they really mean to you.      

The Pledge of Allegiance is an apt model for traditional synagogue worship.  There is a fixed liturgy, and from the point-of-view of the institution (in this case, the congregation in the synagogue), the words ought to be said.  They need not be said by everyone.  Classically, congregations have selected a sh’liah tzibbur [literally, the congregational representative] to recite the liturgy.  (The sh’liah tzibbur can be a volunteer, or a professional like a cantor [hazzan] or rabbi.)  The rest of the minyan is then free to recite the prayers along with the leader, or to focus on something else.      

As a matter of practice, the sh’liah tzibbur does not recite everything aloud.  Much of the service is carried on in silence, or near silence, as it is not unusual to hear congregants singing or reading softly to themselves.  The sh’liah tzibbur generally only announces through bits of liturgy where the minyan is in the service.  Congregants are confident that the sh’liah tzibbur is actually reading the liturgy, freeing each of them to do what they wish.  One would expect that many, having chosen to attend the service in the first place, would take this opportunity to meditate on the personal meaning of the liturgy to themselves.      

In Part I, I introduced the key concepts of keva (consistency) and kavanah (devotion).  Through the employment of a sh’liah tzibbur  and the liberal use of silent or personal reading,  Jewish liturgical practice takes the rhythm of prayer, its rote repetitiveness and familiarity, and allows it to be turned into the possibility of personal devotion.      Actually, kavanah is not possible with keva.  Services move by too fast, making reflection and meditation nearly impossible.  When the service becomes really familiar – like the words of the Pledge – mostly through regular attendance, then one is free to pick and choose among the prayers; to spend the silent stretches creating a personal bridge to the divine through bits and pieces of the liturgy.    

 When Vassar Temple holds its early evening Shabbat service, it is offering each congregant to bring kavanah to the keva of the liturgy.  Clearly, the practice works better for those already familiar with the service.  When, however, the Temple conducts a later evening service, it employs a more classical Reform Jewish approach to the liturgy.  In Part III, I will discuss the reasoning behind that style of service.

Public and Silent Worship. Part I: Rhythm & Intention by Rabbi Golomb

Regular attendees of Vassar Temple’s Friday evening services note a substantial shift in how worship is done when the service is moved from 7:30 to the pre-dinner 6pm time during the winter months. The change is that we substitute the public reading of the central portion of the service – the Amidah – with a silent reading. An important reason for that change is to facilitate a somewhat shorter service in time. It also represents two approaches to worship based in Jewish tradition and practice. Here, in this and the next two blog submissions, I will explain the sources of the two approaches.

Jewish worship is a strange thing. When does one pray? Whenever you feel the need or urge to pray: in the morning, evening, the middle of the night. And where does one pray? Wherever you are at the time you feel you ought to pray. At home, at work, on vacation, in the car. So, what is prayer that is recited at a fixed time and in a fixed location? Informally, Jews do not refer to this activity as prayer, but rather as davening. But, does this mean that when you show up at the synagogue on a Friday evening for services, you are not praying?

From the earliest days of the worship service, this issue concerned Jewish religious leadership, the classic Rabbis. They responded to the problem by suggesting that one must approach the service with two attitudes: keva and kavanah; with consistency and devotion.

Keva, its literal meaning is “rhythm,” is similar to the attitude you might have when you brush your teeth, take the dog for a walk or catch the 6:32 train each morning to work. These are repeatable activities, but they are not merely habits. You do them because they each have an intrinsic value, and thus you do them even when you are not particularly in the mood. Sometimes you simply wish to forego brushing your teeth, but you do it anyway. You do it not just because you are concerned about cavities or bad breath, but also because you sense that you are going to feel bad later on if you did not.

Such is the keva of Jewish worship: a regularly performed act made up of a consistent set of prayers and readings, to be recited in community (the minyan) at a particular location (the synagogue) and a set time. You go and recite the prayers, occasionally even when you do not feel particularly interested in doing so, because you also sense that it is important, and because you will miss it later if you neglected it. The keva of Jewish worship requires merely showing up.

Kavanah [literally “intention”], on the other hand, does pertain to attitude. The liturgy of Jewish worship is, after all, prayer. It is supposed to speak to the heart, to your hopes and dreams. To this end, Jewish worship demands more than merely showing up. It asks you to wring meaning out of the words set before you on the page of the siddur (prayerbook), and to make them your own.

As you can see, keva and kavanah are in tension. The sheer obligation to recite prayers at a set time and place works against doing so with feeling and devotion. The classic Rabbis did not expect individuals (including themselves) to resolve this tension. Such is the reality of life. They did, however, offer some techniques that made the melding of the two distinct elements of worship more possible. In the next post, I will discuss what the Rabbis suggested.

Five Statements About Gun Violence

1. Firearms are dangerous. The exclusive purpose of a loaded gun is to do damage. While probative reasons can be brought forward regarding the possession of firearms, it remains irrefutable that all they can do is mar, hurt, destroy or kill.

2. The principal beneficiary of limiting restrictions on firearms is not gun owners or collectors, but rather gun manufacturers and dealers. Short of an absolute ban on non-police or military possession of firearms, people who wish to own a gun will do so, and collectors can amass their collection. Anything, however, that makes the possession of certain guns, or guns in general, more difficult simply restrains the market for a manufacturer or dealer. They have the most to lose from such restrictions.

3. The most efficient way to facilitate gun sales is to promote paranoia. All marketing is based on developing or maintaining a need. When an item is a clear (even if marginal) benefit, the task might be straightforward. In the case of items whose disabilities are at least as strong as their benefits, the marketing usually has to be indirect. Cigarettes and beer are (or had been) promoted because they might increase one’s attractiveness or social desirability; gambling, because, as New York Lottery reminds us, “Hey, you never know.” The argument for guns boils down to “they are out to get you.”

This line of argument can be very successful. As the old joke goes, “Just because you are paranoid, that doesn’t mean they are not out to get you.” It is nonetheless in the interest of gun marketers to massage our natural fears regarding loss and injury as much as possible.

4. Few are guilty, but everyone is responsible. Make no mistake about it. Although a single disturbed individual took it upon himself to kill his mother and then to fire multiple times into first and second grade classrooms, everyone of us has some measure of responsibility for the tragedy. A tiny amount of that responsibility is what each of us could have done to prevent it from happening. Much larger, however, is what we do now.

Responsibility does not fall evenly on everyone. I would suggest that the first burden falls on those who feel that current gun control regulations are sufficient or should even be loosened. It is incumbent upon them to show that the deaths of twenty six and seven-year-olds justifies the status quo. If no compelling and empirically sound argument is forthcoming (keep in mind statement 3 above), then they are also have the responsibility to join with the rest of us in thinking about serious changes to the availability of firearms.

* * *

5. The tragic shooting in Newtown, CT, occurred in a week in which the Torah portion was the episode in the book of Genesis in which Joseph is pulled out of the royal prison in order to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Rabbinic commentators note that the meaning of the dreams were hardly difficult to discern. They suggest that Pharaoh’s counselors should have had no problem doing so. What was difficult, however, was coming up with a plan to do something about it.

I am quite confident that absolutely nobody is defending the terrible misuse of firearms that happened on that tragic Friday morning, or even the numerous similar, if less horrific, incidents that show up periodically in local and national news. The strongest defenders of gun ownership will often argue that there are already thousands of gun regulations on the books, but that many of them are poorly conceived or erratically enforced. On these points, I believe they are correct. Some regulations are very ineffective in getting firearms out of the hands of those most likely to misuse them.

The debate must then be not on regulation versus no regulation, but rather on what has the best chance of working. On this point, pointing to faults and problems, and not working toward solutions is simply irresponsible. We all know the meaning of Pharaoh’s dreams; we all must be like Joseph, and work to ameliorate death and loss.

Rabbi Paul Golomb
December 16, 2012