8 Tammuz 8 5765, July 15, 2005 Mark Segal
This week’s Parsha is Balak, from Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers. Balak, king of Moab, has seen how, while journeying to the Promised Land, the People of Israel defeated the Amorites. In defense, he sends messengers to Bilaam, a pagan prophet, to curse the Israelites.
God forestalls this curse, but in ways that confuse Bilaam, using hidden angels and a talking ass. Eventually, things become clear. Bilaam sees all Israel camped tribe-by-tribe, the spirit of God comes upon him, and he recites “Mah tovu, ohalecha Ya'acov, mishk'notecha Yisrael - How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! ” Strife and confusion yield to peace and clarity.
So, how can Jews in a liberal community think about Israel? The simple answer: “any way we wish”; the reality, like that initially facing Bilaam, is complex. How can we, like Bilaam, reach peace and clarity?
Gary and I explore this in detail in [the Temple’s online journal] Open Space, and we hope you will read it. Despite our differing views, this project has strengthened our common ground as fast friends and fellow Jews. It is a vivid example of how our Temple can thrive with differing views on hard issues
This evening, I will touch on a few themes.
Can you be a Jew and not a Zionist? Of course, although this places one outside Jewish mainstreams and guiding principles of Reform. An even deeper test is to answer this question, echoing a famous Haggadah passage: is Israel “we” or “they”?
Of course, even as we identify with Israel, other Jews will judge the impact of our actions on our tribe, a term many of us use tongue in cheek, or with scorn, but which captures who we are. We are a people in covenant with God and each other, with Israel our eternal homeland.
So, where does this leave us? There truly is a wide range of “inside the tent” positions within our Jewish community on Israeli actions. What these share is a commitment to Israel as a Jewish state and homeland. Israel is “we.” I have many close friends who shade well left of my views on Mideast issues, while being deeply and vocally committed to Israel
Certainly, Israelis have always had a wide range of views; though such debates are within the “family.” For American Jews, I suggest that responses to Israeli actions should be more restrained. This view troubles and even offends many, but Diaspora critiques of Israel can reinforce broader attacks on its legitimacy. They can strengthen Israel’s adversaries, and those who serve their purposes.
And make no mistake; Israel is at war, with mortal enemies, no less so than the Moabites. And, like Balak, these enemies use others, including those of good heart, like Bilaam, to seek Israel’s defeat.
Many Mideast activists use the Occupation as the rationale to criticize Israel, arguing that without occupation, there would be peace, Israel would be secure, and terror would end. These arguments ring true to many Jews, for whom the notion of Jews as occupiers is repugnant.
My reading of history is that this view on the role of the occupation, held by many on the Left and not a few Jews, is wrong and, deeply harmful, in its effect, to Israel. It leads to a fundamentally unbalanced stance that makes Israel’s action, or inactions, the sole driver of current hostilities.
Arab hostility to Israel long predates the Occupation, and extends far deeper. And the Occupation itself emerged from Israel’s 1967 victory in the Six Days War, a war of self-defense against Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. Moreover, the West Bank is the historic heartland of Israel. It is Hebron, not Tel Aviv, that has had a central role in Jewish religion and history over millennia.
So, though I favor a two-state solution, with Israel leaving Gaza and much of the West Bank, Jewish presence in the West Bank is neither illegitimate nor to be given up lightly. In calling for evacuation of settlements, we must do so with a heavy heart and not ease. Finally, we must be mindful that, to military experts, the 1967 Green Line is not a defensible border.
The writer Yossi Klein Halevi has crystallized our internal tensions and how they must be resolved. He argues that the “right, has won the argument over the true nature of Palestinian society, but the left has won the argument over the disaster of occupation” and that “left and right have to listen to the warnings of each other.” He reminds us that “[t]he twin teachings of our past are ‘Beware of Amelek’ -- those who are out to destroy the nation of Israel -- and 'Remember you were once strangers.” Halevi’s point is that, while “the ideas that we have real enemies and that we must treat others justly are on the surface contradictory,” it is that very “paradox our history and tradition forces us to wrestle with.”
Closer to home, we need to reframe the “dissent” issue, which Gary discusses so well, whose latest incarnation dates back three years to the effort to bring Israeli Refusers to our Temple.
Much that has been called dissent, by “both” sides, is really not. Disagreement is not always dissent; it is often simply disagreement, freely expressed. Moreover, when Temple leadership does not agree with or act on the views of some congregants, or communicate those views through Temple channels, it is not chilling dissent; it is simply agreeing to disagree and acting on formal mandates for leadership.
Of course, no member should be ostracized or penalized for holding or expressing specific views – opposing the Sharon government, agreeing on dividing Jerusalem, opposing single payor health care, even voting Republican. But life does not guarantee comfort and these are serious matters. The freedom to disagree with others implies their freedom to disagree with you.
Our recent Scholar-in-Residence, Zohar Raviv addressed this tension between two essentials: community norms and individual viewpoints. Zohar emphasizes the importance of a “commitment to the communal aspect of Judaism: understanding that one’s view – as cherished as it is – is exactly that: one view. It is therefore essential to come to dialogue with other views, even if risking one’s own preconceived assumptions.” He emphasized that we can simultaneously maintain community norms and values, properly arrived at, while encouraging learned, and informed free expression.
We must also be open to the fact that profound insights come from unexpected places, just as a pagan prophet is the surprising source for one of our most famous prayers, Mah Tovu.
Together, we must build the internal connections and common identity that can foster shared norms and weather inevitable, and indeed, indispensable, disagreements. With these connections, we need not fear losing a friend or congregant because of our views . . . or theirs. Shared worship, in this Sanctuary, is one powerful way to build those connections, but that is a topic for another time.
To close; in approaching Israel-related issues as a community, we should be intentional, acting consistent with our mission statement’s call for support for Israel. In this regard, let me draw on the latest Reform Judaism magazine, which has excellent essays on Zionism.
Two essays are especially on point. One author, finding herself estranged from Israel for reasons familiar to many of us, reports growing up in a deeply Zionist home and then, as an adult, joining a Reform synagogue characterized by critiques of Israel and a focus on Israel's negative treatment of Reform. She asks, “how is one to feel ‘spiritual closeness’ with Israel amid the swirl of critiques and contentiousness.” How indeed?
Building on this theme, ARZA’s President notes in that same issue the “difficulty of communicating liberal Zionism to a richly diverse American Reform constituency [born after the 1967 and 1973 wars] and those who were not born into Jewish families.”
In considering, therefore, how we approach Israel as a synagogue and community, we must recognize that, to paraphrase Kohelet, we reap what we sow. So, let us take care that our congregation acts in ways that sow love of Israel in the hearts of our children and our members.
Thank you and Shabbat Shalom.
8 Tammuz 8 5765, July 15, 2005 Gary Wainer
In a recent edition of the B’nai Brith Magazine a group of Jewish notables were asked what they thought Judaism would look like in 350 years.
Rabbi David Wolpe said that he thinks that “…we will still avoid the plague of unity. I hope our ancestors will never suffer the stultifying effects of universal agreement….Each Jewish stream…will be willing to do only intellectual battle.”
Blu Greenberg said “We will have learned to celebrate each other’s differences and distinctiveness without compromising our own strong beliefs.”
And Francine Klagsburn believes that “Jews will still be fighting with each other as they have for thousands of years.”
Those were only some of the thoughts contained in the essays but you can see the drift.
Jews like to argue.
Three Jews and four opinions- so what’s new about that? By the way, I would highly recommend reading that article. Dennis Prager, who I normally don’t think of as a funny guy, has a hilarious section on the 17 Jewish sects that will have been founded 350 years from now and how they find it necessary to ague about kosher water.
But in any event, for the past five thousand, and according to these folks, the next 350 years, our tradition has been, and will continue to be, one of argument.
Argument with each other and argument with God. In Genesis 32:28 Jacob wrestles with the angel at the crossing of the Jabbok and is renamed Israel, because: “you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” So we certainly appear to have ancient hard wired genetics that not only allow us, but probably compel us to argue with one another and with God. But this hard wiring also defines us, Israel, as that people who wrestle with one another in an attempt to continually define our nature.
You have to know that wrestling with anyone for me is difficult. I gave up wrestling with my brother Brad when he turned 14 and got bigger than me, and in intellectual wrestling, being the good doctor that I am, I want to be the peacemaker and have people like me. That is really hard when you need to hold on to a position that is contrary to others and sparks debate.
Mark and I took up our “Open Spaces” project because we both identified the need for open dialogue and argument and at least the perceived lack of it here at the congregation. That problem was repeatedly identified in our long range planning committee, as well as by multiple individuals throughout the community, including me. I and others felt that certain topics had become taboo.
When as a Board member years ago I suggested that we withhold a portion of our Israel Bond money to express displeasure with the then developing settlements in the occupied territories the idea was summarily dismissed. What concerned me was not the outcome, because I truly now believe that would have been a bad idea, but rather the lack of conversation and discussion around the idea. No discussion, it was out of bounds, and not even a rational argument as to why. No one even tried to convince me; it was just a non-issue.
As we proceeded along our “Open Spaces” project this spring, we also began to identify, sometimes in parallel, sometimes in conjunction, that this element of inability to openly disagree really takes on broader perspectives.
During my tenure as President, I identified the fact that one of our Exec Committee members had very different set of political and social views than the rest of us around the table; He did not believe in the Reform perspective on gun control or abortion, and disagreed on many other social issues on which we as Reform Jews pride ourselves as being somewhat left of center. But at the same time I realized that his “conservative” ideas were dismissed out of hand, and there was no real forum or even context within which he could express his dissent. He too was shut off and dismissed because his views were right of center and did not conform to so called normative Reform Judaism.
Believe it or not, there are congregants, who like our Exec Committee friend, don’t believe in gun control, those who oppose abortion and even those who think homosexuals should keep to themselves. And yes, there are even congregants who believe in financial divestiture from Israel and a single Israeli state with full citizenship for the Arab and Palestinian populations. There are congregants who think that we should proceed to become more observant and learn more Torah. And then there are congregants who cringe every time they see a kippah and Tallit.
Yet we all seem to be here; only we are not talking about those differences and why we believe in them. Our conversations have become sanitized.
In the world of addiction and recovery medicine we frequently deal with dysfunctional family systems. There is a saying that many of you have heard, that there is an elephant in the room and no one will talk about it. The unhealthy family will step around it, step under it, avoid it, but no one will talk about it. That elephant here in our family is our differences; in an attempt to assimilate and become like our secular neighbors, we have lost the ability to talk about those differences that make us Jews; we have become Jewish Vanilla and dare I say, white bread and mayo !!
What I propose to you tonight is that we need to rejoice in those differences that make us liberal Jews, those differences that make us conservative Jews,
Those differences that make us financially conservative, those differences that make us fiscal liberals,
Those differences that make us rejoice at even the thought of Israel so that it can do no wrong, and those differences that make us cringe every time an Israeli politician speaks.
And so on and so on.
As Mark and I became closer, and I have to tell you that if nothing else comes from this project, if not one ounce of change occurs here in our community, this will still have been a success for us in the formation of our relationship and understanding of each other and each other’s views. And needless to say we don’t generally live on the same side of the political spectrum.
But as Mark and I became closer we also realized that there was a built in forum in our tradition for these discussions and arguments that we as a community do not use as readily as we should. That forum is what you have come to tonight; that forum is to use Shabbat services as community time. To use Shabbat services as a true place of community and a place where as Francine Klagsburn would note that we could continue to argue for another thousand years.
You may not like services, you may not believe in God ( and yes, we have those Jews also), and you may find the seats uncomfortable, but where else, other than in the House of God , the house of your family, can you come and safely wrestle with your community and wrestle with God ? Certainly not on the soccer fields and not in Scoville Square; those all take on different perspectives. Here it should be safe; we have a single understanding of one another, and the ability to talk about the elephant.
And we do need to talk about that huge gray thing until it is gone, diminished or reshaped into something less foreboding, something less obtrusive. We hope that this evening’s attendance is reflective of a yearning to interact and converse and disagree and argue; and to leave the Oneg arm in arm as family.
We hope that this presence here tonight will be recreated in the week’s to come. And if you want, we will also announce more controversial topics just to entice you in.
Some of those D’variim could be dovetailed with our next volume of “Open Spaces” which we will probably get together sometime after High Holidays. Some topics we have been talking about are such things as “Your belief in God”, “the nature of observance-how far should Reform Jews go ?”, “Public Prayer-should Jews participate ?” and my recent favorite- “Should the public display of the Ten Commandments be written in Hebrew as they were intended to be ?” (All right, I know someone will say they were actually in Aramaic- so OK, we can have two editions-one about Aramaic and one about Hebrew).
In this week’s parsha, Balak, we are told about the inability of Balak to obtain a curse for the Israelites from Balaam, a prophet of God. Every time he is instructed by Balak to curse Israel, God instructs Balaam to bless them.
Blessings and curses seem to be another of our hard wired chromosomes but that is for another D’Var. But one of the commentaries also notes that this is the first time that Israel is called “am”, “a people”. It is the first time that they are identified as a single group who possess genetic, cultural, and social bonds that unify them. It is those bonds that unite us and it is those bonds that allow us to disagree and wrestle with one another. We have an opportunity here this evening and going forward at Oak Park Temple to bless ourselves, bless our ancestors, and bless our house by living up to our God given and historical nature of argument.
And with that would like to leave you with a blessing tonight:
Hinei mah tov uma nayim, shevet achim gam yachad. Behold how good it is and how pleasant when brethren live together in unity. Shabbat Shalom
Mark Burger DVar Torah Balak, Bemidbar/Numbers 22:2 - 25:9
(Chant 25:1-9) 12 Tammuz 5760, July 14, 2000
The Torah portion of Pinchas is controversial in modern life. To a conservative, or fundamentalist, viewpoint, the slaying by Pinchas of the two sexual partners is a clear signal that loose morals are not to be tolerated. Theres a further, nastier undertone that because the two illicit lovers are of different tribes, read, different races, any kind of relations between different types of people is punishable by death. In the ugly world of racists a band called the Sons of Phineas, the anglicized version of Pinchas, takes upon itself to violently punish couples of different ethnic backgrounds, as well as gays and anyone else that they hate, which is everybody. The Pinchas episode ranks up there by those I call reactionaries with the casting of one of Noahs sons as the beginning of a so-called inferior race, forbidding dancing due to the Golden Calf and the allowance of having your bratty kids lit up when they dis you. Well, as the father of teenagers, maybe that ones not so bad
Flipping over to the liberal side, horror is expressed at Pinchas double killing, graphically portrayed. Its barbaric, at the very least an example of ancient mores run amok, and not allowable in todays progressive society. Taking it further, to many on the so-called left, it makes Torah and the organized religion it represents a repository of bigotry, repressed sexual envy, and lust for violence as a means of control. How can any progressive, inclusive and diverse civilization accept this behavior as a basis for worship
Not so fast, not so fast. Things aint what they seem. Sorry, right wing racists. Pinchas skewering was not an Aryan act. The name Pinchas derives from Egyptian language, meaning the Negro or the Nubian. It is doubtful Pinchas acted from anything approaching a racial notion. But this doesnt let the live and let love crowd off either. The coupling of Zimri and Cozbi, and the orgies in Shittim were not merely lust, they were political acts.
The enticement by the Moabities was a coup detat, the use of sex as a means of worship a graven image, with the result of Israel disappearing as a people. This was not just a roll in the hay, but statecraft. In Judaism, a Jew is supposed to avoid three things even at the threat of death: murder, idolatry and sexual immorality. The combining of the last two compounded what went on at Shittim. On top of that, after disease ravaged Israel and plunged them into mourning, two people of very important families, engage in sex in front of everybody. Pinchas may not have been the only person who wanted to kill them, but he was the fastest. Interestingly, commentary states that had Pinchas not acted in hot pursuit he would have been guilty of murder.
In Jewish oral law, one of the worse things is entrapment. That is why people suspected of wrongdoing are not allowed to swear an oath, because it could ensnare the swearer and court in a form of idolatry, taking Gods name in vain. It is one thing, when alleged sin takes place behind closed doors that, in the end, requires reflection on what was done. Its quite another when the object is power and destruction of a people. In the end, I suppose you had to be there. Amen.
D'Var Torah Balak 12 Tammuz 5759 25 June 1999 Mark Burger
In the play "Becket", King Henry asks Becket when is one immoral and when is one amoral. Becket smiles and replies "It depends what you mean". In the dictionary, "amoral" means not admitting to moral judgements or values, not caring about right or wrong. "Immoral" means contrary to established moral principles.
Which is worse? Depends what you mean. Immoral means something obvious - evil, bad, violent. It fits in well with good and evil, if one talks about being immoral. Duality is very comforting; you're either one or the other. Christianity can be considered dualist; God or Satan, Heaven or Hell. Judaism can travel the dualist path as well.
But there's something else about Judaism that considers something worse than heaven or hell. And that is nothing. Oblivion. What may be considered a desirable state in some Eastern religions is intolerable in Judaism. To have nothing, to not exist is the worse thing that can happen, literally the disappearance of the soul. No wonder one of the greatest Jewish fears is not having someone to say kaddish after you're gone. No wonder one of the harshest curses or oaths is to have someone's name vanish.
Amorality may be considered a form of oblivion while still being physically alive. And a form of amorality that threatens all of us is passivity. Going with the flow, just doing your job, not making waves. Almost everyone does it to some extent because the alternative can often be unpleasant, painful, even dangerous. So what's so bad about it? Two things. Eventually it is a horrible way to live. Secondly, it can make God mad.
Balaam was a man who, depending on your view, was a prophet or a sorcerer. He was ordered by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Israelites. Okay. But then God told Balaam not to curse them. Okay. Balaam goes back and forth between God and Balak with some real comedy. There was the talking ass seeing the guardian angel where Balaam didn't. There's Balak acting so enraged he might explode like the fairy tale troll at the bridge, and so on. It ends up with Balaam stating to Balak face-to-face why he blessed, not cursed Israel. And Balaam rides off into the sunset.
Now on the surface, Balaam looks good. He says wonderful things about Israel, including a verse found in our liturgy "How lovely are thy tents". So why am I picking on him, and why do a lot of Jewish commentators pick on him as well? When I agree with many of the ancient ones, I get nervous. I have problems with Balaam because he reminds me of the corporate suits that say the right thing to everybody, whether he believes it or not. He reminds me of a Tanakhic George Stephanopoulous, with just the right level of involvement between two big, conflicting clients.
At one point, God gives Balaam a choice to go or not go to Balak and his clique. Balaam went, angering God. Apparently Balaam didn't himself see that what he was participating in was wrong. Later, after the taking ass and angel incident, Balaam asked the angel what he should do, after abusing his more discerning donkey. Balaam said to Balak that he could only say what God told him to say. Numerous times afterward, Balaam did not go one inch outside of what God told him, but did not tell Balak to hang it up, letting the incident just peter out.
Jewish commentators scorned Balaam as later turning to sorcery, inducing Israel to idolatry and dying ingloriously later on. I have problems with Balaam because he seemed to have no moral center, doing what ever he was told to do by a strong enough voice, or purse. As unspeakable as evil is, it does serve a purpose if only to really show us what it is to be wrong. Pharaoh gave clear lessons in being wrong. Korah gave clear lessons in being wrong in his rebellion against Moses and God, although Korah's lineage did survive
Ambivalence leading to amorality can happen to the best of us; that's why it's so dangerous. It can be the gateway to evil, as the force of nature hates a vacuum. Noah can be considered to be ambivalent or amoral when he didn't confront God over the Flood. Perhaps that's why Noah drank himself into oblivion. Job can be considered to be ambivalent or amoral when he did not confront his children over their decadent ways. Amorality is just as dangerous as evil, maybe even more so, because it can appear so nice. Sometimes it doesn't pay to be nice. Amen.