Archive for the ‘Freedom of Speech’ category

Abraham and Isaac are Us – Moriah is Jerusalem

September 27, 2014

In the past, I have been asked, “Can’t we read some other section from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah? The story of Abraham and his attempted sacrifice of Isaac is so difficult to listen to. Indeed it is frightening.” While I have always appreciated these concerns, I have never acceded to these requests.

Why? Perhaps partly because, having been raised as a Reform Jew, for all of my childhood and much of my life this was the only Torah text to be found in our High Holy Day prayer book for Rosh Hashanah. You must remember that in those days, Reform Jews never considered the possibility of observing a second day of Rosh Hashanah and therefore needing a second Torah portion. In fact, the rabbis who framed the old UNION PRAYER BOOK intentionally chose this text in spite of the fact that in traditional synagogues it is read on the second day and not the first. Why? Because they had ideological problems with the traditional text for the first day. While it does include the birth of Isaac, it also includes Abraham and Sarah driving Sarah’s handmaiden, Hagar, and her son, Ishmael, out of their camp to live or die in the wilderness. That, they found that to be morally questionable.

30 years ago, when GATES OF REPENTANCE was published, it did include a second Rosh Hashanah Morning service, for those who choose to observe a second day. However, for that service, they still did not include the other traditional Torah portion but rather they inserted the story of Creation. Still I stuck with Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah, partly because of nostalgia and partly because this is a story about Jews while the Creation story is about a time before there were Jews. Now, in this new prayer book,     MISHKAN HANFESH, they have chosen to include, not only today’s Torah text and the story of Creation, but also the other traditional Torah reading and a fourth reading as well.

But still, I am deeply tied to the story of Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah. That bond exists not just because of nostalgia, nor even just because it is a story of the early days of our people, but also because of the presence in it of Mt. Moriah. For Mt. Moriah would later be called Mt. Zion, and upon that mountain would be built the sacred city of Jerusalem. This story is so compelling because, from the earliest times of our people’s existence – 4,000 year ago – it binds the generations of Jews – Abraham and Isaac and all the generations to follow – to the land of Israel, and particularly to the city of Jerusalem.

Granted, it is not an easy story. It is one fraught with danger and heartache, sacrifice and tears. But that is part of the price that we Jews have had to pay throughout the ages for the privilege of having a land of our own. Jews for 4,000 years have tended to agree that it is a price well worth paying.

Throughout the ages, we have called it the Promised Land, but more accurately we should have called it the Land of the Covenant. For, from the very beginning of the Jewish people – when Abraham and God first struck a deal which would establish forever the unique relationship between our people and God, a central part of that deal, that covenant, that brit, was that there would be this land which God would give us as homeland for all time.

So today we read from the Torah some of our earliest history and what do we see? Abraham and Isaac on Mt. Moriah; standing and praying on the site of the very heart of Jerusalem; the site where both Temples would eventually stand.

As Abraham and Isaac stood on Mt. Moriah, there were others who inhabited that land as well; people such as the Amorites, Hittites, the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadomites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites. But all those people are gone. They have disappeared from the face of history and not a trace of them remains, other than some sporadic archaeological finds. But we Jews, the descendants of Abraham and Isaac, remain. We still exist and throughout the centuries, whether living on that land or in exile, the bonds between us and that land have remained unbroken.

2,700 years ago, when our people were dragged into exile in Babylonia, the Psalmist sang: “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember you not; if I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy.” For 2,000 years, while in exile after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, in our worship we prayed daily for our return to Israel. 69 years ago, on April 20, 1945, on the first Shabbat after the liberation of the Bergen Belsen concentration camp, a British radio reporter shared with the world his recording of the surviving Jews singing “Hatikvah” – “The Hope”; the song that would become the national anthem of the State of Israel. Throughout our history, whether we were living on the land or off of it, we never forgot Jerusalem; the cords that bound us to the land of Israel may have been stretched but never broken. In the words of the medieval Spanish Jewish poet and philosophy, Yehuda HaLevi, “My heart is in the east, and I am in the uttermost west.”

What I speak of is a sort of mystical magnetism, yet I know that there are those among us who do not sense it. When considering vacation destinations, Israel may not even make the list and that is a shame. It is a shame because for most Jews – indeed, for most Christians – but especially for most Jews, once they have spent any time in Israel, they understand from whence I speak. They feel the magnetism. They become connected – in spiritual ways connected – to the land and its people. They come to understand that the Jewish people and the land of Israel are inseparable no matter where we live.

I share all this with you because this past summer has been a very difficult and trying time for Israel and for all of us who love Israel. Indeed, it has been a trying time for all Jews, whether we love Israel or not. While Israelis has suffered under the constant barrage of Hamas missiles, needing to flee with very little advanced notice into their bomb shelters, we all have suffered as we have witnessed, and perhaps experienced, the dramatic rise in the levels of antisemitism throughout the world as a direct result of Israel’s war with Hamas. But even as I say that, we need to ask ourselves, “Is it truly as a result of the war, or is there something else at work here?”

For years there have been those who have claimed that being anti-Israel is equivalent to being antisemitic. Of course, that is, at the least, a horrible overstatement. That someone criticizes Israel in no way automatically means that they hate Jews. We Americans, of all people, should understand that, for we are constantly criticizing our own government but that does not mean that we do so out of hatred. But perhaps what those who equate being anti-Israel with being antisemitic are trying to say, though saying it poorly, is that while there are times when it is perfectly legitimate to criticize Israel, just as there are times when it is perfectly legitimate to criticize any nation, there are still those individuals and groups who use their socially acceptable criticism of Israel in order to mask their socially unacceptable attitudes of antisemitism. The New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, expressed this eloquently when he wrote: “Criticizing Israel is not antisemitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction – – out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East – – is antisemitc, and not saying so is dishonest.”

What we have been witnessing is a dark combination of the Thomas Friedman ‘anti-Israel / antisemitism’ formula side-by-side with a toxic, blatant, endemic antisemitism which has taken advantage of the war to come out of the shadows and reveal itself in the light of day.

When respected bodies like the Presbyterian Church (USA) approved a resolution to divest from Israel, even in a limited fashion, and didn’t even consider framing a resolution in which they would take a stand against Hamas firing thousands of rockets directed at civilian targets in Israel, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke. When the Metropolitan Opera insists upon producing and performing a work which seeks to justify the actions of the Palestinian terrorists who hijacked an Italian cruise ship and murdered a wheel chair bound American Jew who simply was on vacation with his wife, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke. When during the war, the news media gave extensive coverage to the suffering of the citizens of Gaza but gave only meager coverage to the extent of Hamas’ attacks on Israel, or to the multiple efforts made by the Israelis to forewarn Gaza civilians of imminent attacks so that they could get out of harm’s way, or to the various ways in which Hamas used the citizens of Gaza as human shields so as to protect their own fighters while creating a humanitarian crisis which they would then use as propaganda against Israel, that is the type of antisemitism of which Thomas Friedman spoke.

Yet we have witnessed the other type of antisemitism as well, and in frightening ways. When those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war besieged a synagogue in Paris, filled with Jews who had gathered for no other reason but to observe Shabbat, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When in Berlin those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war started chanting “Jude, Jude, feiges schwein, kom heraus und kampf alein – Jews, Jews, cowardly pigs, come out and fight alone,” that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When in New York those who claimed to be protesting Israel’s actions in the war took their demonstration to the streets of the Diamond District, knowing that most of the jewelry exchanges located there are Jewishly owned and operated, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly. When someone in our own community plastered a gruesome anti-Israel poster on every utility pole surrounding our own synagogue, that is an example of how being anti-Israel is used as an excuse for acting antisemiticly.

What can we learn from all of this? We learn that there is a certain irony in the fact that while some or many of us may have, for whatever reasons, lost our sense of intimate connection with the land and the State of Israel, it is our enemies who remember and continue to recognize it. Of course, they do not see its positive values but rather see it as fuel for their hatred of us. We, on the other hand need to embrace it and trust it. As throughout our history, our connection to Israel has been an integral component of Jewish identity and of our unique relationship with God, it remains so today. As we believe, and I hope we believe, that our relationship with God has produced for our people an elevated values system; one which lifts up justice and living the ethical life, then we have to trust that it is that very same value system that serves as the foundation of Israeli society – that Israel truly is a Jewish state and not just because it is populated by Jews.

We need to embrace that perspective, for once we do so, we can begin to prepare ourselves for how to respond to Israel’s detractors. We can begin to formulate our answer to the question of whether or not in the recent war, and in recent history, Israel has been placed in the role of the victim or the villain.

In our search for that answer let me leave you with some thought-starting questions:

Which party in the recent conflict has been deeply invested in peace and historically and consistently committed to finding a two-state solution, and which party has consistently and adamantly refused to sit at a negotiating table?

If Israel is not interested in making peace with its neighbors then how do you explain its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, its 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, its 2000 offer to the Palestinians of 97% of the disputed territories, and its 2005 total withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza?

Which party in the recent conflict used its rockets to protect its children and which party used its children to protect its rockets?

Which party in the recent conflict invested billions of dollars in constructing bomb shelters to protect its people and which party invested billions of dollars in constructing terror tunnels?

Which party in the recent conflict made extensive efforts to forewarn civilians on the other side of coming attacks?

Which nation in the Middle East does the most to protect religious freedom, the rights of women, the rights of homosexuals, and the rights of all minority groups within its borders?

If you honestly seek the answers to these and similar questions you will have begun the search to determine who indeed is the victim and who the villain. Hopefully, you will come to the conclusion that Israel truly is a Jewish state, in values as well as in name; that it seeks peace, not war, with its neighbors and prays for the day when Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side as friends rather than as enemies.

Advertisements

Controversy and Disclaimer

April 16, 2010

I serve as a rabbi of a congregation and that is not always the easiest of jobs.  Congregational rabbis are highly visible creatures and perpetually vulnerable.  With every Jew possessing at least three opinions on any topic, the job is not that different than that of herding cats.  And to make matters all the more complex, there exists this truly interfaith phenomenon that when some people come together into association for the expressed purpose of raising up the will and work of God, for some unexplained and inexplicable reason, these individuals seem to leave both reason and compassion at the door and become easily provoked into behaving more like a lynch mob than like a sacred congregation when dealing with their clergy.  For when they find that they have differences of opinion with their clergy, they do not approach their clergy to discuss these differences rationally, in a respectful, and hopefully productive, dialogue but rather they expend great energy to spread their discontent far and wide and gather their forces to seek out the congregational lay leadership in order to pursue some sort of administrative solution which often can mimic Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Heart’s call for “Off with his head!”  Several years ago, a Protestant clergy person wrote a fairly popular study on such people and entitled his work “Clergy Killers.”

I share this with you because in my community, somewhat of a firestorm has arisen over the views that I have expressed on this blog in regards to two recent entries – “A Perfect Storm Threatens Same Sex Marriage in Iowa” and “Revisiting The Perfect Storm.”  While only two members of my community demonstrated the good character to approach me in order to dialogue about their discomfort over these articles, there seem to have been several others who have taken great pains to run to the president of my congregation with their cries of outrage.  I have been a rabbi for 35 years.  Having people disagree with me on issues is not exactly a new experience.  I welcome disagreement and the healthy discourse that it can lead to, for it is out of such discourse that we all can grow; that is if we are open to growth.  Venting one’s anger is quite another story, especially when one vents it in such a way as to attempt to do material harm to the object of their anger and that person’s family.  There is something fundamentally mean spirited about such behavior.

While these people have legitimate reasons to disagree with me – and to take issue with the content of these blog entries – they did not have  legitimate reason to seek an administrative solution to their problems through the mechanisms of my congregation.  Let me explain why.

No clergy person is the “property” of their congregation, with the congregation possessing the “right” to regulate and control their every waking action and word.  All clergy have both their professional lives and the personal lives.  What they do within their professional lives is most certainly open to scrutiny, and if necessary, censure by their congregation.  What they do within their personal lives is not.

For me, my blogging is a function of my personal life and NOT my professional one.  I write my blog entries on my own time, from my home computer.  I utilize neither work time nor work resources upon them.  One might say that my blog is my hobby.  As such, it stands outside the purview of congregational control or regulation.  Indeed, I see one of the functions of my blog being that of providing me with the opportunity to address topics that I could never address within my official role as rabbi of my congregation; topics I could never speak or write on in a newsletter article, or a sermon, or in the context of a synagogue class; topics such as partisan politics, for doing so would endanger the congregation’s 501c3 not for profit status.

While, in my professional capacity, I cannot broach such topics, that does not in any way mean that I am devoid of opinions on them or that I am completely restricted from ever addressing them at any time in any place.  No.  Clergy, like every other citizen of the United States of America possess the right to freedom of opinion and freedom of speech, as guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  The very idea that clergy, by stint of being clergy, relinquish their constitutional rights and surrender them over to the powers of their congregations is patently absurd.  Clergy most certainly have the right to publicly express their opinions on any and all matters, as long as they restrict those expressions within the legal parameters of the tax codes when they are serving in their official capacity within their congregations.  But outside of their congregational life, they are as free as any other American citizen to speak their mind.

Does this mean that the members of their faith community do not have the right to express their dissatisfaction with whatever they say, outside of congregational life?  Of course not!  It does, however mean that it is extremely inappropriate and fundamentally wrong for such faith community members to turn to and use the administrative mechanisms of their congregations in order to express that dissatisfaction.  If such people wish to take issue with what is being said by their clergy outside of their congregation, then they should go to the clergy person him or herself – as did the two individuals who actually sent me emails and entered into dialogue with me.  They can pick up the phone.  They can send an email.  They can even knock on the door.  And, in the case of my blogging, then can also make comments directly on my blog site.  But they cannot seek institutional redress for matters that are extra-institutional.

In discussing this issue with my congregational president, he pointed out that there was no place on my blog which stated that the views expressed here are exclusively my views and are not to be considered the views of my congregation.  Though such a disclaimer is not required, considering the fact that the blog is mine and not the congregation’s, I was more than happy to add such a disclaimer to the header of this blog, simply for the sake of clarity.  Indeed, after my president left my office, I immediately called my good friend, and past synagogue president, Alan Garfield, who helped me set up this blog, and asked him to help revise the header.  He did so within one hour!

Personally, I would be interested to learn of how many of the OTHER 18 blog entries, over and above the ones in question, were read by the folks who called my president to express their outrage.  I wonder if there were any of those entries with which they agreed, and whether or not they expressed their approval for those entries along with their disapproval of the two in question.  But that is probably too much to ask for, seeing that human nature tends to focus on getting upset about what you don’t like and disregarding the rest.

I know that there still will be those who will claim that no one is trying to deny me my freedom of speech, but that whenever I speak, or write, there will be those who will choose to believe that I am speaking and writing for the Jewish community as well as for myself.  In fact, what such folks are saying is that of course I have my freedom of speech, as long as they agree with what I say.  However, whenever they disagree, that freedom somehow has been revoked.  For such folks, I hope that the disclaimer now present on this blog will satisfy them.  If not, I pray that they will learn to live with it, just as I pray that the lay leadership of my congregation will learn to respond to blog complaints by saying that the blog is outside of their jurisdiction and that they suggest that the dissatisfied party seek me out directly.

By the way, as far as my presenting a questionable face of the Quad Cities Jewish Community, and of Temple Emanuel in specific, via some of the entries in my blog is concerned, the numbers tell the story.  I truly wish that this blog was so well read by others, but it is not.  Since I started it in December, it has received some 1,053 hits.  Of those hits, some 243 of them followed my posting of the first “Perfect Storm” entry.  About 23% of the total hits on my blog come from these entries and are most likely the result of the actions of those upset community members who energetically went around telling whoever they could, “Have you read what Rabbi Karp wrote on his blog?”  Over the last two days, as the word has by and large finished making its rounds, the number of daily hits has dropped back down to its typical 2 to 15 per day.  How ironic that those who were concerned about the exposure of this blog were in and of themselves responsible for providing it with its greatest exposure.  Indeed, since the complaints started coming in and making their rounds, my blog had its two best readership day.

I do not seek out ways to generate controversy nor do I get any pleasure from being embroiled in one.  But as those who know me can attest, I always have been one to speak my mind and to follow the dictates of my conscience, regardless of risk.  In the world of Western Religion, we call that possessing a “Prophetic Voice.”  And like the biblical prophets, those of us who speak “prophetically” sometimes find that we get beaten up for doing so.  We don’t like it but we are willing to pay the price.  What we are not willing to pay is the price for keeping silent out of fear of the consequences.  In the realm of Holocaust studies we call such people who surrender to such fear “bystanders”.  Now I know how some people just cannot abide with Holocaust analogies, but if the shoe fits…

So in the future, if anyone has an issue with anything I say on this blog, don’t call my president.  Call me.  I will be more than happy to enter into dialogue with you.  If our dialogue is successful, then hopefully we both will benefit and grow from it.  In Yiddish we say that is the “menschlekite” thing to do.