Monday, December 28, 2009

Delivered Erev Shabbat Vayigash, 12/25/2009 by Rabbi/Cantor Rhoda JH Silverman

It is easy as a Jew, especially at this time of year when the Christian calendar so thoroughly consumes American culture (so much so that a Christian holiday is marked by an American national holiday), to wax poetic about living in Israel. As we’ve been reminded in past weeks, there are those who believe that Israel is the only homeland for the Jewish people. If you have had the opportunity to spend some time in Israel, you know the incredible feeling of living in a country that marks Jewish time. When main street is as quiet as today’s American streets, if not more so, but on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the major Chaggim, and even Shabbat. There is no question that there is an incredible sense of validation and comfort that comes from living in an environment that fully responds to Jewish time, when society and the culture generally moves according to our rhythm.

Yet, despite my love of Israel and my firm commitment to supporting Israel and demanding that her voice be present and heard in International dialogue and debate, and despite the challenges I sometimes face as a Jew living in a predominately Christian country, I would take up permanent residence nowhere else other than here, in America. That is not to say that I don’t hope to have many chances to visit Israel and to again perhaps have the opportunity to have an extended stay in the Jewish State, but I choose to remain solely an American citizen. I do not believe that Israel is the only home for Jews. As long as America remains fully committed to pursuing values of democracy, equal rights, and the separation of church and state, than as a Jew, this is my country; and I feel proud and fortunate to have the opportunity to hold citizenship here.

It is not easy to publically criticize Israel these days. Israel needs our support during this critical period of uncertainty. With Hamas becoming slowly but surely legitimized while Israel is increasingly vilified in the public eye, we must stand by her side even if at those times when we disagree with her. This is imperative. However that being said, while standing by her side, we can ask that Israel continue to work towards being the best expression of democratic and Jewish values in our world.

Last Friday, a group of close to 200 women gathered for prayer at the Kotel, The Western Wall, as part of their observance of Rosh Chodesh, the 1st of the Jewish month. This gathering has become somewhat of a ritual - the group having become known by the acronym ”W.O.W” - “The Women of the Wall.” This month’s gathering, however, was larger than usual due to events that transpired last month.
At their last gathering, a 25 year old medical student, and regular participant in these gatherings for 4 years, was arrested for wearing a tallis (a Jewish prayer shawl), an act that at The Western Wall is illegal for a woman. Nofrat Frenkel was among 16 women donning tallitot that early morning as is fairly typical at these regular gatherings. This month, however, she was the one carrying the Torah. At this particular gathering last month, upon concluding their public recitation of Hallel without, unusually enough, any disturbance, the group made the bold mistake of taking their Torah out of its carry-all-bag before heading out from The Wall to their sanctioned area at the nearby Robinson’s Arch. As the women were moving to The Robinson’s Arch, a nearby archeological site deemed ‘non-sacred’ and thus a place where they have been granted permission by the Israeli Supreme Court to read from Torah, the police chose to make an example of Ms. Frenkel. If found guilty, not only will Ms. Frenkel face up to 6 months in prison or a 10,000 shekel fine, but more significantly and far more lasting, she will be barred from the medical profession due to having been convicted of a felony. Ironic, isn’t it? Nofrat Frenkel may be restricted from being a doctor in Israel, the Jewish State, due to her commitment to Jewish life and its public expression.

Fast forward to this past Friday. In addition to having to endure the standard attacks, including verbal epitaphs, spitting, and often physical assault that often occurs at these gatherings, it happened to be raining, hard. When it was time to read Torah, the group began to make their way away from The Wall to the area where permission has been granted for them to read. Their procession drew in a couple dozen men who joined in solidarity. Upon arrival at The Robinson’s Arch, the men who wanted to read Torah were granted access and protection from the rain. The women carrying their Torah were left standing in the rain. Later that morning, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the Rabbi of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the governmental agency which has been given full and sole authority over the Kotel, stated, “It’s not for nothing that the rain raged at that time, because the heavens are crying over women who try to harm the Western Wall and the feelings of those who pray there.”

In Israel, where separate of church and state is far from reality, Rabbi Rabinovitch’s words are upheld by the government. He is a government appointed official. While he has been quoted saying, “[the Western Wall] is run with gentle arrangement and great sensitivity to any world view” and that attendance at the wall reveals that “everyone feels connected to it,” be clear that Rabbi Rabinovitch is an Orthodox Rabbi who does not recognize any other branch of Judaism. He would not recognize any of the Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist Rabbis within or without his own country – certainly not us female ones! And, he is wrong in his view that every Jew feels comfortable at The Wall. Under current circumstances, I sure don’t!

Relative to all of the countries which surround this small nation in the mid-East, Israel is progressive in its expression of democracy and in its treatment of women, and for that we should be proud as we continue to demand change. However, and some may view this as a cop out, I will continue to hope and demand for change from here, as I prefer to live in a country which allows me, as a Jew and as a woman, the right to the full and public expression of my religion.

Living in America during the Christmas season can be unsettling for Jews. Either we can jump right into the festivities of the season feeling not only inauthentic as non-Christians piggy backing onto someone else’s holiday or worse yet perhaps insulting those Christians for whom this holiday still retains even a modicum of religious significance; or, we can choose to stand on the sidelines – as a guest at the party, enjoying the mandated day off without the enormous pressure that a grand holiday usually creates (I choose the latter myself). Yet until Israel validates all expressions of Judaism – until it becomes a nation that welcomes me – a proudly observant Progressive Jew – as eagerly and as openly as my Orthodox colleagues and neighbors, until then, I’ll stay put.

By the way, while staying put, I look forward to planning and leading the next Temple Emanuel trip & mission to Israel in the summer of 2012. I hope you will consider joining in on the excursion!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Shabbat Chanukah II, delivered by Rabbi/Cantor Rhoda JH Silverman, Erev Shabbat Miketz 5770, 12/18/2009

Joseph has become an astute self-marketer, hasn’t he.

Last week’s portion paints him as a bit naive. It is one things to have dreams of grandeur where one’s elders are symbolically represented as bowing at your presence, it is quite another to share them with those very elders - Joseph’s brother’s and father - without any thought to the consequences. What was he thinking?

The story requires him to be thoughtless at that juncture. Being the subject of his brothers’ violent anger as well as a prisoner in a foreign land has apparently allowed him to mature. The interpreter of dreams who emerges in parshat Miketz is not the same idealistic dreamer of last Shabbat.

Last Shabbat, in parashat Yayeshev, Joseph announces his dreams boldly without thinking them through:
‘Joseph said to his brothers, שמעו נ֕א החלו֥ם הז֖ה אש֣ר חל֑מתי... – “Listen up! This is the dream that I have dreamed.” The Masoretic pointing - the use of the independent and forceful zakef gadol - underscores Joseph’s confidence, שמעו נ֕א! His brothers proceed to question him, ‘are you so sure of yourself? Do you really expect to rule over us?’ You’d think Joseph would have recognized the need for a more nuanced, less confrontation approach. But no, after his second dream, he again emphatically - hiney - pronounces it in the face of his family, “ה֙נה חל֤מתי חלום֙ עו֔ד והנ֧ה הש֣מש והיר֗ח ואח֤ד עשר֙ כוכב֔ים משתחו֖ים ליֽ:",” ‘hiney, I have dreamed another dream, and hiney the sun, the moon, and 11 stars are bowing to me!’

Hiney is one of those fabulous Hebrew words that put a wrench into translation. Frankly, there is no adequate translation. My most recent Biblical grammar teacher, Dr. Susanna Garfein, argues that hiney is often best left untranslated but rather is a dramatic marker than can be best reflected in the voice. Many translations use the unsatisfactory, ‘behold’ to emphasize its dramatic function: behold, I dreamed a dream... (sounds a bit too Man of the Mancha-esque, for me). The point is, Joseph’s use of hiney is significant. The sentence would make perfect sense without it. By using it, twice no less -- hiney, I dreamed, and hiney, here it is -- Joseph is clearly pushing the envelope, drawing added attention to himself and to what must have appeared to his brothers as a thoroughly self centered and delusional dream.

By this week’s portion, Joseph has developed a different approach, and one that serves him far better. He has learned to recognize and place God, a force beyond himself, at the center of the action. It isn’t all about him. Perhaps Joseph is finally getting an inkling of the reality that he is just one piece of the bigger narrative - the development of the Israelite nation.

In this week’s parashat Mikketz, Joseph recognizes immediately when called by Pharoah that בִלְעָדָי not me, but אלהים will answer regarding Pharoah’s well-being (Gen 41:16). Now Pharoah is no push-over. Our midrashic tradition, Genesis Rabbah to be precise, understands Pharoah’s statement, “I dreamt a dream and there is no one to interpret it” (Gen 41:15) as meaning not that there hasn’t been any attempts at interpretation but that there has been no interpretation yet to his liking!

So let’s see what was so compelling about Joe’s analysis (p. 237-8). Joseph frames his entire explanation as God, specifically Elohim, telling Pharoah what is going to happen. Moreover, before finishing, he adds: :כי־נכ֤ון הדבר֙ מֵ֣עִם האלה֔ים וממה֥ר האלה֖ים לעשתֽו, ‘this matter has been decided (in other words, its a done deal) by Elohim and Elohim is quickly making it happen. (Gen 41:32)’ Taking the traditional approach to text study that no word is superfluous, it is striking that Elohim is repeated here. If we look at the verses that lead up to it, the proper pronoun for God is not repeated but rather understood. Verse 28, for example, “this is the thing that I told Pharoah, that which God is doing,הֶראָה את פרעה ‘he’ has shown to Pharoah.” Verse 25 too, “היגיד לפרעה” ‘he’ has made known; but in verse 32, Joseph uses what 20th century biblical commentator Nahama Leibowitz calls the rhetorical device of repetition: כי נכון הדבר מעם האלהים וממהר האלהים לעשתו. Like the previous sentences, this sentence is fully understandable without the 2nd Elohim: it could just as easily read: כי נכון הדבר מעם האלהים וממהר לעשתו - This matter has been decided by God and he is quickly making it happen.

This ‘rhetorical repetition’ works! Joseph succeeds at convincing Pharoah that his interpretation is correct, and that God is in charge. Pharoah’s first words after Joseph’s recommendations to ‘find a man with the spirit of Elohim in him,’ is indeed, ‘since Elohim has made all of this known to you, (Gen 41:39)’ I pick you.

Joseph has brilliantly marketed himself on the shoulders of God.

Perhaps Joseph instinctively understood Dr. Rashkover’s remarks last week regarding how religious communities must be able to come to interfaith dialogue with far more than secular interests at hand. We must be willing to confront God and theology in our discussions. Notice that Joseph is able to foster relations between him, an Israelite, and Pharoah, an Egyptian, by plainly and boldly recognizing God. At this time of year, when we feel the greatest challenges of assimilation, when it is easy to feel pulled by outside cultural influences - namely the Christmas season, the retention of Elohim here in the text instead of that יהוה we identify as Adonai is worthy of exploration. Was reference to the uniquely Israelite יהוה too particularistic for this story to work?

A Biblical-Critical approach to the text, the study of how the text arises out of various textual traditions, reveals both, what we call, the J (yawist) and E (Elohist) strands throughout the Joseph story. One of the biggest (though not indisputable) cues of these strands is the use of יהוה (Adonai) vs. Elohim in referring to God. However, the text went through various redactions before final canonization. Many opportunities arose for editing, yet throughout Joseph’s interpretation and advice to Pharoah, Elohim is retained - the Adonai of the Jawist strand is never allowed into Joseph’s dialogue with Pharoah.

Joseph’s use of Elohim can be viewed as highly calculating. Perhaps he is striking a balance between what he must reveal about himself and what will be acceptable by the outsider. As Jews living in an America that is frankly saturated with Christmas, we too have to figure out how to respond.

Our individual responses will differ - perhaps even greatly - depending on the make up of our families, how we were raised, and on what values we choose to hold onto and pass forward into the future. The challenge, and not necessarily an easy one, is to be conscious about how we are responding. Turning Chanukah into a ‘Jewish Christmas’ as retail marketing forces would like us to do is an inadequate response. Displaying our chanukiyot in the windows of our home during these 8 days as a proud expression of our Jewish identity is however our mandate.

We are no longer in Egypt. Thankfully, we don’t live in the time of Pharoah. It behooves us to maintain our particularity and to resist any fear of expressing it, in how Dr. Rashkover framed it, the public square. This square is equally ours even if we are present in fewer numbers and even if it is covered with tinsel and jingle bells through all of December.

The greatest challenge of being a Jew in the modern world is finding that balance between particularism - asserting our unique identity, and assimilation - striving to fit in. In facing this challenge, we will be confronted with many attempts at blurring the boundaries, Christmas-kah cards and Chanukah bushes, for instance. Where and when do make sure that Adonai - our specifically Jewish culture and values - is not absorbed by Elohim requires tough and confident choices. Choices, though, that are worthy of the effort.