Shabbat Talmud Study: What Does Moral Courage Look Like Today?


[Shabbat morning | 8:30 – 9:30 am]

It is much easier to identify moral courage in a historical piece than in today’s headlines. Moral courage is much cleaner and clearer when you are talking about 1939 than when you are talking about 2018. Consider two pieces that made the news this week.

In this piece, Rabbi David Wolpe tells the story of a Japanese man named Chiune Sugihara who worked in the Japanese consulate in Lithuania in 1939. He knew that Jews in German-occupied Poland were desperate and could not get out. No country would take them. The Japanese government ordered him: do not give visas to Jews. He violated the explicit order of his own government and wrote out 6,000 visas. Rabbi Wolpe writes: “Day and night he wrote visas. He issued as many visas in a day as would normally be issued in a month….It has been estimated that over 40,000 people are alive today because of this one man.” Most of us would look at the story of Chiune Sugihara and conclude that he is a moral hero.

How then shall we understand the story reported in this link?

What does moral courage look like today? If we admire Chiune Sugihara saying yes
to desperate people, in violation of his government’s orders, how ought we to see
desperate people today, and our fellow citizens who have the very hard job of doing
border control and law enforcement?

On Shabbat we are going to look at a great set of texts assembled and taught by Yehuda Kurtzer at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem called “Moral Courage in Jewish Tradition.” We will see what the prophets had to say about moral courage; the rabbinic critique of the prophetic voice; and a bridge position which will give us language and categories as we think about our complicated world and how to be moral actors in it.

History is hard. Headlines make finding our moral voice even harder.

Shabbat shalom,
Wes

Shabbat Talmud Study: What Does Excellent Rabbinic Leadership Look Like in This Charged Political Climate? A Case Study


He did it. He went there.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, before his entire congregation, Rabbi Ed Feinstein (one of the truly outstanding rabbis of our generation), at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California (one of the truly outstanding congregations in America today) talked about President Trump and our current fraught political situation. The sermon is entitled “An America of Hope and Fear.”

Please click and read it before class on Shabbat morning.

Rabbi Feinstein has guts. Moral courage. You will note that there is plenty in his sermon to offend everybody. Whatever your politics, wherever on the spectrum you may be, there is something in here that could so tick you off you would leave the sermon in the middle on Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Feinstein knew this when he prepared it and delivered it, and he delivered it in the face of some congregants choosing to walk out. But there is also something undeniably powerful and true about these words. While some congregants did walk out, others gave the rabbi an ovation, applauding his courage and his wisdom.

Rabbi Feinstein pulled no punches.

For example: “To be very clear, I support many of the policies of this Administration. I believe many of these policies are necessary, even courageous. Many of the Administration’s policies have advanced our prosperity and our security.”

And:

“Bob Woodward’s new book is titled, “Fear” because in an interview early in the Presidency, the President told Woodward, “real power is fear.” Donald Trump is a creature of fear. He lives in constant state of fear. And he is an artist at the politics of fear. It’s always — Us against Them. At his rallies, he explodes into a frenzy at all those who are coming to take away our prosperity, our safety, our guns, our homes, our faith, our future. The catalog of demons grows with each iteration – Mexican immigrants, Central American gang members, Muslims, the Chinese, the Democrats in Congress, the FBI, the NFL, the New York Times, CNN, Canada, Jeff Sessions, NATO, …the crowd screams and cheers and the adrenaline rises as the rage burns and fears are brought to a boil.

And we wonder, what’s happening to us? Who are we? Where will this lead to? Unfortunately, we know. We Jews, we know a thing or two, because we’ve seen a thing or two. We know what happens when fear comes to dominate a political culture. We know what happens when it is no longer aberrant and bizarre and unprecedented, but becomes the new normal. We know what happens when a narrative of fear finally and completely overcomes the narrative of hope.”

Here is my question. Is Rabbi Feinstein’s sermon an example of what to do, or what not to do? Should Temple Emanuel be a sanctuary from the world (no politics please), or a sanctuary for the world (talk about real issues so our members can be emboldened to go out and make a difference in ways that advance their convictions)?

Our nation has never been more divided in our life time. The Civil War was before any of our life time. But Thomas Friedman’s column last week, Civil War, Part II, is too true and heartbreaking.

What does excellent rabbinic leadership look like, what is an excellent synagogue’s role, in a time such as this?

See you on Shabbat!

Shabbat shalom,
Wes

Shabbat Talmud Study: When is the Time for Moral Purity? When is the Time for Moral Compromise?


What a fraught and complicated week.

A helpful response to the emotional intensity of this moment is a lecture
given at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem by Tal Becker, one of its brightest stars. His lecture and sources are entitled: “Moral Purity vs. Moral Compromise: Derech Eretz and Public Policy.”

The rule, and he has sources to back it up, is moral compromise.
We live in an imperfect world. Hot mess is part of that world and is how God created it. Usually we just have to live with, and make our peace with, imperfection. In 610 out of 613 cases, be prepared for moral compromise.

It is a very tiny exception, 3 out of 613 cases, when we would insist on moral purity.

We will examine those 3 cases where we insist on moral purity and ask what is the resonance of those exceptional cases for our world today?

See you on Shabbat!

Shabbat shalom,
Wes

Shabbat Talmud Study: Processing the Senate Hearings


We have to talk.

When the world feels complicated, a good Jewish response is to learn Torah for the light it can shed.

Tomorrow morning I am going to teach Genesis 34, the rape of Dinah. What does that teach us about our world today? I will take half the time.

Aliza will take the second half of our time to teach Genesis 19, the story of Lot being prepared to sacrifice his own daughters to advance his ideas and ideals.

Perhaps studying these sacred, hard texts together can help us as we navigate a very complicated time.

Shabbat shalom,
Wes

Shabbat Talmud Study: The Confessional’s Biggest Problem is Among Our Hardest Problems


“We have sinned against You by the way we talk.”

Tuesday night, and yesterday, we recited this line over and over again. By far the biggest cluster of sin and transgression in the confessional concerns how we talk to one another.

Getting this question right is exceptionally complicated.

Suppose somebody says something to you, or about you, that is untrue, unkind, unfair. What, if anything, are you supposed to say, and how are you supposed to say it?

If you engage their baseless claim, does that give it credence?

If you are silent in the face of their baseless claim, is that acquiescence?

While this issue feels particularly urgent given our riven politics, it is also ancient. On Shabbat we are going to examine the sources from a fabulous lecture at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem this past summer delivered by Elana Stein Hain entitled: “In a Manner of Speaking: How to Answer a Fool.” We will see that the Bible and the Talmud both face this issue, and both sources evince profound ambivalence.

You will leave class not with an answer, but with a set of questions and considerations to take with you in this new year.

Acknowledging the challenge of speech in the confessional is easy. Getting it right in life is hard. With Yom Kippur over, now the real work begins.

See you on Shabbat!
G’mar tov,

Wes

Shabbat Talmud Study: On Yom Kippur Do We Change God’s Mind? Or Does God Change Our Mind?


During these days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, at our morning minyan, we recite these lines from Avinu Malkenu (Our father, our king):

Avinu Malkenu, inscribe us in the Book of good life.
Avinu Malkenu, inscribe us in the Book of deliverance.
Avinu Malkenu, inscribe us in the Book of prosperity.
Avinu Malkenu, inscribe us in the Book of merit.
Avinu Malkenu, inscribe us in the Book of forgiveness.
Avinu Malkenu, grant us a productive new year.

What is the impact of these words? They leave our lips, and they go where? They do what?

How prayer actually works is a particular challenge for those of us who see ourselves as secular and rational. Many of us do not believe in God. Or we are not sure. The jury is still out on whether God even exists. Many of us do not believe in intercessionary prayer. Why do we pray to a God we are not even sure we believe in, for goodies and blessings, when we do not believe the world works that way? What is this?

In a great lecture that Micah Goodman delivered at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, he puts the question this way: On Yom Kippur are we trying to change God’s mind? If we pray hard enough, often enough, long enough, if we really, really mean it, if we have been fasting all day, then eventually will all that intensity change God’s mind and persuade God to grant us all the good things we pray for? If that is the vision of how prayer works on Yom Kippur, it may leave many of us unmoved.

On Shabbat morning, we will examine four sources brought by Micah-Ezekiel, Maimonides, Leviticus 16 and the avodah service-as well as a haunting story from Kohelet Rabbah about the famous rabbinic rebel, Elisha Ben Abuyah. These sources point to a different understanding of what Yom Kippur is all about.

See you on Shabbat morning at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom and shana tova,
Wes

Shabbat Talmud Study: Learning From the Moral Failures of King Solomon


Evidently, being the wisest, wealthiest and most powerful man on the planet is not enough to keep you centered, grounded, and living a decent and moral life.

That is the Bible’s testimony based on the life of King Solomon. He had it all. But his rule and his life end in disgrace, disrepair, failure. His legacy is a divided kingdom and ultimately destruction and exile.

What is the learning for us, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah? What can King Solomon’s sordid story teach us about proper posture not only for High Holiday services but for life?

We will compare and contrast Christian and Jewish responses to the problem
of human failure.

The material for this class comes from a lecture Micah Goodman gave to
a rabbinic seminar at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

Welcome back, Talmud class! I have missed you. See you Shabbat
at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom and shana tova,
Wes

Shabbat Talmud Study: The Canaanite Prostitute Who Saved the Jews and What It Means for Us Today–Three Different Readings of Rahab


The best literature, the most evocative stories, generate multiple and conflicting interpretations, each of which is true. Can we hold them all in unrelieved tension? That is the case with Joshua, chapter 2, our Haftarah for tomorrow, the story of Rahab the prostitute.

Background: Their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness are now over. The Israelites are coming to Israel. This time they mean business. The Torah has commanded them, multiple times, and quite ignobly from our modern point of view, to slaughter the Canaanites. Genocide. No other word for it.

Rahab is a Canaanite prostitute. She knows and fears that the Israelites are about to invade, conquer, and slaughter her people.

Collusion is at the heart of the story. Explicit collusion. The whole Haftarah is a smoking gun on collusion. She makes a deal with the Israelite spies. I lied to my King. I betrayed my people. I protected you. When the Israelites comes to kill all the Canaanites, please save my family and me. The spies say yes.

How do we see this?

Tomorrow we will see three very different reads of Rahab, each of which will leave us with a different and lingering question for our own time.

Shabbat shalom,
Wes

P.S. I want to thank everybody who came to our Talmud class this year.
I love learning from you. Our class is always a highlight of my week.

Shabbat Talmud Study: Amos or Jeremiah – Which Prophet is More Helpful to Us Now?


Both Amos and Jeremiah lived in societies that they believed were rotten to the core, with corrupt and unresponsive leadership that trammeled the rights of the vulnerable
and the oppressed. Where is the ethical core of our society, each asked. Where is moral leadership, each demanded.

To add to the cataclysmic feel of the time in which each lived, international events were conspiring to doom both the Northern and Southern Kingdom. Amos preached in the shadow of Assyria’s destruction of Israel in 721 Before the Common Era. Judah preached in the shadow of Babylonia’s destruction of Judah in 586 BCE.

For speaking truth to power, Jeremiah was impugned and then imprisoned by the King. He offers his most powerful prophecy from a jail cell. Amos froths
and fulminates. His message does not seem to have landed in his own time. Yet for all they have in common, Amos and Jeremiah offer very different prescriptions.

On Shabbat we will see Amos’ most iconic move, Jeremiah’s most iconic move, and ask which voice is most helpful for our time.

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,
Wes

Shabbat Talmud Study: Can God Be With You If You Don’t Believe in God?


Tomorrow morning we are going to pivot from the political to the personal.

Since Pesach, we have been talking about issues that concern the Jewish people: intersectionality and the rising generation’s relationship with Israel.

Tomorrow morning it is personal–about your relationship with God.

Our prayers speak of a personal relationship with God. “The Lord is my shepherd;
I lack nothing.” “God is with me; I have no fear.”

That’s great. But what if you don’t believe in God? Can God still be with you if you
are agnostic, atheistic, indifferent, angry? If God is not your thing, is there still a place for God in your life?

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,
Wes