Sunday, August 21, 2022

Answering the Alarm

A renowned 18th century Jewish storyteller known as the Dubner Magid told the tale of a rustic villager’s first visit to the big city.  Upon waking in the middle of the night to the loud beating of drums, the villager asked a resident what the fuss was all about.  The city dweller replied that a fire had broken out and the drumming was the fire alarm.

When the villager returned to his home, he told the local elders what he had learned: “They have an amazing system in the city—whenever a building catches fire, the people beat their drums and by morning, the fire is out.”

Hearing this, the elders distributed drums to each citizen of the village.   A few weeks later, when a fire broke out, there was a deafening explosion of beating drums—and as the people waited for the blaze to die out, numerous homes and businesses burned to the ground.

The next morning, a visitor from the city questioned the local residents: “What were you thinking?  Do you believe that beating the drums will put out a fire?  The drums just sound the alarm—then it’s up to you to get busy extinguishing the flames!”

I offer this parable because the alarms are going off urgently, all around us.  

Democracy, diversity and decency are existentially imperiled by radical reactionary extremists across our state and nation.  Idaho’s abortion ban is a moral monstrosity, exposing the utter hypocrisy of our elected officials who blather about freedom yet deny Idaho women their most basic human rights and religious liberties.  Judaism not only allows for but actively mandates abortion for women whose pregnancies endanger their health; our state’s new law effectively prohibits my community from living by the dictates of our faith tradition.  

Meanwhile, our governor and legislature continue to actively endorse bigotry against LGBTQ Idahoans, and curry favor from racist, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim militias who brandish assault rifles with the express intent of intimidating their opponents.  Despite unprecedented budget surpluses, we nonetheless shortchange the education of our children, and we consistently fail to act or even recognize the reality of catastrophic human-caused climate change, even as Idaho burns in record-breaking summer heat.  Worst of all, these regressive and deeply destructive policies are offered up under the mantle of white Christian nationalism, which insists—contrary to the wishes and writings of our country’s founders—that America is a conservative Christian state.

We are running out of time to turn back this assault on justice and compassion. As the Talmud teaches, the day is short and the task is great—and though no one of us can finish this sacred work of preserving our democracy from authoritarian hooliganism, we are all obligated to do our part.  We need to join together—Democrats, Independents and moderate Republicans, young and old, male and female and non-binary, rich and poor, people of every color and ethnicity, folks of all faiths and of none—to respond to the alarms, lest our state and nation burn to the ground while we dither. 


Tuesday, July 5, 2022

An Open Letter on Reproductive Justice and the Dobbs Decision

Dear Friends—

 I am reaching out to you on this devastating day for the soul of our nation, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision rescinding Roe v. Wade.   I want to be clear—I do not speak now for the CABI staff or board, but personally, as your rabbi of twenty-eight years.  My heart grieves to witness, for the first time in American history, the court actually taking away a fundamental human right.

 This decision is a direct assault on American women, and thus by definition, an attack on over half of our CABI community.  It is also, without question, an anti-Semitic attack on religious freedom, because it imposes conservative Catholic and evangelical Christian standards on Jews and many others.  Our tradition is very clear: human life begins at birth rather than conception, and in many cases Jewish law mandates the termination of a harmful pregnancy.  The court’s horrific decision denies Jewish women the right to live by the Jewish values that guide many of us.  For more on this, see:

 https://womensrabbinicnetwork.org/?fbclid=IwAR2kWSBowQ1R-Tg46gB5ZObvTa7fWK5uUkVsnfO2HieJjnPRZo3iT3WbUOg

 What do we do?  Today, mostly, we allow time for grief and anger.  But in the coming days, I hope and pray that our community will organize and take action.  Abortion will be illegal in Idaho within one month.  As Rabbi Tarfon taught: “The day is short and the task is great.  It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

 Many years ago, when I was president of the local chapter of Planned Parenthood, I attended a national conference that featured older clergy who had run underground abortion networks to assist women in the days before Roe.  I was deeply impressed with their courage—and now, I believe we will all need to muster our own.  I hope and pray that we at CABI, as an inclusive and egalitarian Jewish community, will find ways—legal, and if necessary, illegal too—to help women who need abortions and secure, again, reproductive rights for all Idahoans and Americans.

 

Shabbat shalom-

 

Rabbi Dan

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Portion Naso: Bringing Heaven [Back] to Earth



In this week’s Torah portion, Naso, Moses concludes the long labor of building the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that will thereafter serve as an abode for the Divine Presence throughout the forty-year wilderness journey.  The opening of the seventh chapter of Numbers acknowledges this occasion: It came to pass on the day that Moses finished setting up the tabernacle. . . . In its plain sense, the text is simply announcing the completion of a sacred construction project. 

But the Rabbis offer a very different—and beautifully creative—understanding of the verse.  Noting that the Hebrew word usually translated as “finished”—kallot—can also be rendered as “bride,” they interpret the passage as: It came to pass on the bridal day that Moses brought the Divine Abode back to earth.  In this reading, the day of the tabernacle’s dedication marks a miraculous occasion that had never before happened in human history: God’s Presence descended from heaven and took up residence in this world—thanks to the labor of Moses.  Or, to stick with the metaphor, God and humanity are united in a kind of holy marriage.

The midrash describes the scene as a drama of cosmic restoration.  It begins with the Creation, when God fills the world, continues through a series of human failures that exile the Divine Presence, and concludes with seven leaders whose righteous deeds “re-marry” that Presence to the earthly realm:

At the beginning of time, the root of the Presence was fixed in the regions of the earth below.  After Adam sinned, the Presence withdrew to the first heaven.  After Cain, the Presence withdrew from the first heaven to the second.  The sin of the generation of Enosh drove the Presence from the second to the third.  The generation of the flood arose and sinned; the Presence withdrew from the third heaven to the fourth.  The generation of the dispersion of Babel arose and sinned; the Presence withdrew from the fourth heaven to the fifth.  The generation of Sodom and Gomorrah made the Presence withdraw from the fifth to the sixth.  The generation of Egypt in the days of Moses arose; the Presence withdrew from the sixth to the seventh.

Corresponding to these wicked, seven righteous arose and brought the Presence back to the earth.  Our father Abraham arose and by his merit it would later draw from the seventh to the sixth.  Isaac’s merit brought it from the sixth heaven to the fifth.  Jacob arose and his merit would bring the Presence from the fifth to the fourth.  Levi arose: from the fourth to the third.  Kohath arose: from the third heaven back to the second.  Amram (Moses’ father) arose: the merit he earned brought the presence back from the second heaven to the first.  Moses arose: he brought the Presence back to the earth.

With one significant revision—which would be to expand the list of righteous to include women and non-binary people—this ancient story might serve as a powerful metaphor for the labor of our own lifetimes.  In a world that feels badly broken—where the Holy One often seems very far away—it is our calling to restore the Divine Presence through deeds of justice, compassion and love.

Conversation Question: What might you do this week to help make the world a more “godly”place?


Monday, May 23, 2022

Idaho Statesman Column May 2022: Combatting the Hateful Ideology of "The Great Replacement"



An African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina

Synagogues in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Poway, California

Two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand

A Walmart patronized by Latino immigrants in El Paso, Texas

And a supermarket in a black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York

What do these diverse sites share in common?

They’ve all been the targets of homicidal gunmen espousing a white supremacist ideology known as “The Great Replacement.”  That loathsome conspiracy holds that liberal elites—usually identified as Jews and their allies—are systematically plotting to destroy white Christian nations by “replacing” the dominant population with non-white immigrants, Muslims, and other people of color.  This xenophobic, racist, and antisemitic poison permeates the manifestos that the killers commonly cite as motivation for their murderous crimes.

So how should people of conscience respond to this deadly and despicable creed?  That’s a difficult question that I suspect we’ll be wrestling with for quite some time to come. Tonight, I’d like to offer just two brief suggestions.

First, we should hold politicians and the media responsible for the consequences of their public pronouncements—for let there be no doubt, words can and do kill. As Proverbs 18:21 teaches: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” History confirms this truth.  For four centuries the language of colonialist ideology fueled the genocide of indigenous peoples and the mass enslavement of black Africans.  And less than a hundred years ago, the words of demagogues like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao led directly to the deaths of tens of millions.  Today, the language of white supremacy is indisputably fueling murder—and one need not be a liberal to recognize that the lethal rhetoric is not limited to Klansmen and neo-Nazis.  To quote Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney, “GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and antisemitism.  History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse.”

It is long past time to call to account mainstream purveyors of The Great Replacement theory such as Tucker Carlson and Fox News, Donald Trump, Elise Stefanik, JD Vance, and far too many Idaho leaders and legislators including, but alas not limited to, Janice McGeachin, Priscilla Giddings, Heather Scott, and the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

And second, let us learn to set aside any and all of our own petty grievances with one another and the rest of our potential allies in defense of simple decency.  Now is the time to unite, to be upstanders, to strengthen and support each other. For while the racists’ bizarre ravings are wrong about almost everything, the one grain of truth they contain is that we who are committed to equity and inclusion are, indeed, inextricably bound together.  Our fates are, for better or worse, intricately interwoven in a web of common cause—not, as the haters would have it, as co-conspirators nefariously plotting to replace white Americans but rather as co-workers in the sacred labor of securing liberty and justice for all.

As Hillel taught: If we are not for ourselves, who will be for us?  If we are only for ourselves, what are we?  And if not now, when?


Sunday, May 8, 2022

Portion Emor: How the Light Gets In

The opening chapter of this week’s Torah portion, Emor, contains a long list of physical handicaps that disqualify a biblical kohen/priest from offering sacrifices.  As Leviticus 21:17 commands: “No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God.”  

This passage should trouble us.  Why should blindness or broken bones or any of the other “imperfections” enumerated in our text exclude one from fulfilling their priestly duties?  Most of our commentators suggest that handicapped priests might distract the worshippers from concentrating on the ritual and distort the image of the sanctuary as a flawless place reflecting God’s own perfection.  But no priest—indeed, no human being—is faultless or unblemished.  The standards in our portion seem more reflective of human prejudices than divine ideals.

Thankfully, this did not become the Jewish norm.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner notes: “In later texts, in the Psalms and the prophets, the Bible emphasizes that the broken in body and spirit, because they have been cured of the sin of arrogance, are especially welcome before God.  True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; Holy One, you will not despite a contrite and crushed heart (Psalm 51:19)

Indeed, the very name of our portion—Emor—which means “Speak!”—reminds us that Moses himself is handicapped in just this area, describing himself as slow of speech and tongue.  The path to healing begins with the recognition that we are all broken.  As Leonard Cohen famously put it in his song, “Anthem”: There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.

Conversation Question:

In his musical interpretation of the traditional morning blessing giving thanks for our bodies, Dan Nichols writes: I’m perfect the way I am, and a little broken, too.

How might we express gratitude for the way we are, while also acknowledging our brokenness?


Sunday, April 17, 2022


In our liturgy, Pesach is known as z’man cheiruteinu, the time of our freedom.  We celebrate our liberation from bondage in Mitzrayim, our places of narrowness, constriction and pain.  But what are we really talking about when we talk about freedom?

In her new book, Freedom: An Unruly History, historian Annelien De Deijn notes that in far right-wing America, the word has become a kind of catchphrase for the so-called “rights” of individuals to do just about whatever they want: own and openly carry assault rifles, ignore public health mandates, refuse to accept the results of a free and fair election, and brazenly bully teachers, healthcare providers and government workers.  This understanding shamelessly ignores the second half of the traditional American pledge of “liberty and justice for all,” reducing freedom to selfish individual indulgence that almost always privileges the powerful over the people.

This perspective is insidious, perilous and ultimately nonsensical, because absolute freedom for some always comes at the expense of others.  To live in genuine community with our neighbors is, by definition, to consider their concerns and limit our own desires for the sake of the common good.  Those who flaunt their personal freedom over public health concerns are, in fact, curtailing the freedom of their neighbors.  Organizations that tout themselves as promoting “freedom” in education are, instead, purveyors of an academic and ethical ignorance that diminishes us all.

In Jewish tradition, freedom is never an absolute right; it is, instead, a necessary pre-requisite for the exercise of moral responsibility.  For us, there is no liberty without justice.  This is why, beginning on the second night of Pesach and counting forty-nine days until the festival of Shavuot, we count the omer, numbering each day from the time of our liberation until the moment we receive the Torah on Mount Sinai.  That gift of Torah is the whole point of our freedom—God breaks the shackles of Egyptian bondage so that we might take upon our ourselves—and thereby teach the rest of the world—the centrality of a binding covenant that defines what it means to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

I write this on the very first day of the counting of the omer.  I pray that as we journey toward Sinai, together, we might recommit ourselves to our tradition’s understanding of freedom as an ethical obligation to care for one another and bring healing to our broken world.

Moadim L’Simchah—a continued joyous and meaningful Pesach.

 Conversation Question:

How might you best exercise your freedom as we move from Pesach toward Shavuot?


Sunday, April 10, 2022

Pesach: Affliction and Liberation

I am fascinated by contronyms—words that are both synonyms and homonyms.  By way of example, the phrase “to dust” can mean either to sprinkle with fine particles—think, “a dusting of snow”—or to remove such particles.  An “apology” can be both an admission of guilt or a defense of one’s actions.  And to “cleave” is either to join closely or to split apart.  There’s something fascinating about a word that contains such opposing understandings.

Symbolically, matzah—the central symbol of the forthcoming holiday of Pesach—is also a kind of contronym.  In Exodus 12:39, Torah teaches that we eat matzah because, upon leaving Egypt, our ancestors moved so hastily they did not have time for their dough to rise.  Yet, in fact, those same ancestors actually consumed matzah before leaving Egypt, on the night of the Passover itself, at the first seder (see Exodus 12:8).   In other words, matzah represents both slavery and freedom.  We affirm this duality at our own seders, where we describe the matzah as both lachma anya—the bread of affliction—and the symbol of our liberation.

This paradox serves as a reminder that life is complicated.  As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously noted, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

As we approach Passover, known by our tradition as z’man cheyruteynu, the season of our liberation, we feel this challenge intensely.  News services, social media, and often our own life experiences constantly remind us that the world is filled with brokenness, injustice, brutality and pain.  Yet spring calls us to hope, nonetheless—which compels us to do our small but significant part to bring healing. May we soon experience our bread of affliction as a feast of freedom.

Chag samayach v’kasher—a joyous and kosher celebration.  

Conversation Question:

What experiences of affliction and hope will you bring to this year’s seder?