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Updates from Rabbi Jeff Pivo (updated 7/21/2020 @ 10PM)

To our EBJC members:

We have been suddenly and nearly completely isolated from each other over the past several weeks. During the worldwide health crisis, this page will be where I offer sources for learning and inspiration. See my messages below for thoughts on being a Jew during a crisis.

 

Thoughts on Artificial Intelligence (AI)

 

[Posted 7/21/20:]

 

Greetings to all!

Last week I shared some of the reading I've been doing recently. The pandemic (and my current vacation) has also provided time to catch up on some well reviewed films. Three - Blade Runner, Her and Ex Machina - explore the theme of artificial intelligence, or AI. They force the view to ask what it means to be human in a time when computers are developing the ability to learn independently and to change their own programming. As such computers, or operating systems, become more complex, the films suggest that these non-human creations may soon develop independent feelings of love, hate, and personal agency.

These are the kind of issues that were once the province of science fiction alone. Now they verge on reality, and they raise important questions of Jewish values: If an AI can have feelings, a point of view, even beliefs, if they see themselves as "people," how do we relate to them? They are not human, yet they behave as if they are, and we may not be able to easily tell the difference. Racing toward this future, there are few precedents, Jewish or otherwise.

I got some nice responses last week. Although I can't respond to them all, I like hearing your thoughts.

And don't forget that Tisha b'Av is coming, and that we will have a special service on the evening of Wednesday July 29.

Take care,

Rabbi Pivo

Thoughts on Parshat Shelakh Lekha

 

[Posted 6/18/20:] In our monthly Monroe Lunch and Learn this week we studied the Shema, whose third paragraph is taken from parshat Shelakh Lekha. Like any prayer, the Shema means to shape our experience of the day, to remind us of our relationship with God and what obligations flow from that relationship. The Shema’s blessings, before and after its recitation, in turn shape how we understand the Shema itself, as they touch on themes of God’s creative power, God’s love, and God’s redemption. Reciting Shema twice daily is a wonderful way to affirm that Jews see ourselves as part of God’s world, and that we are grateful for it.


Expanding on the theme of prayer’s purpose, we should also remember that our sages suggest a one hundred blessing day as being ideal. That sounds like a lot, but if you add up the twice daily recitation of Shema, and the three times a day we say Amidah, you’re well on your way. Adding in blessings before and after foods throughout the day, as well as the other blessings recited during services, a hundred blessings is not such a high bar.


One blessing that can help us reach the number 100 a day is “Asher yatzar,” the words one says when coming out of the bathroom. It thanks God for creating the complex systems of the body: Things that should open at the proper time and things that should stay closed at the proper time. Without the proper regulation of these functions, it would be impossible to survive. While that may sound funny, women who have given birth, and men over the age of 50 can tell you that urinating at the proper time, and not at other times, is no laughing matter. OK, it is kind of funny. But the point is that our tradition is aware of this very human experience, and that the sages are trying to turn what could be an embarrassment into an opportunity for gratitude. Over the last two months, we have all been reminded of how much gratitude we should have for well functioning bodies. In such a time, maybe one thing we should be grateful for is the very capacity to be grateful.

Thoughts on Parshat Beha'alotcha

 

[Posted 6/11/20:] Light is a near universal symbol of the positive: The light of justice, the light of truth, the light of love and of good. Parshat Beha'alotcha begins by describing the lighting of the menorah. The seven branched menorah of the ancient mishkan, and later the Jerusalem Temple, provided light to the Kohanim who offered the sacrifices, illuminating sacred space.

 

Just as the menorah lit up the mishkan and the Temple, it continued to light the path to freedom in every Jewish generation. The Maccabees took the menorah as the symbol of their fight against oppression; the modern state of Israel adopted the menorah as an official representation of the light the new nation would shed on the world.


In every age it has not been enough to wish for the menorah of righteousness to be reignited; we have always had to struggle and fight to make it burn. Every one of us must do all we can to ignite it, not only for ourselves, but for all humanity. Our choices as Jews will douse the flame if we stand idly over the blood of our neighbors, or stoke the flames of righteousness when we speak out on behalf of all who suffer. It is incumbent upon each one of us to choose the light of righteousness, of equality, and of peace.

Thoughts on Summer 2020

 

[Posted 6/2/20:] Last night our family watched The Band’s Visit , a touching film about an Egyptian
military band stranded in a backwater town in Israel. As the Egyptians and their Israeli hosts
spend their afternoon and evening together, they begin to make small points of contact with each
other. In one home, members of the band and their hosts begin to sing “Summertime,” from
Porgy and Bess : “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy/Fish are jumpin’/and the cotton is
high./Your daddy’s rich/And your mamma’s good lookin’/So hush little baby/Don’t you cry.” It
goes on: “One of these mornings/You’re going to rise up singing/Then you’ll spread your
wings/And you’ll take to the sky/But ‘til that morning/There’s nothing can harm you/With daddy
and mamma standing by.”


The tension in the song, meant to be an aria but sung more like the blues, comes from the
conflict between an idealized summer’s day and the reality outside the song. Summer days are
when schools let out, children play, vacations begin. But as we are seeing play out in the streets
of a hundred American cities, summertime can also be the breeding ground for disease, as well
as joblessness, hopelessness, and violence. As the temperature in America continues to rise, we
need the Jewish values of peace and justice to guide us, even as we acknowledge our national
failure to ensure those values for all Americans.


I often think of Dr. Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel together, not
only because of their friendship and mutual admiration for one another, but also because their
thoughts on justice so often coincide. In the fall 1967, Dr. King gave a speech following summer
rioting in Detroit in which he defined those riots as a kind of desperate attempt to get the
country’s attention. He did not justify their violence, but rather attempted to understand it. For

his part, Rabbi Heschel famously said that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are
responsible. I take him to mean that while few people actually commit the crimes that seem to
continually plague us, our shared acquiescence in the face of decades of injustice implicates us
all.


This week’s violence is the result of sins that have become so deeply embedded in our
society that we no longer even recognize their evil until its victims rise up in anger. Jews know
that the Exodus would have been impossible without the destruction that the plagues brought; but
the plagues do not bring us joy. It seems that only through the crucible of our own suffering that
we are able to understand the suffering of others. Nevertheless, our plea now is for peaceful
demonstration in order to pursue equality, understanding in order to banish mistreatment, love in
order to vigorously pursue the Torah’s words: “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof,” “Justice, justice shall you
pursue.” Summer is now here, and we pray for the living to be easier.

 

Thoughts on Parashat Naso 5780

 

[Posted 6/3/20:] In Parashat Naso this week we read about the ritual of the Sotah, a woman accused of marital infidelity, where proof of her innocence or guilt is lacking. The Torah demands that a ritual be performed that will miraculously reveal the truth. This was seen as the only way to get to the truth, in the absence of witnesses or admissions of guilt. The Talmud reports that Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, the leading sage of the late first century CE, banned the practice of the sotah ritual. The reason was that marital infidelity had become so common, that it was impossible to believe that no one would have known such a sin.

 

This week the country is aflame. When a police officer causes someone’s death, not in self defense, but because of deeply ingrained prejudices they no longer recognize as wrong, sin has been normalized. When such deaths affect mainly one segment of America, black and brown Americans, and they continue year in and year out over decades, we must admit that the sin of such murders has become so widespread that it escapes serious notice, that it has become normal.

 

But Americans have risen up against this sin, again as in the past, and `seem unwilling to stand idle over the blood of their neighbor. And those who have been protesting this week, of all ethnicities, in cities all over the country, are demanding justice. That demand is founded, in part, on acknowledging that we all share in the sin of ignoring justice. While some small number of police officers are bigots who react violently to minorities, the majority of us have allowed them to continue to injure and kill people whose main offense appears to be their race. We are all implicated in the death of George Floyd, and until we all insist that such deaths are totally unacceptable, and compel the legal system to live up to its own law, we will continue to be implicated.

 

We need to awaken from the dream that equality has been achieved in America. It is time for us to face our history and make real the ideals upon which the country was founded: The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These are also Jewish values, and we dare not exempt ourselves from making them a reality for all Americans.

 

Thoughts on Parashat Bamidbar 5780

 

[Posted 5/22/20:] This week we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah, Bemidbar/Numbers. While the book’s Hebrew name encompasses the many events during our ancestors’ years in the wilderness, the meaning of “Bemidbar,” the English name reflects the first event presented in the book, a census. The counting of people was, and remains, an important way of measuring the nation’s capacities. In this case, the purpose of counting was to know how many fighting men could be counted on to defend the Israelites. But counting people is never simply a mechanical process; who is counted, and how, and what we do with that information is tightly connected to the values beneath the count.

 

In any number of areas, counting people leads to the apportionment of resources. When the government takes the census every ten years, the numbers it yields lead directly to how assistance from the government is distributed. The number of people in each state is used to calculate the number of seats allotted to that state in the House of Representatives. And in the current pandemic, data drawn from various agencies about the number of sick, dead, recovered, tested, and so on, has serious consequences for the entire nation.

 

In each of these scenarios, there is an underlying set of ethics: fairness, obligation of government to citizens, and of citizens to one another, to name a few. Just as the census of the Israelites was established in order to obligate the people of each family and clan to every other in the larger nation, we too have a responsibility to look beyond our individual circumstances to the nation at large. As Americans, that means feeling, and acting on, our responsibility for every other American, as well as others who live in the country. Most people understand this. Beyond the heroics of health care professionals, who are risking their lives to save others, each of us must take up the call to be counted, and be counted on, and it is incredibly inspiring to see just how many are doing so, from delivering food to checking in on neighbors, to forming local cooperatives to see to the needs of those who are truly in need. Counting ourselves in, we show just how much we count.

Thoughts on Behar-Bechukotai 5780

 

[Posted 5/14/20:] A few months ago, it would have been hard to imagine how so many areas of life could simultaneously be thrown into chaos. We would have been shocked that human health and economies the world over could so quickly collapse, resulting in so many sick, so many dead, so many jobs and businesses destroyed.

 

Then again, if we have paid attention to the Torah’s warnings of societal collapse, our current circumstances seem not only unremarkable but perhaps inevitable. In this week’s double Torah reading of Behar/Bechukotai, the most compelling section is certainly the tochechah, the lengthy exhortation by God listing the terrible consequences of ignoring or consciously violating God’s laws. Reading that list is something like reading headlines from today’s media: widespread sickness and death, the destruction of food supplies; a breakdown in civil order; panic and fear replacing comfort and trust. And while the tochechah is framed in the Torah and early rabbinical sources as God’s punishment for failure to obey divine law, in our time those literal understandings no longer hold.

 

Modern Jews do not, and should not, understand the devastation of a pandemic as God’s punishment. That kind of thinking reverts to the biblical understanding that all actions in the natural world are solely the will of God, in response to human actions. As we have learned through centuries of scientific discovery, the natural world’s laws are not rooted in ethics, and we cannot ascribe God’s intent to either reward or punish us through earthquake, flood, feast, famine, or pandemic.

 

To be blunt: What we are going through now is not due to divine punishment; those who are suffering from the pandemic are not individually culpable of sins against God. But taken in the aggregate, we can still learn something from the tochechah , which is that humanity will never be safe in the world until humanity begins to truly respect the laws of nature. We cannot continue to ignore the negative effects of our behavior on the planet, and we cannot continue to give short shrift to the science that will help us better understand how God’s world works, and how to live in concert with that world.


Over the centuries, Judaism has become a faith rooted in intelligence. We are the people who see God’s work in human discoveries in every field, and we pride ourselves on getting the facts and acting on them. When newly discovered facts conflict with old ideas, we incorporate those facts into our understanding of God and the world. More than ever, this year the tochechah should remind us of our dependence upon the natural world and our responsibility for it. It is a prod to learn to live with integrity in the world, and with humility.

Thoughts on Remote Services

 

[Posted 4/17/20:] Our lives have been upended in so many ways since the beginning of March. We will certainly never forget the spring of 2020. Jewish life is no exception. All around the country, and the world, rabbis are trying to balance Jewish tradition with the need of the hour. I want our members to know that the religious services we are currently providing online are the outcome of serious research and discussion by myself and Cantor, drawing on the advice of the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue, as well as our own sense of what Jewish law demands of us, and the best practices for EBJC at this time.

 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that religion is not expediency. What is right is not always what is easy. Our actions should reflect our deepest values as Jews, especially in a time of crises. We have a long history of rabbinic rulings during a sha’ah hadchak, a pressing time, during which leniencies about Jewish law are permitted for the duration of an emergency. On that basis, we have been streaming services both on a weekday basis and on Shabbat and Yom Tov, which we would not typically do, in order to provide a sense of continuity and connection during this difficult time. Should the global shutdown continue for months, I am open to revisiting how to go forward, but for the time being, our services will operate on the following guidelines:

  • Social distancing is a matter of pikuach nefesh, the Jewish value of preserving life. On that basis it is not safe to gather in a single space for minyan. As a result, lacking an in-person minyan, we will continue to pray as individuals, omitting communal prayers that require a minyan, such as any form of kaddish, or a repetition of any Amidah.
  • Mourner’s kaddish: Many of us are obligated, or feel moved, to recite this kaddish. In the absence of a minyan, we are reciting the individual’s kaddish, composed by Rav Amram Gaon in the 9th century, the head of the talmudic academy at Sura. Rav Amram’s prayer responded to the need to fulfill our obligations, even when we are unavoidably prevented from doing so, and we are following his practice.
  • Shabbat and Yom Tov services: Cantor and I have designed morning services which retain as much of the traditional liturgy as possible, keeping in mind the challenge of following a lengthy service remotely. We have shortened pesukei d’zimra to its most important elements, limited Torah readings and read them from a chumash instead of a Torah scroll, and read Torah and haftarah without blessings. Such readings are like study, so both men and women can do them.

Havdalah Services

 

Beginning 4/4, EBJC will come together for Havdalah on Saturday nights.

We are looking for volunteers to lead this service on different Saturdays.

Please speak to Rabbi Pivo or Cantor Larry if you're interested in volunteering.

Logistics for Havdalah this week can be found on the Online Events Page.

Tue, August 11 2020 21 Av 5780