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Updates from Rabbi Jeff Pivo (updated 9/23/2020)

 

To our EBJC members:

During the worldwide health crisis, this page will be where I offer sources for learning and inspiration. See my messages below for words of Torah and updates on services.

 

Sermon for the First Day of Rosh Hashanah, 5781

We will never forget 2020. Twenty years hence, we will look back at this moment as either the year when everything drastically changed for good, or as the year when we thought it would. It is not only the horror of a global pandemic, which has already sickened 30 million people worldwide, and killed close to a million, which will linger in memory. America is verging on the kind of upheaval we have not seen in fifty years. There are many expressions of that upheaval: Protests on the left and right, violence committed by police, and against police, athletes taking a knee during the national anthem, the status of Confederate monuments and military bases named after Confederate leaders, and even the design of Mississippi’s state flag.

What connects every one of these issues, the thread that weaves them together into a tapestry of despair, is race. Even the pandemic, which knows only human hosts, not their ethnicity, impacts black and brown Americans more harshly than white ones. More than two hundred and fifty years after the founders wrote slavery into the foundation of the republic, and over a hundred and fifty years after the conclusion of a Civil War that ended slavery, we are still struggling to undo the damage of racism.

            When race and civil rights are the singular issue of the day, it is only proper that we consider our place in all of this as American Jews. Jewish historians agree: there has been no better place to be Jewish than in America since the fall of the Jerusalem Temple in the first century. As a group, Jews have succeeded far beyond what our numbers would suggest, in every field of endeavor and, despite the recent increase in antisemitic acts, it is still easier and safer to be a Jew in America than almost any other place in the world. (Tomorrow's talk will address Israel and Jewishness.) And yet, on the issue of race, we have not succeeded in grappling with the issue of race any more successfully than other Americans.

Recently, 600 Jewish synagogues, federations, and other Jewish institutions from around the country signed onto a large advertisement in the New York Times in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Among the signatories was Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, the CEO of both United Synagogue, representing our movement’s shuls, and the Rabbinical Assembly, representing its rabbis. That ad and the reaction to it around the Jewish world, have been...interesting. On the one hand, no Jew should take issue with the cause of fighting for civil rights for black Americans, for equal treatment under the law, for the rehabilitation of underserved minorities in America. Jews are the very definition of a minority, and so we have common cause with those issues, as well as a long religious tradition of fighting for the oppressed. On the other hand, Black Lives Matters, as an organization, has made statements, specifically in its 2016 charter, which run directly counter to some Jewish interests, specifically language directed against Israel.

In a group as large and varied as the Conservative movement, it is unsurprising that the reactions to the movement’s leadership supporting Black Lives Matter have varied. Some congregations and rabbis are supportive, some are opposed, and some like me, conflicted. But the issue of race in America is too important an issue to ignore. For American Jews, these High Holidays are an opportunity to think and talk about Jewish responses to racism, rooted in Jewish values and texts, and through the particular lens of Conservative Judaism. On these days, we are meant to reflect on the past in order to live more righteously in the future, and that obligation very much includes consideration of our beliefs and behaviors toward other people.

To put it starkly, the question we should be asking this year is: What is the proper Jewish response to issues related to race? We begin by looking to our past, to the texts that defined what it means to be a Jew. I’ve been wracking my brain this week to recall a single biblical or rabbinic teaching related to race; so far, I have failed to find even one. The distinctions Judaism makes between Jews and other people are not found in skin tone, but rather between those who attach themselves to God, to the Torah and its many subsidiary texts, and those who do not. Judaism, it hardly needs to be said, includes people of every ethnicity. There is a poster just outside the synagogue office displaying the many kinds of Jews to be found all over the world, people of every color and background. In that sense, Jews stand both inside and outside the problem of racism: as a group, some 6-10% of American Jews self-identify as Jews of Color. Their religion and race treats them to the double blessing of antisemitism and racism. Having said that, the other 90-94% of American Jews are white, and their (our) stance on racial issues varies according to region, country of origin, life experience and so on. So I restate the question: What Jewish values should guide white Jews in America? And now I’ll give you three.

The first value is a biblical one: Every human being is created in the image of God. We learn that from our shared descent from Adam and Eve in Bereshit, as well as from the rabbinic commentaries which teach us the reason for that shared genealogy: So that no one can claim that their lineage is greater than another’s. Pre-biblical codes ranked punishments for crimes which were inversely dependent on class: the lower your social standing, the higher the penalty. If we learn anything from the transition to monotheism in the Torah, it is that all individuals are judged by their actions, not by their race or wealth. Engaging in self-reflection, how many of us grew up in households that used a term for blacks no longer acceptable in polite conversation. It doesn’t begin with an ‘N’; it begins with a Shin. Do I have to say it?  That word was never value-neutral. Like other racial epithets it was certainly used to indicate people who were defined by their skin, and found to be lacking the same kind of humanity we claimed for ourselves. This year, we engage in racial teshuvah by relearning the Jewish value that every human being is created in God’s image, and that our responsibility as Jews is to treat every human being as our equal.

The second Jewish value that informs our approach to race in America is justice. Saying that black Americans have an equal right to education, jobs, and the choice of where to live - even in the suburbs! - is necessary but not sufficient. The Torah teaches us: Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof/justice, justice shall you pursue… Not give lip service to justice, not to compliment ourselves on our own righteousness, but to actively pursue it, even when the path is difficult and the opposition fierce. Giving our money, our time and our voice to the cause of equality is basic to any definition of what a Jew is. This year, we engage in racial teshuvah by committing ourselves to those causes, and organizations that work toward the goal of equality. This brings us back to Black Lives Matters, and our movement’s support of it, and will also lead us to a third primary Jewish value.

The vast majority of individuals who march in protest under the banner of Black Lives Matter do so out of a conviction for the cause of equal rights. Jewish or not, they are taking to the streets in dissent of practices which devalue lives on account of race. Most neither know or would even care that some of the leaders of that movement are also Marxists, antisemites or anti-Israel, because those facts are, for them, totally irrelevant to the fight in which they have taken a stand. For the Jews that support Black Lives Matter, the cause of racial justice is more important than any individual’s view about Jews. We should not sweepingly paint hundreds of thousands of protesters, in dozens of cities around the country, as antisemitic or supportive of anti-Jewish causes because they march under that banner,. At the same time, those Jews who are attuned to the antisemitic or anti-Israel thread of that organization can equally claim to fight for racial justice, without supporting the organization itself. This year, we will engage in racial teshuvah by acknowledging a shared Jewish opposition to unequal racial treatment, while also admitting that there are different paths to that end. Those who wish to do so through an organization like Black Lives Matter should do so, and those who share the goal but find that organization a flawed or offensive vehicle for the cause should find other ways, without judgement in either direction. That is pluralism in action.

Does that formula sound familiar? It should. I am very proud to say that EBJC is a model for how to identify shared goals, with tolerance for those who approach the goals from different perspectives. It has been part of my High Holiday sermons each of the last three years, but tolerance for difference has driven my rabbinate since I came here. We have lived out a program of expanding egalitarian access to the bimah, and for women being counted in a minyan, for those who wish to behave like the other 99% of Conservative congregations in America. But we have not done so at the expense of those who remain committed to more traditional definitions of Jewish obligations and prayer. We have introduced a new, 45 year old mahzor, yet we also encourage those who prefer a different one to use it.

This has been a personal journey for me, in the opposite direction. I have always claimed to be a pluralist, to be tolerant of forms of Judaism not my own. The main minyan at the Seminary is egalitarian, but if the small traditional minyan needed help, I and others would show up to help. But being here has tested the parameters of my pluralism. I had to learn, to grow, to do teshuvah, in order to expand my pluralism to include a more traditional form of worship. Now that we have gone through that experience together, we know that it is a challenge; we also know that by emphasizing shared goals: the continuing existence of the shul, a shared presence in this building, an opportunity for different expressions of the same devotion to God and community, we have succeeded.

That is the model we will now apply as we, as a congregation, think and talk about race. We will not be distracted by arguments over which organization is best equipped to wage the battle. We will not be thwarted by those who would rather engage in character assassination than address real issues. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof: we will engage each other this year in an extended conversation about race in America from a Jewish perspective, as I now announce a series of discussions among our members that I will moderate on this very topic. As with our other adult classes, we will begin after Simhat Torah, and invite all points of view to be heard and rebutted. I look forward to continuing this conversation with all of you, founded on affection for one another, and understood through the Jewish values of being created in the image of God, equal justice under the law, and tolerance for views not our own. This should be fun.

Revisiting our past year, we seek honesty with ourselves in order to live righteous lives. That is why we’re here...or at home viewing this on a screen. As we begin these Yamim Nora’im, these ten days of repentance together, let’s use them to realize our potential for changing ourselves in order to change the world.

L’Shanah tovah tikateivu; may you be written in the Book of Life.

Rabbi Pivo

Sermon for the Second Day of Rosh Hashanah 5791

 

Israel and the New Middle East

 

            For many years now I have avoided in-depth discussions about Israel and our relationship to it, for the simple reason that no matter what I might say, I know I would offend half my audience. It has been so long since Jews have had unambiguously good news about the Middle East and Israel’s place in it that I have stuck to only the most bland public statements, those certain to please everybody: buy Israel Bonds, visit Israel as often as you can, put a coin in the blue box. But, as with so many other things in 2020, this year is different, and I want to share some thoughts about Israel.

            In just the last few weeks, two Arab states, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have taken the first steps in formally recognizing Israel and establishing normal diplomatic relations. Establishing direct commercial flights, leaders shaking hands at the White House, turning their former quiet cooperation into a proud new alliance, this was a big deal. It should surprise no one if other Arab states soon follow. The time has finally come when the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians will no longer veto the foreign policy of the Arab nations toward Israel, when each of them will act according to its national and regional interests. For Israel, the Emirates, and Bahrain, this is nothing but positive. Added to the earlier relocation of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, this has been a very good year for signposts of normalcy in the Middle East.

            The larger question is what it all means. The Emirates and Bahrain, we should admit, are small states that in no way threaten Israel. The new agreements do not end a war, and it is far from clear what impact they will have on Israel’s most pressing conflict, that with the Palestinians. In some respects this looks more like an arms deal than a peace deal. What the agreements certainly suggest is a welcome shift in Arab thinking on Israel. With one major exception, the Arab world is moving away from belligerent talk of Israel as an interloper, a foreign presence in the Middle East. Like most foreign policy decisions, this one emerges from the national interests of all the parties: International recognition and normalization for Israel; access to Israeli science, arms, and markets for the others. With the world’s slow pivot away from oil, Arab countries know it is in their interests to diversify, to provide their people with modern educations and jobs, and to ally themselves with Israel’s military might in common defense against that one exception I mentioned: Iran.

            The simple fact of the matter is that several Arab countries are far more concerned with Iran than they are with Israel. Iran’s long history of destabilizing its neighbors in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, as well as its demonizing of Israel, have been consistent over decades. Iran sponsors almost all the terrorism in the region. And so now a new regional alliance is emerging: Israel and Iran’s Arab foes look to become an alliance, one that will share business, intelligence and military interests.

The Emirates and Bahrain are welcome partners with Israel. But it is likely that they are only a trial run for the truly historic possibility of normalizing the Israeli-Saudi relationship. Like the others, the Saudis have long had a quiet, supportive relationship with Israel, even during the days when all Arab states were officially denouncing it. If the Saudis join this emerging coalition, Israel’s future in the region will be one of national mutual security, increased business, and increased peace. For Jews the world over, this historic shift should be welcomed and applauded. We are witnessing a new chapter in the history of the modern Middle East, one in which Israel will be a welcomed partner, with new Arab allies against its most pernicious foe, Iran.

What all this means for Israel’s closest Arab neighbors, the Palestinians, is less clear. These recent agreements, and those which will certainly follow, break the grip of Palestinians in determining regional issues. No longer will the Israeli-Palestinian conflict be the first step to any other agreement. After years in which the fate of the Palestinians’ national aspirations have slipped to the back burner, then off the stove entirely for the Arab states, other issues, and a more pragmatic approach, have changed the context. Whether through strategic brilliance or dumb luck, Israel’s decades long approach to the Palestinian conflict has borne fruit.

But political and historical analysis isn’t a sermon. My purpose today is to help us frame these positive developments for Israel in Jewish terms. Israel’s founding was meant to create a homeland for any Jew who wanted or needed it. For many American Jews, pride in the Jewish state and support for it has been diminished by its government’s treatment of non-violent Palestinians, by the rabbinate’s control over what kind of Judaism is permitted in Israel, as well as a stranglehold on all rites related to Jewish marriage, divorce, adoption, and burial, and the corruption that inevitably follows religious parties’ inclusion in an otherwise secular government. These are the sins that Jews in both Israel and America have long decried, not because they are anti-Israel or antisemitic, but because they want the Jewish state to be infused with the Jewish values of human dignity and religious freedom. As the new Middle East takes form, those pushing for change within Israel may now have opportunities to demand that Israel live up to its founding ideals of freedom and equality for all its inhabitants, regardless of religion, race, or sex. As existential threats diminish, matters of injustice within Israel might gain a higher profile.

But Israel will never reach its full potential until it ends its conflict with the Palestinians. I do not blame Israel for the failure to end it; but the issue now is not responsibility for past failures, but rather how to move forward in the new Middle East. The Jewish approach, of which we are most cognizant on these High Holidays, must include an honest accounting of past errors, and a determination to end conflict for the good of all. That requires Israel to engage in national teshuvah. We may be rapidly approaching an era of normalization between Israel and many of its Arab neighbors; it is in Israel’s interest to find a peaceful outcome with the Palestinians as Israel’s pool of allies grows. Four million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza cannot forever be a stateless people with limited control over their own lives. If Israel can make peace with its neighbors, it can certainly do so with the Palestinians. The High Holidays are a chance to look at the world as it is today, not as it was even a year ago. As circumstances change, we adjust our expectations of what is possible. In order for Israel to be fully at peace, fully embraced by its neighbors, and fully live up to its own best hopes, it must solve the Palestinian conflict. Ironically, it may be the loss of their veto over Arab states that also moves the Palestinians to do some teshuvah of their own, to find a way to yes before the neighborhood, and the world leaves them behind.

Finally, by normalizing their relationship with former adversaries, Israel can extinguish the wrongheaded, misguided, and hateful BDS movement. Opening a new chapter in the region’s history, Israel can finally be the light to the nations which our prophets foresaw. Free and powerful in its land, a leader in its region, and an exemplar for how a pluralistic, democratic nation behaves in the modern world. Our prayer these High Holidays is that Israel continues to thrive, continues to expand and formalize its circle of friends, and finds the path to a true and lasting peace. I also note how quickly Jews will now have to delete from our vocabulary “The Arabs.” Our teshuvah should excise this bit stereotyping from our own lexicon. After seventy plus years of war, terror, and diplomacy, the Middle East has begun a rapid transformation. We should all celebrate this new chapter in Israel’s history, looking forward with hope for the future. This year, it is not too much to pray that the long Arab-Israeli conflict begins to resolve, so that the children of Abraham, Yishmael and Yitzhak, can once again come together, as brothers.

L’Shanah tovah tikateivu.

 

        Rabbi Pivo

 

Havdalah Services

 

EBJC will comes together for Havdalah every Saturday night.

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, September 29 2020 11 Tishrei 5781