Torah Mi Garden State

Reb Blog is now featured on My Jewish New Jersey! a nifty new portal of rabbinic rants from the capitol of golus.


Tragically Hip

Nextbook has got a little feature in their Religion section that riffs on my recent Revealer piece. (And while you are there, I recommend reading Shalom Auslander's wacky memoirs.)

Here's their comment:

Services for the Tragically Hip

Questionable efforts to make shul cool continue with indie rock rabbis and Synaplex, a program that organizes Saturday "Tour de Torah" bike rides and "Jewpardy" sessions. The WSJ's Naomi Schaefer Riley takes a critical look at the latter, and gets lambasted by Rabbi Daniel Brenner for arguing that the non-Orthodox need "consultants to sell their religion."


Amiri Baraka hearts Israel

Or maybe not. So last night I got in a public verbal scuffle with playwright/poet Amiri Baraka, who was speaking after his show The Dutchman at Cherry Lane Theater. Baraka, questioned by another audience member about his controversial 2001 poem once again repeated the fabrication that he "read" that 4,000 Israelis were told to "not go to work that day" -- he said that he read it in Ha'aretz and he could not understand why the Jewish people would not let him cite something that he read in an Israeli newspaper (online, so he says) and he said that "now that they are criticizing Carter maybe they'll leave me alone."

I told him that as a rabbi who assisted families in the days after 9/11, and met with many Jewish families at Chelsea Piers and the Armory during that week, that his poem was particularly hurtful. I told him that there was not a single Israeli or Jew that was told not to go to work. I also said that in a free scoiety that there is a place for being critical of Israel, but that his poem simply poured salt into open wounds and did more harm than good. It certainly failed to convince most people that the appropriate response to 9/11 was a critique of empire.

He responded that he had spoken with Foxman and "Nixon's Jewish lawyer" and that he had to prove that he was not an anti-semite and that it was all ridiculous because he was once married to a Jewish woman and his children are Jewish and he had Jewish friends....etc, etc. (He failed to mention that he abandoned his Jewish wife and kids around the same time the Dutchman was produced in 1963)

More importantly, what he did not do was admit that he might have been mistaken. Instead he choose to perpetrate his harmful conspiracy theory. I figure that at this point protecting his fabrication is a matter of pride.

So what did he "read"?

After 9/11 Hezbollah's Al-Manar television did run a report that was on the web which contained a twisted report based on the Israeli ministry's estimated number of Israelis who work in New York City. Rather than claim that 40,000 Israelis work in NYC, Al-Manar reported that 40,000 Israelis did not go to work.

My theory? Baraka got confused....Hezbollah- Ha'aratez...click...click...and a minute later he decides that Israel knew that it was going to happen and might even have been behind it.

The play, by the way, was well done. Baraka was once a great writer and he certainly absorbed Allen Ginsberg's style and transformed it in his own brilliant way.

But forty three years later he is simply a stubborn man with a myopic political vision whose dream of a Black Arts movement has become a faint footnote in history.



I was interviewed yesterday by Menachem Wecker for Iconia his blog about religion and art. I speak a bit about Ben Shahn, one of my favorite artists, and what 'religious art' means. To the left is a Shahn piece representing the three stages of a man's/dog's life. The eyes alone are riveting.


multifaith rabbi strikes again

The Jewish Week's Directions Magazine is running my latest piece on multifaith work. It is included in a collection of visions for the Jewish future. You can read it here.

A Bridge Across

About four years ago,the late Rabbi Balfour Brickner invited me up to the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue to meet with a small circle of his friends whom he affectionately dubbed “the woolly mammoths.” Sounds like a good name for a rock band, I thought. It was Balfour’s title for a nearly extinct species — octogenarian male religious leaders who could recall the street protests of the 1950s and ‘60s and hadn’t lost an ounce of righteous anger.

I recall the woolly mammoths because making any suggestion regarding the future of inter-religious relations begins with tracing their footsteps. I was grateful that these battle-scarred clergymen shared their life stories with me and offered me a window into America’s multifaith history. Born during the first great era of America’s interfaith awareness, they were accustomed to the ecumenical dialogues and Thanksgiving celebrations of the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

But during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the time when the woolly mammoths were freshly minted rabbis and ministers, they went from dialogue to activism. Most in my generation have heard of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s crossing of the cobblestone river of Broadway to speak with the tall steeple Protestants about the need to support civil rights and oppose the war in Vietnam. But he was not alone in crossing boundaries. All of the woolly mammoths had been arrested for acts of civil disobedience (Rabbi Brickner even got in trouble for a few scuffles with counter-protesters), and they had attended numerous prayer vigils and ecumenical gatherings in the name of combating racism, ending war, and promoting a more equitable social vision.

Fast-forward to my life as a rabbi who directs a center for multifaith education in Manhattan. Those tall steeple churches can hardly get a minyan. But hundreds of emergent Evangelical churches and Pentecostal revival halls are hopping. Muslims from Istanbul to Indonesia have established over 60 vibrant religious communities in New York, and Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists are all becoming significant players in the life of the city. At the same time, the political landscape has become increasingly complex, riddled with divisive issues such as how to respond to terror networks, how to navigate the culture wars over sexuality and reproduction and how to react to a growing population of undocumented workers. Building coalitions becomes difficult, especially when it is unclear to whom to speak.

Here is a test that I would not recommend actually conducting: Ask any Jewish person you know to name three rabbis in New York City. No problem. Ask them to name three local politicians or business leaders. No problem. Now ask them to name three non-Jewish religious leaders in New York City. My bet is that unless you are talking to a Jewish professional then you’ll have a hard time finding folks who can do it.

My point is this: At the same time that we are more integrated than ever into the life of this city, we are more segregated than ever — New York has a Jewish mayor but only a handful of Jewish kids now attend New York City public schools. The younger generation sees this vividly — the great success of having new Hillel buildings on college campuses also means that Jews have physically removed themselves from the other religious communities on campus. It is a mixed blessing. For all our love of promoting good inter-religious relations, and our desire that non-Jews understand Jewish history and Israel, we often place actual partnerships with non-Jews very low on our list of communal priorities.

So what should Jewish involvement in multifaith work look like in New York’s future?

First off, we need to learn from some of our success stories. The fact that there is no annual or even biannual meeting where lay leaders, rabbis, nonprofit professionals, teachers, and others who have built successful interfaith partnerships get together to address this issue is a glaring absence. We need major players to step up to the plate and contribute the creative thinking and resources to make this happen on a large scale.

Because New York’s religious diversity has radically expanded, a new effort to proactively locate and reach out to new communities is in order. Jewish organizations that focus on public affairs and community relations have limited time and resources. The real potential is to tap all Jewish institutions in New York that are open to new partnerships and encourage their lay and professional leaders to reach out to institutions from other religious traditions. We need to connect to Mexican Pentecostals, to Bangladeshi Muslims and to Sri Lankan Buddhists.

I envision that the Jewish Community Relations Council or a similar organization could launch a citywide effort to track and organize such partnerships and the Jewish press could devote a monthly section featuring the many different expressions of inter-religious bridge building. Ideally, efforts to reach out will be accompanied by an expansion of multifaith education across the Jewish curriculum. Adult education centers, like the Skirball Center, the 92nd Street Y, the JCC in Manhattan and others have already invited in both Muslims and Christians to speak.

This is a good first step. Now every Hebrew school and day school director should ask the question, “What are we teaching our students about the religious other? And why?” Often the most basic school projects — like one I heard about between Manhattan’s Heschel School and the Al-Iman School in Queens — can build meaningful ongoing relationships between communities. If we really desire to be understood by our neighbors and build a city where religious diversity is seen as an asset, then we need at least a hundred of these projects to be nourished.

Remember the righteous anger of the wooly mammoths? Their basic insight was that education and dialogue are not enough. Today, we must not let complex political issues get in the way of building inter-religious partnerships with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others that respond to the growing inequities in our city and our world. I’ve seen impressive efforts to reform the criminal justice system (I-CARE), to respond to disease (NY Alzheimer’s Association), and to address genocide (Save Darfur) that have harnessed inter-religious partnerships.

The more we build communal partnerships that advance shared social and political goals, the better position we will be in to work on the more divisive issues. That includes issues regarding human rights, economic disparity, sexuality, bioethics and citizenship, as well as issues regarding the safety, security and continued vitality of Jewish communities around the world and in Israel.

Finally, a hope. I envision multifaith engagement that not only transcends prejudice and social division but builds a renewed sense of civic responsibility. The civic pride I felt five years ago, as New York came together in the wake of 9/11, is one of the most powerful forces of community and good will that I have ever experienced. It reminded me of the words of Proverbs 11:11 “Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted.” When done right, multifaith work not only reconnects us to the wisdom of our own traditions, but renews our faith in our neighbors. In doing so, this work can give birth to a world in which our promises to care for one another are put into action.

Rabbi Brickner, who wrote a fantastic book on gardening two years before he died, would say that it is a good thing that many in the Jewish community have already tilled the soil and planted the seeds. Rather than let inter-religious tensions with Muslims, liberal Christians, conservative Christians and others mar the headlines of the future, it would be best for Jewish communities to water the seeds of these relationships and nurture a new crop.

The Revealer

Reb Blog is taking baby steps into the world of media criticism. I have a piece in The Revealer
today commenting on the idea of market consultant- speak making its way into the mouths of Jewish organization leaders. My piece is entitled: Consulting Jews? Thanks to Jeff Sharlet, the editor (and Buddha Killer) who runs the Revealer show.


Pharaoh's Daughter: a Midrash on Liberation

The Jewish Week is expanding their roster of rabbinic commentators and Reb Blog got called up to the plate this week. (thanks Jonathan)

Here's my drash on this week's Torah portion:

Shabbat Shemot

Revolution By The Nile: Defiance In The Global ‘Egypt’

Fifteen years ago, I was a passenger on a rusty bus headed out of Egypt. Like many of the young Jewish college kids who had found their way to Cairo on a tourist visa, my weeks in Egypt were a revelation to me. I saw thousands of families living in aluminum shacks in an old graveyard. I saw throngs of children impacted by water-borne diseases begging in the streets. I heard screams in the night during a power outage. That was all behind me as the bus winded its way through the Sinai and up ahead I could see blue and white flags waving in the mid-day desert sky. I was headed back home, back to the comfort of my friend’s apartment in Jerusalem, the cafĂ© on the corner, the cozy chair on the terrace.

The rise from poverty to wealth is one way we continue to view this week’s parsha. We read: “And they cried out to God because of the hard work” [Ex. 3:23], and we are thankful for the outstretched arm of the Holy One that allowed us to elevate our economic status from bottom rung worker to land of milk and honey homeowner. We lean on pillows and sip wine. But sitting on that porch chair, I couldn’t help but flashback to the thousands of poor Egyptians I saw, and wonder: When will they have an “Exodus” of their own?

This concern was at the heart of “liberation theology,” the title given to the South American Christian movement of the 1970s that had its roots in Marxism and used Exodus as a springboard for revolution. Exodus, for Peruvian priests like Gustav Gutierrez, was not about leaving for a promised land, but about transforming nations that had become “Egypt,” into something more than slave camps. Bob Marley sang in 1973: “Today they say that we are free, only to be chained in poverty. Good God, I think it’s illiteracy. It’s only a machine that makes money. Slave driver: the tables are turning!”

To say that Marxist revolutions have not produced such great results would be an understatement. But still, I read this week’s parsha and ask myself: Is there something written in our Torah that is not about leaving Egypt, but about transforming it?

I needed the 1,800-year-old comments of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai to realize that it is all there in Chapter Two. Chapter Two recalls how Yocheved, Moses’ mother, hides her child and then asks her daughter Miriam to place the boy in a basket on the river Nile. Then the text goes into crisp detail about Pharaoh’s daughter’s discovery of the child. And this is where Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai’s teachings come into play.

In the Babylonian Talmud, in Sotah 12b, Bar-Yochai asks: Why is Pharaoh’s daughter going down to the Nile? He states that she is going down to the Nile to both metaphorically and literally “cleanse herself of her father’s idolatry.” When she asks her servant to fetch the baby, her servants “warn her that she is violating her father’s decree.” And how does she respond? She miraculously “stretches out her own hand.”

I like to read this together with Ibn Ezra’s 12th century commentary on the verse “And she called his name Moshe, and she said: Because I pulled him out of the water” [Ex. 2:10]. First Ibn Ezra notes that the daughter of Pharaoh gives this adopted baby a Hebrew name, and clarifies that the name she chooses, Moshe, actually means “He who pulls.” Then Ibn Ezra suggests that either she “learned Hebrew or she asked a Hebrew about the name.” So, in other words, not only does she seek to cleanse her father’s idolatry and violate his decrees, but to name his grandson with the provocative Hebrew name “He who pulls.”

The 13th century French scholar Hizkiya Hizkuni understood this to be a bit of prophecy — she thinks that Moses will “pull” the Jewish people out of Egypt. But we might take his idea even further: Moses will also pull apart the system of oppression that suffocates Pharaoh’s daughter and the Egyptian people. Like the German Christian martyr Sophie Scholl who opposed the Nazi regime, Pharaoh’s daughter engages in a defiant act that both reaches out with compassion to the oppressed and aims to save the soul of her nation. In the end, her act destroys not only her violent father and his entire army, but the system that made Egyptians into snitches, prison guards, and taskmasters.

So what do we learn from this week’s parsha? And how does it relate to the continued presence of “Egypt” — slavery, poverty, and hard labor - of our day? Are we truly free when four million people (most of them women) are being trafficked between borders? I sense that the Torah includes Pharaoh’s daughter’s story to teach us that it is not only the Jewish people who suffer under the “Egypts” of the world and must boldly defy the Pharaohs, but all those who are forced into submission or silence. Even those in the royal courts. The Torah reminds those of us in cozy chairs that we all must go down to the Nile, cleanse ourselves of the desire for God-like power, and take the abandoned poor into our arms.