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Preparing for the Morning after the Election By Watching How We Speak Now

on Tuesday, July 19 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

The most remarkable thing about the failed coup in Turkey last week is how utterly unremarkable it actually was. While this particular coup was unsuccessful, since 1960 Turkey has been overthrown four times through takeovers organized and perpetrated by its own military.

Much more remarkable than Turkey’s latest coup attempt is that in its 240 years, America has never experienced anything similar. One of the most wonderful reflections on our great country and its citizens is that no matter how vociferous and strident the debates and campaigns, when the final ballot is counted and a new president is elected, he or she is the undeniable, undisputed leader and Commander in Chief.

When George W. Bush served as president, he garnered great opposition and disapproval, but nobody of consequence seriously suggested or attempted to overthrow him. Over the last eight years President Obama has garnered tremendous discontentment and vocal disagreement, but not a coup or a takeover.

Which brings us to this coming November 9th, the day after the coming presidential election. Like it or not, ecstatic or deeply depressed, unless something extraordinary occurs, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be elected the 45th president of the United States of America. He or she will not be the president just for the percentage of the population that votes for them. He or she will be the president of every single American, no matter how distasteful or repulsive that may be for those who will vote for the losing candidate or perhaps don’t vote at all.

Elections consistently bring out rigorous debate and raucous disagreement. However, this election feels particularly negative due to the fact that only a minority of Americans actively like either of the candidates. Undeniably, there are qualities and behaviors in both candidates that are disheartening and deeply concerning.

A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that 6 out of 10 Americans describe themselves as dissatisfied with the choice between the presumptive nominees. That means that most people cannot focus on what they like about a candidate, only about how they dislike and distrust the other candidate more. This reality breeds a culture and atmosphere of even greater rhetoric, contentiousness, and name-calling among the electorate than usual. Rather than advocate for their candidate, most people simply cannot imagine voting for the other candidate and have lots to say about those who can.

Recent elections of all sizes, from president to state senator to local school board, have brought out a lack of civility and caused great damage that remains long after the polls close and the inauguration balls conclude. The decibel level of the debates and the personal attacks in the discussions around Shabbos tables, at kiddushes in shul or at the gym have led to the breakup of friendships, and to families whose members can barely tolerate one another.

If that was true in the past, what will be left in the wake of this upcoming election? How will we overcome the polarization that is rapidly and increasingly developing before our eyes? Will the people who swore to leave the country if the other candidate is elected start packing their bags and booking their flights?

How will we resume talking to one another civilly and lovingly on November 9th when we will be living in a country being led by someone for whom many have contempt and disdain and it is the fault of the “other,” namely, those that voted for him or her?

As this election season rages on and will only grow more intense, it is not too early to be thinking about the morning after and the impact of the tone, tenor, and vocabulary of the conversations we are having now.

Certainly we are entitled to, and to some degree have a responsibility to, make our voices heard, to express our concerns, criticism, and critiques. It is a hallmark of this great republic and a foundational principle of democracy that we debate freely and advocate unreservedly. But nowhere in our law books or in our traditions does it mandate that we call people with whom we disagree names or question their character to make our point. Indeed, at the core of our democracy is the recognition that others are entitled to see things differently and to share their point of view without fear of being slandered or of being slammed.

The Gemara (Berachos 58a) states, “Just as the faces of people do not exactly resemble one another, so too their opinions do not exactly resemble one another.” What is the comparison between faces and opinions? Rav Shlomo Eiger (1786-1852) explained that we would never become exasperated or disturbed that someone’s facial features are different than ours. We wouldn’t condemn or criticize someone for having different color eyes or hair than we do. We implicitly recognize that everyone is created differently and it is our differences that weave the wonderful tapestry of our interconnected lives. Similarly, we should recognize that everyone’s opinions are the result of their being created differently and raised differently. Just as someone is entitled to look different, so too are they entitled to think differently and approach things differently without harsh disapproval or condemnation.

Our practice of taking three steps backward at the conclusion of the Amidah comes from a Gemara in Yoma (53) which states, “Hamispaleil tzarich she’yafsiah shelosha pesios l’achorav v’achar kach yitein shalom. The one who prays must take three steps back and only then pray for peace.” R’ Menachem BenZion Zaks (in his commentary on Pirkei Avos) explains that we cannot pray for, nor achieve, peace if we are not willing to step back a little and make room for others and their opinions, their tastes and personalities.

After stepping back, we ask “oseh shalom bimromav,” God, please bring peace, and we turn to the right and to the left. Explains R’ Zaks, achieving peace and harmony means bowing towards those on the right of us and those on the left of us, not just straight ahead on our path.

Maintaining the capacity and the will to bow towards those on the right and left of us religiously, politically, and in every other way is a prerequisite to the peace we claim we desperately seek and yearn for.

While America has never experienced an overthrowing of its government, we the Jewish people twice experienced foreign bodies invading our land, destroying our Temples, and dispersing us into exile. When analyzing the underlying cause, our Rabbis did not provide a political or military reason, but rather suggested a spiritual source. We practiced sinas chinam, baseless hatred: intolerance, incivility, coarseness, and hyper criticism of one another. In an environment and atmosphere of hate, the house of love and Godliness simply could not continue to exist.

We know (Yerushalmi, Yoma 1:1) that in every generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt, had it existed it would have been destroyed. In other words, two thousand years later we continue to embrace a legacy and culture of sinah, of hate and disdain.

This Sunday marks the beginning of the Three Weeks, the period designated on our calendar to introspect and contemplate the Jewish condition, its causes and its roots. Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook famously said (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324), “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavas chinam.

Over the next three weeks and continuing through the election and beyond, before each conversation we have let’s ask ourselves will this topic, my opinions, and the way I am expressing them contribute to repairing the world with baseless love or destroying it with baseless hatred. Why even participate in conversations with others on topics in which we know we disagree strongly and in which the most likely outcome is not one of us convincing the other, but rather a bitterness and hostility between the two?

So if you can’t understand for the life of you how someone could support the candidate or the ideology or the lifestyle on your right or on your left, take a step back and make room for their opinions anyway. Bow towards them in a bid for a friendship and a family loyalty that transcends our differences. Doing so may just finally bring the elusive peace we are so desperate for.

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Do You Know, Let Alone Celebrate, Your Hebrew Birthday?

on Thursday, July 14 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Jews of diverse backgrounds, denominations and levels of observance seem to all observe yahrzeits of their loved ones based on the Hebrew calendar, not the Gregorian one. And yet, when it comes to birthdays and anniversaries, it seems few Jews—even observant ones—know, let alone commemorate, the Hebrew date of these significant milestones in their lives. One explanation is that a yahrzeit comes with observances and rituals like lighting a candle and saying Kaddish. However, the principle is the same. It is the Jewish calendar that should inform our time consciousness and awareness and on which our major milestones and observances should be kept.

Jewish time is not linear with the past behind us, the present happening now, and the future off ahead. Rather, Jewish time is cyclical. We believe that points in time have energy and character and while time is not a loop in which we meet ourselves from last year, it is a spiral in which we advance but along the same recurring cycle. Rosh Hashana contains the energy of new beginnings, Pesach carries the possibility of liberty and freedom, and Chanukah is the time of miracles. When we observe these holidays, we aren’t simply commemorating an event of the past, but rather the historical event revealed for us the special quality of those days that we seek to tap into now, bayamim ha’heim, u’bizman ha’zeh, in those days and at this time.

What is true for our national holidays is equally important for our personal and individual milestones. Our birthday is a time to reconnect with our having been created and what we uniquely can contribute to the world. Our anniversary is a day to reflect on our rebirth in union with another and what we as a couple can achieve together. While the Gregorian days corresponding with those events are lovely to acknowledge, it is only the Hebrew date that inherently has meaning for us as we revisit those energies year after year.

Sadly, many if not most observant Jews are unfamiliar with these significant dates. Indeed, many can’t even name all of the months of the Hebrew calendar. I am not suggesting that this is the greatest challenge facing the Jewish people and our most urgent problem at this time. However, conceding our time consciousness to the Gregorian calendar and abandoning our own is an expression of how assimilation even effects the committed, observant Jewish community and it is something relatively easy to repair.

When we study the exodus, we are reminded that the Jewish people merited redemption because they never gave up their identity. The Midrash tells us that they maintained Hebrew names, language (they only spoke Hebrew among themselves), and distinctive clothing.  In a time of great assimilation and in a society and world that welcomes us to integrate fully with open arms, we would do well to reinforce our distinct identities within a foreign culture by promoting use of the Hebrew calendar and staying mindful each day of the Hebrew date.

The very first mitzvah we received was HaChodesh hazeh lachem, the gift of controlling time by sanctifying the new moon. The Ramban understands that the commandment is not simply to observe Rosh Chodesh, but to count according to the Jewish calendar. Indeed, the Chasam Sofer wrote, “Those who begin their letters with the year of the birth of the Christian messiah, are writing and signing away their portion in the world to come.” According to the Chasam Sofer, there is a prohibition against using secular dates, including days of the week, the months of the year, and the year itself.

We follow the opinion that there is no prohibition to use the secular date, but nevertheless, there certainly is a great preference to date our documents using the Jewish date. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef summed it up well when he wrote, “It is therefore clear that there is no prohibition whatsoever in using the secular date. Nonetheless, there remains a virtue of using the Jewish date, and whenever there is no great need, the months and years should be written according to the dating of Israel—and particularly in our holy land. When there is a need to write the secular date, it is good to also make mention of the count of years from Creation.”

As Jews, it is the Hebrew calendar that best captures our most auspicious moments. Marking these events on a uniquely Jewish calendar will undoubtedly strengthen the Jewish people and help us maintain an identity and lifestyle that will please God merit the redemption yet again.

To find your Hebrew birthday or anniversary, go here.

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Seeing the Rainbow in Grey Rather Than Black and White: LGBT & the Orthodox Community

on Tuesday, June 28 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

I often find myself envious of people who live in a world of black and white and for whom everything seems so simple and clear. It would much easier not to struggle, feel torn or grapple with complexity and uncertainty. And yet, being truthful to Torah and to ourselves often demands not taking the easy way out, but finding the courage, strength, conviction and sensitivity to live in the grey and bear the tension inherent in a sophisticated and nuanced approach to complicated issues.

One example that is increasingly confronting us in Jewish communal life is our approach to LGBT individuals and the LGBT community. Recently, I spoke to a group of observant teenagers about this issue and began by asking them: If a close friend were to invite you to a same gender marriage, would you attend? I was startled when every single hand in the group went up, with a few saying that they don’t necessarily approve of the lifestyle, but their dedication and loyalty to their friend and desire for their happiness dictate that they participate.

To illustrate to the students just how rapidly the world has evolved on this issue, I informed them that although President Obama currently describes opposition to same gender marriage as a form of discrimination, he was on record as opposing same gender marriage when he first ran for President. At the time, he said, “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.”

While for some advocates of same gender marriage change has not been fast enough, society has actually evolved at light speed on this issue. Until 1974, the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a mental illness in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Today, people are publicly celebrated, applauded and admired for “coming out” and for proudly embracing their identity and orientation.

The Jewish community in general, and the observant community in particular, are not insulated from this ongoing process. While statistics vary, somewhere between 1.6% (NHIS study) – 3.4% (Gallup poll) of Americans identify as LGBT. Make no mistake: that means that many Orthodox synagogues and schools likely have members and students who are struggling with their identities and with finding their place in a Torah community. In the coming weeks, months and years, our community will surely grapple with questions of shul membership, mazel tov announcements and receiving honors. Our schools will need to formulate policies on acceptances, shabbatons arrangements, and more.

Rather than continue to grapple, some in the community have taken radically opposite but equally confident approaches to these issues. On one side, one rabbi wrote, “It is a Mitzvah to come out!” Another declared, “Gay and Orthodox: An oxymoron no more.” And, most recently, yet another is quoted as saying that “LGBT must be welcomed in Orthodox communities and that one of the ‘great moments’ in his synagogue was when same-sex couples with children were accepted as full members.”

On the other side, there are websites and newspapers that refer to LGBT related events, including murder at a parade in Israel and a massacre in Orlando, with the label “to’eiva,” abomination, in the headline. Individuals flippantly and cruelly talk about those who identify as LGBT as disgusting, calling on them to undergo conversion therapy and “become normal,” and describe them as abominations.

Calling for categorical inclusion, acceptance and accommodation or, conversely, for absolute rejection, alienation and expulsion is convenient and expedient, but seems to me to be an unjust and unfair copout. Our Torah values demand that we approach this issue, like others, with nuance, sensitivity and conviction, even if it means living with the ongoing discomfort of tension and complexity.

The Torah’s prohibitions in these areas are incontrovertible and non-negotiable. All the sympathy and sensitivity in the world cannot move us to be matir issurim, to permit that which our sacred Torah forbids. Undeniably, our rabbis have been tremendously critical of those who unabashedly flaunt a lifestyle inconsistent with halacha.

Yet, it is also unquestionable that there are no perfect people and that everyone struggles with some aspect of the rigors and demands of halacha. We have 613 mitzvos that translate into thousands of Jewish laws, and we generally don’t define, accept or reject people based on their transgression of one or more of them. Granted, as this issue is not merely one of behavior or private action, but for many individuals, lies at the core of their self-identity, formulating our community’s approach is inevitably more complicated. But, nonetheless, it is critically important to remember that the Torah forbids action—the verb—and doesn’t even recognize LGBT identity as a noun.

The stakes for how we evolve—not with regard, of course, to core halachic standards and principles, but in how we apply them in our changing world—are tremendously high. To its credit, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest umbrella organization of Orthodox rabbis in the world, dedicated a day of its conference this week to this very topic. The conversation instantly became very real and personal when we heard from a panel of men and women who were raised Orthodox and are learned, sincere and committed to a halachic life, but who no longer deny or hide their gay orientation.

They each had their own stories, backgrounds and experiences, but the common themes among them were the depression they suffered and the bullying and the abuse they experienced. One of them referenced that they struggled to fight off suicidal thoughts. All of them spoke lovingly and respectfully of the Torah community they long to find a place in and even went so far as to acknowledge the limitations to their full integration. A mental health professional spoke, as did several rabbis, who have dealt extensively with these issues and who offered a Torah perspective.

While the conversation did not end with conclusive answers, one thing is abundantly clear to me. We have a responsibility to Hashem and His Torah, to those who identify as LGBT, and to ourselves, to not take an inauthentic, pandering or cruel way out. Triumphant statements of breakthroughs or headlines with rhetoric and hate will not positively contribute to carrying out our awesome responsibility to deal with this issue sensibly, with sensitivity and with steadfast commitment to Torah and halacha.

The stakes are extremely high because it is not only the LGBT community that is carefully watching the policies we set and the statements we issue. Only approximately 2% of the population is LGBT, but many of the other 98% are almost equally interested in how we handle this issue that they care deeply about, even if they are not directly affected by it. Living with the tension and seeking to strike this balance will be critical to remain relevant and compelling to the next generation.

We may wish this issue had not evolved in this way and that we never had to confront this new reality, but it is here. Ignoring it or mishandling it won’t make it go away, but will likely make many Jews go away from our community and from an observant way of life.

As this conversation continues and policies need to be set, we must find ways to stay unwaveringly and unapologetically true to halacha and Torah while also being sensitive, caring, loving and welcoming, to the extent we can, for everyone. If we are inclusive, it is not because society dictates it as an absolute value, but because seeing tzelem Elokim in all and finding a space for them, no matter their particular struggles, is a Torah value. And if we must set limits, it is not because we are homophobic or reject basic civil rights, but because Torah, with its infinite wisdom and timeless sagacity, demands these principles and boundaries. Striking this balance, living with these tensions and being in a state of discomfort is not easy.   Being in the grey often feels increasingly lonely. Nonetheless, I believe it is our sacred duty and obligation now, perhaps more than ever.

Getting our communal policies right will take time, and we need not feel pressured by the frantic pace of societal transitions around us that want to see changes yesterday. We must move slowly, exceedingly cautiously and extremely delicately.

In the meantime, while the conversation continues, there are two contrasting sensitivities that I think we need to maintain. First, while it goes without saying that we should always choose our words carefully, be respectful and never communicate in a derogatory or disparaging manner, it is especially important to be careful how we talk about this issue. Remember, you never know what someone you are talking to or their family member, friend or neighbor is going through. Second, especially given the Torah’s position and halacha’s demands, remain respectful of those with traditional attitudes or who want to insulate their children from conversations on this topic.

As a community, we need to deliberate carefully and consult with our greatest poskim (halachik decisors), leaders, mental health professionals and stakeholders on all sides. Taking shortcuts, on the other hand, may imperil our quest to strike a faithful balance between allowing the entirety of our community to be true to themselves and maintaining our unequivocal dedication to the authenticity of Torah.

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Muhammad Ali and Donald Trump: Borrowed But Never Owned

on Wednesday, June 22 2016. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

Once upon a time, becoming a Bar Mitzvah meant coming of age and bearing greater spiritual responsibility and accountability. For many today, turning thirteen means become a brand with your own logo designed for the occasion and yarmulkas, clothing, and gear bearing your special insignia. Before protesting, please understand: I am not suggesting there is anything wrong with this trend as it is all in good fun and adds to the excitement and enjoyment of this major milestone. However, it should not be lost on us that this phenomenon is likely the result of a larger trend in society today.

In 2004, long before emerging as a presumptive nominee for President, ABC News did a story called Donald Trump: The Genius of Self-Promotion that describes how Trump built up his brand and status as an elite businessman through self-promotion, boasting, and bragging. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Business Management opined, “Of all the things he’s developed, the biggest thing he’s developed is that image.”

Muhammad Ali’s recent passing elicited overwhelming reverence, admiration and affection, despite his being one of the most bombastic and pompous athletes or public figures of all times. Consider a sampling of his famous quotes:

“I’m young; I’m handsome; I’m fast. I can’t possibly be beat.”

“It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.”

“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”

“It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”

“I’m not the greatest, I’m the double greatest.”

“I’m the most recognized and loved man that ever lived cuz there weren’t no satellites when Jesus and Moses were around, so people far away in the villages didn’t know about them.”

“At home I am a nice guy: but I don’t want the world to know. Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.”

Ali may have been talented, charming and entertaining, but on humility he was absolutely wrong.

In the seventh of his thirteen principles of faith, the Rambam writes:

We believe that [Moshe Rabbeinu] is the father of all the prophets before and after him, all of whom were beneath him in stature. He was chosen above all mankind, achieving a greater knowledge of the Almighty than anyone before or since. Moshe Rabbeinu reached a level that surpasses human attainment and approximates the angelic. There was no barrier that he did not penetrate, no physical limitation that hindered him, and no imperfection large or small [to impede him]. In achieving this [level], he lost his sensual and imaginative faculties; his drives and desires ceased, leaving only his pure intellect. Concerning this it is said that Moshe communicated with God without any angelic intermediary.

Essential to our faith is the belief that Moshe was the greatest person to ever live or that ever will live. What enabled and empowered Moshe to actualize human potential more than anyone else? How did he achieve this unparalleled lofty level that can never be and will never be replicated?

Rav Chaim Volozhiner (Ruach Chaim 1:1) suggests that the answer can be found in our Parsha (Bamidbar 12:3) which describes, “V’haish Moshe anav m’od mikol adam” “And the man Moshe was more humble than any other person.” Moshe’s modesty and unpretentiousness allowed him to see himself as a vessel to serve the Almighty, improve the world and be of service to others. He had absolutely no ulterior motive of elevating his brand or increasing his name recognition or his net worth. His pure intent and practice combined with his unsurpassed potential made him the ideal medium for God to communicate through.

Humility for Moshe did not mean denying his unique talents, abilities, and opportunities. It simply meant recognizing that they are gifts and blessings from the Almighty and that they obligate rather than entitle, they create expectations, rather than fame and notoriety. Moshe understood that whatever gifts we have are on loan. They are borrowed but never owned and can be taken from us at any moment.

Chuck Knoblauch was a Rookie of the Year, won several World Series rings, earned a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards and went to four All-Star games. But as a second baseman for the New York Yankees in 2000 he shockingly and inexplicably lost the ability to throw the ball from second base to first base, something every little leaguer is capable of doing. After trying different positions to solve the mysterious problem, he never regained his previous ability and ultimately retired early from baseball.

Brian Johnson is the lead singer of AC/DC, considered one of the most legendary rock bands of all time. In 2003 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A few months ago, while in the middle of a concert tour, he had to pull out and suddenly retire at the instruction of doctors who warned him he could suffer complete loss of hearing. Johnson said, “I’ve had a pretty good run. I’ve been in one of the best bands in the world.”

Even Ali’s extraordinary athletic skills were borrowed but not owned. After retiring more than once, he was forced to retire for good following a unanimous 10-round decision loss to Trevor Berbick.

Muhammad Ali was not “more recognized and loved than Moses” because there were no satellites. It was because while Ali and Trump built careers by being self-promoting, Moshe was the most humble person of all time. It is exactly because he was humble and knew that his gifts were borrowed but never owned, that he in fact “got much farther” than anyone that ever was or will be.

Though many in the public are enamored and impressed with those who excel in self-promotion, make no mistake, our personal and private relationships need humility, not hubris, modesty, not self-marketing. To be humble, you need not deny what you are good at or the blessings and gifts in your life. You simply have to be mindful that the talents and skills you employed towards any achievement or accomplishment come from Above and can be taken away as easily as they were given. Humility means living with a sense of gratitude and like Moshe, a sense of obligation and responsibility to use our gifts in the service of God and our fellow man.

Moshe, not Muhammad Ali was in fact “the greatest that ever lived,” and it is largely because he never spoke or acted as if he was better or superior to anyone else.

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