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  • Jewish Jokes

    Posted on February 20th, 2013 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

    Jews have long used humor to cope with difficulty. At Purim time the Jewish jokes are especially apt. Here are a few to get you started. We hope you will share some of  your favorites with us! Please post your offerings in the comments section below!


    Winning the Race

    Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion decided to field a rowing team. Unfortunately, they lose race after race. Even though they practice and practice for hours everyday, they never manage to come in any better than dead last.

    Finally, the team decides to send Morris Fishbein, its captain, to spy on Harvard, the perennial championship team.
    So Morris schlepps off to Cambridge and hides in the bushes next to the Charles River, where he carefully watches the Harvard team at its daily practices. After a week, Morris returns to HUC-JIR.
    “Well, I figured out their secret”, he announces.
    “What? Tell us! Tell us!” his teammates shout.
    “We should have only one guy yelling. The other eight should row.”
    -Paul Kipnes

    Purim Comes Calling

    Knock knock.

    Who’s there?


    Esther who?

    The Esther bunny!


    Knock knock.

    Who’s there?

    Vashti! Vashti who?

    Vashti dishes and I’ll give you a hamantaschen!


    Knock knock.

    Who’s there?

    Haman Haman who?

    Haman whatcha doing tomorrow, it’s Purim!


    Knock knock

    Who’s there?


    Orange who?

    Orange you glad it’s Purim?!

    -Phyllis Sommer


    So Long

    The difference between Jews and non Jews at a party? Non Jews leave without saying goodbye, Jews say goodbye and never leave. – Eric Siroka

    A woman goes to the post office to buy stamps for her Chanukah cards.
    She says to the clerk “May I have 50 Chanukah stamps please.”

    “What denomination?” says the clerk.

    The woman says “Oy vey, my god, has it come to this? Okay, give me 6
    Orthodox, 12 Conservative and 32 Reform!”

    -Josh C. Perlman

    Out and About

    What does a waiter say to a table of Jewish women? “Is anything all right?” -David Young


    Sermon Survey

    I first heard from one of my favorite professors, Chanan Brichto, of very blessed memory: A congregant comes up to her rabbi at the Oneg Shabbat and says: “Rabbi that was the worst sermon I ever heard. You insulted our intelligence and rambled on and on.” A congregant who overheard then approaches the rabbi and says: “Oh don’t listen to her. She has no mind of her own! She just repeats what everyone else is saying.”               -Stephen Fuchs


    Moishe Goldberg was heading out of the Synagogue one day, and as
    always Rabbi Mendel was standing at
    the door, shaking hands as the congregation departed. The rabbi
    grabbed Moishe by the hand, pulled him aside and whispered these words
    at him: “You need to join the Army of God!”

    Moishe replied: “I’m already in the Army of God, Rabbi.”

    The rabbi questioned: “How come I don’t see you except for Rosh
    Hashanah and Yom Kippur?”

    Moishe whispered back: “I’m in the secret service.”

    -Josh C. Perlman

    It Is No Bother

    Once a rabbi was speaking and a baby started to cry. His embarrassed Mother hastened to remove him. The rabbi called out to her. “Please, you don’t need to take him out. He wasn’t bothering me.” The woman answered, “Rabbi I wasn’t taking him out because he was bothering you. I am taking him out because you were bothering him!” –Stephen Fuchs

    The Blessing Of Shabbat


    What do you get from bad chicken on Friday night? ……..


    -Elisa Koppel


    Parking Spot

    Moishe is driving in NYC . He’s late for a meeting, he’s looking for a
    parking place, and can’t find one. In desperation, he turns towards
    heaven and says: “Lord, if you find me a parking place, I promise that
    I’ll follow all of your commandments and live my life as an exemplary
    Jew. ”

    Miraculously, a place opens up just in front of him.

    He turns his face up to heaven and says, “Never mind, I just found one!”

    -Josh C. Perlman


    Adam and Eve on the Bus

    A devoutly religious Israeli man is sitting on a bus when a scantily clad
    secular Israeli woman takes the seat next to him. Saying nothing, he reaches
    into his bag, pulls out an apple and places it in front of her.

    “What’s this?” asked the woman.

    The man replied, “In the Garden of Eden, after Eve ate the apple she had to
    wear clothes!”

    The next day, this scene repeated itself as the same woman took a seat next
    to the same man. This time it was her turn to pull an apple from her bag and
    place it in front of him.

    “What’s this?” asked the man.

    The woman replied, “In the Garden of Eden after Adam ate the apple, he had
    to work for a living!”

    -Rachel Gurevitz

  • Be the Eighth Candle: A Teaching for Hannukah

    Posted on November 28th, 2012 Special Contributor No comments

    Desmond Howard, The Pose

    I write to you from the football-crazed city of Houston.  (The Texans are currently ranked number one. Just saying.)  So please excuse the following sports analogies.  When the player reaches the end zone, he may make a gesture of celebration (e.g., “the pose” of Desmond Howard in 1991, look it up).  Or it is common for climbers who reach Mount Everest’s summit to raise their hands in victory.  So what does this have to do with Hannukkah?


    The Jewish equivalent of “spiking the ball”, doing a touchdown dance or raising one’s hands in victory is to…light some lights, sing and give to charity.  And “our” Hannukkah is only one of many such moments of triumph.  Pesikta Rabbati contains an extensive midrashic examination of Hanukkah’s meaning, one of which enumerates seven different Hannukkahs:


    1. The Hanukkah of finishing creating the heaven and earth, which God observed by “turning on” the two great lights (the sun and moon) in the sky (Genesis 2:1, 1:17).
    2. The Hanukkah of completing the wall enclosing Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:27), observed with lots of singing.
    3. The Hanukkah of the successful return from Babylonian captivity (Ezra 6:17), observed with lots of singing and offerings.
    4. The Hanukkah of the Hasmonean priests, for which we kindle the Hannukkah lamps, symbolizing their complete victory. The original menorah in this case was probably fashioned from spearheads turned into torches, since the original menorah had been taken away.  (See Daniel Sperber, Magic and Folklore in Rabbinic Literature, “An Early Meaning of the Word Shapud”, Bar Ilan, 1994, pp. 34-39.)
    5. The Hanukkah of the World to Come (Zephaniah 1:12-1), in which the wealthy and unjust are utterly annihilated by God, accompanied with the sound of crying, this time cries of sorrow, not joy.
    6. The Hanukkah of the princes’ anointing the altar (Numbers 7:84-89).  After all twelve princes finished bringing their offerings of silver and gold items, the whole array, clanging mightily, we might suppose, accompanied by the bellowing of the sacrificial oxen, was followed with what one might call, “the still, small voice” that Moses hears from beyond the ark’s cover.
    7. And the Hanukkah of the First Temple’s dedication (Psalm 30:1), celebrated with this psalm. (Pesikta Rabbati 2:3)


    So these seven Hannukkahs are logical:  each celebrates the finishing of some important work.  But why didn’t the midrash name eight Hanukkahs?  There are certainly enough occasions in Jewish history to have made for “8 great finishings”, e.g., the rededication of the first Temple after King Josiah’s reforms were completed (II Kings, chapter 23).  So why did the midrash stop at seven?


    Author Rabbi Judith Abrams

    Perhaps the midrash is allowing us to supply our own, personal Hannukkahs.  The hallmark of a Hannukkah is that it marks the finishing of a large project. So one way to observe Hanukkah would be to make a commitment to a project that can be finished in a year, so that, next year, it will become the eighth Hanukkah. We can personally dedicate ourselves to enrich our practice of Judaism, to lead healthier lives, to pay off debt, to wrestle addictions to the ground and so forth.  Or perhaps you have recently finished a large effort.  If you have made it to the end zone, the summit, make your own personal triumph the eighth Hannukkah.


    May your Hanukkah be filled with light and may your own dedicatory candle burn with joy this year, next year and in every year!

    Author Rabbi Judith Abrams is a Talmud scholar whose writing and teaching for all levels of knowledge can be found at



  • Welcome the Stranger: Grandpa and the Meaning of Ruth

    Posted on May 22nd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    With Shavuot upon us, Jews around the world prepare for reading the biblical story of Ruth. For Rabbi Seth Goren the biblical story and the message of the holiday have a highly personal meaning.

    The story of Ruth resonates strongly with me in part because of its similarity to the account of how part of my family left Eastern Europe. My paternal grandfather was born in the village of Obodovka, then a part of the Russian Empire. His father ran the town’s general store and was relatively well off. After the Russian Civil War broke out in 1917, the central government ceased paying its employees, and the local postmaster, who was not Jewish, could not afford food for his family. Nevertheless, my great-grandfather allowed him to make purchases on credit so that the postmaster’s family would not go hungry and starve to death in the frigid Ukrainian winter of 1918-19.

    Rabbi Seth Goren

    One day in May 1919, just a few weeks before Shavuot, word spread that a band of Cossacks was riding toward the town bent on attacking the local Jewish population. My great-grandfather loaded the family onto a wagon and began heading westward. They were intercepted by the postman, who informed my family that they were heading in the precise direction from which the Cossacks were coming. “Come with me,” he said, “I’ll hide you in the basement of the post office.” My grandfather and his family remained hidden for the next two days, during which time they heard the postman repeatedly ward off Cossacks, telling them that there were no Jews in the building. When they finally emerged, all of the other Jews of Obodovka were dead, with my grandfather and his family being the only survivors. In this way, my great-grandfather and the postman, strangers to each other’s traditions as surely as they were neighbors, had saved each other’s families.

    Looking back, the histories of both my family and our people hinge on relatively small acts whose broader implications could not have been appreciated at the time. Had Ruth and Naomi not taken responsibility for each other, King David’s genealogical line would have foundered, and the entire course of Jewish and world history would be completely different. On a more personal level, if not for the relationship between my great-grandfather and a Ukrainian postman nearly a century ago, my family line would have ended in an Eastern European shtetl like so many others did. In both cases, it is difficult in retrospect to imagine events unfolding any differently. Nevertheless, these episodes show how even a small act of caring for a stranger can reverberate generations later and thousands of miles away.

    We cannot always anticipate how we will welcome others emerging from their isolation or where we ourselves will stumble upon sanctuary when we are lost among the unknown and unfamiliar. The unexpected twists in the lives of Naomi, buth and my grandfather could not have been predicted in advance. There will be times when we will be strangers, as we were in Egypt, and times when there will be strangers among us. Nevertheless, deliverance, both for ourselves and for those whom we help, is possible when we take care of each other and provide a haven to the stranger who seeks shelter among us.


  • The Beggar in the Kippah – A True Passover Tale

    Posted on March 21st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments

    Rabbi Joel Soffin‘s experience on the streets of New York, recalls the classic Hassidic tales. It is a modern classic.

    It was the day of the first seder 2011. I was off on an errand to purchase an afikoman-finder gift. There would be no children with us that night, so we would reverse the numbers in our ages (51=15; 60=6) to identify the three “youngest” who would do the searching. That would require an adult gift for the finder. And so I was on the way to buy the synagogue cookbook as the gift. The synagogue office was some fifteen Manhattan blocks away, and I was speed-walking my way there, hoping to arrive before it closed for the holiday.

    On the street, I passed a homeless man with his hand reaching out to me as he asked for money. I knew that the Rema (R. Moshe Isserles, note on Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, 249:3-5) had taught that it is forbidden to turn away a poor man empty-handed without giving him something, even if it were but a fig. I promised myself that I would give him some money on the way back. I made the same promise as I raced past a second poor man – “on the way back.”

    Author - Rabbi Joel Soffin

    Then I came to a third man, sitting there on the curb. He was the first beggar I’d ever seen in the city wearing a kippah.  I slowed my pace as he asked me softly, “Do you have $26?” I smiled to myself and pushed onward. $26?!

    I reached the synagogue office just in time. Then with afikoman gift in hand, I was ready to help the three men. I kept thinking about the $26. No one had asked me for so much money before. Such chutzpah! $26?! $26?! And then it came to me.  The gematria for Y-H-V-H is 26. In the guise of a poor man, it might have been Elijah reaching out to me.

    I retraced my steps, giving money to the first two beggars. But I couldn’t find the man with the kippah. I walked around the area for nearly an hour up and down every side street, before giving up and returning home to finish the preparations for the seder.

    Later, I would tell of my experience and donate $26 to tzedakah. I’ll be doing that this Passover, too, but only after I retrace my steps once again to try to find the beggar in the kippah and to invite him to join us.


  • Martha Stewart, Feminism and Purim

    Posted on March 2nd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    Lina Morgenstern

    Is writing a cookbook a feminist act?

    As women’s history month begins there is much to debate. I for one would struggle to make the argument that Martha Stewart is a feminist, though in 2004 Elaine Lafferty, the editor of Ms. magazine at the time of Stewart’s sentencing for insider trading, suggested that there are some reasons to think otherwise.

    And yet, when I read Lina Morgenstern’s Illustriertes Universal-Kochbuch für Gefunde und Kranke, The Illustrated Universal Cookbook, I read it as a feminist tome. Containing thousands of recipes, Morgenstern’s opus was literally a work of art. Under her tutelage, even simple dishes, such as mayonnaise, are plated on platters and adorned with edible carvings that would make Martha green with envy. Pages upon pages of exquisite drawings portray not only the dishes but the variety of food stuff and kitchen tools. Morgenstern spares us no detail, there is a drawing of a pea splitting knife and a recipe for reindeer meat – though not native to Germany she did not want anyone to be unprepared. Like Stewart does today, Morgenstern presented an impossible vision of womanhood and set unattainable standards.

    Morgenstern wrote her cookbook in1886. She wrote it as part of a broader vision and mission of pushing the boundaries of women’s roles. Born in 1830, she was one of five daughters born to wealthy Jewishly observant family that stressed g’millut hassadim, good works. Her first public act, at age 18, was to establish a charity that would provide school supplies for children in need.

    Much like those who argued for women’s suffrage, she parlayed the limits placed on women –their caretaking capacity, their compassion –into reasons to enter new areas of activity and create new and varied instructions. Women were responsible for child care, so she opened the first Kindergartens in Berlin. Women were responsible for food preparation, so she open a cooking school to ensure true mastery. Women were responsible for the ill and poor, so she opened a soup kitchen. Women were meant to be patriotic but not fight in wars, so she cared for wounded soldiers. Women were expected to be proper managers of middle and upper class households, so she established Housewives associations at a time when the idea of women gathering in public was pushing the boundaries. Women were peaceful by nature so she became political activist.

    Morgenstern's Cookbook, cover, cover page, and example of illustrations

    Her cookbook was over the top. The very act of creating a larger than life book, which in hindsight I cannot help read with a touch of irony, highlighted the weightiness of the work women did in the home, the attention to detail and thought they put into something that might seem as simple as a meal. Additionally, at time when all the other cookbooks written by German Jewish women were committed to upholding kashrut, Morgenstern, who came from a traditionally family, broke with the rabbis and set forth a broader vision. She was willing to break traditional expectations.

    In many ways, Morgenstern’s life connects closely to that of ancient heroine of the Purim story. Esther used her very traditional role as a beauty queen & wife to change the course of history and so did Lina. So in my not so humble and outspoken opinion, Martha Stewart’s New Pies and Tarts is not feminist, but Lina Morgenstern’s The Illustrated Universal Cookbook certainly is!

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

  • Happy on the Fence this Israel Day

    Posted on May 9th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments



    יושב על הגדר
    רגל פה, רגל שם

    Sitting on the fence, one foot here, the other there

    -Arik Einstein 1982


    -by Ruth Abusch-Magder Ph.D.

    In 1982, I spent part of the summer much like I did so many other summers in my childhood hanging out with friends, watching too much tv, sitting on the beach or by the pool-in Israel. My mother was born in Tel Aviv in 1940 and came to Canada in her twenties. We would return many summers to see the sites and hang out. In 1982, Arik Einstein sang an easy, breezy song about seeing the good things in life from his position sitting on the fence. As I made my way through high school, the song would become my anthem; the title resonating with how I understood my life. I grew up in Canada, part of a well established, large Canadian Jewish clan. I lobbied Parliament, and took part yearly in the sugaring off of the Maple trees. I also spoke fluent Hebrew, walked around with a large tome of Ben-Gurion’s speeches, and knew the twists and turns of Masada well. I grew up one foot here, the other there.


    Much has been written in the last few weeks about the commitment of the American Jewish leadership to Israel. Einstein’s words are resonating with new meaning.


    In 2006, I spent a year at the Mandel Leadership Institute as a Jerusalem Fellow. I worked closely with Rabbi Daniel Gordis. I learned a great deal in that relationship, but one of the points where he and I differed was in our understandings of what it meant to be a rabbi. For Gordis, being a rabbi meant defending our tradition at every turn. I had grown up with the shadow of the Holocaust casting a pall over the real sense of divinity I knew from my own experience. I had spent a decade in academia, struggling to understand how to make sense of a tradition that is so fundamentally patriarchical and yet astonishingly meaningful. My road to the rabbinate was paved in doubts, rebellions, and frustrations. I felt my mission as a rabbi was to help people through their own complex struggles. This vision of the rabbinate was one that was affirmed for me throughout my time at HUC, where we as Reform leaders in training were encouraged to wrestle with texts. It was affirmed by learning from future colleagues in the field and the ways in which they dealt with contemporary issues, like intermarriage. Reform Jews, it seemed to me, see having one foot here and one foot there, inside and outside of tradition engaging and questioning as quintessentially Jewish.


    Reading Gordis’ recent critique of young rabbis and their critical approach to Israel and questioning of Zionism, I have been revisiting the conversations we had about the rabbinate. Back then, my vision of the rabbinate, though grounded in some measure of experience and a great deal of theory, was in its infancy. To attend Jerusalem Fellows, I had hopped on a plane immediately following ordination. Our conversation about the real work of the rabbi was still imaginary. But what I imagined then has indeed come to pass. The work I do as a rabbi, formally and informally, gains much of its strength and credibility by being open to struggle. This struggling is, I continue feel, fundamental to being part of the Reform movement and to being Jewish. Throughout our history, Reform has understood that modern Jews do not have a single frame of reference. Ours is a community that believes it is possible to live with one foot here and one foot there. Anyone who has ever climbed a fence knows, doing so can be at times be little uncomfortable and unstable. Yet we persist in having one foot here and one foot there because we understand the value of conversation and of multiple points of view, moreover we see this type of learning and talking as fundamentally Jewish.


    Nearly two years ago, I moved to San Francisco. Having never lived in California, I was told time and again, that it would be a shock to my Jewish system. The only place I have found that to be true is in regards to Israel. Earlier this year an Israeli think tank declared our region one of the hot spots for Israel de-legitimization. There are attacks against Zionism at the University of California at Berkeley. Within the Jewish community the rancor has reached such a fevered pitch that our Board of Rabbis began a campaign for civil discourse. I have learned to be cautious whenever discussions of Israel arise. I have been attacked for not being pro-Israel enough and for being pro-Israel at all.


    But San Francisco is also home to some wonderful creative and intensive Israel education initiatives that seek to engage beyond slogans. As Michal Morris Kamil recently told The Jerusalem Report (in an article by Renee Ghert-Zand in the May 23, 2011 issue), “We now know that kids don’t need to be protected from multiple narratives. In fact, exposing children to different perspectives gives them tools to deal and cope with diversity as they grow up.” I recently participated in a day of learning about pedagogy for teaching about Israel, run by BASIS - The Israel Education & Engagement Initiative in Bay Area day schools. The theme throughout the day was opening up the complexity of Israel for students. Two of the presenters, Jonathan Ariel and Rami Wernik, are leaders of Makom, an educational initiative of the Jewish Agency which encourages wresting with the big questions. It is not comfortable. It is messy. But it is the way forward. And it resonates with the complex approach to Judaism that is so fundamental to Reform Judaism.


    As I prepared to write this piece I went back and reread the Einstein’s lyrics. At the end of Arik Einstein’s song, he suggests that sitting on the fence you can see both sides but ultimately you see nothing at all. To quote another Israeli classic pop song, ”I’m sitting in San Francisco by the water and I feel far away.” I am far from the day to day of Israeli life, but I remain connected and engaged. I feel some of Gordis’ concern about the disengagement with Israel and the wonder of Zionism. But my rabbinate has been built on a belief that sitting uncomfortably on a fence is a good thing. I have learned that sharing my struggles about modern Jewish living is critical to my ability to engage others in understanding kashrut, sexism, prayer, Talmud or any other Jewish issue. Einstein’s metaphor still resonates strongly for me with regards to Israel, but his conclusion does not. I sit on a fence, one foot here and one foot there, and my discomfort sharpens my vision and my ability to share it.




  • What is God? Praying to One

    Posted on September 2nd, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

    More than at any other time of year, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, demand that we grapple with our understanding of God. This week, Rabbi Larry Bach of Temple Mount Sinai, in El Paso TX, writes about his struggles with the liturgy and the evolution of his understanding of the Divine.

    Rabbi Larry Bach

    As we move into Yamim Hanora’im, some of us will find ourselves face-to-face with a familiar dilemma: the challenge of praying “face-to-face” with a God who is so intensely personalized in our liturgy. “God as Person,” it seems to me, is even more present in the machzor than the siddur. This is certainly true for North American Reform Judaism today, where experiencing the polyvocality of Mishkan T’filah year-round sets us up for a jarring experience upon returning to Gates of Repentance, so thoroughly (almost uniformly) couched in the language of dialogue.

    My own struggles with saying “You” while in prayer are an outcome of my explorations in the world of Jewish mindfulness. Through meditation, prayer, study, and observation, I’ve come to experience God not as other, but as All. Ein od – there is nothing else. How then, to speak to a separate being, a “You” when experience tells me that it’s all One?

    One option, which has worked for me up to a point, is to mentally “translate into monist.” While speaking to God as Other, I attempt to offer a running, internal commentary, hearing kavvanot in my head that allow me to reflect on the theme of that  particular prayer through the lens of my own theology. Often, these kavvonot present themselves in the Bronx-inflected lilt of my teacher, Sheila Peltz-Weinberg, a master at praying aloud in this way. As I speak the words, “Cause us, O Eternal God, to lie down in peace, and raise us up, O Sovereign, to life renewed…” my mind might be offering this prayer: “May this evening be one of attunement to YHWH, the Breath of All Life, and may that attunement manifest in me as a sense of peacefulness. Resting peacefully, may I be restored in body and spirit, so that I can stand up tomorrow with energy and strength to meet the day.” This practice works well for me on many levels, not the least of which is “keeping my head in the game” and not drifting toward a mindless rehearsal of words, disguised as religious leadership.

    And yet, what is so satisfying intellectually can sometimes leave me cold, emotionally. And since I believe that prayer is as much about the heart as the head, I’m going to try something very different each year. I’m going to offer up each “You” with all my heart and soul, and see what arises. My kavvanot as I take on this practice will come from two teachers, Alexander Susskind of Grodno (d. 1793) and Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (1889-1943).

    Susskind, a Lithuanian Kabbalist, wrote Yesod Veshoresh Ha’avodah, which explores various aspects of prayer and mindfulness. The selection below is anthologized in Yissachar Dov Rubin’s T’lalei Orot:

    When you say baruch atah imagine that the Creator is actually standing there, in your presence. That’s what’s implied in the second-person singular form, atah. This intention is an important part of praying, praising, and offering thanks. Don’t just “go through the motions!” Have it in mind when you say “Blessed are You…” that there really is a “You” confronting you. After all, “The fullness of the whole earth is God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3).

    The second text comes to us by way of the Warsaw Ghetto, and is from Sefer Aish Kodesh, the Shoah-era commentary of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piaseczno (1889-1943). On the opening verse of Ki Tezei, Shapira offers a beautiful and creative Hasidic rereading.

    “When you go to war against your enemies…” When you are in a bad place, in “wartime”…

    “..put ‘YHWH, your God’ in your hands…” Pray “You” from the depths of your heart. Take refuge in the fact that “YHWH is your God,” and that divinity is present to you, personally…

    “…and return, come back.” We pray, “Bring us back, O YHWH, to You,” and God says, “Return to me.” How is that accomplished? When we make God present in our prayers, we and God are returned to each other.

    Together, these teachings have helped me to recontextualize my struggle against saying “You” when I pray. I find in them – particularly in the Piaseczner – an invitation to be more imaginative at prayer. These mystics understood ein od just as I do (l’havdil….they understood it far more deeply!), and yet they invest their “You” with power and meaning. With their teachings in my repertoire, I find myself less concerned with reinterpreting my way toward some “theological correctness” when I encounter the metaphor of God as Other. Instead, see it for what it is: a metaphor.

    In saying “Blessed are You” to some Other, I no longer feel as though I’m denying reality as I understand it in light of my meditation cushion; rather I am affirming it in a new and profound way.

  • Integrity and Pride: We hang in the balance

    Posted on July 28th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments

    Recently, stories about integrity pride have made headline quite frequently. This week Professor Alyssa Gray, Associate Professor of Codes and Responsa Literature on the New York campus of HUC-JIR puts into the context of rabbinic thinking on these two challenging human impulses. She reminds us that in thinking about these how to manage our sense of pride there are no simple answers.

    Professor Alyssa Gray

    We like to think that our world operates in this day and age on principles more elevated than “might makes right.” Think again. Plenty of people believe and act on the idea that might does make right. Taking “might” to mean something other than physical or military strength—power derived from great wealth, or even athletic skill and celebrity—we see that public figures ranging from Tiger Woods to some Goldman Sachs executives (not to mention Bernard Madoff and co.) acted arrogantly on the implicit belief that their power entitled them to do and have whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, at whatever cost. Given some of what we’ve seen, the Rambam’s advice (Hilkhot Deot 2:3) that we behave with extreme self-deprecation so as to avoid arrogant pride looks sound. But it’s more complicated (as Rambam surely knew too): the same sense of self that can deteriorate into a toxic brew of arrogance and overreaching can be, in a person of better character, a vital component of the healthy sense of self of an accomplished individual.

    Reflections on pride, arrogance, and overreaching fill our Judaic and Western traditions, sometimes with confusing results. Who doesn’t (just a tiny bit) admire John Milton’s proud Satan in Paradise Lost (“What though the field be lost? All is not lost; the unconquerable will. . . .” Book I)? And that’s just one small quote. The Tanakh is less subtle in its assessment of the arrogance of power, as well as the arrogant’s inevitable (to the Tanakh) fall. That fall may be spectacular (think of Pharaoh and his armies at the Reed Sea), and at other times drawn-out and tragic (David’s sin with Bathsheba changed the narrative arc of his reign from one success after another to a reign in which he never again enjoyed a moment’s peace until his death). Kohelet’s pessimism notwithstanding, the overreaching arrogant don’t fare well in the Tanakh.

    Yet pride, arrogance, and their deleterious impact on one’s integrity aren’t only for the Tiger Woods(es) of this (and the Biblical) world. Let’s consider the consequences of lashing out in response to wounded personal pride, a wound we all suffer at one time or another. In the rabbinic narrative of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the chain of events culminating in the destruction is kicked off by the (not then famous) Bar Kamza’s false report to the Roman Emperor that the Jews were rebelling, which he made in order to get even with the rabbis for his public humiliation, which they witnessed but did not stop (BT Git. 56a). This is a cautionary tale in which Bar Kamza’s justifiably hurt pride led him to an ill-considered act with unforeseen consequences. In another cautionary tale, R. Eleazar b. R. Shimon, puffed up with pride because of all the Torah he had learned, thoughtlessly insulted a man by calling him “ugly” (BT Tan. 20a-b). Although he immediately regretted what came out of his mouth and begged forgiveness, the injured man stubbornly refused until R. Eleazar’s townspeople (=his “congregation”) intervened. R. Eleazar’s justifiable pride in his accomplishments turned him “ugly” while the man’s justifiable hurt turned him truly “ugly” when he unjustifiably refused to forgive. Careful response to wounded pride is also of halakhic concern. Rambam teaches (Hilkhot Matanot Aniyyim 10:19) that one who refuses to take tzedakah even though he or she literally cannot live without it is a shedder of blood, liable for his or her own death. While Rambam sees the reluctance to accept help from others as admirable even if it means that one lives right at the edge, that pride becomes sin when it becomes an obstacle to continuing to live.

    Between the extremes of Rambam’s exhortation to self-deprecation and the arrogance of pride and power lies a healthy sense of self that includes an awareness of one’s abilities/status/good points, etc., and a true humility that keeps one from seeing those things as justifications for taking advantage of other people or for seeing oneself as superior to them. For (Talmudic) example: While a strong sense of self-confidence is vital to leadership, the rabbis saw humility as equally indispensable, inveighing against leaders who behave tyrannically toward their communities (e.g., BT Rosh Hashanah 17a), and teaching through stories of failed rabbinic leadership that the failure may have been due to a want of humility (e.g., Rabban Gamliel on BT Ber. 27b-28a). While taking pride in knowledge is found wherever there are teachers and students, humility is equally vital to doing that sacred work; to borrow a phrase from another context—if you don’t know something, “Teach your tongue to say, ‘I don’t know’” (Kallah Rabbati 4:22) and, if you’re a teacher, recognize the truth that often one really does learn most from one’s students (BT Tan. 7a). (If you’re a student, recognize that you can learn from the teacher too! That’s on BT Tan. 7a as well.) There is no better advice for all of us—wealthy, powerful, and not so much—than the well-known words of the Hasidic R. Simcha Bunim of Pshiskhe: In one pocket carry the words “The world was created for me” and in the other “I am but dust and ashes.”

  • Saying Sorry: On the Meaning of Forgiveness and Forgiving

    Posted on July 20th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment

    This week’s installment in our Saying  Sorry series comes from Dr. Dalia Marx,  assistant professor of Liturgy and Midrash at the Jerusalem campus of HUC-JIR. Marx’s expert understanding of liturgy brings us back to a fundamental question in the process of teshuvah, the relationship between the forgiver and the one asking for forgiveness.

    It takes two to forgive –one who requests forgiveness and one who grants it. Forgiving is a two way process – it is a inter-personal social act, aimed at mending an injured relationship. In this sense, forgiving is a speech act, a thing we do with words, as John L. Austin put it. The intention is not enough; it has to be clearly articulated, as Dr. Rick Sarason taught in his blog post. At the same time, forgiving is a self reflective ongoing process. Even when we know we need to forgive, some times our soul is reluctant to do so.

    Dr. Dalia Marx

    Forgiving is both an act and a process, an interpersonal affair and a personal matter. What do we do when we know that we should forgive but still are resistant to doing so? Can it be that granting forgiveness (to somebody) and forgiving (in our hearts) are two completely different things? Don’t we sometimes doubt that we can forgive those who wronged us, truly forgive them?

    Furthermore, forgiving is possible only when there is injustice, injury or insult. Paradoxically, grave injury begs magnanimous forgiveness but at the same time makes it harder for the offended party, who may feel that it is unjustified, to forgive,. Can this paradox be mitigated? More so – this depicts an alienated world, a world in which each side of the equation is alone in dealing with his/her own perspective of the unfortunate encounter.

    Yotam Benziman, an Israeli philosophy professor, suggests a useful direction. He claims that one cannot nullify the pain, and that regretting and repenting will not “make things right”. Instead of “forgiving and forgetting”, Benziman suggests a “dialogic forgiveness”. The offender is dependent on the offended for forgiveness because s/he can’t forgive her/himself (although there are those who claim that this is possible). The offended party must forgive the offender precisely because s/he offended him/her. This specific bond is unique to this relationship – both carry the burden of it and no one else is part of it.

    The Hebrew term לבקש סליחה (asking for forgiveness), reflects the dependence of the offender on the offended party for forgiveness; one can’t force forgiveness, one may request.

    Benziman’s proposal rejects the New-Age notion according to which “we are all in charge” and therefore “we are all guilty”, and consequently “no one is [really] guilty”. The relationship between the parties is not egalitarian but it can be,  if the offended agrees to relate to the offender as an individual, – one who chose to do wrong and now chooses to atone for it and to make things right.

    סליחה, forgiveness is possible only between two individuals who believe that we have the ability and the responsibility to make choices.