Friday, October 29, 2010

On the 15th Anniversary of the Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin

On the 15th Anniversary of the Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin

"You don't make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavory enemies." (Yitzhak Rabin)

This next week Israel marks the 15th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's (za'l) assassination at the hands of an Israeli nationalist settler. This was a tragedy and trauma for the entire Jewish people. Even if one did not support Rabin's policies as prime minister, the use of violence to alter a democratic form of government is an extremist anti-democratic act. Israeli democracy has survived the trauma, but it has left lots of scars and even a few festering sores.

I bring Rabin's well known quote because I think it is still true. Peace remains elusive in the Middle East. Rabin, in my opinion, demonstrated the courage to forge the prospects of peace despite years of bitter war and terror. He did foster a dialogue with the Palestinians, which while badly frayed, continues to this day. Rabin was credible because he was a warrior. He was a leading general of the IDF and had fought in all of Israel's wars of its first two decades. He was a tough leader, but as a peace maker he commanded credibility.

He also aroused harsh venom of his Israeli enemies, especially the extremist Jewish settlers and the National Religious right. In 1994, the year after the Oslo accords and the year before his assassination, I had a sabbatical in Israel with my family. I recall the incendiary posters in every Jerusalem neighborhood depicting Rabin, the prime minister, in Nazi uniform or wearing the kafiyeh of a Palestinian terrorist. Settler Rabbis and extremists were calling for violent resistance and dramatic acts. I remember the vitriolic and irresponsible statements of various politicians during this period. When Rabin was assassinated the next year, I was beside myself, but not surprised given the ominous political atmosphere that I witnessed in Israel in the months prior to the tragic event.

Democracies are vulnerable when the political dialogue become poisonous, venomous, and demagogic. I see some worrisome signs in our own political culture, especially in the extreme and outlandish characterizations of President Obama. It is one thing to oppose his policies, it is another to call him a Muslim in order to manipulate prejudices, to gain votes, or to create general hysteria.

We still do not fully appreciate the historical legacy of Yitzhak Rabin and his unfortunate end. His death was a national and historic tragedy. It will take years to fathom all the implications of his assassination as dramatic events continue to unfold in Israel and the Middle East. We can only hope that the trauma of his last day will be an eternal warning to the Jewish people not to resort to a violence between Jew and Jew. We can only hope that Israel will be fortunate to be led by courageous and wise leaders who can negotiate the tricky and complicated paths to maintain its security and well being.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Friday, October 22, 2010

God Will Wait!

Greater is Hospitality to Wayfarers than Receiving the Divine Presence.
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, Parshat Vayera 10/22/10
14 Heshvan, 5771

This week we are living with Parshat Vaera, one of the great portions of the Torah. It includes the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, the trials of Hagar and Yishmael, and the promise, birth, and the binding of Isaac. These chapters have received the attention of scholars, poets, musicians, and artists for centuries. I will add my small contribution by focusing this week on the beginning chapter, 18. Here are the first four verses.

1. And the Lord appeared to him [Abraham] in the plains of Mamre; and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; 2. And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the ground, 3. And said, My Lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, pass not away, I beseech you, from your servant;4. Let a little water, I beseech you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree;

In this text, we see Abraham getting up (he was actually hobbled from his circumcision according to Rashi) to greet the guests who we learn later are angels sent by God. The bolded "My Lord" is the word in Hebrew, "Adonai", not spelled with the tetragrammaton, the four letter name of God, but the Hebrew word alef dalet nun, yud, which actually means "my Lords" or "my Sirs". In Tractate Shevu'ot in the Talmud there is a debate on how to read this word. I bring the passage with footnotes from the Soncino translation of the Talmud.

"All the Names mentioned in Scripture in connection with Abraham are sacred, except this which is secular: it is said; And he said, ‘My lord, if now I have found favor in thy sigh.8 Hanina, the son of R. Joshua's brother, and R. Eleazar b. Azariah in the name of R. Eliezer of Modin, said, this also is sacred.9 With whom will [the following] agree? Rab Judah said that Rab said: Greater is hospitality to wayfarers than receiving the Divine Presence. With whom [will this agree]? With this pair.10"
 (8) Gen. XVIII, 3; Abraham was addressing the chief of the three men who came towards him: according to midrash they were the angels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.
(9) He was addressing the Lord.
(10) R. Hanina and R. Eleazar who say that Abraham addressed the Lord, asking Him not to withdraw His Presence while he entertained the angels.

One view in the Talmud text sees "Adonai" as 'my sirs', which means that Abraham is talking to the men (angels). The other view is that Adonai is actually God, the same God who appeared to Abraham is being addressed by Abraham. Those who hold this view come up with a famous Talmudic and Jewish saying, " "Greater is hospitality to wayfarers than receiving the Divine Presence." Abraham has the Hutzpah to ask God who appeared to him to wait while he entertains his guests (who ironically are angels sent by God).

As many of you know, hospitality is my signature mitzvah, my most beloved mitzvah. I have emphasized this mitzvah in encouraging our members to host Shabbat dinners at home and at synagogue. I believe that this mitzvah is our "holy entertainment", our way of receiving people and sharing the holiness of Shabbat. God so loves this mitzvah, that he waits for Abraham to fulfill it.

My philosophy of community is centered on fostering a welcoming and inviting atmosphere that emphasizes the joy of Judaism and the joy of Shabbat. I think this one of the core teachings and practices of what it means to be a Jew. Without it our synagogues and homes lose the spark that make Judaism distinctive, beautiful, and attractive as a religious tradition. Consider making your home and our shul more welcoming. Make your table a place for celebration and welcoming guests. God will wait and actually if you notice carefully, will be in the room as you celebrate.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Learn with Me: Two Worthy Torah Commentaries

Two Rich Sources of Torah Insight for 5771/2010-11
Rabbi Gartenberg

Each year, as the Torah reading cycle starts anew I try to set aside time to study at least a commentary on the Torah I have not yet studied. This year I have chosen two commentaries, both modern, but very different. The first are the current writings of the brilliant Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks. He has a weekly commentary on the Torah portion called "Covenant and Conversation" and a recent hard cover book with essays of his weekly commentaries on the Book of Genesis. I will be sharing insights from Rabbi Sacks on Shabbat mornings. You can directly access his illuminating writings on the weekly Torah portion at: You can follow his writings portion by portion. I encourage you to read along with me. I am also glad to sit with anyone to study these lovely writings filled with insight.

For this week I will be referring to a beautiful presentation on Noach. Look at this one by clicking on the link:

The second commentary I am studying is by a great and recently deceased Hasidic master,
R. Shalom Noach Berezovsky (1911-2000) who wrote Netivot Shalom (Paths of Peace). Here is a brief description of R. Shalom Noach's approach to illuminating the Torah by Rabbi Jonathan Slater,

I bring you a sample of R. Shalom Noach's insight on this week's portion, Noah. You may recall my Yom Kippur sermon on surfing. I think Reb Shalom Noach has some great insight about getting through hard times. I also point your attention to the underlined section below. On Sunday, Nov. 17th we begin the Mitzvah Initiative which will focus on the notion of Signature Mitzvah-what Reb Shalom Noach calls being fully devoted to one thing. This is a particularly striking description of what it means to be devoted to one Mitzvah that can define our lives. For more information about the Mitzvah Initiative go to:

"There is yet another matter that we are to learn from the story of Noah’s Ark. The Torah is instruction for life, teaching each individual how to live. We might fall to a degree that we are like the generation of the Flood (in which the earth had become corrupt before God). We look at ourselves and see that we have sunk to the lowest depths, and are completely disfigured, the corruption surrounding our little world completely. Similarly, it may be that the whole of the Jewish people have fallen to such a low state. The response to this: “make yourself an ark”. Understand this in light of the teaching of my master, the tzaddik, the author of Birkat Avraham, on the verse (Ps. 37:10): “A little longer and there will be no wicked man (od me’at ve’ein rasha); [you will look at where he was— he will be gone]”. In every Jew there is some small bit that is still not bad (od me’at ve’ein rasha), a small portion of vitality due through which one is able to turn back and build one’s spiritual world once again. How loving of God to have planted in us even one spark from above from which we gain incomparable powers. No matter how coarse we may have become, it is in our power to rise up due to that spark in us.

That spark, that little bit that has still not become bad, can be a Noah’s Ark to save us from a generation like that of the Flood. This is the quality of being fully devoted to one thing (chasid ledavar echad), where we have one particular practice that we uphold and preserve no matter what, even in the worst possible circumstances, never turning back…. This can be likened to someone who is drowning in the sea, and a plank from the sunken ship floats by, which saves him. If we have even one thing that we keep with all of our might, no matter what, we can be saved from even the worst possible situations…. God gave us the power to choose and thereby implanted incomparable power in us, so that even in the worst situations (even when “The earth becomes corrupt before God”), we have the power to return to our root-source, which serves as our “Noah’s Ark”…. (Translation by Rabbi Jonathan Slater, Institute for Jewish Spirituality)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Anti Social

Followup about Facebook

I came across this new computer application yesterday which caused me to laugh.

"Anti-Social is a neat little productivity application for Macs that turns off the social parts of the internet. When Anti-Social is running, you’re locked away from hundreds of distracting social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter and other sites you specify. With Anti-Social, you’ll be amazed how much work you get done when you turn off your friends."

Please read my High Holiday sermon about Too Many Friends on the theme of Facebook and Jewish notions of friendship. "Turn off your friends" used to have different connotations, but I sounds like social networks are getting out to control. As someone who writes a lot, I have had to learn some anti-social behavior. It used to be turning off the phone. Now it is turning off social network sites so I don't have to see what my "friends" are doing every minute of their days.

Speaking of Facebook, I saw Social Network on Sunday night. The film conveys the irony that the Facebook revolution was brought about by the genius and anti-social behavior of its founder, Mark Zuckerberg. Even though the movie is fictional, it entertains by depicting the Facebook creator as a jerk who is self-serving, who runs through relationships like an icebreaker in the Arctic. The essential value that triumphs is the instrumental use of others for one's purposes. See below for a Jewish view that refuses to countenance instrumentality in relationships.

Recent sermon on Facebook

Too Many Friends

First Day Rosh Hashanah Sermon, 5771/2010

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

The other day I looked at my Facebook page. Facebook, for those who do not use computers, is an internet social network website with 500 million users. Facebook users can add people as friends and send them messages, and update their personal profiles to notify friends about themselves. On a Facebook page you receive suggestions about people, using the parlance of our time, that you can ‘friend’.

The singer-songwriter, Debbie Friedman, appeared on my Facebook page as a prospective friend. Debbie and I have many ‘Facebook Friends’ in common. Since I have known Debbie since the 80s, I clicked on her photo to add her as a friend and got this message from Facebook. “Debbie Friedman has too many friends.”

It certainly is a milestone in the internet era when Facebook decides you have too many friends. That means you have 5000 friends, the trigger for the “too many friends” message. While social scientists tell us that the human brain can only sustain approximately 150 stable social relationships, friendship in the Facebook age has been totally redefined. One feature of the Facebook age is the rise of the social network of friends, a group of dozens, hundreds, or thousands who you communicate and share information with over the internet on a regular basis.

This change in the way people see social relations is aided by the ease in which we can maintain social relations with modern technology. Consider these advances.

I can skype my family and friends across continents. The limit of voice only communication has been overcome with the widely available technology to see and hear the person on your computer screen wherever she is. Connections are instantaneous, virtual, and visible and soon coming to your cellphone. (Imagine if Yosef and Yaakov had Skype during those 21 years of separation)
I can meet, befriend, and even establish relationships on the internet with its unique power of sites to filter and organize information. Most of the weddings I do these days are with couples who met on internet dating sites like Jdate or Sites like Jdate create a virtual social gathering where you meet people with likeminded interests. (Imagine if Samson had Jdate. He would have not had to date hostile Phillistine femme fatales.)
I can send tweets of 140 words about anything I want to my followers. This is why we had such a large counter rally earlier this year when we were picketed by a virulently anti-Semitic group, the Westboro Baptist Church. The hundred plus counter demonstrators used Twitter and Facebook to notify people of the picketing. Text messaging enables instantaneous organizing which explains why repressive governments make this technology illegal. (What would have happened if Moshe could tweet during his confrontations with Pharoah. “Frogs hopping, stay inside!”)
Speed Friending: It easy to make friends and to make them fast. The Facebook age is the quickened process for meeting, friending, and relating to others. Previous impediments of place, social circles, age hardly matter.
Friendship as a commodity. With Facebook we have the ability to quantify our friendships. Like anything quantifiable, people attach prestige and the aura of success based on accumulations like we do with money and things. Therefore a person who has 3000 friends is somehow better than someone who has 25.
Friendship can even become a fantasy. I can create a new identity on sites like Second Life in the form of an avatar and seek out virtual relationships with other avatars. We can now have fantasy friendships.

Even with all the social benefits that come with the Facebook Age, our tradition teaches us to be skeptical of the false gods that are promoted in every generation. Our generation is no different. Jewish teachings on friendship question the promises and allure of connection in the Facebook age. The Jewish understanding does not stem from a Luddite hatred of technology, but a wise view on the nature and limits of true friendship.

Consider this passage in Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Sages), “Get yourself a friend.” Kneh Lecha Haver.

Pirkei Avot is a compendium of the moral and spiritual wisdom from the Rabbis of antiquity. It establishes a fact about friendship. You have to make an effort to make and sustain friendships. The attachment of friendship is a good. But how do we acquire a friend?

A commentary to Pirkei Avot elaborates. To acquire a friend “implies that a person is to get himself a companion who will eat with him, drink with him, read Scripture with him, study Mishnah with him, sleep next to him, and disclose all his secrets to him, secrets of Torah and secrets of worldly matters. Thus, when the two sit and occupy themselves with Torah, if one errs in Halakhah or in the substance of a chapter……his companion will bring him back [to right thinking], as is said, ‘Two are better than one, in that they have greater benefit from their labor’ (Eccles. 4:9). Avot 1:6; ARN 8.

The first on the list is eating and drinking together. That’s hard to do on the internet. What it means is face time. This seems obvious to us Neanderthals who lived before cyber reality, but no champion of virtual relationships can convince me that you can really befriend someone without face time. Physical presence is necessary for friendship to blossom.

This is how we can understand our text’s comment about the need to sleep next to one another. I don’t understand this in the erotic sense, but rather that friendship develops only after significant time, not just high moments, but of long hours of low energy, or simply being around each other in the unfolding of daily life.

Friending takes time. You can’t get around this. This text suggests that friending is a slow process of accumulated time spent getting to know another. Perhaps you have heard of the ‘Slow Eating’ Movement. The idea is to create an alternative to the fast food culture with the intention of restoring relaxed, healthy, and social gathering to the act of eating. Judaism offers the way of slow friending as an alternative to the contemporary culture’s embrace of fast friending or instantaneous social networking.

A friend according to the text is someone who sharpens my understanding. Thus the Havruta, the study partner, has the role of correcting his or her partner. But this correcting is face to face. One of the unfortunate features of the internet age is the ease, in which we can criticize, berate, and flame people without seeing their faces.

I read a story recently about the decline of social amity among college freshman roommates. It appears that the internet generation has lost the ability to resolve roommate conflicts through face to face discussion. The article reports that more often than not roommates in conflict resort to email or Facebook page confrontations. College officials note that this reliance on internet communications leads to higher rates of conflict in which dorm RAs are forced to intervene to resolve.

The power of internet communications to create havoc and destroy relationships is all around us, even in synagogue life in which I have seen all too many times relationships torn asunder by nasty and accusatory emails. The Internet is as destabilizing of relationships and communities as it is constructive in speeding communications and collaboration.

People use the internet to express anger or criticism, because it is easier to communicate this way than face to face. But real friendship or resolution of conflict is best resolved face to face as the commentary to Pirkei Avot points out. Face to face correction allows people in strained relationships to take in all emotional and sensory inputs and to apply some self-restraint in the delivery of criticism and the response to it.

What have we learned about Jewish views of friendship?

Friendship doesn’t just happen. It requires effort, significant together time, and physical presence. Friendship requires periods of unrushed, non-instrumental time, the suspension of the regular marketplace and working conditions we live in during most of our week and most of our lives. Jewish tradition teaches that when we alter our pace of life on a regular basis we create the conditions for true friendship to flourish.

True friendship involves the ability to lovingly disagree or criticize our friends. Jewish sources see friendship as more than sharing information or personal chemistry. Friendship develops from time spent together engaged in a mutually shared common pursuit in which two persons acquire wisdom, pursue a common cause, or share a common life. To really live we must be open to challenging and questioning each other in the pursuit of truth and understanding.

The internet technologies of the 21st century are truly amazing and bring many benefits. Many of us love our gadgets and the amazing things they do. But I am a great believer in the Jewish teaching of slow and honest friendship remains true despite all the allure of new social technologies.

Jewish notions of friendship should instill in us wariness about the claims and promises of technologically driven relationships. Our tradition wisely identifies the conditions for establishing enduring, deep, and meaningful relationships and friendships.

On this Rosh Hashannah we begin the effort to make Teshuvah-to repair the most important relationships in our lives. This is the time when we should also give attention to our dearest friends. Perhaps we have neglected them. Perhaps we have been unkind. Perhaps we have taken them for granted. Make Teshuvah with your friends, not by email or Facebook, but face to face if you can, or at least with a phone or a skype call. This is no idle matter. The Rabbis were fond of saying. Havruta or Mituta. Friendship or Death. Without true friendship it is as if we are dead.

It is therefore not surprising to understand that Jewish tradition conceives of the human and divine relationship as a friendship. True, on the Days of Awe we depict God as a King or a Father, but on Shabbat we sing to God as a Yedid Nefesh-the friend of our soul. Can we indeed ‘friend’ God? Not on Facebook and not in the impoverished way our age understands friendship. Rather to friend God is to know that God desires true and enduring human fellowship and friendship. By cultivating authentic friendship we imitate God and also create the opportunity to friend God in our quest for the most enduring relationship possible.