Thursday, February 17, 2011

Some Reflections on the Tensions of Rabbinic Leadership




Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers this week on Ki Tisa an wonderful reflection on the nature of rabbinic leadership in his study of Aaron and Moses. I share a paraphrased version of his observations followed by a personal response to his insights.  RDG



Ki Tissa tells of one of the most shocking moments of the forty years in the wilderness when – less than six weeks after the greatest revelation in the history of religion, Israel's encounter with God at Mount Sinai – they made a golden calf. Either this was idolatry or perilously close to it, and it caused God to say to Moses, who was with him on the mountain, "Now do not try to stop Me when I unleash my wrath against them to destroy them" (32: 10).


What is the role played by Aaron in this incident? He who was the de facto leader of the people in the absence of Moses, and it is he whom the Israelites approached with their proposal:


The people began to realize that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, 'Make us a god [or an oracle] to lead us. We have no idea what happened to Moses, the man who brought us out of Egypt.' (32: 1)


It was Aaron who should have seen the danger, Aaron who should have stopped them, Aaron who should have told them to wait, have patience and trust. Instead this is what happened:


Aaron answered them, "Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me." So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf. Then they said, "'This, Israel, is your god, who brought you out of Egypt,' When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord." So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented peace offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. (32: 2-6)


The Torah itself seems to blame Aaron, if not for what he did then at least for what he allowed to happen:


Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. (32: 25)


Keep in mind that Aaron was not an insignificant figure in the Torah. He had shared the burden of leadership with Moses ever since God promised him to help a reluctant Moses back at the burning bush. He had either already become or was about to be appointed High Priest. What then was in his mind while this drama was being enacted?


Essentially there are three lines of defence in the Midrash, the Zohar and the medieval commentators. According to the first, Aaron was playing for time. His actions were a series of delaying tactics. He told the people to take the gold earrings their wives, sons and daughters were wearing, reasoning to himself: "While they are quarrelling with their children and wives about the gold, there will be a delay and Moses will come" (Zohar).


The second defence is to be found in the Talmud and is based on the fact that when Moses departed to ascend the mountain he left not just Aaron but also Hur in charge of the people (Ex. 24: 14). Yet Hur does not figure in the narrative of the golden calf. According to the Talmud, Hur had opposed the people, telling them that what they were about to do was wrong, and was then killed by them. Aaron saw this and decided that proceeding with the making of the calf was the lesser of two evils:


Aaron saw Hur lying slain before him and said to himself: If I do not obey them, they will do to me what they did to Hur, and so will be fulfilled [the fear of] the prophet, "Shall the priest [=Aaron] and the prophet [=Hur] be slain in the Sanctuary of God?" (Lamentations 2: 20). If that happens, they will never be forgiven. Better let them worship the golden calf, for which they may yet find forgiveness through repentance. (Sanhedrin 7a)


The third, argued by Ibn Ezra, is that the calf was not an idol at all, and what the Israelites did was, in Aaron's view, permissible. After all, their initial complaint was, "We have no idea what happened to Moses." They did not want a god-substitute but a Moses-substitute, an oracle, something through which they could discern God's instructions – not unlike the function of the Urim and Tummim that were later given to the High Priest. Ibn Ezra explains the verse that says, , "This is your god who brought you out of Egypt," as the claims of a small minority – – and for them Aaron could not be blamed.


So there is a systematic attempt in the history of interpretation to mitigate or minimise Aaron's culpability – inevitably so, since we do not find explicitly that Aaron was punished for the golden calf. But we come away from these apologetics with the definite impression that Aaron was weak.


"Do not be angry, my lord," Aaron answered. "You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, 'Make us a god who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him.' So I told them, 'Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.' Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!" (32: 22-24)


Aaron blames the people. He suggests he had no choice. He was passive. Things happened. He minimizes the significance of what has transpired. This is weakness, not leadership.


This depiction in the Torah does not square with the way later tradition made Aaron a hero, most famously in the words of Rabbi Hillel quoted in Pirkei Avot:


Be like the disciples of Aaron, loving peace, pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them close to the Torah. (Avot 1: 12)


There are famous aggadic traditions about Aaron and how he was able to turn enemies into friends and sinners into observers of the law. The Sifra says that Aaron never said to anyone, "You have sinned" – all the more remarkable since one of the tasks of the High Priest was, once a year on Yom Kippur, to atone for the sins of the nation.


Yet these Midrashic flourishes are explicitly absent in the Humash.


We may get more insight from this observation in Talmud Sanhedrin 6b on the topic of the preferability of mediation as opposed to litigation in disputes. The Talmud presents this as a conflict between two role models, Moses and Aaron:


Moses's motto was: Let the law pierce the mountain. Aaron, however, loved peace and pursued peace and made peace between man and man.


Moses was a man of law, Aaron of mediation . Moses was a man of truth, Aaron of peace. Moses sought justice, Aaron sought conflict resolution. There is a real difference between these two approaches. Truth, justice, law: these are zero-sum equations. If X is true, Y is false. If X is in the right, Y is in the wrong. Mediation, conflict resolution, compromise, the Aaron-type virtues, are all attempts at a non-zero outcome in which both sides feel that they have been heard and their claim has, at least in part, been honoured. The Talmud puts it brilliantly by way of a comment on the phrase:


אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפַּט שָׁלוֹם שִׁפְטוּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם:

"Judge truth and the justice of peace in your gates" (Zechariah 8: 16):


On this the Talmud asks what the phrase "the justice of peace" can possibly mean. "If there is justice, there is no peace. If there is peace, there is no justice. What is the 'justice of peace'? This means mediation."


Now let's go back to Moses, Aaron and the golden calf. Although it is clear that God and Moses regarded the calf as a major sin, Aaron's willingness to pacify the people – trying to delay them, sensing that if he simply said No they would kill him and make it anyway – was not wholly wrong. To be sure, at that moment the people needed a Moses, not an Aaron. But under other circumstances and in the long run they needed both: Moses as the voice of truth and justice, Aaron with the people-skills to conciliate and make peace.


That is how Aaron eventually emerged in the long hindsight of tradition, as the peace-maker. Peace is not the only virtue, and peacemaking not the only task of leadership. We must never forget that when Aaron was left to lead, the people made a golden calf. But never think, either, that a passion for truth and justice is sufficient. Moses needed an Aaron to hold the people together. In short, leadership is the capacity to hold together different temperaments, conflicting voices and clashing values.


Jonathan Sacks makes a lovely observation to conclude his commentary,


Every leadership team needs both a Moses and an Aaron, a voice of truth and a force for peace.


Rabbi Gartenberg's Conclusion (Mah Nafka Mina)


Rabbi Sacks observations are very pertinent to any congregation seeking rabbinic leadership. The problem is that congregations can't hire both Moshe and Aaron. While every rabbi ought to strive to be a splendid integration of Moshe and Aaron, the truth is that every rabbi leans toward one or the other approach. Rabbis take these roles seriously and try to integrate the two as best as possible. But it is very hard even though congregants expect a lot out of their rabbis; perhaps more than is reasonable.


As TBS searches for a new Rabbi it might be good to ask yourselves whether you need a more priestly Rabbi in the tradition of Aaron, or a prophetic Rabbi in the tradition of Moshe. It is very had to have both in one person. That is a hard question to answer, but worth thinking about to make the best choice possible moving forward.



Rabbi Dov Gartenberg









Wednesday, February 16, 2011

2011-02-11 Catch Me I'm Falling: Judaism and Mental Illness

This sermon is dedicated in memory of Scott Peck who passed away last year and struggled his adult life with serious mental illness. May he be remembered for a blessing.

This is an excerpt from a song from the Pulitzer Prize winning musical, Next to Normal called Catch Me, I'm Falling.

Maybe I'll let myself fall

Watch me I'm falling


Maybe the falling

Isn't so bad after all

Isn't so bad after all

Watch me I'm falling

Watch me I'm flying

Somehow surviving

DR. MADDEN (spoken, overlapping)

We may need to look at

A new drug regimen

You have to continue taking medicine


If you leave it untreated, it may be catastrophic.

Diana (spoken)

I've had this lovely and fascinating relationship with you doctors

and your treatments for 16 years but now I think

I'm done.

DR. MADDEN (spoken)

Diana, medicine isn't perfect, but it's what we have.

DIANA (spoken)

Goodbye Dr. Madden.

Diana is a mother who refuses to let go of the illusion that her dead son is still alive after 16 years. She suffers from delusions and depression. They are a very vivid example of our popular culture confronting the impact of mental illness on families.

Our tradition acknowledges the pain and impact of mental illness. As Rabbi Jeffrey Rosen writes,

"All the gates are locked except for the gates of ona'ah [a person crying out in pain]

Baba Metziah 59B

This statement from Baba Metziah poignantly highlights the anguish which is so often felt by

both families and individuals who experience mental illness. Because of the stigma and fears

associated with mental illness, both the person with the disease and their family feel isolated and

shamed. Those who suffer from mental illness often speak of the feeling of being a pariah, of feeling excluded. Of all the parts of the body, the mind is the one least well known – almost as if a line has been drawn across the neck and everything below is researched and the mind is left alone. Only at the end of the twentieth century has any significant money has been applied to brain research." (For a sterling example of education on this matter, see Charlie Rose's The Brain Series)

According to Rabbi Jeffrey Rosen who is also a mental health researcher, mental illness is an equal-opportunity disease knowing no distinction according to wealth, social class or education. One in four families knows the pain when someone in their family experiences serious and prolonged mental illness. One in ten people experiences some form of mental illness in their lives, the most pronounced form being clinical depression, which is a biological disease like diabetes.

If it is true that one in four families are affected by prolonged mental illness, it must be the case that of our 165 households at least 40 would be affected by mental illness. Yet very few people disclose this unique challenge to their rabbis. Many of my colleagues corroborate my experience in synagogues. We generally know when someone has cancer or heart disease or one of many physical ailments, but we hardly hear of congregants suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or the variety of serious mental ailments that can afflict us.

The first onset of mental illness is on average at the age of 18 to 19. In contrast to when a family has a child affected by autism or down syndrome, the condition is identified early in the child's life. Families make painful adjustments in the expectations they have for that child. It is vastly different for the family who experiences mental illness. The child has often travelled through the normal stages of

development with perhaps some minor hiccups. The parents develop dreams – and what good

Jewish parent does not have dreams for their child?

Then suddenly or over time a disabling condition emerges. Their child struggles for years which often includes failure in school, difficulties with peers, or maladaptive behavior. These require seeking the right medical help, trying to find the right medications, treatment, or even special programs that deal with the illness. Families spend years living on the treatment roller coaster as a family member goes in and out of hospitals and treatment facilities. This also places enormous financial strain on families which discover that mental illness is not covered in the way that physical illness is.

Meanwhile the mentally ill person struggles to live a normal life, or even pursue ambitious goals, but is often waylaid by a depression or psychosis. In unfortunately many cases the mental illness are so debilitating that a person's dreams are shattered and he is unable to live a normal life.

Next to Normal gives testimony to the long struggle that a family faces as the mother goes up and down while the father and the daughter struggle to maintain.

What is mental illness?

Mental illness is a term used to describe a group of disorders causing severe disturbances in

thinking, feeling and/or relating. Often the result is a substantially diminished capacity for

coping with the ordinary demands of life. The causes of mental illness are not fully understood.

The evidence shows that the brain's neurotransmitters do not function properly due to a

chemical imbalance in the brain. This is comparable to other imbalances that cause illnesses in

other parts of the body. Other factors which may contribute in vulnerable people include

heredity and stress, and the use of 'recreational drugs', alcohol, or tramua of various kinds.

There are different types of mental illness. They differ in their symptoms, their degree of

severity, and their effects on each person's life. The effect is not only on the person but those

around them, the family as well as the work environment. Schizophrenia is not multiple

personality disorder but rather a situation where the person has delusions and hallucinations

and is often coupled with paranoia. One person in a hundred experiences schizophrenia. The

mood disorders include mania, manic depression and clinical depression (which is different from

episodal depression). One in ten people experiences clinical depression in their lifetime. Among

all psychiatric disorders, people suffering depression are most prone to suicide, Anxiety

disorders cover a wide range of mental illnesses and include phobias, general anxiety disorder,

panic disorders, obsessive–compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress. Approximately one

in twelve people are affected by one of the anxiety disorders.

Adding together these proportions, we discern that approximately one in every five people

experiences one form of mental illness or another. The cost to society due to lost wages,

demands on health care systems, social service needs, etc. are enormous, and in the United States

have been estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

Since the causes of mental illness are not fully known, there is little effective prevention.

As with diabetes and many other physical diseases, many symptoms of mental illness can be

controlled with medication, and there is an ever-widening array of medications available for

mental illness. While drugs are not cures, they markedly reduce symptoms for most people.

Research to determine the causes and to plan strategies for prevention and rehabilitation are

progressing. Proper treatment may substantially improve the functioning of persons with these

illnesses, and in some cases the patient may completely recover.

A Jewish Understanding of Mental Illness

Rabbi Rosen helps us to understand the challenge of mental illness in his retelling of the famous Talmudic story of the four rabbis who enter 'pardes'. Just as Ben Azzai, Ben Zomma, Elisha ben Abuya and Rabbi Akiba experienced different outcomes in paradise; there are different possible outcomes for the person experiencing mental illness. Rabbi Akiba represents those who recover completely (about one-third of people who experience schizophrenia only have one episode); Ben Zoma may symbolize those who can be part of society with the help of medication while suffering periodic breakdowns and disruptions to their lives. Rabbi Elisha Ben Abuye symbolizes those who live, but suffer chronically and whose outlook on life has changed permanently from their illness. Ben Azzai who died upon reaching paradise represents those who and some never return from their own

world to be part of ours.

Theologically we all struggle when these diseases occur. It is obviously not a struggle between

the Yetzer Hara [evil inclination] and the Yetzer Tov [good inclination]. The biological process

which leads to mental illness is something over which the person has no control. We think of the

world as something created by God, but left in human hands. Chemical imbalances and genetic

predisposition to mental illness are unfortunate realities of this imperfect world. Maimonides understood this reality of the world as" kminhago ha'olam nohag. - The world continues according to its way." While God created the Universe and watches over it, God lets things progress, including genetic change.

How then should we be sensitive to mental illness in our congregation and in communal Jewish life? Our tradition challenges us to bring all Jews into the community of Israel. The Jewish community has made improvements in supporting people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities. But we have not been so effective with persons with mental illness. It is only when we confront the stigmas of our society that we will enable the days of the messiah to approach, for our congregations will be a 'house of prayer for all peoples'7 without discrimination and open to Klal Yisrael.

As someone who has experienced severe mental illness in my family, I have as a rabbi tried to model a specific rabbinic response to mental illness. These insights I share with Rabbi Rosen.

• be an information and referral source;

• let the family know they are not alone;

• avoid being judgmental;

• refrain from offering simplistic solutions to complex problems;

• be supportive of the entire family, including those members who infrequently come to

services, as these are the people who may feel the most isolated;

• encourage the family to continue to be a part of congregational life.

On a congregational level, we need to be compassionate. That is why it is important that we have a Hevrat Hesed in the congregation to help families facing both physical and mental illness. One example in mental illness cases is providing meals for a family in which a family member is hospitalized for a mental illness. Oftentimes these stays are longer than hospital stays for other types of illnesses, thus the strain on families is greater.

Congregants should encourage fellow congregants who suffer from mental illness or their families to come to speak to the Rabbi and to come to worship and other gatherings at the synagogue. Be a companion, offer an ear, discourage isolation and negativity.

In the Book of Genesis, we read the story of the three angels visiting Abraham and Sarah. The

story is poignant and we think more about the message that the messengers brought to this

couple. Perhaps more important is what was going on with Sarah and Abraham. According to

the Rabbis, Abraham is recovering from his recent circumcision. Abraham is sitting at the tent

door in the heat of the day when he looks up and sees three strangers. He welcomes the

travellers without preconditions and does not ask their yichus [a Yiddish expression implying a

mixture of social status, wealth and genealogy]. We are challenged to open the doors of our

synagogues to all and offer a place ''at the table' just as Abraham did.

Also in Genesis we read: 'Shall not the Judge of all the world, judge justly?' The story revolves

around how the people of Sodom and Gomorrah treated strangers or visitors. The Rabbis

suggest that the punishment of destructions was meted out because there was no hospitality

shown by those who lived there. Hospitality takes many forms. The most obvious is that given to

the wayfarer. So many of those who experience mental illness are also 'strangers within your

gates', for even if we once knew them they are strangers to us now. Some of that change is due to

their experiences with mental illness; some is just the normal growing process each of us

experiences. Our challenge is not to be like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah but to offer

hospitality and openness to each person who enters our doors.

Mental Illness is not just a lack of willpower but rather something which demands justice as well

as a just response.

I end with the poignant cry of the mother, Diana, in Next to Normal. Her cry is the cry of the mentally ill. We need to heighten our awareness of their suffering and work together to reduce this unique type of pain.

Catch me I'm falling

Catch me I'm falling

Flying head first into fate

Catch me I'm falling

Please hear me calling

Catch me before it's too late

Catch me before it's too late

Catch me before it's too late

Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt's Revolution: It is Not about Us

Posted on Facebook by an Israeli:
“Dear Egyptian rioters, please don't damage the pyramids. We will not rebuild. Thank you.”

This brief message went viral, at least in Israel and the Jewish world. I had a good laugh, but after a few days something gnawed at me. First, the reference to Egyptian rioters seemed way off base. The protests in Egypt have been markedly devoid of rioting and violence up to this point. The massive gatherings at Tahrir square have been unusual in the commitment to non violence by the protesters and in the clarity of their demands for democracy and the end of dictatorship.

Second, and noted by many reporters, Israel is not in the forefront of the protesters consciousness, far overshadowed by the demonstrators' concerns about the state of their own country. Yes, there will be implications for Israel down for the line if there is regime change, but it appears that these outpourings originate in the internal politics and social realities of Egyptians and their relationship to their government.

Third, the viral message is striking in its Jewish ethnocentrism. We are taught from childhood that the Jew will not go back down to Egypt to become a slave to Pharoah again. It is completely understandable why a Jew would say this because our central narrative is about gaining our freedom from Egyptian enslavement through God's liberating miracles. God brought us out of Egypt, the ancient embodiment of tyranny and cruelty, to become a free people serving only the God of Israel.

Every national culture has it's own narrative, its story of origin and uniqueness. It is so often the case that our national narratives do not mesh, This is a source of great misunderstanding between cultures. Egyptians have trouble understanding Americans, or Americans cannot 'get' Chinese and so forth.

I think the fascinating issue for Jews in light of the Egyptian revolution is that we have no place in our own narrative for Egyptians rising up for their own freedom in the face of their autocrats. This does not make sense given our own narrative of the passivity of the Egyptian people before Pharaoh. Our narrative is dependent on the memory of an Egyptian ruler, cruel and powerful, who is ultimately humiliated by God and who is forced to let the people of Israel go. Can you imagine Egyptians singing in Tahrir square, "Let my people go!"

My observations are not geopolitical, but cultural. But they are important for understanding the Israeli and widespread Jewish distrust of the popular uprising against Mubarak. We don't have in our narrative a place for an Egyptian lover of democracy and freedom. We assume that Egyptians are all Islamicists and seek an Islamic Republic. Or we would prefer for the sake of the peace treaty that the regime remain stable and in full control.

But what I think is necessary is some empathy for the huge crowds of peaceful protesters who come from every sector of Egyptian society. Today Mubarak stepped down as the new narrative of the Egyptian revolution continues to evolve right before the world's eye. A new narrative is being born, one we hope leads Egypt and its people to true freedom, democracy, tolerance, and rights.

Jews have valued freedom for over 3000 years and have through our narrative refined the gifts of freedom which are deeply embedded in our culture. We should take a moment to step out of our narrative and our understandable anxiety about the future to appreciate the momentous and hopefully lasting narrative of freedom emerging from the people of Egypt.

In the Torah we read the instructions of freedom .
You shalt not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the fatherless; nor take the widow's raiment to pledge. (Deut. 24:17

But the Torah then refers back to the narrative of the Jewish people
But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing. (Deut 24:18)

May the new Egyptian narrative of freedom, just as our own narrative, serve as a touchstone for a more just, fair, and free society.