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Peace: It’s Simple!

Rabbi David Zaslow

The day the Palestinian leadership declares an end to terrorism…the day the Palestinian people demand an end to their corrupt government…the day the Palestinian people declares themselves to be pluralistic, egalitarian, and democratic – on that day the Palestinian people will have their dreams fulfilled for a homeland and prosperous lives for its people. Does it seem naive that the solution should be so simple? Does it seem unfair that the responsibility for the misery of the Palestinian people is almost entirely in their own hands?

I have studied this conflict for decades. I have meditated, debated, spent Shabbat in Palestinian homes, prayed with Muslim friends, studied even more, and searched for a fair and objective understanding of the root of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Israel has made some foolish decisions along the way since its rebirth in 1948, and for decades I have condemned some of the unfair housing policies and cultural double standards that Israeli citizens (both Jewish and Muslim) of Arab descent have had to endure by the early Euro-centric Israeli leaders. I have publicly decried the counter-productive nature of most home demolitions, and other forms of collective punishment, in response to terrorist attacks.

But any objective analysis yields only one result – the misery of the Palestinian people has almost entirely been caused by 1) a corrupt Palestinian leadership which results in a lack of social service institutions; 2) a lack of democratic institutions (free speech, freedom to assemble, union movement, and free elections) in order for the people’s voices to be heard; and 3) the lack of religious tolerance, pluralism, and egalitarianism in otherwise medieval cultural structures (very few rights for religious minorities, women, and children).

There is no cycle of violence between Palestinians and Israelis. There is a cause and an effect. The Israeli’s have not brought violence upon themselves, and they have not incited terrorism. The few foolish policies of the Israeli government have no moral equivalency whatsoever to acts of terror perpetrated against civilians. The day the terrorism ends is the day the future of the Palestinian people begins. Let us be pragmatic in our political affiliations and opinions, but let us be visionary in our hopes for the future. The prophets spoke unambiguously of the destiny for both Palestinians and Israelis. Grounded by my faith I am certain of the eventual outcome – Israel will be secure. Palestinians will have a homeland. Freedom, democracy, and a women’s movement will sweep the Middle East soon. Actually, it is happening before our eyes right now. We just need to reach the tipping point for freedom, egalitarianism, and pluralism to take hold.

We live in a culture that is often so self-critical that we look for moral equivalencies where there are none. We ask, isn’t Hamas angry because they really have been harmed by Israel? Didn’t colonialism disempower the Arab world? Aren’t Western values corrupting Arab cultures? The answers are simple: no, no, and no. Hamas has no duplicity in their agenda. They represent Islamic fundamentalism that is at the level of consciousness where Christians were at the start of the Crusades. They will accept nothing less than a one-state solution – a Muslim state in place of Israel.

Western colonialism certainly cast a shadow upon the third world. But as colonialism ended between 1918 and 1950 newly freed nations like India opted for democracy and have prospered. Nations like Iraq, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Libya opted for tyranny and have suffered. Finally, the only Western values that are “corrupting” Arab culture are ones that we hold dear: freedom, choice, and equal rights. These are threatening to the old patriarchal, hierarchical models of clan culture in most Arab nations. The violence and propaganda war against Israel is pure scapegoating. Jews are blamed for what most Arab citizens want for themselves. Keep hope alive for real shalom!

A Fullest Emptiness

by Rabbi David Zaslow
Late morning, May 11, 2005, lower Manhattan. Rachel and Debbie are inside Century 21, shopping for deep discount designer clothing. I’m across the street standing in front of the World Trade Center, or what once was the World Trade Center. I weep and davven there, praying and gripping the metal fence like a caged wolf on the outside wanting in. I want in – to walk the halls of this vast empty, urban canyon. I want in – to walk between what remains of the substructure and foundation descending three, four, five stories below ground level. I want to walk, if it is possible, within the essence of memory itself – to the very place where heaven meets hell on earth.

The cavern left by the removal of debris from the Twin Towers is the fullest emptiness I have ever experienced. Years ago at the Grand Canyon I was awed by the emptiness that defines the span between the majestic canyon walls. But the site of the Twin Towers is different. This is not majestic. It is not an empty emptiness like the Canyon, but, rather an emptiness filled with ghosts, memories of steel, concrete, and glass that once was, no longer is, and yet somehow remains. The air itself, the sky itself, seems to remember what was once there. The Towers remain – they remain and live in memory, catastrophic memory. They remain in the empty chairs in thousands of homes where children who call the name of a dead parent are answered only by memory, family stories, legends, home videos, CNN reports, and scrapbooks. And if I listen, listen between the voices of life on the streets around me now, I can hear, actually hear the emptiness itself.

A few nights earlier, I was in a Brooklyn bar listening to some great live jazz when I realized how much good living, holy living, really is like the needle of a record sitting in the groove. But what I hadn’t realized until I arrived at the site of the Twin Towers was that as a record in a record player turns, the needle is perfectly still. To be in the groove means to stand in total stillness while the record around you spins. The turntable turns, the record revolves, but the point of contact requires total stillness. To be in the groove requires a complete balance between stillness and movement, between diamond and vinyl. For the needle to do its work of reading the engraved cuts within the grooves, it must be still.

Just like us. To read what Hashem has engraved in nature, in our own lives, or in the emptiness of what once was the Twin Towers, we can’t be turning. We can’t be moving to get out of the way, or to get somewhere else. We have to remain in place. Totally in place. Perfectly in place. It is difficult to be still when I want to weep for those whose lives were lost. It is difficult to be still when I want to pray for a future free of terror. So I say my prayers, chant the Amidah, say kaddish, and then enter the silence. Silence in lower Manhattan is not an oxymoron. It is an honor.

I’m sure there are other great canyons, but there is something singular about the Grand Canyon. I’m sure there are many places of great emptiness where life has been destroyed, but there is something singular about the Twin Towers. Each of us contains within us something singular as well. Our fate is to find out what it is, and then face it with thanksgiving and hope, and then stand before ourselves and our God in silence.

In the Groove

by Rabbi David Zaslow

From the earliest days of sound recordings people noticed something poetic about the way the needle stayed inside the groove as the record went round and round. In the 1930’s jazz musicians coined the term “being in the groove” to describe the sensation they experienced as they played – when the music seemed to have a life of its own, and everyone felt they were part of something bigger than themselves. In the 1960’s hippies applied the metaphor of “feeling groovy” to the state of feeling like the world was harmonious and whole.

A few years ago I visited my daughter, Rachel, in her Park Slope, Brooklyn apartment. On the first night she whisked me off to a local club called Barbes so we could get a seat for what she promised was going to be a great jazz jam. She told me that the guitarist was a young French virtuoso named Stephane Wrembel who played Django Reinhardt and gypsy-style music like no one else. “Yeah, yeah,” I thought, “like no one else? In Brooklyn? And what does my little girl know about great jazz anyway?” So I said, “OK, honey, whatever you want to do. It’s your Brooklyn now. I’m your guest!”

We arrived an hour early to secure a good seat and started drinking Brooklyn Lager. (They never had a micro-brewed beer when I lived there; the best you could do then was Schaeffer). May 8, 2005, at 9 PM: there I was on 9th Street on the corner of 6th Avenue, deep, deep in the old country where I grew up. The musicians arrived: Stephane, the young virtuoso; a female guitarist from Spain, maybe 20, whose last name was Cohen; another guitarist from London, a guy maybe In his mid-twenties; a bass player; and washboard master David Langlois. Washboard? Master? What was that homemade concoction of an instrument on his lap, anyway?

They started playing “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and within seconds (okay, two minutes) the groove was set. They followed with an unbelievable improvisation on “Bei Mier Bist Du Shayne.” Sometime during the first set I died and went straight to jazz heaven. And the music got better by the minute. (So did the beer). For three hours I experienced the jam of jams. I looked at Stephane and thought, “Who is this rebbe…this reincarnation of one of the great guitar tzadikkim? No one’s fingers move that fast without Divine intervention! And what about this percussionist who transforms finger tapping on metal and wood into exalted solos?” Gevaldt, they were good!

The next morning Rachel had to go to work at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. On the way she dropped me off at 770. 770 is not just a number – it’s an entire universe. 770 Eastern Parkway is the home of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement. This was the very place where Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman were ordained in 1947 – the same year I was born, Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, and Israel was declared a nation. It was a good year by all measures. The basement of 770 has been transformed into a huge synagogue where davvenen and study go on around the clock. Arriving at 11 AM I thought I’d be one of a few latecomers. But, no this is 770! Around the clock this shul is filled with men and women coming to make a deep connection to the Divine. By the time I arrived, the shul was populated by lean and pale-faced yeshiva students whose average age was maybe eighteen. Everyone was dressed in black and white – what a metaphor! Was I the only one in color there? I had just walked into the nineteenth-century world of Jewish men deep in Eastern Europe. It was Brooklyn outside but Lubavitch, Russia inside.

I put on a borrowed tallit and t’fillin and within seconds I was deep in ecstatic prayer – rocking and swaying back and forth; my eyes flying through the pages of the siddur – and then satori struck! Zap! The groove I was in the evening before was the same as the groove I was in during davvenen. My body rocked the same way during my davennen as it had rocked during the Stephane Wrembel jazz jam. Ecstatic jazz and ecstatic prayer were part of some secret, hidden oneness that only I was blessed to behold that morning. If I called out to everyone, “Hey, holy brothers, there’s a bar up the street that has this incredible jazz every Sunday night…” they would have tossed me out of the shul. And if I had gone to the bar and told the Django fans that there was this great synagogue down the street where the praying is as good as jazz, they, too, would have tossed me out.

Right now, I don’t care who tosses me out of their bars and shuls. I am just thankful to G-d to have seen that there is only one groove – one groove and many paths: the groove of great jazz on Sunday night at Barbes; the groove of great davvenen at 770 Eastern Parkway; and the groove of being with my daughter in Brooklyn on a beautiful week in May.

If you have RealPlayer you can listen to a 3 hour concert of the guitarist
Rabbi David wrote about at

Guitarist Stephane Wrembel’s website.

Time Flies When You’re Having Fun

by Rabbi David Zaslow

In 1990, a group of us brought Reb Zalman to Ashland to lead a Shabbaton (weekend retreat). Rabbi Aryeh had founded the Havurah just five years earlier in 1985. Looking back as our community is getting ready to host Reb Zalman once again it’s hard to believe that it was that long ago – Reb Zalman was 65 at the time, I was 42. The Havurah was 5. Last summer Reb Zalman celebrated his 80th. birthday, the Havurah is about to celebrate it’s 20th. birthday. And this summer it will have been 10 years since I was ordained!

I started thinking about time a few weeks ago when I took my first 10% senior citizen discount at Señor Sam’s restaurant. I’m 57 and I was actually eligible for the “senior” discount two years ago, but I smugly denied my age each time I approached the counter to pay my bill. The cashier would ask, “Senior discount?” And I’d say, “Me? Are you talking to me? Of course not! I’m not eligible. Thank you very much!” A few weeks ago, however, Fate caught me by surprise. You see I had ordered lunch and as I was getting ready to pay I realized that I was short on change in my pocket…about fifty cents short. My bill was $5.13 including tax, and as I glanced down in embarrassment I received what I took to be a heavenly sign.

Actually, it was a very small sign by the cash register that announced “10% Senior Discount: 55 and over.” I thought, “Hmm, 10% off from $5.13 is exactly what I have in my pocket. Okay Hashem I surrender. I’m taking the ‘senior’ discount!” I must admit that I have avoided the senior discounts there for the last two years out of fear that I was signing onto something I wasn’t ready to agree to yet. Oddly enough, saving the fifty-cents was so much fun I went back there twice in the next few days just to tempt Fate a bit more. I told Hashem, “Okay, have it your way. I’m getting older, but I might as well enjoy every discount I can along the way” To date, I’ve saved $3.75.

In the Tenakh (Bible) time takes on a transcendental character too, just like at Señor Sam’s. The sense of time in the Bible is mystical and profound. Mary Ellen Chase, a great Protestant scholar wrote in “Life and Language in the Old Testament” that “The Hebrew language had no word for hour, and those who spoke and wrote it no idea whatever of such a period of time….To the ancient Hebrews a thousand years might, indeed, be as yesterday; or each of the six so-called days in which God created the heavens and the earth might mean to them an incalculable expanse of time. Nor must the events of their history be understood as in any sense dated by them, placed in any secure niches of time. These events are forever in their consciousness, constantly in their hearts and before their eyes, in their present as well as in their remote past. In other words, the happenings of their history were timeless to them….”

And King Soloman reminds us in Ecclesiastes 3:1 that “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” So now is the time of senior discounts. In five years I’ll be 62 and I get a discount at the Varsity. In eight years I’ll get them everywhere. May Time bring us more and more joy, and may we enjoy G-d’s discounts along the way!

The Power of Doubt

by Rabbi David Zaslow

Israel, 1990: Our Havurah tour group was boarding the bus to meet a renowned mystic in Tsfat who would reveal the hidden kabbalistic secrets of creation. Debbie, Judy, Claire, and Bill were staying behind in Tiberias where they would relax in the sun, be with the kids, or just enjoy the touristy boat ride across the Sea of Galilee. Debbie gave me her blessing to enjoy the teaching in Tsfat.

As I was saying good-bye, five year old Ari looked up at me with a gigantic tear falling down his cheek, and said, “Daddy, I don’t want you to go, I want you to stay with me today!” Oy, what should a would-be kabbalist do? How could I miss what was going to be the teaching of all teachings, the revelation of the secrets of creation itself? On the other hand, how could I say “no” to my son wanting to be with me? In less than a flash of an instant I said to Ari, “Okay, I’ll stay!” Bruce and Aryeh looked at me like I was crazy. Our little group boarded the boat for the ride across the Galilee.

To battle my doubt and despair at having stayed behind I went to the front of the boat, took out my guitar and the few remaining Havurahniks that stayed behind started singing “Hiney Ma Tov ” as we got underway. Suddenly a dozen members of a Christian choir from Spain joined in with exquisite harmonies. We spoke no Spanish. They spoke no English, but we all sang together in Hebrew. It was what we call in Yiddish a gevaldtik moment – powerful and inspiring. It was a taste of heaven! We kept singing as our Christian friends celebrated the place where Jesus walked on water, and where on a spiritual level we all felt as if we were walking on water at that very moment.

Last March Debbie and I stayed with Rachel in Brooklyn. From great jazz to the shul where Reb Zalman was ordained in the late 1940’s, all the way to the Twin Towers site – this trip was special. Except for one thing – I was dying to see a Broadway musical like Hairspray or the off-Broadway Elvis review called All Shook Up, but Rachel and Debbie would have nothing to do with my sentimental desires to relive my childhood. No, for these two urban sophisticates our night on Broadway was going to be meaningful – a drama! A drama? We’re in Manhattan for one evening and we’re going to a drama? Who was I married to? What kind of child did I raise?

They dragged me to Doubt, the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning play by John Patrick Shanley, that deals with an accusation of child molestation against a priest. From the opening scene when Father Flynn delivers a brilliant sermon on the nature of doubt, I was riveted. For the next ninety-minutes everything would get turned inside out. A priest who was kind, progressive, and who sincerely loves kids is accused of molesting a boy by a nun who had no proof, only what she called her inner “certainties.” She was the kind of nun that my Catholic friends hated when they were growing up: strict and arrogant. Yet it was that very arrogance that gave her the courage to stand up against the priest, and the whole Church establishment if necessary. But is Father Flynn really guilty? Is Sister Aloysius crazed in her arrogance? I’m not giving anything away, but the audience will never find out anything with certainty. You will be given the gift of doubt itself. Whatever opinions you have about the priest or the nun, your own sense of certainty will be shaken. The play is nothing less than a parable of life itself and will, I believe, become an American classic.

I had doubt about staying with my family at the Sea of Galilee in 1990. I had doubt about seeing a drama with my daughter and wife in 2005. Yet it was the very energy of my doubts that permitted me to transform my own self-centeredness into two special experiences. And isn’t that what the High Holidays are really all about? We come to shul with doubt about our own self-worth, about out ability to really change, about the power of God to forgive. So, we work with the doubt – we shape it, we battle it, we let it shape us, observe the battle within us, and then at one amazing moment we surrender control to something greater than ourselves. For just a moment in one of the services (we never know which one), in one of the prayers (we’re never told in advance) we let go of the reins and let Shekhinah guide us for a change. Literally, She guides us for a change! As the popular saying goes we “let go and let God.” May the High Holidays be sweet, profound, healing, and transformative for each of us and our loved ones. May we hold on to our doubts as long as necessary, and may we know when to let go!

The Work of Autumn

by Rabbi David Zaslow
October, 2004
The spiritual work of autumn is to examine our inner lives. Springtime is all about changing the world. From a Jewish spiritual viewpoint we’d be better off holding elections in spring rather than autumn. Why? Because focusing on politics right after Yom Kippur can be a diversion from the inner work we need to do. An election in November can make us believe that we don’t even need to do inner work. We fool ourselves into believing that if the world was in better shape then we’d be better people. The teachings of Judaism, however, tell us that if we were better people then the world would be a better place.

The worldly, activist work of Passover is to topple the oppression of Pharaoh and deal with all the outer forces of liberation. The work of autumn is to deal with ourselves. The secret is for each of us is to learn when to focus on inner work, and when to focus on politics. Both inner and outer work depend on מוּסָר mussar, the Jewish ethical approach to everything we do. On Yom Kippur a few years ago I told the following story about Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, one of the great luminaries in Europe before the World War II, and a founder of the modern Mussar movement.

Rabbi Kagen, also known as the Chofetz Chaim, hosted many teachers and businessmen from throughout the continent. Once a travelling businessman noticed how sparse the Rabbis’ home was, and said, “Rebbe, you are such a great teacher, you could have anything you want. Where is your furniture? The Rebbe turned to his guest and said to him, “Where is your furniture?” The businessman said, “Rabbi, I’m on the road, I don’t have any furniture with me. I’m just passing through.” The Rebbe turned to his guest and said, “Me too. I’m just passing through as well.”

Judaism upholds the paradox of two contradictory views of the world. The other-worldly view of Autumn affirms that we are all just travelers passing through. The worldly, activist view of Spring and Passover affirms the necessity of toppling the oppression of Pharaoh. The secret is for each of us is to learn when to focus on inner work, and when to focus on politics. But always, the thread that holds these two views together is mussar

In a profound way we are all just passing through. We are the spawning salmon; the migration of geese; the trees whose season is over; the plants in our yards that are destined not to survive the winter. After Yom Kippur we each die a spiritual death. What need did the Rebbe have for furniture? He knew that his entire life was simply and magnificently an act of “passing through.” The root of the word עִבְרִית “Hebrew,” eevreet, means “passing through” or “crossing over.” The Jews are the “passing through” people.

In this season we empathize with all those who are suffering from hunger, poverty, and war. A piece of their pain is our pain. We feel a little bit of the pain of the families whose loved ones have been murdered by terrorists. We feel a little bit of the pain of the families of our soldiers who died fighting for freedom this past year. With empathy for others, something within us changes – we become better people, and our “passing through” gains meaning. Atonement occurs. Attunement occurs. At-one-ment occurs. This is the deeper meaning of autumn.

Modes of Spiritual Practice

by Rabbi David Zaslow
August, 2004

Their are three primary forms of spiritual practice, and every religion utilizes all three in various combinations during worship. Within each religion are denominations that emphasize one or two forms of practice over the other. In fact, I believe, that the particular recipe of spiritual practice is the what defines a denomination. The three forms are:

1) Liturgical: a fixed body of chants, prayers, readings, and songs interspersed with specific rituals (standing, sitting, bowing, etc.). The liturgical approach is fixed in order to create consistency and a sense of safety for the each member of the congregation.

2) Ecstatic: an ecstatic experience of G-d is accomplished thorough a combination of movement, breath, and voice. It may contain a prolonged chant, or a chant in combination with a movement. It is unpredictable in length, and the actions of the participants are unpredictable. Some leap, somersault, circle, spin, or wave hands. But the result is the same: a sense of union with the Divine.

3) Contemplative: through one of many meditative practices (quiet chant, repetition of a syllable or word, silence, privately talking to G-d, walking, etc.) each religion uses some form of meditation in it’s approach to G-d or Reality. Sometimes the meditation uses some liturgy (I.e. chant); other times it silent and aims at emptying. In fact, the contemplative tradition itself has several categories: the emptying forms (i.e. Zen); the visualization forms (i.e. Lurianic Kabbalah and Tibetan Buddhism) and mindfulness (Tich Naht Han’s teachings, Japanese tea ceremony, putting on t’fillin, etc.)

Denominations can also be distinguished by their level of formality. Within Judaism, for example, some synagogues are casual, somewhat unpredictable, spontaneous, and informal (I.e. in hasidic and Renewal communities) even though they are following a fixed liturgy. Other groups are more formal and fixed (I.e., services begin and end at fixed times). But all our synagogues use some combo of the liturgical, contemplative, and ecstatic.

During Shabbat or any Jewish holiday, you will probably find yourself attracted to different forms of worship at different times. For example during Yom Kippor afternoon you might need more silent, contemplative time whereas the evening of Yom Kippor it is the predictability of the chanting and fixed melody of Kol Nidre that is just what your soul needs. Honor your instincts to shift and express yourself in words, chant, movement, and silence. If you are sitting in a group, for example, and you need to be alone in silence simply cover yourself in your tallis (prayer shawl) as a personal tent and mishkan (sanctuary). Or, if during the ecstatic chants or songs you are drawn to stand up and move, please do so on your own. As you are inspired by others around you, so you will inspire others as well. Measure for measure – as the congregation is an expression of many individuals, each in his/her own mode of worshop (liturgical, ecstatic, contemplative) all at the same time, so the multiplicity of the Divine’s thirteen attributes will pour down on each of us in a single and unified stream. The result of this kind of worship will be a heightened sense of the deep interconnection between self, community, nature, and G-d. May we all be blessed this year with great davvenen (prayer), deep listening, and profound personal transformation. And from these sacred personal states may each of us affect the world around us for life, health, peace, and good. Amayn!

Israell and the Rise of the “New” Anti-Semitism

by Rabbi David Zaslow
June, 2004
Someone recently said to me, “Everyone who criticizes Israel these days gets accused of being anti-Semitic.” I told him, “That’s not true. The most intense criticism of Israel can be found in Israel itself. Israel is a thriving pluralistic democracy founded on Torah values. Self-criticism is not just a right, but a moral obligation.” What’s the difference between legitimate and passionate criticism of Israel and the kind that gets labeled by non-partisan watchdog groups like the Jewish Anti-defamation League as anti-Semitic? It’s simple: if the criticism is offensive due to hyperbole (i.e. Israel is fascist state, Sharon is like Hitler, Zionism is racism, the Israelis are rapists, etc.) then the comments are justifiably called anti-Semitic.

Secondly, if a double standard is being applied to Israel that is not applied to any other nation, then the statement should be subjected to scrutiny. For example, there are dozens of nations that call themselves Christian, and dozens of other nations that call themselves Moslem. There are a handful that call themselves Hindu or Buddhist nations, yet none of these nations are accused of being “racist” because they proudly wave the banner of their particular religious majority. Yet there are those who proclaim that “Zionism is racism” simply because one tiny sliver of a nation proudly proclaimed itself to be a haven for Jews fleeing persecution after the Holocaust.

Many of us grew up at a time when much of the world’s anti-Semitism came from the far right. Ideas about the Jews controlling the media and the banking system, and other conspiratorial fantasies, were plentiful. Much of the current wave of anti-Semitism is coming from the far left, and statements claiming Israeli “racism” and “Nazi-like brutality” are plentiful. Left or right, it really doesn’t matter – extremism, hyperbole, and false accusations are destructive forces. Extremist Arab propaganda would have the world believe that Israel is the root cause of the conflict in the Middle East.

As Haim Harari recently wrote, “The millions who died in the Iran-Iraq war had nothing to do with Israel. The mass murder happening right now in Sudan, where the Arab Moslem regime is massacring its black Christian citizens, has nothing to do with Israel. The frequent reports from Algeria about the murders of hundreds of civilians in one village or another by other Algerians have nothing to do with Israel. Saddam Hussein did not invade Kuwait, endanger Saudi Arabia and butcher his own people because of Israel. Egypt did not use poison gas against Yemen in the 60’s because of Israel. Assad did not kill tens of thousands of his own citizens in one week in El Hamma in Syria because of Israel. The Taliban control of Afghanistan and the civil war there had nothing to do with Israel. The Libyan blowing up of the Pan-Am flight had nothing to do with Israel…”

The bottom line is that Israel, like America, is despised by Middle Eastern extremists for its pluralism and democracy. The last thing Al Qaida wants to see is a thriving union movement in the Middle East, or a thriving ecology movement. Imagine the welcome that feminist ideas or gay rights are receiving right now in Saudi Arabia or Iran. The claim that Israel (code word for “Jews”) is the root of all evil is simply a smokescreen for the fear of the internal transformation that the Arab and greater Islamic world is now going through a transformation not unlike the Reformation and Age of Reason that Europe experienced a few hundred years ago.

May those who are working for change within Islam itself be strengthened, blessed, and protected. May those who are working for peace, pluralism, and democracy in the Middle East prevail.

“The Passion” A Preview

by Rabbi David Zaslow
March, 2004

The paper known as Nostra Aetate issued by the Vatican in 1965 created a revolutionary shift in the attitude of the Church toward the Jewish people. Pope John XXIII wrote, “Forgive us the curse which we unjustly laid on the name of the Jews. Forgive us that, with our curse, we crucified Thee a second time.” After the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 many Evangelical churches became Israel’s most vocal supporters, and courageously remain so today in the face of growing anti-Semitism that is sweeping across Europe. Sadly, Mel Gibson’s father is a member of a small, break-away Catholic denomination that has rejected the new position of the Church toward the Jewish people. They remain dedicated to the position that the Church has replaced Israel and that the covenantal relationship of the Jewish people to God has been severed. This replacement doctrine has been rejected by most mainstream and evangelical churches who have worked hard in recent decades to teach the spiritual validity of the Jewish covenant.

Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion” is apparently magnificent in its presentation the gospel of Christianity, yet I understand that it cleaves to the mythic depiction of the Jewish people turning Jesus over to Pilate for crucifixion. The citizens of Jerusalem are portrayed as an angry mob representing the Jewish people, and the Roman Empire is portrayed as passive, bewildered, and not primarily responsible for Jesus’ death. Historically, this is far from the truth. But just as the film has the potential to stir up old wounds, myths, and stereotypes so it also has the potential to heal old wounds if it inspires honest dialogue.

For two-thousand years translational errors, and a lack of telling the Passion story in its correct historical context have caused certain groups to blame the Jews for Jesus’ death. Today, almost every pastor I know in our Valley teach that the death of Jesus was caused “by all of humanity” and that he “willingly gave his own life.” This, of course, is a higher level, modern interpretation of the text – for most of two-thousand years it was the Jews who were blamed for the crucifixion who were labeled throughout Europe as “Christ-killers” and the traditional of European Passion plays performed before Easter often led to anti-Jewish violence.

Most of the popular English translations of Christian Scriptures do seem to place the blame for the death of Jesus on the Jews. For example if Acts 2:36 is taken out of historical context is seems clear that “all the house of Israel” was responsible for the crucifixion. Paul writes, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God has made that same Jesus, whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ.” The same is true with many other passages as well (i.e. Matthew 27:20 & 25, John 19:6, etc.). The uneducated reader gets the sense that the “multitude” that handed Jesus over to the Romans represented all the Jewish people rather than a tiny minority of priests who were working for the Romans, and who themselves were disliked by the general Jewish population.

An objective knowledge of first-century Judaism is also crucial for understanding the Passion story. The theology of the priests and the Sanhedrin (Jewish court) was seen by most first-century Jews as narrow minded, and serving to further the Roman occupation. According to the Talmud, the Sanhedrin at that time was “bloody,” corrupt, and despised by most of the population. The puppet judges, priests, and scribes of the Roman Empire who were threatened by Jesus were also threatened by all the authentic Jewish teachers of that period. Thankfully, most American pastors and priests ceased blaming Jews for the crucifixion decades ago. However, in Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East the historical reality of Jesus’ life is not always taken into account when the Passion story is told.

According to the Roman historian Josephus the streets of Jerusalem were lined with Jewish martyrs who were crucified during a century of Jewish revolts. Somewhere between 50,000-100,000 Jews were crucified along with Jesus during that period, and more than a million Jews died of starvation or in battle against the Romans. The New Testament was written for people who knew the historical context, but today this context is lost without the commentary and courage of our pastors. The film, I am told, may accurately portray the teachings of the gospel, but it does not do justice to historical reality. The first-century sect that opposed Jesus’ teachings were known as the Saducees. This sect, in fact, was opposed to the teachings of most of the local rabbis who represented the general population. According to Jewish records the Saducees were the Temple leaders and had been corrupted by the Roman Empire in the decades preceding Jesus’ birth. Too many people for too many centuries have been mistaught that the “some” of the Jews (the Saducees) represented “all” of the Jews.

The curse in Matthew 27:25 is especially misunderstood, and has misled readers of the Gospel accounts to believe that the Jews have been eternally cursed for the sin of killing Jesus, a sin called Diecide (the killing of God) by early Church leaders. In the second century Justin Martyr wrote, “Those who slandered Him [Jesus] should be miserable….Jews suffer because they are guilty of not having recognized the One with whom they had to do in their own history. When he appeared, they killed him. Not knowing this One, the Logos, Jews fail to know God.” In the fourth-century John Chrysostom wrote, “It is against the Jews that I wish to draw up my battle… Jews are abandoned by God and for the crime of Deicide, there is no expiation possible.”

The Roman occupation was not passive, but brutal. Yet a New Testament reader may not get this crucial fact. Thankfully, many American pastors are now including historical context and alternative translations to the Greek text of the New Testament when they deliver their Easter sermons. I pray that Christian leaders everywhere will use this opportunity to advance the truth of the gospel, but also use the film as a starting-point to discourage anti-Semitism. If this is done, I believe, God’s will can be accomplished. From the last few decades of interfaith dialogue Jews and Christians are beginning to learn to not confuse the two ways Jesus is approached – historically and theologically. The Christian teaching that Jesus died for all of humanity needs to be understood by all of us who share our love and service to God with our Christian brothers and sisters – this is the theological Jesus. Conversely, Jewish sensitivity to the way the Passion story is told needs to be understood by our Christian friends, and this is where more learning about the historical Jesus is needed. The greatest gift of the film that I anticipate is patience, compassion, dialogue, learning, and greater understanding between Christians and Jews. That certainly will be the case for Havurah members and our friends at Trinity Episcopal Church since we plan on studying the film together this month.

Sermon at Trinity Episcopal Church

by Rabbi David Zaslow,
March 28, 2004

שָׁלוֹם עֲלֵיכֶם, Shalom Alekhem, peace be unto you. The major theme of the Jewish festival of Passover is liberation: we were slaves but the mighty hand and outstretched arm of the Holy One set us free. Each year for the past 3,300 years Jewish people have gathered in their homes on the full moon in the month of Nissan to retell the story of our Exodus, and to make of that ancient story relevant to our lives today. When the youngest child in the household asks the formulaic four questions beginning with “why is this night different from all over nights,” a chain reaction of responses is set in motion. Each person at the seder table shares his and her own a personal response to the Exodus story.

Hebrew, by its nature, promotes interpretation, storytelling, and the extension of the plain meaning of the text into all its metaphorical and allegorical possibilities. For example, the word for Egypt in Hebrew is actually not that of a particular nation, but rather it means “tight, narrow, and restricted places.” The word mitzrayim implies that enslavement is not only caused by the external and oppressive forces of a regime like that of the ancient Egyptian empire, but that there is an internal source of enslavement as well. So, from ancient times to this very day Jewish people ask each other at the seder table, implicitly or explicitly, “What are the tight and narrow places that are holding you back from becoming the free, creative, joyous, and liberated person that God would have you be this year?”

Another interesting word to study is the word “Pharaoh.” We all know, of course, that pharaoh was the title for each of the various a monarchs in ancient Egypt. But the word in Hebrew can be translated as “a mouth of that speaks evil.” So on Passover week we examine the subtle ways in which our mouths and speech get us into trouble. And knowing how difficult it is to change old, negative behavioral patterns, we ask for God’s intervention and aid in liberating of us from our old ways that enslave us, especially concerning the ways we speak to and about each other. Bottom line – Passover, to each Jew, must be a modern, relevant, and challenging story to each of us and not merely the retelling of an ancient Bible story, no matter how beautiful that story might be.

The prophet Isaiah 43:18 is told by the Lord: “Do not remember the former of things, or consider the things of old. I’m about to make new; now it springs forth. Don’t you see it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Is the prophet asking us to forgo the retelling of the Exodus story at Passover each year? No, but he is informing us in no uncertain terms that God does not need us to tell the old story unless its purpose is to make us new. Don’t we see it? All our old stories – national, tribal, religious, and personal – can become subtle idols at that we adore and worship, unless we permit our stories to touch us, heal us, and transform us. Only in this way will we discover that the wilderness of our lives has a way, a path, an invisible highway for us to follow, and that there is indeed a river flowing in the desert of our lives.

So here are the questions that we might ask ourselves this year: “Am I telling the same old story this year as I did last year? Am I telling my story as an excuse not to move forward toward my own liberation? Or am I telling my story and permitting God to make me new?”

The Christian story of Easter is the story of resurrection. It is not just Christ’s life that is central for you, and not just that he died for you. But it is in the resurrection that you are given the secret to God’s promise to make you new. If you only retell the passion story as a remembrance of things of old, if you only share the story of Jesus’ life as a history lesson, you are not doing the work that Easter requires of you. To find your way in the wilderness and make a river in your desert God asks each of you to explore the meaning of the resurrection in your own personal lives. What dream of yours has been crucified? What part of your life is on the cross with your Savior? What part of you has already died but has within it the promise of reawakening, of spring’s renewal, of resurrection?

Do you see the parallels in our two stories? They’re both springtime stories: ours is the story of liberation of the people to be interpreted and told as a story of personal liberation; yours is the story of the resurrection of Christ to be interpreted and told as the personal promise by God of your own reawakening. In Philippians 3, Paul says “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection in the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Paul is not content with the story of things of old, or with the telling of resurrection of Jesus as a historical event. No, he strives toward his own resurrection; not just a resurrection after he dies, but a resurrection of things dead while he is yet alive.

Do you see what Paul is saying here? Precisely what the Prophet Isaiah was trying to say. Take your story and transform it into a living process; take history and make it present; take the enslavement or the crucifixion of others and make it personal and relevant. In Psalm 126, King David sings: “When the Holy One brings about our return to Zion, we will have been like dreamers. Then our mouths will be filled with laughter, and our tongues with joyous song. They will say among the nations: ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us and we rejoiced. Turn again our captivity, O Lord as the streams is in the Negev. Though now he walks weeping carrying his bag of seed – he will return with joyous song carrying his sheaves.” May all of us who now sow in tears realize that soon we will reap in joy!

After our Passover, and after your Easter, with God’s blessing and with all the introspection and inner work that we are doing to make this season meaningful, may we meet each other in the street and be as dreamers who share a common dream. May our be mouths be filled with song and laughter! May we each return to the Zion of gratitude, happiness, health. God’s promise is that though we sow in tears, we are like the earth that has received the waters of the winter rains that have just passed, and through the rains, our tears, our joy is made possible. The equinox has passed, the full moon we both await is coming. It is almost Passover, almost Easter. We are readying ourselves for liberation and resurrection. Time will not wait for us. As the angel of death passes over our homes at midnight, may we mark our doorposts with the blood the lamb and be ready, in an instant, to be set free. God bless this church, our community, our nation, and our planet in this moment of renewal, liberation, and resurrection. Have a zisen (sweet) Pesach, and a transformative Easter.