Reb Arthur's Latest Thoughts

Reb Zalman: His Light is Buried like a Seed –- to Sprout

Reb Zalman w/ Dalai Lama, 1990, w/ Rebbitzen Eve Ilsen between them

As you receive this letter on the morning of July 4th, 2014, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi is being buried  in Boulder, Colorado – and in some deep sense, buried and given new life all around the planet.

Does the death and burial of a Great Teacher mean his light has gone out?  We are taught, “Or zarua latzaddik” — the light of a tzaddik is buried in the fertile soil like a seed.” — It sprouts again and again; and in Zalman’s case, has already and will often again give birth to new seeds of light.

No one else in the 20th/ 21st century  brought such new life, new thought, new joy, new depth, new breadth, new ecstasy, new groundedness, new quirkiness, into the Judaism he inherited –- and transformed.

For me, the learning I absorbed was at two levels: two major new intellectual understandings, and a deeper path of bearing and behavior.

I will get to the intellectual frameworks with which he invited us to create an old/new Judaism. But first, the personal bearing and hearing that made it possible for his friends, his colleagues, his students to absorb new ideas, change them, make the new possibilities our own:

My first real encounter with Zalman came in the spring of 1971, still in the early days of my engagement with Judaism. I had heard about him, and noticed he was coming to lead Shabbat services at a Hillel House in Washington DC (where I was living). So I went on Friday evening.

There were about 40 of us. Zalman gathered us and said, “With your permission, I want to separate the women from the men.”

“No!’ said I.  (Feminism was then not just a strong commitment, but a burning passion that I shared.)

“What?” said Zalman, looking surprised.

“You said ‘With our permission,’ ” I said. “Not with mine.”

“Oh. Hmmmmmm,” said Zalman. “It’s not at all about inequality, pushing women away. I am trying to explore whether there is a stronger spark of Spirit when men and women create a polarity of energy between them.

“Sooooo  — How about if we separate the women and men not physically, not ‘geographically,’ but separate their voices?  Is that OK?”

I said “Yes.” Not just because I was interested in the experiment, but –- and for me this was the real and powerful lesson –- he listened when I objected.

He was clearly a great and knowledgeable teacher – and he listened when a newby said ”No!”

Story within a story, poised upon a story:  Several years ago, the Ohalah listserve of Renewal rabbis was discussing what it meant to be a Rebbe, and how that fit or didn’t fit with a more feminist sense of shared, not hierarchical, spiritual access to God.

I wrote the list, reminding them that Zalman dealt with the question in a unique, powerful, & creative way:

He grew up in Lubavitch, where on special occasions the Rebbe would gather all the men around him at a special Tisch, the Rebbe’s table. He would sit in a special fancy chair, and teach Torah for hours on end as the Hassidim drank L’Chayyim.

Reb Zalman would, Erev Shabbat or the evening before a festival, gather us all –— women and men –— at the Tisch. He would sit in the Rebbe’s Chair, teaching Torah for about 20 minutes.

Then he would stand up, and say –— “Everyone stand!” So we stood.

Then he would say, “Everybody move one chair to the Left.” And we did. So did he.

‘Then he would say to the person who was now sitting in the Rebbe’s Chair: Look inside for the Rebbe-Spark within you – and teach from there.”

And so we moved, person by person, through the night.

This was NOT automatic arithmetic equality, like a voting machine. It saw the possibility that in each of us was a channel for sacred Spirit. The Chair was important. It called us into depth.

That was the way I told the story. Then Zalman wrote me privately, off the list: “I am glad you told the story, “ he wrote. “But I used to say, “Move one chair to the Right. I prefer it should be ‘one chair to the Left!’”

Laughter and Learning. Sharing the Spark.

Why do I think this is the story for now? Because Zalman has moved one chair to the Up, the Down, the Earthy, the Celestial — and beckoned us into the Rebbe’s Chair. Each of us, all of us, welcome to sit there and find the Rebbe-spark within us. And to share our spark.

Now let me turn to the intellectual frameworks he brought into our lives, to enable us to shape a living Judaism:

Reb Zalman drew on the crisis of biblical Judaism swamped by Rome and Hellenistic civilization. and in response transforming through midrash the biblical tradition into a new paradigm — Rabbinic Judaism.

 He spoke in the same way of the crisis facing Rabbinic Judaism and all other religious traditions today as Modernity swamps us all –- and the need once again to transform Judaism into a new paradigm.

In that new paradigm –

  • women and men, people of varied sexual orientations and identities were equal;
  • we could sing a Jewish prayer with the American melody of ”Shenandoah” and the Christian melody of “Amazing Grace”;  
  • we could learn from Sufis and Buddhists and Christian mystics and Kabbalists and feminists and LSD and scientists of Gaia;
  • we could mourn Palestinians as well as Israelis  (when on the 2d day of Rosh Hashanah 1982 we learned about the massacres of Sabra & Chatila, he cried out, “Gevalt, gevalt!’ and set aside a good part of the morning for me to read the newspaper reports aloud, as a Prophetic Haftarah);
  • we could respond to the shriek of pain that for years he could hear coming from the Earth herself, and explore what “eco-kosher” might mean, not for food only but for the coal and oil and plastics that we “eat”; 
  • we could see the trajectory from the angry ancient Prophets into the fiercely loving nonviolent activism of a Prophet like Martin Luther King.

The other framework was his way of celebrating the Kabbalistic/ Hassidic teachings of the Four Worlds and the Sphirot (emanations of God) as they appeared within us –- not in an ethereal  other-worldly Divine Mystery.

 I will always remember –— in my body, not only in my mind —- how he transformed the seven Hakkafot of Simchat Torah – the seven dances with the Torah Scroll.

He explained that in the Lubavitch Hassidic world where he grew up, the seven dances were dedicated to the seven Sphirot –— Overflowing Loving-kindness, Rigorous Judgment, Compassion, Eternity’s Rhythmic Beat,  Beauty’s Melodic  Sweetness, Generative Foundation, and Collective Ingathering.

But, he said, the dances he was taught were all the same. How could the Dance, the music, the poetry, the color, of Overflowing Loving-kindness be the same as the Dance of Rigorous Judgment?

So he invited us to meet in seven clusters to create the seven Dances that spoke within us of the different Sphirot. Each cluster taught the whole community its Dance. And as we danced through the night, it became clear that all seven Sphirot were within us, not beyond us. All seven within each of us.

Our bodies joined our minds, our own “I” joined the universal “I.”

And that’s still another story, the story of how I stood at the foot of Sinai hearing the great Anokhi, the Universe speaking “I”  — with Zalman as my guide and guard.

But that’s enough. As Zalman’s body folds into the earth below, right now — his light is glowing,  seeding from the burial field new fields of light.

The memory of this tzaddik IS a blessing.

A blessing for shalom, salaam, pax, peace –


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Thank you for sharing these

Thank you for sharing these imp[ortant stoires and recollections.
The memory of this tzadik is indeed a blessings.
Through his teachings, you began to write and teach and became my rebbe.

Blessings for all of us touched by Reb Zalman to find comfort in all the gifts he so lavishly bestoed upon us, including each other.


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100 Shofarot for People's Climate March! -- NYC Sept 20-21

This September, just a few days before Rosh Hashanah, there will be a mammoth People’s Climate March in mid-town Manhattan, on Sunday, Sept. 21.
The Shalom Center is working to organize a Jewish contingent.

Imagine 100 shofar-blowers sounding forth the Ram’s Horn of warning and transformation at the head of a Jewish/ Multireligious contingent on the March!

(This graphic, “She Blew the Shofar,”  is by Lynne Feldman. See her work at ). All rights reserved. Published with permission.

Weeks ago, I took part in the first planning session for the March. About 230 people showed up –- from religious groups, labor unions, poverty-action groups, environmentalists, students, elders, health-care activists, and many more.
There was a very strong sense of excitement about both the numbers and diversity of people present, and a sense it will be possible to bring 200,000 people or more into the streets around one demand: “Climate Action Now!”  (Participants may have their own signs, etc. There will be no civil disobedience as part of the March; if groups wish to take such action, they should do so the next day.)
Permit negotiations with the NY Police Department continue, and the actual day depends partly on that. Possible line of march (not yet certain) might be from Lincoln Square to Times Square to Union Square. There will be no “rally” with speakers, etc.
Buses, trains, car-pools, etc from beyond the five boroughs of NYC are welcome!

So I would like to raise the possibility that Jewish congregations and organizastions from Boston to Washington DCmight support this March, maybe become co-sponsors and join perhaps with others in their town to send a bus.

To sign up an organization as a co-sponsor of the March, click here:

1"> For groups or individuals to sign up for a Jewish and/or multireligious contingent on the March, please click to:
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(If you are a shofar-blower, puppet-maker, placard-designer, guitarist, etc. etc., please note that.)

On Rosh Hashanah, just a few days later (starting Wednesday evening, Sept. 24) there begins not only the new year as it does every year, but a special year –- the biblical seventh year, the Sabbatical Year or Shmita (“release, non-attachment”).
The Shmita/ Sabbatical Year is intended to be a year of healing and freedom for the Earth, annulment of debts, an opening beyond the usual economic and political constrictions of human society —  what might be called eco-social justice. (See Lev. 25 and Deut 15.)
How do we prepare to turn the ancient Shmita of farmers and shepherds toward healing for our wounded Earth today? The March itself is a first step – and it must not stop there. The Shalom Center will go forward with the Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet campaign, and is also planning a Ten City project to inspire and help organize nine more local networks of Jewish climate activists like JCAN, the Jewish Climate Action Network, in Boston.
Through study, through ourselves becoming the Great Shofar of history, we can learn to act together to prevent disaster and instead grow seeds of change into a flourishing world of shared and sustainable sustenance.
This summer presents a unique opportunity for study that leads to action. The Shalom Center and I will be involved in two learning frameworks later this summer:            
§  On July 9-10, Rabbi Phyllis Berman and I will be teaching at the Stony Point retreat center in the lower Hudson Valley. Stony Point is seeking as students Jewish, Christian, and Muslim young adults, ages 19-29, who are grounded in their religious tradition, serious about spirituality and the state of the planet, and excited by social activism in a multireligious context.  For further information, please click here: <

§ For a deeper experience leading to fuller active engagement, from August 11 to August 15,  Nili Simhai and I will be co-leading a fuller laboratory/ workshop on “Healing the Earth as a Jewish Spiritual Practice”  at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, Falls Village, CT.  

Nili is extraordinarily skilled in shaping experiential education  — hands-on, legs-on. She was the founder and for many years director of the Teva Learning Alliance. This course is aimed at helping would-be activists learn how to draw on Jewish symbols, festivals, and practices to energize Jewish-community action to heal the Earth.  
Nili and I hope that participants in this workshop will bond into an effective network of Jewish eco-activists. For further information, please click here:

From study into action!
The graphic of the Shofar-blower in the fruitful fields symbolizes the Shofar that calls out, “Sleepers, Awake!”
“Awake to protect and heal the Earth!”
“Awake to protect the poor, the hungry, assailed by flood and famine!”
“Awake to heal YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of Life, as it chokes from the overdose of CO2 burned into our world-wide breath, Earth’s atmosphere!”
So action is needed. Yet clear action, effective action, action deeply rooted in our spiritual selves, requires learning. So please take part in one of these learning opportunities. Learn in the midst of joy!

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Earth and Climate Speak: MLK & the Fierce Urgency of Now

{By Reverend Oscar Tillman and Rabbi Arthur Waskow. This essay  appeared on Memorial Day, May 26, 2014, in the “Root” section of the Washington Post. Many thanks to Jacquie Patterson and other NAACP staff who facilitated its writing and placement. Reverend Tillman is a member of the NAACP National Board of Directors and chairs its National Black Church Leadership Initiative on Climate Justice. Rabbi Waskow is director of The Shalom Center and a member of the steering committee of Interfaith Moral Action on Climate.]

Fifty years ago in Washington DC, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about race in America and implored justice to “roll down like a mighty stream”. Five years later he said he was “standing on the mountaintop, looking into the Promised Land” just hours before his untimely death.
If Dr. King were alive today, he would perhaps have a more direct message about the mighty streams and soaring mountaintops of this country that he invoked to inspire awe and encourage collective action. Our American geography – our soaring mountaintops, our mighty streams, our “amber waves of grain, our purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain” are in grave danger. So are the communities that rely on them.
Our cornfields are parched from years of drought and then drowned in monsoon rains. The seagulls, fish, and fisherfolk of an entire region are smeared with oil. Our coastlines are drenched and even our subways flooded.  Our mountaintops are destroyed for the sake of the coal that lies beneath them. Our public lands are threatened by hydrofracturing that endangers our drinking water and that has by deliberate legal loopholes been exempted from independent scrutiny.  

What effects do these disasters have on human communities? Our small towns are despoiled and homes destroyed by breaks in oil pipelines that warn against the even more destructive Tar Sands Pipeline. Low-income neighborhoods become the politically easy place to put coal-burning plants, and their smoke turns the children of the poor into epidemics of asthma.  In Bangla Desh, millions of the poor who live bare inches above sea level will see their whole country flooded as the oceans rise. New York City is already planning to spend billions in bulwarks against the ocean that could have been invested in decent public schools with inspiring teachers. When the cornfields of America are withered by drought, the price of food rises here and around the world. Everyone suffers, but of course the poor and the hungry become the starving and the desperate.  In Africa, global scorching turns fertile lands  into deserts, and the desperate search for food fuels ethnic wars and genocide.

On April 4, 1967, exactly a year before he was killed, Dr. King named “materialism” as one of the deadly triplets afflicting America: “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

At that point, he did not yet know how deadly to all of Earth materialist greed would become—the materialist greed of giant corporations selling fossil fuels the way a cabal of drug lords would sell their deadly drugs. And, like other drug lords, using their wealth and power to try to prevent the urgently-needed shift to wind, solar, and truly clean sources of energy.

Half a century ago, it was the murder of civil rights workers, deaths in Vietnam, the suffering of garbage workers in Memphis — as well as the Dream of racial justice — that called Dr. King into action. Today it is the climate crisis that has come upon us, — bringing famines, floods, fires, asthma,  and devastations on whole nations  — and the Dream of a shared and sustainable abundance that must call us into action, walking the path he walked.

In that same speech one year before his death, Dr. King said, “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.  Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’”

Today we must indeed cry out with the fierce urgency of Now. Now is the time for the fierce urgency of our convictions, for us to break our silence on all these disasters. Now is the time to raise our voices for our Dreams  — the ones we understood fifty years ago, and the ones we are discovering today.




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Preparing for Sinai: Uniting Earth & Heaven, Words and Wheat

From the evening of Tuesday June 3 through the evening of June 5, Jews will be celebrating the festival of Shavuot, which in most of Jewish life today is focused on the revelation and acceptance of Torah at Mount Sinai.

During the next weeks, the Shalom Report will be suggesting ways to enrich what has become a somewhat forlorn festival in the Jewish calendar.

And since Shavuot became transcribed in Christian tradition into Pentecost, perhaps Christians as well as Jews might learn from reexamining this holy day.  (More about Pentecost below.)

The Hebrew word “Shavuot” means “Weeks.”  Its name comes from the festival’s timing in regard to Passover: It comes after a “week of weeks,” seven weeks and one day, beginning on the second night of Passover.

In Biblical Israel, Shavuot was the celebration of a successful spring wheat harvest. For seven weeks, the community anxiously counted its way into the precarious abundance of harvest.  The counting began on Passover as each household brought a sheaf of barley to the Temple, for the barley crop ripened before wheat.

On the 50th day, there was a unique offering at the Temple — two loaves of wheat bread –— regular leavened bread, not unleavened matzah, on the only occasion all year when leavened bread was offered. 

This agricultural celebration of Shavuot fit into the broad pattern of Biblical Judaism. During the Biblical era, spiritual leadership of the People was held by a hereditary priesthood defined by the body from birth and skilled in the body-rituals of bringing various foods  (beef, mutton, matzah, grain, pancakes, fruit) as offerings to a physical place.

Then the People Israel was severed from the land and from its ability to bring earthy offerings of foods of the Land of Israel to the Temple. During the same crisis when the People was deprived of its original, indigenous sacred relationship with the Earth, it was introduced to an alternative form of sacredness. From Hellenistic philosophy, it became clear that adept use of words could make connection with the Divine. And words could be carried from place to place, land to land.

So spiritual leadership was redefined. It was handed to a meritocratic lineage of men skilled in words –- the Rabbis.

In accordance with this profound transformation, the Rabbis redefined Shavuot –— as no longer the celebration of spring wheat, but the anniversary of Revelation of the Word.

Just as  Passover — the anniversary of Liberation from slavery  –- offered the whole people the opportunity to renew its commitment to freedom from the many Pharaohs that haunted Jewish history, Shavuot as Revelation offered the People the opportunity to stand again at Sinai, every year, and make new Torah — midrash.

But  this transformation of Shavuot left the festival almost bereft of ceremony, hands-on ritual that could engage people bodily and emotionally.  Passover has the Seder and its foods; Sukkot, the fall harvest festival, has the building of a leafy, leaky hut; Rosh Hashanah, the ear-filling, heart-stopping blasts of the ram’s horn; Yom Kippur, a 26-hour fast; Hanukkah, the lighting of a growing blaze of candles. Shavuot –- what?

Words. Powerful words, but still only words.  Reading the Ten Utterances of Sinai.  Reading Ezekiel’s weird ecstatic experience of God in the form of a whirling chariot, crowned by a rainbow of flashing colors. Reading the Scroll of Ruth, about the transformation of a poverty-stricken immigrant from a despised pariah people into the ancestress of King David and therefore of Messiah.

When what we now know as Judaism and Christianity were just beginning to diverge, on Shavuot there was a gathering to celebrate the holy day.  According to Christian tradition, in that gathering Words suddenly dissolved and multiplied into hearing and speaking the 70 different tongues of all humanity.

Shavuot became “Pentecost” (which means “Fiftieth Day”). The Holy Spirit –-Ruach haKodesh,  perhaps the Holy Breath that appears in every language —  beckoned the emerging Church to speak to the many peoples in their many tongues.  In following that path, Christianity gained a great deal –—  but left behind, even more than Rabbinic Judaism, the Earth-connection.

In another mystical experience more than a millennium later,  the Jewish mystics in the town of Tzfat (Safed) 500 years ago embraced an all-night “teach-in” of the many faces of Torah. From the all-night learning could come both exhaustion –- emptying out of the ego — and exhilaration – unifying each person’s “I“ into the higher, deeper, fuller, universal “I” of Sinai.

Some Jewish communities practice that all-night learning still. Perhaps for some it does engage the body. Still, the body and the Earth are under-involved — though we live in an era of crisis for the Earth, the Earth we overwork.

So perhaps the time has come to move beyond the word-focus of Rabbinic Judaism – not abandoning words but reintegrating Wheat and Word, the Food that comes into our mouths and the words of Torah that come out of our mouths.

There is a parallel pattern of 7x7+1 in Torah that especially calls us to unEarth the earthiness of Shavuot.

This pattern of seven weeks and the fiftieth day is a microcosm of the pattern of Sabbatical/ Shmita Years and the Jubilee or Home-bringing Year, about which we read and I wrote last week:

In that pattern of a landed, indigenous people, every seven years, the Land and the People rested from organized agriculture and all debts were annulled. Then, in the year after the seventh seventh year -– the fiftieth year –-  there was again a pause from all agricultural work  (which made the Shabbat pause two years in a row).

Going even beyond  this Sabbatical pause,  during this 50th year  there was a total redistribution of land, each family returning to its ancestral holding. The rich gave up being rich, the poor gave up being poor. 

Seven times seven, plus one.  7x7+1=50. Imagine a whirling slingshot, round and round, higher and higher —  and then: Lift-off!

This pattern of 49 days plus 1 day begins by affirming that it comes “B’Har Sinai” – “On Mount Sinai.” So we have an additional powerful reason to connect these patterns.

What can the 49+1 years of both social and eco-social transformation that lead to Jubilee/Home-bringing teach us about the 49+1 days that lead to Harvesting Torah?

How can we unify the earth-Shavuot of wheat harvest with the word-Shavuot of Torah?

One first vision of a tiny practice that could bring new power to Shavuot: Each household bakes two loaves of bread to bring to the communal reading of that Moment on the Mountain.

As we share the bread with each other, touching the loaves and touching the others who are touching the loaves, we share with each other, with our partner the Earth, and with our Highest Selves, the One:

From Earth we receive,

To the One we give:

Together we share,

And from this we live.

For a dozen  creative and transformative essays on Shavuot, see

There will be more that we share with you, in these next weeks approaching Sinai. Harvesting Torah.

Blessings of shalom, salaam, sohl; paz, paco, peace! —  Arthur

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This is a huge connection of the original wheat harvest to our spoken words. Years ago, at a Shabbaton lead by Reb Zalman, in Philadephia...
I told him I struggle with Kashrut. He said "it's more important what comes out of your mouth than what goes into your mouth." I believe both directions are important, but Wheat in is for the one. Words out can either create or destroy and can bear consequences, good or bad on many even if only spoken to one. Sending love, Cari


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Idolatry & AEPi

 I joined the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity  — AEPi — in my freshman year of college.  In my chapter at Johns Hopkins were mostly what we’d now call “nerds.” Including me: In those days I could imagine a future in which I’d be writing 22 books, but certainly not a future in which I’d be getting arrested 22 times. I enjoyed most of our very tame parties, and most of my  “brothers.”

So I am sorrowful to report that AEPi’s recent behavior is a sad example of what happens when love for Israel sours into idolatry of Israel. In a moment I will explain what I mean.

And I’ll suggest what we could do about it.

This “fraternal” organization —  originally intended to nurture Jewish community –— has turned sour — and worse, idolatrous —  by defining critics of Israel as unacceptable in the community.

 There could be no worse anti-fraternal formula for turning off the brightest, most creative young Jews.  Telling them to stay away from the Jewish community.
That’s what idolatry does. It deadens both the idol-maker and what the idol-maker venerates. As Psalms 115 and 135 say of idols, “They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.  They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not breathe. Those who make them become like them [dead]; so do all who trust in them.”
 A minority of American Jews –-  few in numbers but rich and powerful enough to matter —-  distort our community by supporting whatever policies the Israeli government pursues, without critique or question.
That is idolatry, carving out a useful part of the Flow of Life and elevating it into Absolute Devotion as if were Absolute Perfection.  
This kind of idolatrous behavior is not only spiritually bankrupt.
It not only violates one of the Ten Commands of Sinai.
It not only violates what Hillel called Torah’s central command, to “love our neighbors as ourselves” — by justifying the oppression of the Palestinian community in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.  
It not only is what Jews have called “Chillul haShem,” casting shame upon the Jewish people in the eyes of others.
It not only hollows out (chillul) the Divine Tree of Life so that it may look untouched from the outside, but within, the life-juice of the Tree no longer flows and the Tree of Life begins to die.
Not only does this idolatry —- in the very name of supporting a worthy instrument for protecting Jews and enriching Jewish culture – - weaken Israel by exposing it to all the dangers of unchallenged, unaccountable, domineering over-reach. (Cf. Pharaoh at the Red Sea.)
This idolatry also tears at the fabric of American Jewish life, treating critics as traitors and making a public pretense of what American Jews actually believe.
The most recent horrendous example is what happened when J Street applied for membership in the “Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.”
J Street is devoted to Israel and committed to give real support – not just mouthwash — to a two-state peace settlement that would liberate not only Palestine but Israel itself.  (The jailer who fears and must keep constant watch upon his prisoner becomes a prisoner too — certainly not nearly as despairing as the one behind bars, but a prisoner nevertheless.)
The Conference members voted by secret ballot. That is a shande -– shameful –- in itself. These are not private people in a voting booth. They are more like our Senators and Congressmembers when they vote on bills, whose votes of course are public. We who elected them are entitled to know how they vote.

 Those who vote at the Conference of Presidents are each allegedly representing the organization that sends them, and its members. The members are entitled to know how they voted.
Despite the “secret ballot” rule, a vigorous columnist for the Forward, J.J . Goldberg, was able to find out how most of the member organizations voted.
The large ones, from the centrist mainstream Jewish community –— the Reform and Conservative denominational bodies, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, even the Anti-Defamation League  —  voted to include J Street.
But a larger number of much smaller rightwing Orthodox groups and right-wing political groups voted NO. Since the Conference goes by “One Group, One Vote,” regardless of the size of membership, J Street was rejected.
So outraged were the centrist mainstream groups that Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the million-plus-member Reform denomination, threatened to quit the Conference of Presidents unless there were major reforms.
And oh yes, among the organizations voting No was AEPi.
“My” fraternity, excluding devoted Jews from what is supposed to be an umbrella organization.
So I called AEPi HQ at  8815 Wesleyan Road, Indianapolis, Indiana 46268-1171, email:  phone: (317) 876-1913 fax: (317) 876-1057, and spoke with its executive director, Andrew Borans.
When I said I was shocked and unhappy about AEPi’s vote, the first thing he said was that no one was supposed to know how anyone voted.
Of course! — Then no one could complain! In the great tradition of liberte, egalite, fraternite!

When I pressed him about the content of AEPi’s vote –—  why would a presumably broad-based organization vote with the right-wingers? — he said 90% of their undergrads and 95% of their alumni had urged a right-wing No vote.
“But,”  I said, “I get your emails. I’m a Life Member. I was ‘Master’ (that is, president), of my chapter 60 years ago. I’m even a Rabbi. How come no Email came to ask my opinion?”
“Well,” he said, “we are members of many many organizations and we can’t consult everybody on every vote that comes up.”
(I leave aside whether “every vote” ends up in a major column in the leading Jewish newspaper and in controversy so sharp that the President of the biggest member of the Presidents’ club threatens to quit.)
I asked how many actual flesh-and-blood people these 90% or 95% were. He wouldn’t say. Where did he find them? Well, he met them. Visiting fraternity houses. Raising money. Dinners.
Oh. One more fact. In AEPi’s list of Notable Alumni (see, high on the list is Sheldon Adelson, multibillionaire gambling king and multi-million-dollar supporter of Israeli and American right-wing politicians. Adelson snarled at Governor Christie of New Jersey for daring to call the West Bank “occupied territory,”  when Christie came to beg royal cash and favor for the GOP presidential sweepstakes.
 Also among the “notable alumni” is Michael Schwerner (Cornell, class of 1961) who was one of the Civil Rights workers murdered by the KKK during Freedom Summer, 1964. Now he was a Brother I’d take joy in being Brother with! But you can’t compare Schwerner’s influence to Adelson’s. After all, Schwerner is safely dead. And he never had much money anyway.

So –— what to do? I urge other AEPi members who believe that J Street is a legitimate and valuable part of the Jewish community to say so to the national AEPi leadership and to their own chapters. And I urge us all to say so to any of our kids or grandkids who are thinking about joining a fraternity.
And I urge all of us, AEPi or no, to praise, question, and criticize Israel as we would any other aspect of the world. A more and more flawed aspect, badly needing our work of healing and correction. Not the Perfect One that we may pine for, even worship.

And I urge all of us to resist every effort to squash debate in the Jewish community, about Israel or about the refusal of many of our organizations to face the extreme over-heating of our only planet, or about any other way of driving out those who seek to be truly Yisra’el — to Wrestle God.


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Thank you -

Thank you so much for saying this and saying it so well.
As a born again Christian I have a lot of trouble suggesting to my brothers and sisters that the current government of Israel is not the people the Lord told us to bless.
Thank you for giving me a different way to say this.


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Experimenting toward an American Sabbatical/Shmitah Year

Can we turn our Eco-Wisdom
Away  from Climate Doom,
Into a Joyful Future?

Often the climate crisis is described ONLY as approaching doom. As the official US report on the impact of global scorching (just released this week) makes clear, that is one possible result. Yet the Torah portion we read this week (Leviticus 25, called B’Har) makes clear that we could learn to live more joyfully with the rhythms of the Earth.

Our growing ecological science could enrich the Torah’s teachings and help us on the journey toward a more joyful relationship between adam (humanity) and adamah (the Earth).  Could help us turn what the Hebrew words say — that human earthlings and the Earth are intertwined — into a joyful era, rather than disaster.

Indeed, it is our new scientific awareness of how fully all life on Planet Earth is interwoven that warns us of disaster. That same knowledge could make it possible to turn human and planetary history in a more fruitful direction.

The Sabbatical/ Shmita Year – a year in which the Earth and the human community get to rest —  is proclaimed in this week’s Torah portion. That vision is a teaching about how to affirm the economics of making the Earth do our will in order for human life to thrive, with a time of pausing for the earth and human society to catch our breath — and thrive.

If Shmitah is a worthy vision, how do we begin to make it real? Let us start with an “impractical” vision: creating nine-day Shmitah/ Sabbatical Festivals in all our neighborhoods.

All too few are now “neighborly” as the assumptions of compassion have broken down in the face of both the content and the form of the mass media, the defunding of face-to-face education, despair over permanent impoverishment juxtaposed to quick riches from illegal drugs. How do we transform them?

Imagine this “impractical” scenario:  Our government empowers all our neighborhoods to hold a nine-day neighborly Shmitah/ Sabbatical celebration, once a year from Friday through the Sunday  a week later. We the People, acting through our shared government, give seed grants to neighborhood institutions to plan such events. We make the Shmitah Festival a decentralized but universal event, a universal national “Shabbat” on all but life-preserving emergency services.

We close down highways, trains, hotels, television stations, newspapers, along with factories and offices. We rediscover walking and talking, singing and cooking. We rediscover our nearby neighbors.

Such a festival would give our society in a regular, chosen rhythm what only a few cities now experience, and only in a random, unchosen way. For such “festivals” now occur only when a great blizzard clogs the whole town with snow. Observers report that the first reaction is panic, an hysterical attempt to get to work. When it becomes clear that no one can work, a mood of joy and festive calm spreads across the city. Everyone shares: food, stories, emergency assistance. People play in the snow.

It is a day of unemployment but in a mood of holiday, holy day. Much more a holy day, in fact, than most of the commercialized holidays that have been made occasions not of rest but of turning on the “consumption economy.”

How could we begin a “miniature” Shmitah, before the nation as a whole is ready to “waste” its time?

Suppose that in a few cities, a group of synagogues, mosques,  and churches held a Shmitah Festival for three days (Friday through Sunday), or for nine (Friday through the next week into the next Sunday).

Such a Shmitah Festival would address the economic, political, and spiritual renewal of the city and its neighborhoods ——

  • by inviting co-ops and worker managed firms, innovative small businesses, etc., to explain their work;
  • by demonstrating equipment for energy conservation and the local generation of solar and wind renewable energy;
  • by turning empty lots or part of the church, synagogue, or mosque grounds into communal vegetable gardens;
  • by holding workshops on how tenants can buy apartment houses and turn them into co ops;
  • by setting up a temporary food co op and helping people organize a more permanent one, etc.
  • by sharing home-cooked foods, songs, dances, story telling, , etc.
  • by gathering people to discuss in open town meetings some of the major issues of our society: schools, energy, jobs, climate, prices, families, etc. and how to apply the Shmitah approach to them in national and international as well as local and neighborhood ways.
  • It would encourage all the people of the neighborhood to pool and exchange their talents, skills, and memories.

Obviously this would not be a one-to-one transcription of the Biblical Shmitah, even for nine days; but it would be an experiment in translating the Shmitah into modern terms. Approaches that began or were stimulated by the Shmitah Festival would continue and grow through the year. Their work would intertwine the day-to-day problems of people in the neighborhood with study of both the Biblically rooted religious traditions and the modern analytical knowledge of social relations.

People who experienced just a glimpse of the Shmitah could use that moment to begin imagining how to translate the Shmitah into post modern practice. And they could start building the political power that could bring about the kinds of change that they imagine.

How to get the Shmitah Festival process going? In a given city, some of the rabbis, ministers, priests, imams, and also the lay members of synagogues, havurot, churches, mosques probably know who in the various religious communities share the vision.

If they created a local Shmitah Committee and got a few congregations to agree to host or to sponsor the Shmitah Festival, the project would grow through outreach to co-ops, labor unions, innovative businesses, etc., and to singers, dancers, story tellers, and cooks of the local traditions.

In all these practical proposals, there is an underlying thread of belief: that “ritual” and “politics,” should not be separated from each other, but rather intertwined. This may seem fuzzy-minded to the practical politician and irreverent to the ritually observant; but those responses are both symptoms of the modern age.

The Shmitah passages in the Bible teach that the most effective politics has a powerful ritual element in it, engaging not only material interests but deep emotional, intellectual, and spiritual energies; and that when ritual is made fully communal and focused on reality, it becomes precisely politics.

Luckily, as we tremble on the edge of the Global Scorching precipice, the year that begins this fall with Rosh Hashanah (September 24-26) will be a Shmitah/ Sabbatical Year, according to the ancient count so carefully kept for millennia. The notes below suggest how we can take the time from now till then to study the Biblical sources and modern thought on the Sabbatical/Shmitah cycle, and then to act.

For study is powerful — if it leads to action. Not only Jews but all communities could benefit from  this study — and from the action we can learn from it. For a full chapter on Shmitah and Jubilee from my book  Godwrestling — Round 2  (Jewish Lights, 1996), click here for

  The book is available from The Shalom Center by clicking to

For a treasury of articles applying the principles of the Shmitah/Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee to our own societies, click to

And for other readings from the Hebrew Bible & related materials toward a Shmitah Economics::

Strand on the Sabbatical Year / Shmitah

Ex. 23: 9-12
Lev 25: 1-55
Lev. 26: 33-35, 43-45
Deut. 15: 1-18
Isaiah 58: 1-14
Isaiah 61: 1-11
Jeremiah 32: 6-44
Jeremiah 34: 8-22
II Chron. 36: 20-21

Strand on Shabbat, Eden, and Eden for Grown-Ups

Gen 2: 1-4
Gen. 2: 14-19
Ex 16: 13- 36
Ex. 20: 8-11
Deut 5: 12-15
Song of Songs (translations by Marcia Falk or Chana & Ariel Bloch or Shefa Gold)

Strand on “Corners,” Gleaning, etc.

Ex 23: 20 to 24: 9
Lev. 19: 9-10, 23: 22
Deut 24: 10- 20
Book of Ruth

Abraham J. Heschel, The Sabbath (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1951).
Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language (1951), Appendix on the Sabbath; You Shall Be as Gods (1966), chapter on the Sabbath.
Arthur Waskow, Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life (Morrow, 1995), pp. 148-152, 162-165, 353-381.
Arthur Waskow, Godwrestling — Round 2 (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1996),  The book is available from The Shalom Center by clicking to

See also Luke 4 in the Christian Gospels and John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, on Jesus’ call for a Shmitah or a Jubilee.

For a guide to study and action in response to the Torah of shmitah, see
For an intensely text-focused analysis of the Biblical tradition of shmitah, Shmitah, and the Eden story, see Rabbi David Seidenberg’s writing at Shmitah-and-the-Land-Ethic


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Do We Need to ReName God?

 Early in the Book of Exodus, God goes through a change of Name.  Indeed, though the book takes its name in English because it is the transformational story of successful resistance to slavery, in Jewish tradition the Book is not known as “Yetziat Mitzrayyim, the Exodus from the Narrow Place / Egypt.” It is known instead as “Sefer Shemot –- the Book of Names.”
For the Eternal Holy One Who suffuses all the universe to change The Name is seismic. Cosmic.
It happens first at the Burning Bush. As Moses faces the unquenchably fiery Voice Who is sending him on a mission to end slavery under Pharaoh, he warns the Voice that the people will challenge him: “Sez who?”
And the Holy One, the Wholly One, answers: “Ehyeh  Asher Ehyeh, I Will Be Who I Will Be” –-  a fitting Name for a universe in which the powerless poor can be empowered and the pharaoh’s power can  dissolve like powder into the Sea of Reeds. Then God adds, “But that’s a mouthful. You can use just ‘Ehyeh, I Will Be,’ as my nickname, if you like.”
“And oh yes, you can also call me ‘YHWH.’ “
But we actually can’t. There’s no way to “pronounce” those letters, with no vowels. And for a couple of millennia, Jews have been strictly taught not even to try pronouncing it but instead to say “Adonai, Lord.”

Now why do we think that God’s Name has changed? Maybe it has been these mysterious Names all along?
But God, and Torah say: Not so. The second time the Voice tells Moses that the new Name is “YHWH” is in Exodus 6: 2-3. Moses is in Egypt, and his first try at liberation and at organizing “Brickmakers Union, Local #1” has miserably failed. This time the Voice explicitly says that the Name by which He/She/ It was known to the forebears — El Shaddai, the Breasted God, the God of Nourishment and Nurture, is no longer the Name for use in the liberation process.

Why this second Voicing of the new Name?

I suggest that Moses has, since the Bush and during his first effort in Egypt, been careless about using the new Name. He has often used the old one on the warm-hearted assumption that his listeners would be more comfortable with it.

But the old Name cannot inspire a new sense of reality.  That’s why Moses has failed, the Brickmakers Union has collapsed. So this time the Voice makes it absolutely clear: “Stop already! I am YHWH, not El Shaddai, even though your forebears knew me that way.”

The point is that when the world is turning upside down or inside out, God must be differently named. Because God IS different when the world is different. And because human beings cannot deeply absorb, “know,” “grok,” the newness of the world and their own crucial need to act on that newness unless they are challenged to ReName God.

In our generation even more than in Moses’ day, the world is indeed being transformed. The entire web of life as the human race has known it for our entire history as a species, including human life and civilization, is under great strain.

We must ReName God, to be truthful to the changing reality and to teach ourselves to act in new ways.

And that is why I have been urging us to know, grok, God in our own generation through “pronouncing” the Unpronounceable Name by simply breathing —  YHWH with no vowels, as the Interbreath of Life, the ONE that keeps all life alive, that intertwines, interbreathes, the trees and grasses and ourselves.

We breathe in what the trees breathe out;
The trees breathe in what we breathe out:
We breathe each other into life:

What we call the “climate crisis” is a radical disturbance in the Earth’s atmosphere that has thrown out of balance the mixture of what we breathe out and what the trees breathe out — that is, the balance of CO2 and oxygen.  Human action is sending more CO2 into the atmosphere  than Mother Earth can breathe.

If we hear the YHWH as the Interbreathing of all life, then that Name Itself is now in crisis. God’s Interbreathing Name is harshly wounded, and it will take our action to heal the Name.  

We cannot begin the healing so long as we refuse to Name the wound. Using the old names, names of “Lord” and “King” and domination, is like trying to heal a seriously wounded person by treating someone else.  We  can only begin the healing by reclaiming the Truth of the Name, the Breath within the Name.

Just as we calm ourselves by breathing mindfully as individuals, so all humanity must learn to clear the Life-Breath of the planet by a collective calming, shared mindfulness. That requires not just action by many individuals in their individual lives, but public action by communities and polities to heal the wounded Interbreathing.

“Science,” “politics,” and “religion” fuse into a single truth.

If we are to do as Torah demands, heal our deeply wounded planet from impending disaster, I think we must do as Moses learned to do and ReName God.
I think we must rid ourselves of the old Name — Adonai, Lord, King, dominating Dominus – and address Divine Reality as the Interbreathing Of All Life.   That is the Truth, and we are Called to say it.
With a sacred but outdated Name, an outdated way of understanding our world, we will, like Moses, fail at the task before us.
For years, I have encouraged prayer communities to breathe the Name as YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh and then to use “Yahhh” instead of “Adonai.”   And then I have said that anyone who feels deeply God-connected through the use of the “Adonai” which they have recited, chanted, sung a thousand times should —  for God’s sake! –- keep on using what connects them.
But I have come to think this is an inadequate teaching.  I am now intending to say all this, and then to add my understanding of why Moses failed at first. And why the Voice had to insist on the new Name. And I will invite people to keep that challenge in mind as they voice their own response to the Voice.
Interbreathing, not OverLordship, is how our world now works. Now Is. And will be.

The Hebrew word “dibbur” can mean either “word” or “deed.” If we can conceive of God and Universe through a new word, a new name, we can also act far more effectively to bring about the changes that our planet needs.

For Moses, the new Name made possible both resisting Pharaoh and shaping a new kind of society.

For us, it means both resisting the modern Carbon Pharaohs that are bringing new Plagues upon our planet; and shaping a new society in which we are constantly aware that all life is Interbreathing, that we are interwoven with the eco-systems within which we live –- that indeed, YHWH, the Breath of Life, is ONE.

And thus to affirm the truth of Sh-sh-sh-sh’ma! —-   Hush’sh’sh’sh to hear the thin small Voice, the Breath of Life that’s Wholly One.

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1st-Borns, ReBirth, & Passing Over: My Own & All of Us

This year I am feeling haunted by one of the lesser-known aspects of Passover: On the morning before the First Seder –- which means this very morning –— First-born sons (or in this generation, first-born children) are supposed to fast from daybreak till the Seder.  

We first-borns are released from this obligation if we study Torah and then conclude with a “seudat mitzvah” – a meal celebrating the fulfillment of a mitzvah, which means a commandment or a connection-making between ourselves and the Holy One of Being, the Breathing-Spirit of the world.

Why should we first-borns fast as we approach Passover? Presumably in grief, relief, and gratitude – grief for all the first-borns of Egypt, Mitzrayyim, the Tight and Narrow Place, who according to the Exodus story died that night, and in relief and gratitude that our families of the Godwrestling folk were spared the disaster.

So from 1971 or ’72 on, as I found my way through the Freedom Seder deeper and deeper into Passover and Torah, I have fasted –— or studied Torah – during this day, in honor of the ancient story.

But this year I am feeling a more personal grief. In some strange way I am no longer a “first-born” — because my younger brother died two years ago. Indeed, on his deathbed I said to him that he had become for me the older brother that he wished I had been for him. He nodded, using the little breath left to him: “It’s true.”

There’s more to this “first-born” thing than the deaths of Exodus.  All through the Book of Genesis, the struggles of younger brothers to become the “Elder” are the thread of conflict and of holiness. In every case but one, after a struggle the First-born steps back – and then there is a reconciliation.

The one exception is the tale of Cain and Abel. Cain, possessed of anger at his dispossession, refuses to step back –-  and kills his younger brother.

Early in the tale of Exodus, God defines Yisrael as the older child of God –— deserving of the first-born’s special blessings. This is patently untrue –-  for Egypt is older, richer, stronger. And Egypt – or at least its Pharaoh — refuses to step back.

Indeed, like Cain the Pharaoh commands the death of all the boy-children of this presumptuous upstart claimant to the Elder blessings. He tries to turn the very power of birthing –- the nurturing power of midwives –- into murder, but the midwives honor the Voice of God expressed in the babies’ cry and the Breath of Life expressed in the babies’ first breathing.

So this time it is not the younger brother who is murdered as was Abel, but all the older brothers of the Older Brother Egypt who die, slaughtered by the hand of the Breath of Life, the Wind of Change that blows away all that keeps a death-grip on its narrow power..

How are the Israelite first-borns –- the Godwrestlers — saved? By smearing blood on the doorposts of their houses. When they walk through their doorways in the morning, they are reenacting their own births through the one doorway cloaked in blood that every human being passes through –- the womb and birth canal.  Those who are willing to take the chances of rebirth are those who live.

Mitzrayyim – the Tight and Narrow Place – had been nurturing as the new being, the new community, began to grow. But as its numbers, like the multiplying cells that grow into a fetus, truly become a new identity,  they begin to feel the pressure of a narrow space. Will the birthing contractions of Mother Egypt make the birthing joyful?

No, because Pharaoh tries to exert his power –- his overbearing, over-reaching, hypermasculine, tyrannical power  — over mother and child to stop the birthing as the time comes fully due. So terrible pangs – the Plagues — rip Egypt apart , before the new child can break the bloody waters of the Red Sea and cross into  the Wilderness of experiment and learning.

So the story of Passover  carries two great and archetypal myths – the story of Overreach that brings on its own destruction, and the story of new birthing into new community.

My brother Howard and I did together give new birth to each other and ourselves. Our rebirthing began in the midst of our mother’s dying during Passover 1985, when we banded together to let her choose death over the torture of a breathing machine that a hospital had forced upon her. It continued when Howard invited me to join with him in writing a book together about brotherhood.

After some reluctance and dismay - was a psychotherapist, this was his turf; would I look foolish? —  I took a step back from the Elder’s power, a step forward into his own territory. Out of that grew both a book – Becoming Brothers –- and a deep friendship.

As I grieve my brother’s death and feel gratitude for the friendship into which he wooed me, I don’t know whether I am any longer the Elder brother, First-Born.

But I am fasting today until I can sit down once again with the Talmud passages about Passover — especially the passages about my beloved charoset and my beloved Song of Songs  — the poem that promises a Beloved Community embracing all of life.

Fasting in grief and gratitude:  

  • Gratitude that I can once again celebrate the Passover that many years ago, in the midst of grief for Martin Luther King, gave me rebirth;
  • Grief that the over-reaching Pharaohs of our generation are bringing new Plagues of drought, famine, flood upon our Earth and our communities;
  • Gratitude for the stirrings of resistance and rebirth I see – growing toward a planet-round community of love and shared abundance, the Earth that is promised in the Song of Songs.
  • Grief that I cannot share with Howard two poems –- one he loved, one he admired –-  two poems of this moment of our year:

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,

And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,

I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

“Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,

Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.”  (Walt Whitman)

“April is the cruelest month,

breeding lilacs out of the dead land,

mixing memory with desire,

stirring dull roots with spring rain.” (T.S. Eliot)

Here we go, mixing memory with desire into our Passover. Every generation, every year, we must walk through the doorways of blood, reborn through grief and gratitude.

Blessings on your journey through the doorway.

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Purim 1994 + 20: The Goldstein Massacre -- Dark Torah, Absent God

Why is God’s Name Absent from the Scroll of Esther?

[On Purim morning in 1994, “Baruch” [“Blessed”] Goldstein, an American-born Israeli Jew who lived in an Israeli settlement near the Palestinian city of Hebron  — part of the Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian lands on the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem — took a machine gun into the mosque at the Tomb of Abraham. He murdered 29 Muslims prostrate in prayer in the place revered by both Jews and Muslims as the burial-site of the forefather of both Judaism and Islam, Jews and Arabs.

What follows is a passage from my book Godwrestling – Round 2, which was published by Jewish Lights in 1996. The passage explores the nature of Purim, of the Scroll of Esther, of the tradition about Amalek, of the present Israeli Occupation, and of God. Part of it was written shortly after that Purim, a few sentences a year later. At the end of this essay is a brief comment from the standpoint of 2014, twenty years after the Massacre.  —  AW]

A spring morning in 1994.   I had just awakened from a pleasant sleep after celebrating the raucous, rowdy, hilarious, spring-fever Purim festival the night before. Purim is intertwined with the Scroll of Esther, in which a pompous king and a wicked prime minister are ultimately outwitted by a wise Jewish courtier and a courageous Jewish queen.

At one level, the story is about a genocidal threat aimed at the Jews. By echoing an earlier genocidal threat from the tribe of Amalek, the story turns the danger into an archetype. To this threat the Jews respond with diplomatic wisdom and, ultimately, a delicious revenge.

At another level, the story is a joke: What you intend to do to me, that’s what happens to you. So, the wicked Haman would hang the Jews? He ends up swinging from his own gallows. So, the pompous king refuses to take orders from a woman? He ends by doing exactly what his Queen tells him to do.

When I say the Scroll of Esther and the Purim festival are “intertwined,” I am choosing my words with care.  In the official version of Jewish history and ritual, the story of Queen Esther led to the celebration of Purim. Today, most scholars think it went the other way: A ribald festival of early spring was justified by a jokey novelet: the Scroll of Esther. All agree that the two are intertwined.

From the easy laughter of a Purim evening — reading the Scroll of Esther with its scathing humor aimed at kings and ministers; rattling my noisemaker at every mention of the name of wicked “Haman”; joining in the bawdy plays called “Purimspiels” that poked fun at rabbis, Torah, Jews, at God’s Own Self for choosing to be absent from this book — from all this, I woke to hear the radio:

 Some religious Jew named “Baruch” (“Blessed”) had walked with a machine gun into the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, the Tomb of Abraham and Sarah, and there had murdered twenty-nine of his cousins, the children of Abraham’s other family, who were praying prostrate on their faces. 

From behind.

At prayer.

For the sake of God.

Yes, for God he killed them, for the God to Whom they were at the very same moment praying. Killed them because it was Purim, the moment when we are to remember to blot out the name of Amalek, the archetypal murderer who had assaulted us from the rear, killed us when we were helpless.

He turned his gun into a midrash.

The Talmud says that on Purim, we are to get just drunk enough to not know the difference between “Blessed Mordechai” and “Cursed Haman.” Between Baruch, Blessed,”  and Aror, “Cursed.” For Purim is the day of inversions, inside-outs, of turning the world upside-down. Hilarity and grotesquerie.

This man had become so drunk on blood that he could no longer tell the difference in his own identity between Baruch, Blessed, and Aror, Cursed; between becoming the murderer Haman and becoming the healer Mordechai.

And he had made his gun into a midrash. A brilliant midrash.

I lay in bed, drowning out this new name of Amalek as it came pouring from the radio, saying, shouting, screaming, wailing, “No no no no no no NO.”

Twenty-five years of joyful prayer and midrash, shattered with one gun and twenty-nine lives. Twenty-five years of hope and anger, grief and loneliness, rolling the spiral of the Scroll, walking the spiral of the festivals, learning the Hebrew puns that point the path to Torah meaning.

No no no no no no NO

The Black Hole of Torah, sucking in all light, all meaning.

At last I got out of bed. I called my children, my friends, my teachers, my students. We began to weave a counter-midrash, a weave of tears and healing, not of blood and bullets. For it to have power may take years, decades, centuries in which it grows from seed to sprout to Tree of Life.

The Amalek Within

     But we began. On the very day of Bloody Purim, we began. We said to each other, We will have to understand “Amalek,” the archetype of genocidal hatred, in a new way.  For the Purim story does not stand alone. Jewish tradition connects it with a story from the Exodus and Wilderness: A nation named Amalek attacked the Jews from the rear, killing the women and children who had been placed there for safety. The Torah teaches that Jews must forever remember to blot out the memory of Amalek. Haman. Torquemada. Hitler. They are all Amalek.

     Of course, after the Nazi Holocaust —  the Holocaust from which no Esther saved the Jews —  this archetypal myth of disaster bit home with intense cruelty and fear. Suddenly, Jews for whom the Amalek story had become somewhat quiescent, became attuned to it.

     And then came the long, complex, and deadly struggle between the national movements and hopes of the Jewish and the Palestinian peoples. In that struggle, some Palestinians became terrorists. Some Palestinians called publicly for the State of Israel to be shattered. So for some Jews, all Palestinians become Amalek. We must “blot out” their memory.

     What does it mean to blot out their memory? To Baruch/Aror Goldstein, it meant murder. He had guns and police protection; he had power. He could make the fantasy come true.

     But “blotting out the memory of Amalek” must come to mean something other than murder. The key to a deeper spiritual understanding is to see that a spark of Amalek may arise not only in outsiders and enemies, but also in ourselves.

Within days of the Purim massacre, two women who had been deeply engaged in the struggle to create a feminist Judaism pointed toward new meanings for Amalek. 

Barbara Breitman, drawing on her own experience as a psychotherapist, asked us to look carefully at the key command. It has two parts, she pointed out: First, “Remember what Amalek did to you.” Then, “When your God brings you safely into the land, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek.”

First, she said, the victim must fully recover the memories of victimization and abuse. Then, when we are no longer weak and powerless, when we are “safe in a good land,” we must no longer be obsessed with Amalek. For it is exactly an unrealistic and obsessive fear that will drive us to desperate acts — indeed, into acting like Amalek.

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone pointed out that Amalek was a descendant of Esau — that grandson of Abraham who was cheated from the birthright and the blessing that would have let him follow in Abraham’s footsteps. Amalek, she suggests, is part of our own family, the residue of rage that sprang from Esau’s grief and anger. Amalek is always a possibility within us, as well as within others. The Torah is teaching that even as we face the danger of an Amalek without, we must also blot out the urge to Amalek within ourselves, by turning that urge toward compassion.

These teachings showed us where to begin. Then we said to each other — :

     We will have to read the Scroll of Esther in a new way. In almost its last passage,  we chant verses of triumph when the Jews kill 75,000 of their enemies. So long as we understood the whole Scroll to be a fable, we could live with this bloody denouement as the angry fantasy of a powerless people: Just once, they could destroy not only those who seek to kill them but everyone who ever sneered at them.

     What does it mean to reread the Scroll? At the first level, literally to chant it in a different way. We must take the verse (Chapter 9, verse 16)  of destruction and read them in the wailing chant of Lamentations that is traditional for the verses that describe our fear of our own destruction.

     But “rereading” must go on at other levels, too. What shall we do when some people think the story must be acted out? What spiritual and ethical dangers do we run when we – the Jewish people — are powerful but pretend to be still powerless?

     We were powerless for a long time. Indeed, the last time we found a whole new Torah hidden in the white fire of the Scroll, it was precisely a Torah for living powerless, landless, bodiless, yet skilled with words. So one of the new elements that demands we search again for new Torah hidden within the old is precisely the reemergence of a Jewish people — in Israel and in many communities throughout the world — that can have a say in the politics of life.

Count up the coinage of a political power that has no precedent in Jewish history: one of the dozen strongest military forces on the planet; a strong political presence, greater than our number by proportion, in the world’s one superpower; enough clout in what was the Soviet Union to challenge its might with nonviolent courage and make the first cracks in its Goliath armor; half a dozen prosperous communities in prosperous countries scattered round the globe. We face a new Jewish reality, and so  we need to create a new Judaism.

Renewing the Fast of Esther

We will have to understand Purim in a new way, and yet an old way, rooted in the Fast of Esther that Jews used to observe during the daylight hours just before Purim. They fasted in memory of the fast that Esther undertook as she wrestled with her fear of Amalek.

We too must fast to face the danger of Amalek — the Amalek that comes from within and without, that crouches in every human being and in each people. In a year when Muslims had murdered Jews in the name of God just as a Jew had murdered Muslims, we could see that Amalek lurked in every people.

    So we began to see there was a profound wisdom in the rabbis’ prescription of the Fast of Esther. All fasts require self-control. On the eve of the very festival when the rabbis taught us to loosen self-control, they also taught us to remember it. They knew that hilarious playfulness is one necessary step on the spiritual path, when the distinctions between Blessed and Accursed must collapse, But perhaps they glimpsed the danger that when the clear and solid boundaries collapse, a flood of blood might be released. So they gave us first a day to confront this “shadow” within Purim.

Indeed, by decreeing that the 13tth of Adar would be the Fast of Esther, the ancient Rabbis wiped out  an earlier celebration. That day, called Yom Nicanor, had been celebrated as the day of Maccabeean victory over the Imperial Syrian general Nicanor.  By decreeing it would be a fast day, the Rabbis were not only putting some deeper self-awareness into Purim but ending the celebration of a nationalist military triumph. Trying to prevent the nation from getting drunk on blood.

There is an old rabbinic pun. Occasionally, in Hebrew, the Day of Atonement is called Yom HaKippurim. Someday, the Rabbis said, Yom HaKippurim would be like the Day of Lots, a Yom Ha K’Purim, a day like Purim. When Messiah comes, they said, the day when we need to atone for our sins would dissolve into a day like Purim, a day beyond sin because all sin would be transcended. Of all the holy days, they said, only Purim would still be celebrated after Messiah comes.

But the equation is also true in reverse. There must be an element of Yom Kippur in Purim, and that element is the Fast of Esther.

  The Fast of Esther could become a time for us to meet with other communities and face our nightmares about each other. In our neighborhood of Jewish renewal in Philadelphia, one year after the Purim Massacre in Hebron, on the evening before the Fast of Esther was to begin at daybreak, Jews, Christians, and Muslims gathered to look at the nightmarish teachings of each of our traditions and to examine how to move beyond them. Then we sang our different chants for each other, read the Psalms that delight all three traditions, fed each other bread and the fruit of the vine and touched each others’ foreheads with the oil of anointing.

Then we went home to sleep, to wake, to fast in memory of Esther.

The Presence of an Absence

But for me, the night before the fast was haunted by the absence of the Holy Presence.

In all the Scroll of Esther, the Name of God is never mentioned. Some people have argued that God is present in a hint of Mordechai’s: He teaches Esther that if she will not act to save the Jews, their salvation will come from another place. A Place, say some: a hidden Name of the God Who is The Place of the world. But for others, it is the name of Esther, which in Hebrew echoes the words “seter,” and “nistar” the words for “hidden,” that really tells the story. Just as Esther hides her Jewishness, so God hides in the story.

In the midst of restless dreams of emptiness, arising from the darkest place of massacre close to the end of the Scroll, I saw a not-vision and heard a not-voice:

And then appeared Darkness,

Her Head wrapped in mourning,

Her tallit all black,

Her Place only Absence,

Nistar b’nistar:


Her Voice was a Silence:

”I came to defend you,

My people beloved;

I strengthened your hand

to beat back your foes;

But then you betrayed Me.

For your hand became frenzied,

You struck down the harmless,

You struck down My children

While they reached out to Me.


On the day of rejoicing

You hollowed My Name;

In My Own Tree of Life,

You hollowed out life,

left only a mocking

pretence of My Self.


And I see — yes, I see —

That in days still to come

Your deeds will give warrant

To a child of your children,

To murder your cousins,

The children of Ishmael,

The children of Abraham,

In the Place of his grave,

On this day of rejoicing.


So My Name I withdraw —

Yes, My Name will be hidden,

Nistar b’nistar;


For I will not permit you

to call out from this Scroll

My Name on this day.


Yet I teach you that Purim,

Alone of the seasons,

Will continue beyond

the time of Messiah.


On the day that both families

of Abraham’s offspring

turn away from their murders,

from killing each other  —

On that day will my Name

take its Place in the Scroll.


 On that day Purim

and Yom Ha’K’Purim

at last will be one.


On that day, at last,

This Purim will lead you

And light up your way

to the Days of Messiah.


On that day all the nations

will  laugh and will dance,

will turn robes of power

into masquerade mirth;

will turn every gun

to a clackety grogger.


On that day will My Name

Take Its Place in the Scroll

In letters of Light.


I awoke to turn this Black Hole of the Torah, the Hidden God, into these words of a promise of new light. Then at last I felt free to celebrate Purim: to laugh and somersault, to turn the up side down; for then I knew that washing away the boundaries of rules would not bring on a flood of blood and murder.


TWENTY YEARS LATER: Now, in 2014, the Aror / Accursed Goldstein has become a hero, a saint, to a growing number of Israelis.

The massacre did not become a teaching toward the crucial necessity of ending the occupation. Far from it: The Occupation has metastasized, the number of settlers and settlements has multiplied, Hebron has become a nightmare where Palestinians are subjected to a curfew, are spat upon and assaulted by Israeli settlers with impunity, all to prevent their taking revenge for the Goldstein Massacre.

No body of Rabbis has come forward to urge that one verse of the Scroll of Esther be chanted in the Lamentation melody.

No body of Rabbis has come forward to invite Imams to join in renewing the Fast of Esther as a time for repentance for both communities from the bloody streaks in their past traditions and in the present actions of some in both communities.

So far, the Machine-Gun Midrash has been victorious.  Matai timloch b’Tzion? When will You, Breath of all life, Creator of all peoples, pour forth Your Majesty within Zion, that Place of Excellence within us all?


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 

"Rabbis, Shut Up!" -- Is that OK?

Can the B’nai Jeshurun Rabbis Speak Their Minds?
A Letter of Support from Jewish Clergy

By Rabbi Phyllis Berman, with 105 others

{On Thursday morning, February 27, the Shalom Report sent out to our Email lists of Rabbis and Cantors the following letter by Rabbi Phyllis Berman. Her letter calls for support for two rabbis of B’nai Jeshurun synagogue in New York who were being attacked for joining with many well-known New York Jews who publicly dissociated themselves from AIPAC.  (More details are in her letter.) By 10 a.m. on Friday, February 28, 106 Rabbis and other Jewish clergy had signed the letter of support — from 26 states, the Virgin Islands, Canada, Poland, and Israel. Their names appear below, after the text of the letter.

[Rabbi Berman was for twelve years the director of the Summer Program of the Elat Chayyim spiritual retreat center. She founded (1979) and directs the Riverside Language Program, a renowned school in NYC for adult immigrants and refugees from all over the world, teaching English in an intensive-immersion style modeled partly on some ulpanim. She is co-author of three books of Jewish thought and practice.

[This event is, from The Shalom Center’s standpoint, an important step in the process of ending intimidation by some top-down American Jewish organizations that try to silence the voicing of ideas they don’t like. We will write more about that broader question. –- AW, editor]

Dear Chevra in the holy Jewish professions – Rabbis, Cantors, Spiritual Directors, Rabbinic Pastors,  Chaplains –

A dear friend of mine in  NYC, who’s a long-time member of B’nai Jeshurun synagogue there, has just told me about a very  difficult situation for two of the BJ rabbis, Rolando Matalon and Felicia  Sol.  

Recently newly-elected Mayor Bill De Blasio met with members of  AIPAC at an organizational gala and pledged to stand with AIPAC.  “When you  need me to stand by you in Washington or anywhere, I will answer the call and  I’ll answer it happily ‘cause that’s my job,” he said.
Then quite a number of well-known and respected Jews in NYC, including  Rabbis Matalon and Sol, signed a public letter to Mayor De Blasio saying: “We
do  know that the needs and concerns of many of your constituents – U.S. Jews like  us among them – are not aligned with those of AIPAC.” Among the
other signers  were Rabbi Rachel Cowan, Barbara Dobkin, Sally Gottesman, Rabbi Sharon  Kleinbaum, Rabbi Ellen Lippman, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Gloria
Steinem, and Rabbi  Burt Visotzky.
The result is that the  rabbis have gotten a lot of abuse from a small contingent of people in their  congregation.  A recent article by Gary Rosenblatt in the Jewish Week  asserted that a number of members had quit the congregation over the rabbis’  signing of the statement.  

This is one of a series of confrontations within  the congregation over the last several years in which several wealthy  congregants have threatened to pull out their support from BJ unless the rabbis  publicly retracted some comment that they had made which was critical of the  current Israeli government and those sectors of the American Jewish  establishment that brook no criticism of Israel.

I know that we are not  all in agreement about the current Israeli government, about the settlements,  about the treatment of Palestinians and of the Israeli Bedouin, and about the  AIPAC position relating to Iran and the U.S.

I’m not writing to debate  these points of view.

I’m writing those of you who are Rabbis, Cantors, Spiritual Directors, Rabbinic Pastors, Chaplains, or students of those sacred professions.

I am writing to ask for help from those of you who want to send support and encouragement to our colleagues Rabbis  Matalon and Sol at a time that they’re being hounded to apologize and to step back  from their beliefs and statements.

If you want to join in signing the letter below, please write me your title, your name, your city (and  affiliation, if you’d like).

Please write me not later than 10 am Eastern Time tomorrow, Friday morning, February 28.

If you sign by then, your name will be added to the letter.

This letter will become part of the BJ Kabbalat Shabbat service that many  congregants are organizing in support of the rabbis.

Please feel free to share this letter with others who are involved in the sacred Jewish professions.

With concern,
Dear Roly and Felicia and  members of the B’nai Jeshurun Congregation:

We, your undersigned  rabbinic colleagues and friends from all over the United States, are writing to  support your signing the letter to NYC Mayor De Blasio, letting him know that  AIPAC doesn’t speak for every Jew.  

At a time that organizations such as  J Street, T’ruah, Jewish Voice for Peace, Open Hillel and others  are emerging to represent the many voices within the Jewish community that are  not represented by AIPAC, or by the current Israeli government, or by the  Israeli settlements in the territories outside of the green line, we stand with  you as rabbis, cantors,  spiritual directors, chaplains —-  many of us with family members  who live in Israel, many of us who have ourselves lived in or visited Israel,  all of us inspired by Jewish values, to affirm open dialogue on this divisive  subject within the American Jewish community.

We send you thanks for speaking out with so many other NYC Jews, we encourage you not to apologize for freedom of speech, and we  support you in
saying out loud that AIPAC does not speak for us either.  It  is, indeed, a shameful time in American Jewish history if we cannot voice  differences of
opinion about what we believe is best for Israel and for the  Jewish people. It is shameful that some can attempt to silence  others.

You have followed proudly in  the footsteps of your predecessor and mentor, Rabbi Marshall Meyer, and his  mentor, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  We
urge your congregation to stand  with you and with all Jews and with all Americans in upholding the value of the  freedom of speech, even when we don’t always agree with one another’s opinions. 

Let us not silence one another with money as, in some countries, they have  silenced one another with death.

Shabbat Shalom,
StartSelection:0000000199 EndSelection:0000004685 Rabbi Phyllis Berman, NYC and Phila PA
Rabbi Aura Ahuvia, Ann Arbor MI
Rabbi Katy Z. Allen, Wayland MA
Rabbi Ethan Bair, Reno NV
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, Williamstown MA
Rabbi Dennis Beck-Berman, Petersburg VA
Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, Los Angeles CA and Warsaw, Poland
Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, MD and VA
Rabbi Binyamin Biber, Washington DC
Rabbi Dr. Reeve Robert Brenner, Bethesda MD
Rabbi Barnett J. Brickner, Alameda CA
Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton, Ottawa, Canada
Rabbi Samuel G. Broude, Oakland CA
Rabbi Harold F. Caminker, Bradenton FL
Rabbi Josh Chasan, Burlington VT
Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Cohen, Los Angeles CA
Rabbi William Cutter, Los Angeles CA
Rabbi Art Donsky, Pittsburgh PA
Rabbinical student David Eber, Phila PA
Rabbi Renee Edelman
Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Los Angeles CA
Rabbi Mark Elber, Fall River MA
Rabbi Dr. Andrew Vogel Ettin, Salisbury NC
Rabbi Ted Falcon, Seattle WA
Rabbi Zev-Hayyim Feyer, Claremont CA
Rabbi Brian Field, Denver CO
Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, Boulder CO
Rabbi Jeff Foust, Newton, MA
Rabbi Serena Fujita, Lewisburg PA
Rabbi Jack Gabriel, El Cerrito CA
Rabbi Ruth Gais, Summit NJ
Rabbinical student Moshe Givental, Newton MA
Rabbinic Pastor Andrew Gold, Santa Fe NM
Rabbinical student Shelley Goldman, Phila PA
Rabbi Maralee Gordon, Crystal Lake IL
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, Berkeley CA
Rabbi Art Green, Newton MA
Rabbi Frederick E. Greenspahn, Boca Raton FL
Rabbi Victor Gross, Boulder CO
Rabbi Bonny Grosz, Reston VA
Pre-rabbinical student Roberta Gross-Torres, Newton MA
Rabbinic Pastor De Fischler Herman, Takoma Park MD
Rabbi Judith Halevy, Malibu CA
Rabbi Linda Holtzman, Phila PA
Rabbinic Pastor Eve Ilsen, Boulder CO
Rabbi Daria Jacobs-Velde, Youngstown OH
Rabbi Josh Jacobs-Velde, Youngstown OH
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, Teaneck NJ
Rabbi Nancy Kasten, Dallas TX
Rabbi Joanna Katz, New Paltz NY
Rabbi Justin Kerber, St. Louis MO
Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum, New City NY
Rabbi Beth H. Klafter, Commack NY
Rabbi Lori Klein, Capitola CA
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, NYC
Chaplain David Daniel Klipper, Stamford CT
Rabbi Debra Kolodny, Portland OR
Rabbi Suri Krieger, Westchester NJ
Rabbi Michele Lenke, Needham MA
Rabbi Michael Lerner, Berkeley CA
Rabbi Eyal Levinson, Israel
Rabbi Richard N. Levy, Los Angeles CA
Rabbi Ellen Lippman, Brooklyn NY
Rabbi Shaul Magid, Bloomington IN and Sea View NY
Rabbi Paula Marcus, CA
Rabbi Natan Margalit, Newton MA
Rabbi Jeff Marker, Brooklyn NY
Rabbi Malka Mittelman
Rabbi David Mivasair, Vancouver BC
Rabbi Stephen Moch, St. Thomas US Virgin Islands
Rabbi Linda Motzkin, Saratoga Springs NY
Rabbi Yitzhak Nates, Narberth PA
Cantor Steven Puzarne, Long Beach CA
Rabbi Laura Owens, Los Angeles CA
Rabbinical student Danielle Parmenter, Phila PA
Rabbi Barbara Penzner, Boston MA
Rabbi Rayzel Raphael, Elkins Park PA
Rabbi Victor Reinstein, Jamaica Plain MA
Spiritual Director Heena Reiter, Charlottesville VA
Rabbinical student Heath Mackenzie Reynolds, Phila PA
Rabbi Joshua Rose, Boulder CO
Rabbi James B. Rosenberg, Providence RI
Rabbinical student Ken Rosenstein, MA
Rabbi Jonathan Rubenstein, Saratoga Springs NY
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Boulder CO
Rabbi Howie Schneider, Aptos CA
Rabbi Elyse Seider-Joseph, West Chester PA
Rabbi Art Segal, Hilton Head Island SC & GA
Rabbi Gerald Serotta, Chevy Chase MD
Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, Springfield MA
Rabbi Mark S. Shapiro, Northbrook IL

Rabbi Daniel Siegel, British Columbia
Rabbi Hanna Tiferet Siegel, Boston MA
Rabbi Joel Soffin, NYC
Rabbi Alvin M. Sugarman, Atlanta GA
Rabbi David Leipziger Teva, Middletown CT
Rabbi Shulamit Barbara Thiede, Concord NC
Rabbinical student Shifrah Tobacman, Emeryville CA
Rabbi Lila Veissid, Emek Hefer, Israel
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Phila PA
Rabbinic Pastor Ellen Weaver, Phila PA
Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, Phila PA
Rabbinical student Alex Weissman, Phila PA
Rabbi Melissa Starr Wenig, Boston MA
Rabbi Cheryl Weiner, Hollywood FL
Rabbinical student Ora Weiss, Newton MA
Rabbi Jonathan S. Woll, Glen Rock NJ
Hazzan Gregory Yaroslaw, San Bernardino, CA


Jewish and Interfaith Topics: 


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