Nov 17, 2008

VaYeira 5769/2008: “Which Fire Will It Be?”

VaYeira 5769/2008: “Which Fire?”

© Rabbi Menachem Creditor


In honor of Joe Meresman


When we tell the story of the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, how do we tell it? 


Do we dare question the God who commands the unthinkable?  Do we allow the text which portrays God this way to push us completely away from faith, rejecting the troubling image?  Do we hold Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only remaining son, his entire future, as admirable?  Do we see and acknowledge Sarah’s absence from the narrative ?  Do we discuss God never speaking to Abraham again after the Akeidah?  Do we point to Isaac’s complicity in the story? (He is old enough to hold the wood for the sacrifice on his back, and so he is strong enough to resist, we suppose.)


So many questions.  And so important to us, to our world that we ask them. 


Too often we fall into apologetics (“God was only testing”, “Abraham knew it was a test”, etc… ) but we lose the awfulness , the compelling tension, the struggle of the story when we do not ask the questions that demanded these responses.  Abraham is willing to question God’s justice during the Sodom and Gemorrah story, so why not here?!  Martyrdom for the more-distant other but not for his own son, his own soul?  When we forget our own worth, what does advocacy for the other truly represent?  This literal self-less-ness is a confused goodness at best.  Halacha, Jewish tradition, teaches us that tzedakkah begins in the most immediate geographic and familial range and then emanates further.  In contemporary terms: How can I help Darfur if my unattended home crumbles?


What is the story of the Akeidah?  What positive direction might we gain from encountering it over and over?


There is an incredible soul-song, a meditation before prayer, found in the Book of Tremblers (Sefer Chareidim), that reads:


“In my heart I will build a dwelling-place to amplify the Glory of God,

And in that dwelling place I will make a place for the flowings of God’s Beauty.

And as the eternal light I will take for myself the fire of the Binding,

And I will offer as the sacrifice my soul- my only soul.”


The words of this poem suggest that the fire from the Akeidah is the light of a spiritual life.  And while I believe and teach that seeing beyond the self, sacrificing self-centeredness is crucial to authentic spiritual journeying, this is not – must not be – the Eternal Light of a faithful path.  A healthy Judaism, a healthy Jewish relationship with God, demands engagement, not surrender.  We are God-Strugglers, the very meaning of the name Yisrael.  We argue, contest, reach, and grow with God.


I believe that the Torah sees God as a Learning Creator, One who regrets every failed generation of humankind (Adam and Eve, Kain and Abel, the Flood, the Tower of Bavel), and measured the success of Creation by the horrible demand of Abraham to give it all up.  To suspend his sense of what is right (for a second time, including sending Hagar and Ishma’el into the wilderness) out of obedience.  This is a Cosmic Parent who sees the measure of success in the conformity of the child.  This is a God who doesn’t know what will come next, who is emotionally engaged with – and therefore vulnerable to – the decisions and fate of humankind. This is a God who needs us.


This is the Torah’s view, I believe.  What is ours?  What fire belongs in our holiest of places, in the Eternal Light of the Jewish soul?  Is it the fiery devotion of obedience when the command is wrong?  Is it the sense that God’s command overrides human morality?  Is that fire so manifest that I can absolutely know what God demands of me?  In a careful read of the Torah’s text, can an image of a Vulnerable God invite us back into an honest, healing, relationship?


The fire of our souls, of our authentic Jewish identity in living, growing relationships with our Divine Partner in Creation, demand that we acknowledge the wrongness in Abraham’s choice, in God’s command, in the Torah’s text.  This story demands brave hurt and determined healing.


The Akeidah calls us to reaffirm and establish our faith in a just world, in our trust that God has learned the pain from this story and demands a healthy, maturing spirituality.


May that world come to be through our loving, passionate work.



NAASE Kashrut

Dear Chevreh,


NAASE, the Conservative Movement's North American Association Of Synagogue Executives, has a yearly international convention.   This year's convention (November 15-20,  2008) is being shared with NATA, the Reform Movement's corresponding organization.  That's a wonderful synergy.  But the conference catering isn't Kosher.  (There is something like a "kosher option" for those who would choose.)  I hope you are as outraged as I am to discover that a professional association of Conservative synagogue leaders chose to forego kashrut at their national convention.  USCJ withdrew participation of its national and regional staff in reaction to the decision.  Both NAASE and your particular Executive Director should hear from you on the subject.  


Please contact the NAASE office to voice your response:


NAASE Office

Rapaport House

820 Second Avenue

New York NY 10017

phone: 212-533-7800 Ext 2609

fax to (631) 732-9461

email: office@naase.org


The NAASE homepage is  http://www.naase.org/meet.htm, and the list of NAASE Committee Chairs and Special Project Coordinators (2008-2009) is here: http://www.naase.org/meetcomm.htm.


We have too much holy building to do to leave our sacred foundations behind,



Nov 14, 2008

This Shabbat at 10:30am: National Prop 8 protests are the "tipping point"

Courage Campaign

"No one in California political circles has ever seen such a speedy response to a single political event. And it's spreading across the country. More than 10,000 rallied in New York City on Wednesday evening..." --  San Jose Mercury News, November 13

Dear Chevreh,

Will you be a part of "The Tipping Point" on marriage equality?

In 2000, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a best-selling book exploring how small events can catalyze seismic shifts in culture. Eight years later, you can participate in what could be one of the most profound "tipping points" in American political history.

On Saturday morning, at the exact same time across the country, thousands of people will march, rally and protest the passage of Prop 8.  This Shabbat at Congregation Netivot Shalom, at precisely 10:30am we will mark that moment during services as well.

Incredibly, this volunteer-run national event was not organized by a well-known institution or coalition of organizations. It was sparked just a few days ago by Amy Balliett, a Seattle woman who turned a blog post about protesting Prop 8 into "Join the Impact," a bottom-up internet phenomenon attracting tens of thousands of people.

Will you join this unprecedented national protest against Prop 8 and march for marriage equality on Saturday morning? Please click here to find "Join the Impact" rally locations at City Halls across California and then let us know if you're going to be there at 10:30 a.m. PT.  This Shabbat at Netivot Shalom, at precisely 10:30am we will mark that moment during services as well.

Amy Balliett didn't need anyone's permission to call for a nationwide protest against Prop 8. Instead, she posted a blog entry that is helping birth a new Marriage Equality Movement -- a technology-driven civil rights movement for the 21st Century. As 365gay.com reported:

"This past Friday, Nov. 7, 'Join the Impact' hit the web. Five hours later, the site logged 10,000 visitors... By Monday morning, a plan had emerged: Cities around the country would organize their own efforts to coordinate a synchronized protest for Sat., Nov. 15, 10:30 a.m. PST. The movement became officially global with hits from the UK and France, and by Nov. 11, over one million visitors had come to the site."

Organized from the ground up by thousands of ordinary people just like you, this people-powered protest movement is growing exponentially by the minute, online and offline.

Can you help make this grassroots event the tipping point for marriage equality in America? This Shabbat at Netivot Shalom, at precisely 10:30am we will mark this moment during services.

This is our moment to stand strong together -- gay and straight -- and say that we refuse to accept a California where discrimination is enshrined in our state constitution.  We hope you will take this stand on Saturday and encourage your friends to show up as well by forwarding this message and asking them to come with you.

Thank you for helping make Amy's brilliant idea the tipping point on marriage equality in America.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

The Courage Campaign Issues Committee is part of the Courage Campaign's online
organizing network that empowers over 200,000 grassroots and netroots activists
to bring progressive change to California.

Nov 12, 2008

JTA: "Op-Ed: Denominational bickering hurts outreach efforts"

JTA: The Global News Service of the Jewish People

Op-Ed: Denominational bickering hurts outreach efforts

By · November 12, 2008

NEW YORK (JTA)—There is an old saying, made popular by Hillary Clinton, that it takes a village to raise a child. As people grow, their future is impacted not only by family, but also the society as a whole. This includes teachers, mentors, bosses and the institutions in which they reside. Everyone, the saying implies, has a hand in developing who a person is and what he or she becomes.

The same can be said about raising a Jew – it takes the whole community, the diversity of every aspect of Judaism, to shape a Jew. It can also be said about Judaism itself, from Reform to Orthodox, that we all have a hand in shaping the future of the entire Jewish community. That's why it is up to us, here and now, to make sure the community will grow, will thrive and will become more dynamic as we raise the next generation of Jews. It is our responsibility to lead the way, to come together and work for the sake of the entire Jewish community.

Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done. Fundamental questions must be answered before we can move forward. Can we ever move past our denominational differences? What can we do on an individual level, as either professionals or lay leaders, to help bring together the disparate sects of Judaism? Will we be a more complete community if we open our doors and welcome in everyone who has chosen to affiliate with the Jewish people rather than create barriers that keep them away?

These are not questions with easy answers. Some believe that Judaism is a privilege, and one must work hard to earn that privilege. That means keeping kosher, observing Shabbat and either marrying a Jew or making sure that your spouse will convert. These folks believe Judaism is open to everyone, as long as you follow a few basic ground rules. For its efforts, the Orthodox movement lays claim to the fastest growing segment of the Jewish population.

Others, however, believe that holding people to a rigid set of rules will only push folks away. The Reform movement also claims to be the fastest growing movement in Judaism, in part because it allows people the freedom to celebrate Judaism in a way that is meaningful to them and with those most important to them. With intermarriage rates rising and more adult children of intermarriage than at any point in Jewish history, many families are looking for a home that respects the choices they have made.

We should look at what the Reform and Orthodox movements have in common and apply that to the entire Jewish community. Both are growing because they are reaching people on an individual level, providing meaningful content and bringing in charismatic leadership. While it's inspiring to see both movements benefit from employing the same basic tactics, it's discouraging to see continued ideological quarreling.

This is not to say aligning oneself with one movement creates division – quite the opposite. In identifying so vigorously with a set of beliefs, each movement in Judaism has the ability to speak to a part of the community and their concerns. Interfaith families raising Jewish children need to know that there is a segment of the community that welcomes them, that will support them as they pursue a Jewish life. While their lifestyle might not be accepted by some, it's the responsibility of the entire Jewish community to encourage these families to explore their Jewish heritage, no matter what their background.

We won't reach that point, though, if we waste our time bickering on what divides us. It would serve us better as a Jewish community to act like a community and not a group of warring factions. Jews, whether born or converted, from an intermarriage or inmarriage, are inextricably linked through a shared history. With the respect each part of the community deserves, we should be asking questions of each other that will help us find and celebrate our common ground. After all, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

Judaism is our child. It has survived because we as a community have done our best to ensure continuity and relevance. But there is always the fear that assimilation and integration will lead to our demise. It's time to quash that fear. The Jewish community is much too strong and much too determined to ever let that happen. Halcyon days lie ahead, and as we embark on a new year, let us all think about what we can do to make sure we prosper as a vibrant and meaningful community.

(Adam Bronfman is the managing director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is the executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute.)

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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Nov 11, 2008

JTA: "Independent minyanim growing rapidly, and the Jewish world is noticing "

JTA: The Global News Service of the Jewish People

Independent minyanim growing rapidly, and the Jewish world is noticing

By Ben Harris · November 11, 2008

WALTHAM, Mass. (JTA) -- When Kehilat Hadar met for its first Shabbat morning service on Manhattan's Upper West Side in 2001, about 60 people showed up, some of them spilling into the hallway at the apartment of Ethan Tucker, one of the minyan's founders. Three weeks later the number had ballooned to more than 100. 

"It was a wide range of people already there and I didn't know half of them," said Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, another of Hadar's three founders. "That's when I actually got a sense that this was bigger than just a couple of friends getting together."

Seven years later, Hadar now attracts some 200 worshipers on a typical Shabbat and has a mailing list of about 2,500. More significantly, it has been joined by some 55 so-called independent minyanim across the country.

The Jewish institutional world is beginning to take notice.

On Monday, representatives of dozens of the minyanim met with academics and communal professionals at Brandeis University for the second independent minyanim conference. The meeting provided a chance to discuss the manifold ways these communities pose both a challenge and an opportunity for established Jewish organizations.

"I think ultimately there will be a necessary transformation in what American Judaism and what the institutions of American Jewish life look like in the 21st century," said conference participant Felicia Herman, the executive director of Natan, a foundation that supports several emergent Jewish communities, including independent minyanim. "This is part of that reinvention. We're helping to build a new infrastructure, but we have no idea what it's going to look like."

Though the minyanim by nature are independent of the mainstream institutions of Jewish religious life, their rapid growth has made them difficult to ignore. Typically they are lay-led communities with spirited prayer and an ability to attract the elusive cohort of 20- and 30-something Jews that the organized community has struggled to engage in Jewish life. 

There appears to be widespread agreement that the minyanim provide an avenue of engagement for what sociologists increasingly describe as a new developmental stage: the post-college and pre-marriage period, when many young Jews often fall off the communal radar.

Hadar's original Shabbat morning prayer community has spawned Mechon Hadar, an institute creating the first egalitarian yeshiva in the United States to train a corps of leaders for the minyanim, which require highly educated participants for their rabbi-less communities.

And while both Kaunfer and Tucker have recently received major grants from Jewish foundations, there has been some hesitation to fund minyanim that are seen as catering to a population that is highly educated and already relatively well-connected to Jewish life. 

"We felt in the beginning that our added value in the field was focusing on unaffiliated jews," Herman said. "That's changing over time and we've become much more willing to consider organizations that are developing Jewish leaders and that are just giving all kinds of Jews creative new expressions for their Jewish identity."

Most minyanim cluster around a point on the ideological spectrum between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, finding a number of innovative ways to balance an egalitarian impulse with an otherwise traditional prayer service. Most members define themselves as nondenominational, according to survey results presented at the conference.

They also seem to reject what several participants refer to as a consumerist model of Judaism, where members pay dues to synagogues in exchange for services provided, in favor of a more participatory experience. 

But in creating communities with no rabbinic leadership, and where participants are unlikely to affiliate in traditional ways—through synagogue membership, for instance, or by donating to federations—the minyanim pose particular challenges to existing communal structures. 

Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, the dean of the Hebrew College rabbinical school and a longtime member of a Boston-area minyan, joked that by existing communal standards, she probably would be counted as an unaffiliated Jew. 

"Significant numbers of Jews are rejecting a consumer model of Judaism and opting for a model where they see themselves as co-creators of Jewish life," Cohen Anisfeld said. "In a culture of rampant commodification, this is an amazing achievement."

The minyanim also pose significant challenges to the rabbinate. Most of the communities are led by extremely knowledgeable lay leaders who conduct services and deliver Torah commentaries, as well as carry out many of the functions typically performed by rabbis. Even those minyanim that might want a rabbi may find themselves rubbing up against institutions that limit the range of positions their rabbis can assume. 

"Independence is not compatible with the protectionist guild system that has a stranglehold on the American rabbinate, and I would say on rabbinic creativity," said Tucker, the Hadar co-founder.

Though Tucker, speaking in a session on minyanim and rabbinic authority, argued for changes to rabbinic roles and training, he and several others at the conference agreed that no long-term minyan model was viable without some rabbinic guidance. 

In this respect, as in many others, the minyanim have looked for inspiration to the havurah movement, which saw the rise of similar lay-led and self-governed communities in the 1960s and 1970s. They were sort of a Jewish religious version of the larger countercultural movements of the time. 

Rabbi Arthur Green, the rector of the Hebrew College rabbinical school and one of the founders of Havurat Shalom in Boston in the late 1960s, said during the closing plenary that a rabbi would have helped havurot avoid another pitfall that threatens the independent minyanim—the tendency toward cliquishness. 

Green recalled how Havurat Shalom had twice rejected a candidate for membership who had all the qualifications, but was deemed to be a somewhat obnoxious personality who would not get on well with other members. 

"That was one of my failures of leadership," Green said. "Had I been the rabbi of that group I might have been able to say, 'We stand for something. We're not just here to satisfy ourselves, we're not just here to have fun.' I couldn't do that because I was just one of the group. We didn't believe in professional leadership."

Though some of the independent communities are organized around a paid rabbinic leader, most are not, which makes a knowledgeable lay community integral to the continued growth of the minyanim.  

"The No. 1 scarce resource for the minyanim is not dollars, it's human capital," said Kaunfer, now the executive director of Mechon Hadar. "What's crucial about these communities, it's not a single person who's in charge. It's not even five people. There's a premium on having a wide variety of people running services, teaching, etc. The question is how do you develop that pipeline of participant leaders who can continue to work and grow communities."


Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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The faith Vote - from eastbaywestonline.org

East Bay West Online: The faith vote

04 November 2008 - http://eastbaywestonline.org/2008/11/04/the-faith-vote/
by Huda Ahmed & Japhet Weeks / photos by Yulia Weeks

This past weekend, just a few days before the presidential elections came to a long-awaited conclusion, religious leaders in Berkeley and Oakland opened their different sacred texts to the same page.

A rabbi, a pastor and an imam urged their faithful to vote on Tuesday. And though none of them endorsed a particular candidate, all three men are backing Barack Obama.

According to a recently published national survey conducted by the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, religious groups are oriented politically the same way they were four years ago, with only slight differences. The black Protestant vote, for example, which tends to be democratic, is even more heavily so this year as compared to four years ago. The Jewish vote, on the other hand, is less decidedly democratic than it was in 2004. The survey did not include Muslim voters.

What goes on behind the walls of mosques, churches and synagogues shapes the choices people make at the ballot box, which is why East Bay West spent the weekend with people of various creeds in Berkeley and Oakland to see what religious leaders were telling them on the eve of the longest presidential campaign in history.

A Lighthouse in the Dark

The Lighthouse Mosque on Martin Luther King Way and 46th Street in Oakland is easy to miss. There is no minaret to let you know that Muslims are worshiping inside. It is housed in an unassuming building with a drawing of a traditional mosque on the outside.

The interior is equally humble: a wooden rack for shoes, a gray carpet, bookshelves lined with religious texts and passages of the Koran hanging on the walls. The mosque's single room smells of incense and perfume.

On Friday evening Sheikh Zaid Shakir and a handful of others, men and women, gathered to pray. They sat together on the floor and said Ishaa, the dinner prayer. It's traditional on Friday night for Muslims to ask their imam any spiritual questions they have. But on this Friday, Sheikh Shakir took the opportunity to talk to the faithful about the upcoming presidential election, which he describes as a "very historical event."

Sheikh Shakir is a tall, lanky African American man with a scrubby beard and glasses. On Friday, he wore a simple scull cap and a dark suit and sat cross legged on the floor. Some Muslims, he said, argue their way out of voting by claiming that because the U.S. political system is non-Islamic, participating in it effectively legitimizes it. He even admitted to feeling this way himself at one point in time, but this year, especially, he disagrees.

"I highly encourage you folks to contribute and let your voice be heard," he said about the upcoming election. "I urge you to contribute."

Before or After the Flood?

The rain was coming down in sheets on Saturday morning and sideways as Aaron Levy-Wolins read from the story of Noah and the flood for his Bar Mitzvah at Netivot Shalom, a conservative synagogue in Berkeley. But the connection between the story, which is read by Jews everywhere at this time of year, extended far beyond the weather.

The synagogue's rabbi, Menachem Creditor, a short man with a bushy beard and a mop of curly black hair, explained to the congregation that the story of Noah makes us question even the character of God. "Noah didn't say we need a bigger boat to save more people," he explained.

He used that as a segue to a subject undoubtedly on the minds of many people in this politically active synagogue located in the center of an even more politically active city: the presidential elections.

"Next week is very important," he said, "especially Tuesday. We have to make decisions not out of self interest but considering ourselves as part of a world community."

The message, like many passages from the Bible, was open to interpretation. And Rabbi Creditor probably wanted it that way. After all, the synagogue doesn't endorse political candidates.

Still, everyone knows that the rabbi is part of a group called Rabbis for Obama.

On Sunday evening, after a fundraiser event for Darfur with Joan Blades, cofounder of MoveOn.org, Creditor talked about his and his congregation's politics. "The world is incredibly threatened at the moment," he said. "Engagement with a civic sphere is a spiritual mandate." As for the congregation, he explained, "This community registers very strongly with Obama's ethos."

But Creditor leaves his religious fervor at the altar when it comes to politics. "I know Obama isn't the messiah," he said, "but promoting hope is a lot better than the alternative."

The Way to the Polls

On Sunday morning at The Way Christian Center, a black pentecostal church on University Avenue in Berkeley, the lively service mixed religious and political rhetoric with singing, clapping and foot stomping.

"A lot of people are talking about change," Pastor Ben McBride said, beads of sweat forming on his brow, "but let's ask God to change us."

The room broke into song. Hands shot into the air, heads tilted back, eyes shut. Two young men at the front of the church accompanied the chorus of voices on drums and an electric organ. Two female back-up singers swayed behind Pastor Ben, their voices smooth as honey.

The mostly African American congregation, which has swelled to 150 from just a handful in 2005, is lead by Pastor Ben's older brother Pastor Michael McBride, known by his congregation simply as Pastor Mike.

The short, baby-faced pastor, with a slight sprouting of facial hair on his chin, was dressed in a long black frock on Sunday. From the pulpit he urged his congregation to vote, then he launched into the day's sermon on the power of words and speech. Some of his examples were political. Change you can believe in, he said. Joe the plumber. These are just some of the recognizable words that have peppered the longest presidential campaign in history. Words have power, he said.

Pastor Mike coaxed fervent amens from the audience, as well as laughter. The Duke Divinity School graduate and Bay Area native is equal parts man of god and stand-up comic.

After the congregants took communion, Pastor Ben stepped onto the stage again. He said people had a choice on this particular Sunday between doing one of two things: They could either "Vote or … vote."

The church organized transportation for its members to go to the Alameda County Registrars office on Sunday to vote early, and church members will be watching the election results on TV as they come in live on Tuesday at the center. Church volunteers have also registered over 400 voters in South and West Berkeley in the lead-up to the elections.

In his office after the service, Pastor Mike said that he is not necessarily praying for particular results in the upcoming elections — though he's a firm Barack Obama supporter. But he is praying for the senator's safety.

"I'm very concerned that you'll have some folks that are going to mean him and his family a lot of harm," he said. "I pray for that more than I pray for change to come to the country. I don't want anything to happen to him because I think that if something were to happen to him, it would be very difficult for a lot of folks to deal with, and I think that would really tear the country apart."

Nov 9, 2008

Web-audio for "Three Movements, One Future: Challenges Facing American Jews"

Shalom Chevreh -

Here is a great audio link from the Harold Hoffman Memorial Lecture at Temple Beth El in Stamford Ct, entitled "Three Movements, One Future: Challenges Facing American Jews," which can now be found on the shul's site, www.tbe.org.   The three panelists at the roundtable were Rabbi David Ellenson, President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Richard Joel, President of Yeshiva University, and Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary. 

Some of the coverage from the event:

Kol Tuv,

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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Nov 6, 2008

From Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson - on the Presidential Election

A Great Nation – A Source of Blessings
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson
It is 1 AM on Wednesday morning, just after midnight, November 5th. As I sit and craft these words, the citizens of the United States have just completed a great miracle. Today, as they do every four years, they re-established a new nation, one in which the People – not government, not military, not wealth, but the people — are sovereign. This day, as is true every four years, the American people reconsidered their collective vision of who we are as a nation, what our agenda is to be into the future. Because of the miracle of free elections, the world witnessed a nation that is not trapped by previous policies or institutions, not hobbled by previous biases or prejudice, one which took upon itself the creative capacity to reinvent itself and its future. Surely such a  moment, rare around the globe and in human history, summons our reverent attention.
Look how far we have come! As I drove my daughter's carpool to school yesterday morning, she read to me from her American history textbook about the ideology of manifest destiny – the then populatr doctrine that Anglo-Saxons were called by God to civilize the rest of humanity, thereby justifying policies of imperial expansion and domination. Yet this year's presidential election is historical in that a son of Kenya and of Europe, two great streams of humanity united in Senator Barack Obama, has been elected the next President of the United States. My daughter read of an ideology which justified the rule of women by men, viewing women as naturally light-headed and flighty, therefore needing the guiding governance of the male. Yet yesterday a woman concluded a campaign to be elected Vice President.  And the electorate itself is proudly, resiliently diverse – every race and ethnicity, every faith known to humanity, gay and straight, male and female, special needs and not yet special needs – all together selected the next leader of the most influential nation on the planet. Such raucous freedom, such symphonic diversity inspires our contemplation.
No surprise, then, that this week's parashah weighs in on the notion of national greatness. Our father Avram is summoned by a divine lure to leave the conventionality, habit, and limits of his childhood. He is invited to risk all and to gain all by venturing toward the unknown: "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you." Even in the wording of the invitation, God lets Avram realize that it doesn't have to be the way it always was, that convention does not mandate destiny, that we are all invited to an open-ended journey in which our future is not determined for us. It is chosen by us. God invites Avram to journey without an assigned destination. Traditionally the text has been read to mean that God (and the reader) can identify the destination in advance, while Avram is asked to venture forth without knowing where he is headed. But I think the Torah is also indicating the God hasn't yet settled on the destination either: to the land that I will show you, later, as we locate it mutually. God and Avram will create the future together, as co-creators of an open-ended tomorrow.
As inducement to Avram to embrace his radical freedom, God entices him with a vision of what such liberty makes possible:
I will make of you a great nation
And I will bless you.
I will make your name great
And you shall be a blessing (12:2).
With this offering, God asks Avram (and us) to leave behind our own idolatrous assumptions – the way it has always been, the resignation that it must always be that way. The world has often equated greatness with coersion – the ability to impose one's will on another, the power to force others to accede to our desire. Even some of Avram's children have distorted this blessing into an endorsement of supremacy, coersion, and oppression.
But such a reading is wrong.
The God of Abraham is not about the imposition of force, about stripping creation of agency, novelty, and choice. Instead, we understand the Holy One as the constant, relentless striving toward innovation, freedom, partnership (the Bible calls it "covenant,") and love. One verse later, God weighs in to clarify our undestanding of what it means to be a great nation:
All the families of the eath
Shall bless themselves by you (12:3)
A nation is great not by its ability to manipulate and to control, but to the degree that its actions elicit the grateful appreciation of the family of nations. We are Avram's children to the degree that we are a "light to the nations," as the Prophet Isaiah reminds us –advocates for resolute shalom in a world of brutality and greed, champions for education and dignity in a world of oppression and utility, advocates for freedom and diversity against the smothering blanket of uniformity. Only if the families of the earth see us as a source of blessing are we truly a great nation.
This reality governs human society in the long run, for the God of Israel is the bubbling enzyme of history, the catalyst of freedom, diversity, and mutual care. We need not remain trapped by a mindless, endless, competition for resources in which there must be losers in order for there to be winners. Instead, Avram (and his children) is invited to leave those old ways, those toxic habits, and to journey into the bracing sunlight of freedom, the oxygenating breathe of possibilities as yet unattempted.
Rashi sums up this blessing quite simply: he hears God tell Avram "I will make known your character in the world."
My blessing for our new president and for our nation made new – thanks to the wisdom of our founders, our democratic institutions, and our citizenry – is that we, too, will stretch to be a great nation as the Torah understands national greatness: great not in ability to impose but to inspire. Not in our capacity to hoarde and consume but in our desire to share and to elevate. Not in our selfishness and our narcissism, but in our sense of our expanded belonging and the responsibilities which go with that relating.
God bless us, everyone.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (http://www.bradartson.com) is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at  the American Jewish University where he is Vice President. A doctoral candidate in Contemporary Jewish Theology, his newest book is The Everyday Torah: Weekly Reflections and Inspirations (McGraw Hill).
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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Nov 5, 2008

Open Letter to Barack Obama from Alice Walker

Dear Chevreh,

Regardless of which way any of us voted yesterday, I share this letter from Alice Walker to President-elect Obama with the recognition that those who did vote for him now need to ask those who did not how we can together help build our country.  It is no sin to disagree, but we have much work to do, and this precious letter from a profound modern hero to our next leader is, I believe, a good and important place to start.

Kol Tuv,

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
-- www.netivotshalom.org
-- www.shefanetwork.org
-- menachemcreditor.org

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Open Letter to Barack Obama from Alice Walker
Nov. 5, 2008

Dear Brother Obama,

You have no idea, really, of how profound this moment is for us. Us being
the black people of the Southern United States. You think you know, because
you are thoughtful, and you have studied our history. But seeing you deliver
the torch so many others before you carried, year after year, decade after
decade, century after century, only to be struck down before igniting the
flame of justice and of law, is almost more than the heart can bear. And
yet, this observation is not intended to burden you, for you are of a
different time, and, indeed, because of all the relay runners before you,
North America is a different place. It is really only to say: Well done. We
knew, through all the generations, that you were with us, in us, the best of
the spirit of Africa and of the Americas. Knowing this, that you would
actually appear, someday, was part of our strength. Seeing you take your
rightful place, based solely on your wisdom, stamina and character, is a
balm for the weary warriors of hope, previously only sung about.

I would advise you to remember that you did not create the disaster that the
world is experiencing, and you alone are not responsible for bringing the
world back to balance. A primary responsibility that you do have, however,
is to cultivate happiness in your own life. To make a schedule that permits
sufficient time of rest and play with your gorgeous wife and lovely
daughters. And so on. One gathers that your family is large. We are used to
seeing men in the White House soon become juiceless and as white-haired as
the building; we notice their wives and children looking strained and
stressed. They soon have smiles so lacking in joy that they remind us of
scissors. This is no way to lead. Nor does your family deserve this fate.
One way of thinking about all this is: It is so bad now that there is no
excuse not to relax. From your happy, relaxed state, you can model real
success, which is all that so many people in the world really want. They may
buy endless cars and houses and furs and gobble up all the attention and
space they can manage, or barely manage, but this is because it is not yet
clear to them that success is truly an inside job. That it is within the
reach of almost everyone.

I would further advise you not to take on other people's enemies. Most
damage that others do to us is out of fear, humiliation and pain. Those
feelings occur in all of us, not just in those of us who profess a certain
religious or racial devotion. We must learn actually not to have enemies,
but only confused adversaries who are ourselves in disguise. It is
understood by all that you are commander in chief of the United States and
are sworn to protect our beloved country; this we understand, completely.
However, as my mother used to say, quoting a Bible with which I often
fought, "hate the sin, but love the sinner." There must be no more crushing
of whole communities, no more torture, no more dehumanizing as a means of
ruling a people's spirit. This has already happened to people of color, poor
people, women, children. We see where this leads, where it has led.

A good model of how to "work with the enemy" internally is presented by the
Dalai Lama, in his endless caretaking of his soul as he confronts the
Chinese government that invaded Tibet. Because, finally, it is the soul that
must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader. All else might be
lost; but when the soul dies, the connection to earth, to peoples, to
animals, to rivers, to mountain ranges, purple and majestic, also dies. And
your smile, with which we watch you do gracious battle with unjust
characterizations, distortions and lies, is that expression of healthy
self-worth, spirit and soul, that, kept happy and free and relaxed, can find
an answering smile in all of us, lighting our way, and brightening the

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

In Peace and Joy,
Alice Walker

Nov 1, 2008

msnbc: "Israel considers question: ‘Who is a Jew?’"

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Israel considers question: 'Who is a Jew?'
Issue heads to higher court after rabbis annul some 40,000 conversions
The Associated Press
updated 4:17 p.m. PT, Sat., Nov. 1, 2008
URL: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27489870/

JERUSALEM - Raised without religion in Maryland, Shannon sought to make a new life for herself as a Jew in Israel.

In a rigorous conversion process, she studied religious law for a year, took a Hebrew name and changed her wardrobe to long skirts and sleeves as dictated by Orthodox Jewish custom. Finally, a panel of rabbis pronounced her Jewish.

But five years later, she and some 40,000 like her have suddenly had their conversions annulled by Israel's Rabbinical High Court. The court says the rabbi who heads a government authority set up to oversee conversions is too liberal in approving them.

The issue, now headed to Israel's Supreme Court, has exposed an intensifying power struggle inside Israel's religious establishment over the age-old question of "who is a Jew." It also threatens to deepen the wedge between Israel and American Jews, who largely follow more liberal schools of Judaism.

While 34-year-old Shannon's Israeli citizenship isn't in jeopardy, the ruling diminishes her religious rights. Many rabbis will no longer oversee basic Jewish rituals for her, such as getting married or receiving a Jewish burial. If she has children, they might not be considered Jewish.

"I'm very worried. I probably will not be able to get married in Israel," she said. "God forbid, if I die, will I be allowed a Jewish burial?"

Definition of Jewishness
Shannon was the woman's given name in the small Maryland farm town where she grew up. She asked to withhold her surname and Hebrew first name for fear of antagonizing the rabbis who hold her fate in their hands. Other converts interviewed by The Associated Press made the same request.

The quest for a definition of Jewishness has dogged Israel from its beginning, and has taken on urgency in recent years as immigrants have poured in, primarily from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Many of them have Jewish roots but are not considered Jewish under Orthodox religious law because they weren't born to Jewish mothers.

Three years ago the government formed the conversion authority to set universal standards, headed by Haim Drukman, a respected Orthodox rabbi who had already overseen tens of thousands of conversions over the years, including Shannon's.

Born to a Jewish father and Christian mother, Shannon became drawn to her Jewish roots, and in 1995 moved to Israel. She didn't meet the Orthodox rabbinate's criteria of Jewishness, so she underwent conversion, approved by Drukman in 2003, and maintains a religious lifestyle to this day, keeping kosher and not working on the Sabbath.

But last March, the state-funded rabbinical court, which has the final say over who is Jewish, reversed her conversion and some 40,000 others overseen by Drukman and his followers.

The rabbis based their ruling on their discovery that a Danish woman whom Drukman converted more than a decade ago did not observe the Sabbath. But the decision was a symptom of a broader struggle.

On one side are ultra-Orthodox hard-liners, who insist converts must embrace their strict interpretation of Judaism for life. On the other side are moderates like Drukman. "There is a commandment to love every Jew and there is a special commandment to love the convert," he says.

An important goal of Drukman's office was to help the more than 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union whose Jewishness was in question.

Rabbi Eliyahu Ben-Dahan, director of the rabbinical courts, said too many people are being converted who aren't genuinely interested in the religion. "Nobody really checked how many of these 300,000 people really wanted to be Jews," Ben-Dahan said.

Divisions between Israeli, American Jews
The decision also has threatened ties with those American Jews who belong to the more liberal Reform and Conservative denominations. The ruling on conversions is seen as another blow to their struggle for recognition in Israel.

"Few crises have so divided Israel from the North American Jewish community," the United Jewish Communities, a U.S. umbrella group that donates hundreds of millions of dollars to Israel each year, wrote to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in July.

To the group's plea for action, Olmert replied he was "determined" to solve the conversion crisis.

But the same month, Olmert abruptly fired Drukman. He said the law requires the 76-year-old rabbi to retire, but an official said Olmert felt that Drukman's rate of conversions — 3,400 in the three years of his authority's existence — was too slow. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was sharing confidential information.

Drukman, speaking to the AP, called the dismissal "foolish and malicious," saying his contract had been renewed only a year earlier.

The Supreme Court is likely to take up within weeks an action brought by Yael, the Danish woman at the heart of the conflict. She converted to marry an Israeli man she met 20 years ago, but during divorce proceedings last year, she acknowledged she did not live by Orthodox rules. The rabbis then invalidated her conversion and everyone else converted by Drukman.

Yael says the rabbis are acting against the spirit of Judaism.

"There is an unwritten law that we should be nice to each other and be human beings, and I always connected this to religion," she said.

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