We are God’s Avatar-So Act Like It

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One of the ongoing debates among Bible scholars and Bible readers is understanding what it means that human beings are made “in the image of God”. (Gen 1:27)

Often “made in the image of God” is meant to indicate that human beings have an innate dignity, that there is worth to every one. Or, alternatively, that there is an aspect of God’s essence embedded in every one of us. Some Bible scholars argue for a more straightforward response. The Hebrew word for “image, “tzelem” literally means “sculpture”-therefore human beings are, quite literally God’s walking, talking icon. A sculpture of God.
Or, as we might put it, God’s avatar. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that the reason we are forbidden to make an image of God is because God already has an image-us. Imagine life if we really treated one another like a walking, talking, breathing, moving avatar for God. We would be more solicitous and respectful of one another; we would cut each other a lot more slack; we would have more kindness and compassion for one another-and maybe, just maybe, just maybe; we would think twice, or maybe more than twice, before doing physical harm to one another.

As we bid goodbye to another week of pain in the world and the unbelievable cruelty of human beings one to the other-shabbat shalom

Journalists! Who are we!?

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The horrific death of journalist James Foley at the hands of ISIS has, quite appropriately, shocked and sickened all decent people. Now, the Boxing Rabbi knows very little about the art and craft of journalism, other than as a reader and viewer of journalistic work. However, I must wonder what some of those who practice the craft must think of the death of their incredibly brave colleague. I know that most journalists labor in relative obscurity, known mostly to their editors and friends, producing day after day outstanding pieces in the effort to tell the truth and write the “first draft of history” to the best of their ability. But the journalists whose names we tend to know, the TV pundits and pontificators, and Op-Ed writers, seem much more pre-occupied with their own fame, access and careers than with any kind of genuine truth telling. Watching “Morning Joe” this morning, there seems no other word to describe the likes of Chuck Todd, Mark Halperin, et al, than “smarmy” and condescending, and their greatest worry seems to be whether the latte their personal assistant hands them is sufficiently warm. What must they think of the likes of a James Foley, who gave his life in the course of (what is nominally) their own profession? Not long ago I was watching a “news” anchor on CNN ask a reporter in Tel Aviv with earnestness if the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier would change the dynamic in the war with Hamas. The Tel Aviv based reporter had to awkwardly and gently remind the “news” anchor that said soldier had been discovered killed and was buried three days earlier, at a funeral covered, in fact, by CNN. Do our current crop of celebrity journalists and pundits, whose words in fact do matter in terms of our national debate feel anything at all when they see the work of a James Foley? (The title of this piece is taken from the cheesy movie 300 as Gerard Butler asks the Athenian soldiers who they are, and in fact they reveal themselves to be something other than real soldiers). Is that now the truth behind the celebrity journalists of our time?

Finally, I’m in the Top Fifty!


For several years, various Jewish publications have issued “top fifty” lists of the “Best Rabbis” in America. Needless to say, The Boxing Rabbi has never made such a list, until..wait for it.. today. Today, the Boxing Rabbi received an email from “Trip Advisor” saying that I am in the “Top Fifty” contributors to “Trip Advisor” in Westfield, NJ. Yay!! Top Fifty something! (I’m 39th in Westfield if you need to know). It’s not that I have gone to many places, I keep reviewing the same joints over and over again.
The fact, is while some of those “Top Fifty” rabbis are great colleagues, the rabbis I tend to really admire never seem to make the list. Many of them are in communities too small to notice, or they tend to not know how to publicize themselves, or they don’t often get into the paper, or they don’t have famous congregants who push their names into the spotlight. Rather, day in and day out they work to make the lives of everyone around them a better, and work to teach Torah and Judaism in an impassioned and compelling manner. I spent the first ten years of my career in a small community, so I know how profoundly one can make a difference in such a place. So many times I will run into someone who will say, “Do you know my rabbi, she changed my life”. No one outside of their community, or the community of rabbis knows her name, but her congregant’s life will never be the same. If I could be on a list, it would be the list of great Boxing Rabbis in the Middleweight Category, but that probably won’t happen, either.

Of Ferguson and Forgetting

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There is an old Yiddish joke which hinges on the similarity between the Yiddish word “fergessen” and the English name Ferguson.   The punch line is dependent on knowing that the Yiddish word “fergessen” means “forgetting”.  The joke isn’t all that funny, and you won’t get it if you are under sixty- the point is that the horrific events in Ferguson MO reminded me that we Jews are often in danger of forgetting that the African American experience has been fundamentally different than ours.  American Jews are fond of pointing out that our experiences are similar, but this is not really so.  My ancestors were slaves in Egypt, not in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.  My relatives may have come over in steerage, but were not treated like actual steer.  The other day I was in my gym, which is primarily African American in membership.  A bunch of us were watching the television images of young men and women holding up their hands in Ferguson as heavily armed police approached them with assault weapons.  I was disturbed, but they watched the screen with an intensity that I could not begin to match.  To be an African American, particularly male, in America today is to be in a fundamentally precarious position that the rest of us cannot imagine.

A Sabbath of Sorrow

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This Shabbat is the last of the “three Sabbaths of Rebuke” that occur before the observance of Tisha B’Av.  Each of these Sabbaths contains a Haftarah (prophetic reading) that admonishes the Israelites for the sins, and this Haftarah is the most difficult of them all.  As you read, remember that this is what Isaiah says about his own people-

 “Ah sinful nation!  People laden with iniquity! Brood of evildoers! Depraved children! They have forsaken the Lord, turned their backs on God!  Every head is ailing, every heart is sick, from head to foot..all bruises and welts, and festering sores… (Is.1:4-5)

The three Haftarot are followed by the grimmest day of all, the Ninth of Av, a day of fasting as we reflect on the destruction of our Temple and of Jerusalem, brought about, we say, because of our own sins.

The grim mood of this Shabbat’s  Haftarah is suited to this very day, and these past weeks.  This morning, we learned that a humanitarian ceasefire was broken by the enemy, as they engaged in a suicide bombing and attacks on soldiers, and at least one Israeli soldier has been taken captive.    The death toll of Israelis is growing, and who with a human heart can fail to be moved by the sight of Gazan babies in the rubble, left unprotected and exploited  by their Hamas master?  Every head is ailing, and every heart is sick…

To be in Israel now is to live in a country that is subject to an indiscriminate, constant barrage of missiles, rockets, mortars and attacks, designed, make no mistake, to kill and maim innocents.  The war that Israel is fighting is a war that goes to the very heart of Zionism-to live as a Jew in normalcy, in safety and security.  But as Ari Shavit has reminded us, the Zionist experiment is inherently contradictory-because it is an attempt to create a western, peaceful democracy in a region which has known none of those things.   I believed then, and believe now that this war is justified-that Israelis have to seek a way to live in security without the ever-present rain of missiles on their heads.  Americans and the world are not getting a full appreciation of the agonizing fear and overwhelming anxiety and sorrow that is consuming Israelis these days.

But-as the prophet Isaiah reminds us this very Shabbat-there is no justice without self-examination and self-rebuke.   Wash yourselves clean..learn to do good; devote yourself to justice, aid the wronged..(Is.. 16-17)

When this grim and agonizing war is over-and let it be soon- there needs to be an accounting of Israel’s political leadership.  Prime Minister Netanyahu has done a largely admirable job in recent days, but there are many in Israel’s political class who has acted irresponsibly, trying to push the envelope to even greater war and violence, often for their own political gain.   Netanyahu has not had to fight an implacable enemy, but members of his own cabinet who are working to undercut him and his authority.   A series of dysfunctional governments have helped bring about many of the challenges, internal and external, that Israel is facing. Israeli citizens and soldiers deserve leaders who are worthy of their incredible sacrifice and love for their country.

Second, there is no honor in killing, only pain and sacrifice.  The “body counts” so beloved of the media are a disgrace, and do not reflect the genuine grief felt in Israel over the death of innocents amongst the Palestinians.  The majority of  Israelis still yearn for peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians, even though most despair of it happening in their lifetime.

Even this grim Haftarah ends with a hopeful note-The Haftarah for this Shabbat concludes with these words: I will restore you as of old; and your advisors as of yore; after that you shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City-and Zion shall be saved in justice.

May this come speedily, in our day.


The book rack, not the gun rack


This terrible  war has brought those of us who love the State of Israel and believe completely in the right of our people to live in our historical homeland face to face with the awful reality of what protecting a nation from harm can mean. Hamas terrorists began this conflict, and Israel must protect herself.   Let’s put aside, for one moment, the incredible mind boggling hypocrisy of the world which ignores the suffering of tens of thousands of Arabs and Muslims in Syria, in Libya, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Lebanon, in Jordan,  because that gruesome suffering does not involve any Jews.  Let’s put aside the hypocrisy of a United Nations which hides rockets for terrorists, returns them to Hamas when “discovered”  and yet condemns Israel for crimes.   Let’s admit that defending the State of Israel requires not only the blood of our people, but the blood of a lot of innocents on the enemy side as well.  That is the price of power.  That is the price that is paid as a result of the Jewish people choosing to re-enter history in the 19th century with the Zionist Movement and her choice to live out the fate of all nations.

There are Jews who are simply uncomfortable with this conflict, creating an alternative fantasy for themselves, preferring to exist in a state of self-righteous vague concern for justice-The “Jewish Voice for Peace” group is one such assortment of Jews who exaggerate the  moral good of  the Palestinians and amplify the cruelty of the Jews. The world they live is not real.   But there are a few, very few, serious Jews who question the entire notion of power as a Jewish concept.  The most prominent is Daniel Boyarin, a New Jersey native who made aliyah and holds dual Israeli-American citizenship.  Boyarin is now a professor of Talmud at UC Berkeley and a brilliant scholar.  Essentially, his view is that as Judaism developed, it rejected the ancient Roman idea of “manliness” and embraced the ideal of the passive scholar as the “ideal man”.   The book rack over the gun rack, so to speak.  For Boyarin, Zionism is incompatible with authentic Judaism (he considers himself an Orthodox Jew) and therefore he has been an implacable critic of Israel and its policies towards the Palestinians.  For Boyarin, Jews were meant to be passive participants in history, and not  to hold power over other peoples.  I disagree completely with Boyarin,  but at least he forces us to face the unpleasant reality that to create, build, and protect a State, and a homeland, difficult decisions must be made, and the result is not always pretty, or tidy.

Eid al-Fitr Mubarak

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Today marks Eid al-Fitr, the traditional conclusion of Ramadan.  A traditional greeting is Eid Mubarak- “A blessed Eid”.  As Ramadan began, I was in Israel and this has marked one of the most blood-soaked periods in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that I can remember in my lifetime. I personally experienced Hamas missile attacks.   Let me be clear; I stand squarely with my brothers and sisters in Israel, and this completely avoidable war was begun by Hamas in an effort to cause violence and death not only to Jews, but also to the Arab population that they rule with an iron fist.

But we are at war with Hamas and their kindred spirits, such as Islamic Jihad-we are not at war with Muslims and are not at war with Arabs as a whole.  In my experience, we Jews share quite a bit with Muslims in terms of culture and beliefs, and were it not for this age-old conflict we would probably find much common ground.  The day after I returned from Israel I met up with an American Muslim friend, and we agreed that Islam and Judaism share many principles, including the importance of tzedakah, prayer, penitence, and study (the word Quran is identical to the Hebrew word Qura’, which means “scripture”). 

My people are at war with an enemy that seeks our destruction-Hamas and all those who support Hamas.  I refuse to be at war with Islam, or with all Muslims.  Eid Mubarak.