Pluralism in Israel

Pluralism in Israel

Oct 2, 1997 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Rosh Hashanah

I have been asked often of late why I am spending so much time on the promotion of religious pluralism in Israel. Isn’t it a diversion from the continuity crisis in America, which is, after all, my main concern? The fact is that the two are linked. Israel is a large component of American Jewish identity. Were Israel to become irrelevant or off-putting for American Jews, our ability to withstand the forces of assimilation would be gravely impaired. As an unconditional Zionist, I would support Israel even if it became a benighted shtetl. But such a constricted and coercive state would hold little meaning for our grandchildren.

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Torah and Livelihood

Torah and Livelihood

Sep 20, 1997 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Ki Tavo

Among the cascade of curses that pour forth in Parashat Ki Tavo, one in particular grabs my attention this year, not because of the vividness of its brutality (others surpass it), but because of its later application in a talmudic dispute. Our reading of a text is often a function of what we have on our mind. I refer to a fairly generic articulation of the fate of national subjugation: “Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything, you shall have to serve – in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything – the enemies whom the Lord will let loose against you… (Deuteronomy 28:47–48). The phrase “ve–avadeta et oyvekha – you shall have to serve your enemies” is the link to a discussion in the Talmud about the issue of just how much of our lives are we expected to devote to the study of Torah.

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The Torah’s Lesson for Effective Leadership

The Torah’s Lesson for Effective Leadership

Jul 12, 1997 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Hukkat

Death hangs heavy over this week’s parasha. We are nearing the end of Israel’s forty–year trek into the wilderness. In quick succession, Miriam dies without forewarning or fanfare, God judges Moses and Aaron as unfit to bring Israel to its promised destination and Aaron expires after transferring his priestly authority to his son Elazar. The proximity of these related stories inspired the midrashic imagination to join them into a conception of integrated leadership.

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Jewish Law and “The English Patient”

Jewish Law and “The English Patient”

Jun 14, 1997 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Naso

As the Pentagon struggles with the issue of adultery in the military, Americans feast on the photography and melodrama of the film The English Patient. Never have our moral fault lines been so discomforting. Garlanded in Academy Awards, the the film is a straightforward story of adultery in the army, albeit the British in North Africa in World War Two. Ironically, it ends up making a case for the Pentagon’s view that adultery can endanger the security of the military (with Count Amalfi desperately bartering his maps of desert paths for a German place to rescue his injured lover Katherine Clifton), though only after a long, glossy tale of passionate romance.

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Finding Sanctity in Community

Finding Sanctity in Community

May 17, 1997 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Emor

In Judaism certain religious acts require a minyan. We do not chant from the Torah scroll or recite a haftara without a quorum. For a cantor to lead services that include the recitation of the blessing barkhu or the kedusha in the amida or a mourner’s kaddish likewise needs the presence of a minyan. So does a wedding. Moments of peak sanctity call for community. We attain a sense of God’s concern by entering a space filled with kindred souls. In public worship, Jews past and present are united to in fuse us with the spiritual power to reach for the transcendent.

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A Feminist Mandate

A Feminist Mandate

Apr 8, 1997 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Vayak-hel

The recent conference in New York City on “Feminism and Orthodoxy” heralds a major escalation in the confrontation between Jewishly well-educated Orthodox feminists and a bitterly defensive rabbinic establishment. The word on the street in the weeks before the conference was that it would be a brief one, implying that the two topics had nothing in common. But reality proved the cynics wrong. Nearly a thousand Orthodox women of all stripes convened for two days of study, prayer and protest to challenge the gender inequities that abound in contemporary Orthodoxy. The plight of women stranded without benefit of a Jewish divorce from their husbands evoked an added measure of outrage.

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The Spiritual Significance of the Sacrificial Cult

The Spiritual Significance of the Sacrificial Cult

Mar 29, 1997 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Shabbat Parah | Tzav

Our Hebrew Scripture is a library of books with many voices, a bracing diversity of literary genres and religious opinions. This is a good week to remind ourselves of that noteworthy fact as we struggle through a double dosage of cultic prescriptions. Our parasha stipulates the tasks incumbent on the priests in administering the sacrifices that ordinary Israelites might offer at the Tabernacle. On top of that, because this Shabbat is the third of the four special Shabbatot leading up to Passover, we are treated to an additional reading dealing with the potion prepared from the ashes of an unblemished red heifer for the purpose of ritual purification.

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Holy Light: Remembering Sara Duker and Matthew Eisenfeld

Holy Light: Remembering Sara Duker and Matthew Eisenfeld

Feb 22, 1997 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Tetzavveh

This past week at the Seminary, we commemorated the first Yahrzeit of Sara Duker and Matthew Eisenfeld, whose young lives were extinguished one year ago (February 25, 1996) in Jerusalem by the bomb of a Hamas terrorist. Matthew was a second–year rabbinical student spending the year studying intensively at the Seminary’s Beit Midrash, and Sara, who had just graduated Barnard, was about to become his fiancee. We used the occasion of their Yahrzeit to dedicate in their memory a spacious room where Seminary students gather each day till late at night to study Talmud in small groups, havruta–style.

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A Thought on Physician-Assisted Suicide

A Thought on Physician-Assisted Suicide

Feb 15, 1997 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Terumah

This week Shabbat follows by a day the date assigned by the Talmud (the 7th of Adar) for the death of Moses. The Torah leaves us entirely in the dark as to when Moses died. We are told only at the very end of Deuteronomy that Moses died alone atop Mount Nebo, looking out over the Promised Land. Though advanced in years, Moses did not die of old age: “Moses was 120 years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated (34:7).” That is, he died suddenly, without illness and suffering, or in the words of Rashi, by the touch of a divine kiss (on the basis of the phrase “al pi adonai;” literally, “by the mouth of God” – 34:5).

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Judaism As a Relationship

Judaism As a Relationship

Feb 1, 1997 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Yitro

The permanent exhibition of the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv begins with a replica of the relief from the Arch of Titus depicting Jewish prisoners bearing Temple artifacts (a large seven-branched menorah, for example) into exile. Nearby a piece of signage unfurls the Museum’s conception of Jewish history: “This is the story of a people which was scattered over all the world and yet remained a single family; a nation which time and again was doomed to destruction and yet out of ruins, rose to new life.” These stirring words attest to an unbroken national will to live. Exile did not end Jewish history nor fragment Jewish unity. Shared consciousness made up for the lack of proximity.

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Voices of the Past Influence the Present

Voices of the Past Influence the Present

Jan 25, 1997 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Beshallah

I like to daven from old prayer books, especially those awash in personal ties. The sheen of new ones, yet unused, leaves me cold. I am helped by the knowledge that their well-worn pages often brought others great comfort. I treasure two in particular: my father’s traditional siddur from which he davened when not in shul and my great aunt’s pocket siddur printed in Frankfurt in 1939 which was by her side in her concentration camp ordeal. Whenever I daven from these siddurim, I find myself warmed by the memory of loved ones whose lives ease my own quest for religious experience and meaning.

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4 Cups of Wine

4 Cups of Wine

Jan 11, 1997 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Va'era | Pesah

As envisioned by Rabbi Yehuda ben Tema at the end of the second century, the standard curriculum of a young Jew begins with the study of Bible at five, Mishna at ten and Talmud at fifteen. Age thirteen marks the transition to adulthood with the onset of obligatory adherence to the norms of Jewish life. Our parasha offers an instructive example of what this curriculum entailed, and a fleeting glimpse of the nature of rabbinic Judaism as a whole.

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Justice Is the New Counter-Culture

Justice Is the New Counter-Culture

Jan 4, 1997 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Shemot

The book of Genesis ends on an Egyptian note: after his death, Joseph was embalmed and placed in a coffin to await burial in the land that God had promised his ancestors. Embalming is quintessentially Egyptian, one of a panoply of practices designed to obscure the reality of death. The whole religious tenor of Genesis bristles at the very idea; human life is but an extension of the earth: “For dust you are,” God tells a fallen Adam, “and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19).” To facilitate this merger, Jews in Israel are still buried without benefit of a coffin.

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The Fragility of a Nation’s Unity

The Fragility of a Nation’s Unity

Dec 7, 1996 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Vayeshev | Hanukkah

Jacob fathered twelve sons, but singled out Joseph for special favor, setting off the family dynamic which would eventually land Jacob’s clan in Egypt. The verbal flow of the text foreshadows the intimacy: as our narrative begins the name of Joseph appears directly after that of Jacob. No extraneous word is allowed to loosen the bond. “These are the begettings of Yaakov. Yosef, seventeen years old, used to tend the sheep along with his brothers (Genesis 37:2 in the translation by Everett Fox).” It is as if the history of Jacob comes down to the fate of Joseph.

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Grappling with the Rape of Dinah

Grappling with the Rape of Dinah

Nov 30, 1996 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Vayishlah

At first blush there is nothing redeeming about chapter 34 of Genesis. it is a story of rape and revenge full of deceit and brutality. Jacob has returned to the land of Canaan, found his brother Esau to be without grudge for past slights and settled near the city of Shechem with the intent to stay. While on a visit to the city, Dinah, his one daughter, is abducted and raped by the son of the country’s ruler, who then falls in love with her and wishes to marry her.

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The Morality of Wealth

The Morality of Wealth

Nov 23, 1996 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Vayetzei

It is well known that the New Testament evinces a strong aversion to personal wealth. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declaims, “You cannot serve God and Money (Matthew 6:24).” Elsewhere he counsels a moral man of great means, “There is still one thing lacking: sell everything you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven (Luke 18:22).” When the man demurs, Jesus lets fly with a retort that has hurtled through the ages: “How hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Luke 18:24-25).”

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Political Extremism in Hebron

Political Extremism in Hebron

Nov 9, 1996 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Hayyei Sarah

Our parasha opens with the death of Sarah at the age of 127. Later in the parasha, when Abraham will breathe his last “at a good ripe age, old and contented (Genesis 25:8),” he will have celebrated 175 birthdays.

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Leaving One’s Homeland

Leaving One’s Homeland

Oct 26, 1996 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Lekh Lekha

My family did not leave Germany till December 1938, some five weeks after the Nazis had destroyed Hanover’s magnificent synagogue on Kristallnacht. My father, the last rabbi of this once flourishing community, endured ten harrowing days in Buchenwald. Once we had to get out, my father was determined to leave Europe as well. We came to the States in March 1940, after a stop in England, which my father used to study English. He had just turned 41.

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The Power of the Tzadik

The Power of the Tzadik

Oct 16, 1996 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Noah

Last month Columbia University Business School honored Aaron Feuerstein with its 1996 Botwinick Prize in Business Ethics. I attended the ceremony and was profoundly stirred.

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A New Purpose to the Creation Story

A New Purpose to the Creation Story

Oct 12, 1996 By Ismar Schorsch | Commentary | Bereishit

It happens every year: A fresh, slow reading of the Torah brings to light things I had not noticed before. Like Hagar lost in the wilderness with her son Ishmael, I failed to see the well which had always been there till God opened my eyes (Genesis 21:19). No chapter of the Torah is more familiar to me than the first, with its compressed and majestic story of the creation of the world. And yet here I sit astir with insights that eluded me till now.

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