Passover 5776/ 23 April 2016: PASSOVER AND PEOPLEHOOD

Next year  JerusalemOne important lesson my heart attack brought home was the crucial difference between intellectual knowledge of factual information, on the one hand, and experiential knowledge, or internalizing something emotionally on the other.  Recognizing the signs –pressure in the chest, profuse perspiration, nausea– did not mean I was able to accept this was actually happening to me and fully grasp the consequences. Denial is a powerful defence mechanism. Coming as it did a few weeks prior to Passover, it occurred to me that the Passover haggadah is dealing with a similar issue. Continue reading


kitniyotWhile our Sefardi brothers and sisters have always enjoyed rice, corn and beans for Passover, Ashkenzi Jews have been restricted from eating legumes, or kitniyot, since about the 13th century. According to a recent ruling of the Conservative Law Committee, it’s time to let go of this ancient custom.

The well-documented Responsa permitting Ashkenazim to eat kitniyot on Pesah, as well as Rabbi David Golinkin’s Responsa in Jerusalem make several important arguments why this should be so. The Talmud is very clear that rice and legumes are not prohibited on Passover. In defining the relationship between hametz, which is the prohibited food on Passover and matzah which is commanded, it says: “Only that which can become hametz can be used to make matzah and only that which can be made into matzah can become hametz.” Specifically only flour from the five grains–wheat, oats, barley, rye and spelt–qualifies for becoming matzah or hametz; rice and millet do not.

The origin of the prohibition in Ashkenazi circles seems to have arisen in response to the concern that wheat or some other grain that could become hametz was either cooked together with rice or legumes or might have fallen into the open sacks in the market where they were sold. Even earlier rabbinic authorities tried to abolish the prohibition on eating kitniyot as an unnecessary stricture, but they were unable to argue against the principle of minhag avoteinu be-yadeinu, “upholding a custom of our ancestors.”

We have been able to relinquish such rituals as observing the second day of a festival which was maintained only on the basis of minhag avoteinu, “a custom of our ancestors,” once the reckoning of the calendar was fixed. Keeping the prohibition on kitniyot solely on the basis of custom no longer seems to outweigh the benefits of relinquishing it. Allowing legumes, rice and beans will bring down the cost of making Pesah; it will be a healthier diet; and keeping the prohibited category of hametz to the five grains specified in the Talmud will make observing Passover easier and perhaps increase paying attention to real hametz.

I would add one further argument in favour of allowing kitniyot for Ashkenzim: Klal Yisrael, promoting a greater sense of unity amongst the Jewish People. In an age where Sefardi and Ashkenazi Jews frequently intermingle and intermarry, as is the case today in Israel and in communities like Montreal, creating one common dietary  practice will strength our shared identity as Jews.

What will you do? Can it still be a meaningful Passover if we change our menu? While I respect the opinions of those who are reluctant to give up this time-honored tradition that seems to define Passover for them, at least in in culinary terms, I would argue that that there are more positive and meaningful ways to distinguish the Passover table and embrace the meaning of hametz.

While I encourage individuals to relinquish the customary ban on kitniyot amongst Ashkenazim if they so choose, I would ask our Reconstuctionist congregation to call upon its Minhag Committee to discuss the issue and arrive at a communal policy for our synagogue’s practice.



We know Purim mostly as a lighthearted, carnival-like celebration of reversals: turning the fated day of Jewish annihilation and destruction into a joyous victory over our enemies. This fable–and it must be understood that the story of Esther is a satire–also has a darker side. What for centuries was comical precisely because it was so preposterous—that a Jewish woman could rise to the heights of political power as queen of the Persian empire; that the fate of powerless Diaspora Jews could turn into a revenge fantasy; that Jews slaughter and massacre their enemy with the blessings of the non-Jewish king—has today taken on grimmer overtones. Continue reading


Hanukkah2015The secret of the survival of Judaism,” says Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, is that in every age, with the challenges of each civilization we faced we made the agenda of Jewish life “not only the saving of the Jewish people, but the saving of all that made human life worthwhile” (The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, p.334). In other words we gave universal significance to our particular set of cultural values and way of life.

The battle fought by the Maccabees, for example, signaled not only a victory for the Jews to reclaim religious and cultural autonomy in their Jerusalem Temple; it signaled a universal triumph for human rights in an age of mass culture. The Maccabean Revolt succeeded because they appealed to the individual human needs of the lower class for personal freedom and fulfillment.

This was a battle against the upper class Hellenized Jews who had assimilated to the allures of Hellenism’s wealth and power. Money and military might were trumped by the values of Jewish life presented as greater, eternal, and universal values that really mattered in the lives of individuals.

The rabbis put this stamp on Hanukkah with the motto taken from the prophet Zachariah, “not by power, nor by might, but by My spirit, says the Source of all Forces.” Jews and Judaism will not survive by means of any external forces; only an inner Force will motivate us to remain Jews. What is the spirit that would galvanize Jews today to resist assimilation and reassert their particular identity?

This is the debate that has been waged in almost every era, and most recently has been framed in light of the Pew Study of 2013. There is no question that assimilation and intermarriage are on the rise; that more and more Jews are identifying as “cultural” and not as religious Jews; affiliation and religious practice is sharply decreasing; Jewish life seems to be withering away. Rabbi Rami Shapiro and Rabbi Robert Barr give one of the most incisive responses to the dilemma facing liberal Jews in North America. Here’s part of what they suggest might turn things around:

“We must celebrate innovation rather than imitation, and the prophetic call for universal justice and compassion over the rabbinic obsession with who is a Jew.”

“We must shift Jewish identity from birth, blood, and marriage to commitment to a set of shared principles, values and practices variously understood and lived, rooted in our past but unabashedly reshaped for our present and future.”

You can read their brief, but insightful article in full here.

There is no doubt that Jewish life still has the ability to inspire individuals and galvanize the collective imagination when we use the message of our particular values to address the real needs and concerns we face today. It took just one member of our shul to call and say, “I think we need to do something as a community of Jews who know what it means to be refugees to address the Syrian refugee crisis.” With my encouragement a committee was formed, quickly grew, gained the support of our Board and the broad support of many more members—and non-members! Our first task was to raise the required $30,000 per family for sponsorship. In the space of a few weeks we raised the necessary funds to sponsor not one, but three families.

It takes just one person to light a candle that will dispel the darkness. From this one light many others can be kindled. The lights of Hanukkah remind us that as we turn our attention to protecting the cultural freedom and human rights of all individuals we will in the process be engaged in the spirit that will save us as Jews.

Words of Brokenness, Words of Hope

These were the words of brokenness and hope  I read on Solidarity Shabbat written by my colleague and friend, Rabbi Hanan Schlessinger, in his blog post on Rabbis Without Borders.

He was tense and almost trembling as he told us about being attacked by a stone-yielding mob of 30 angry young men. Only by a miracle did none of the rocks smash through the windshield of the car. And then shots were fired. A bullet whizzed by his ear and lodged in the door frame of the car. Deeply shaken but unharmed, he sped up and drove just a hundred meters ahead to an army checkpoint. He and his passenger told the soldiers of their harrowing ordeal. The soldiers ignored their plight, announced that the road forward was closed and that they must go back the way they came. They refused; the mob will kill them. The soldiers stood their ground and the two men pleaded for their lives.

Eventually these two Palestinians from Beit Umar, between Bethlehem and Hebron, made their way back home, full of rage against the settlers who attacked them and the Israeli army that did nothing to defend them.

We, the 12 or 13 Palestinians and an almost equal number of Israeli settlers sitting in a circle and listening to the story, could feel the rage and the trauma. The tension among us sitting in the open field was sky high.

The speaker went on, telling of his powerful desire for revenge. He related that his 15-year daughter, upon hearing of her father’s ordeal, said that she was going down to the road to throw stones at Israeli cars. And I wont stop her, he told us.

He said that only once before had he been part of our activities here at Roots, the Palestinian Israeli Initiative for Understanding, Nonviolence and Transformation. His brother Jamal, who had brought him here today, has always tried to convince him to return but he had always refused. He closed his words by saying that he will never come back.

Jamal then spoke. He spoke with the simmering indignation of someone who has lived his whole life under the cloud of occupation: no rights, no freedom, no dignity. As he had told us in the past, he talked of the demolition order issued by the Israeli Civil Administration hovering over his home and the homes of all of his neighbors. He talked of intermittent water service, of nocturnal arrests, of soldiers controlling their village and their lives.

All his efforts for peace and reconciliation have been for naught he said. The men of Beit Umar are attacking me mercilessly for all I have done to reach out to Israelis. And I have nothing to say to them anymore. They’re right. I am ashamed of myself.

We have the inalienable right to resist in any way possible he ended, and you settlers have no right at all to be here or to protect yourselves.


Then I spoke. I expressed deep sorrow and anger that my people had done such a thing, and that they had had to experience such an ordeal. And then I told the group what I had been going through for the past few days.

Exactly a week earlier I had read the headline late at night that Eitam and Na’ama Henkin had been murdered in cold blood by Palestinian terrorists with their four little children in the back seat of the car. I told them how I woke up my wife and how we cried together, how shattered we were. We had been close to the Henkin family since Eitam was a little boy. The tragedy was unfathomable.

The next day we were surrounded by thousands at the funeral. The pain was unbearable. And even as the screens of our smart phones flashed with news of additional murderous attacks, there were no cries for revenge among the subdued crowd of religious Israelis and settlers. Only uncontrollable tears.

A few days later my wife and I went to the shiva home to comfort the mourners. That was yesterday, I said to my partners in Palestinian Israeli rapprochement for the past 20 months. It was terrible. Everyone was distraught. The sobbing of the funeral continued throughout the days of mourning. I stumbled out of the house of mourning almost unable to go on.

I told the group that I have had neighbors gunned down before. I have seen orphans grow up saying kaddish for their murdered parents. I have been to many funerals. We all have. But rarely have I been so deeply affected, so deeply wounded inside, so utterly shattered.

This could have been the end for me of any hope of reconciliation. I could have thrown in the towel and – within my own soul – placed the final nail in the coffin of the belief that it is never too late to search for a partner for peace.

But my belief that that there are human beings on the other side with whom we can make peace did not go down to the grave with Eitam and Na’ama Henkin. At that moment I stood up and pointed across the circle at my friend Jamal, and said that my hope had not go down to the grave with Eitam and Na’ama – because of you!

You were the first Palestinian that I ever talked one on one as a human being. It was right here, in the same place we are now sitting. I met you and your wife and your son Yazen. And for the first time in my life the shell I had been enclosed in began to crack open. A process began in which I started to see the humanity, and the perspective, and the suffering of the Palestinian people. I began to make room in my soul for another narrative, and I began to feel empathy for those whom I had only seen previously as the gray, threatening mass of the enemy.

Jamal, you have been one of our teachers, our guides. We wont let you despair, we wont let you give up. We need you.

A long silence. And then much was said, but Jamal remained silence. At the very end, we embraced. He said thank you.

I did it. I wrote this blog that I thought I was too shattered to write. It was really hard, but also a bit cathartic. Writing helped me feel a little bit better.

We all know that many will die in the common weeks and years. But I tell you, we – the settlers and Palestinians of Roots — shall continue to search for common ground. There is no other way.


And this was the prayer for peace I read:

By Rabbi David Evan Markus and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

[This week we mourn terror attacks in Israel. The denominations have declared this Shabbat a “Shabbat of solidarity” with Israel. We at ALEPH offer a prayer in our own voice in the lineage of the prophets, whose voice we need to hear now. May this Shabbat bring peace to all who mourn and comfort to all who are bereaved. DEM & RB]

We heard the prophet promise that swords would bend into plowshares and spears become pruning hooks,

that treachery’s teachers would go the way of the Pleistocene,
a silty layer in history’s sands.

We recall despite contagious amnesia how our elders, gritty and parched, built atop lifeless dunes a gleaming white city

and dared to name it a hill of spring,
laying streets so children raised with a babel of languages could delight unafraid.

We weep as streets become killing fields,
as swords again lunge at innocents,
as spears again become blind missiles,

as cars hurtle into bus stops,
as even prophesy itself twists and perverts into a weapon for terror.

How can merely human hands make plowshares and pruning hooks of peace
if the same hands must wage defensive war

against hatred and bigotry taught from cradle to grave in classrooms of despair,
decorated with the faces of martyrs?

How can we hold the peacemaker’s hope,
the visionary’s dream of a life worth living,
safe and free in the land of promise,

and also grieve every fresh tragedy without steeling hearts or feeding a frenzy soon to spill the next innocent blood?

Help us, God, to hear the prophet anew,
to defend the dream no less by spirit than by our human might and power,

to balm every wound, lift all the fallen,
straighten all the bent, mourn all the loss,
and not ask whose blood is redder.

Heal our hearts, You Who every day speak creation anew. Let there be hope not just imagined but fulfilled, in our day —

and we say together: Amen.

(Copyright © 2015 ALEPH Alliance, All rights reserved.)


The smell of charred wood was the first thing I experienced on my visit to the Church at Tabghah yesterday. The fire that destroyed the roof beams, prayer books and other contents of the meeting rooms in the outer courtyard on June 18 was set by arsonists. To make it clear that this was an act of religious terrorism, the vandals first spray painted in red the words from the Aleinu prayer, “false idols must be cut down.” 



 At the invitation of my friend Alon Goshen Gottstein, Rabbi Adam Scheier and I went to Tabghah to meet with the Benedictine monks. Fr. Matthias and Fr. Basilius explained that the mission of this Church was to promote hospitality in the tradition of the New Testament miracle of the fishes and the loaves.

Acknowledging that this act of religious terrorism crosses a red line, Rabbi Goshen Gottstein initiated a campaign called “Restoring Friendship.” It is not only an opportunity for Jews of all stripes to support a Judaism that is tolerant and welcoming, but more importantly it has enlisted the support of Orthodox rabbis in Israel to condemn this act of Hillul Hashem, desecration of God’s name. These rabbis are correcting the mistaken notion of the extremists who viewed Christianity as an idolatrous religion.
I encourage you to join me in adding your names and your support to this important work of repairing not only the Friendship Center of the church which was destroyed but also the friendship that exists between us and our Christian brothers and sisters.

The campaign ends next week so please respond today.


We Jews have taught the world to “Choose Life!”  In the face of the worst adversities, the Jewish response has always been lo lehitya’esh, “do not despair,” yesh tikvah, “there is always hope.” But sometimes “the system” seems so outrageously unjust, so frustratingly corrupt and so overwhelmingly broken that any such optimism seems utterly naïve. That was my reaction to Harold Crook’s recent documentary called the Price We Pay. He artfully exposes the perfectly legal system of “offshore” tax havens that allow multinational corporations to avoid taxes, bully nation states and fuel the ever-widening gap between rich and poor.  When world leaders who have tried and failed to fix this unsustainable and ruinous global financial system, what should our response be? Continue reading


Carmela Phone 1092Last winter my wife, Carmela, and I had the privilege of volunteering with Tevel Be-Tzedek . Joining with other Jews from Israel and the Diaspora we came to know the Nepali people. We met so many incredibly wonderful people, who despite the economic hardships of their country exhibit the best traits of humanity.

The neighborhood of the school in Kalamati  just outside of Kathmandu where Carmela worked has been totally devastated. We don’t know yet the fate of the many teachers and children.

We urge you to join with us in reaching out to the people of Nepal. IF you want to share in the incredible effort being made by the Jewish people worldwide, please give today to Federation CJA Nepal Relief Fund. 100% of the donations go to directly support the work of JDC, Tevel B’Tzedek and other organizations who are on the ground giving medical support, supply food and shelter and helping the people of Nepal rebuild their lives.

“Do not stand idly by”—reach out today.


Our Haggadah speaks of going “from slavery to freedom, from despair to joy, from mourning to celebration, from darkness to great light, from oppression to redemption.” Why the need for five expressions of the same idea? The 18th-century Hasidic master Elimelekh of Lizhensk explains that each of us experience different kinds of oppression—from physical enslavements to psychological despair to varying degrees of emotional grief and spiritual darkness. According to the nature of our “Egypt,” so will be the redemption we seek—ranging from freedom to great light. (Wellsprings of Freedom Haggadah) Continue reading

UPENDING FATE: Bringing Purim Into Everyday Practice

Rabbi Purim Blog

One of the hardest life lessons I have had to learn is to acknowledge not having the kind of control I thought I would have.  Things haven’t always unfolded  as I might have planned.. Serious illness and children have been two major teachers of this lesson. Living in the post 9/11 world has ramped up the conditions of randomness and anarchy that threaten the security of an orderly world and my own existence.  How do we cope with the fears, and the sense of  being overwhelmed by our lack of control?

The biblical story of Esther paints a picture of living in such a world of existential threat, where the absurdity of  an arbitrary rule of law and fate  conspire against any sense of hope. In the fabled kingdom of Shushan, we hear about laws that determine the king’s six-month drinking party, laws that determine beauty contest rules for selecting a new queen, and immutable laws that set a date by lottery (pur) for carrying out a villain’s genocidal hatred—hence the name Purim (chance, fate) for the holiday that commemorates these events.

The surprising response of the Purim story to the reality of racial hatred and existential threat is: develop a sense of humour. In a world where God doesn’t appear and the human authority seems absurd, the Jewish response is to upend fate by acting with imagination,  to reverse their powerless condition if not in fact, then at least in their outlook. Much like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, the Purim story is a satirical revenge fantasy. But unlike the movie, the holiday of Purim also invites us to empower one another with the human capacity for love and compassion, for joy and well-being. Our response to the dark world of fate and cruelty is to create within ourselves light and happiness. “ The Jews had light and joy and happiness and honour.”

Traditionally, we create those positive mind-states by reaching out to others with gifts of sweets and acts of justice, with feasting and rejoicing in the holiday that celebrates reversals. According to a mystical interpretation of  the month in which this holiday occurs we can read Adar as “Alef dar”—the month in which God dwells. While God never appears in the Purim story, God’s presence is to be found in those godly attributes exhibited by human beings—in Mordechai’s lovingkindness toward his adopted daughter, Esther; in Esther’s compassion for her people; in the rejoicing and community we create together with one another despite all that conspires to undo us.

The late Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi famously once said that the mind is like tofu – it takes on whatever flavour we marinate it in. Rather than dwell on the fears of uncertainty, hatred, and a paralyzing sense of helplessness, we can train ourselves to dwell in the mind-states of love, compassion, joy and well-being. This is the message  Purim brings us in the middle of Adar. According to the Talmud, the mindset of rejoicing begins with the very onset of the month of Adar,  but we could practice it everyday.

In mindfulness practice, these the four mind states are known from the Buddhist tradition as Brahma Viharas, or divine abodes. We seek to train our minds to dwell on and be at home in these attributes of love, compassion, joy and equanimity. The cultivation of the first of these mind states, loving kindness is called metta, or sometimes, blessing practice. By invoking these mind states we connect with other people and create community, healing and true well-being.