Off the Pulpit


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No — With the Rope Around Their Necks

In April of 1903 the first pogrom broke out in Kishinev, shocking the Jewish world and causing death and destruction. Increasingly it seemed to observers that Russian Jewry was in danger. As a second pogrom in 1905 was to prove, they were tragically correct.

A few weeks after the first pogrom was the sixth Zionist Congress. There the ‘Uganda plan’ was proposed, the idea that Jews could be saved immediately by taking land in East Africa that was a British Protectorate and creating a Jewish state. Herzl among many other seriously entertained this plan since it would mean salvation from a possible catastrophe.

The Jewish love of the land of Israel and our history with the land goes back thousands of years and cannot be erased. In a dramatic moment, as the vote on the Uganda plan was taken, everyone’s eyes were on the delegates from Kishinev. They had suffered, they were scared. They had lost friends and family members – surely they would recognize the need to escape. Yet, as their turn came the delegates of Kishinev unanimously and resoundingly voted “no.” Their “no” was turning point and a moving affirmation of love for Israel.

Herzl was shocked: “These people have a rope around their necks, but they still refuse.” At this moment, according to Chaim Weizmann, Herzl became a true Zionist. He realized that it was not only about saving Jewish lives; it was about reviving the Jewish spirit in our ancestral homeland.

A Friend I Never Knew

Let me tell you about a friend I never knew. He was born in Jerusalem in 1906 and died in 1972. His name was Rabbi Mordechai Hacohen. His father was a renowned kabbalist who led services at the Western Wall for some 50 years.

Rabbi Mordecai Hacohen worked through the Maḥzike Hadas network of institutions in Jerusalem to represent Judaism to Israel’s secular population, especially in the kibbutzim. After his death, a research institute called Yad Ramah was established to bring his works to light. Rabbi M. Hacohen wrote many books and left a literary legacy. So why do I, never having met him and knowing little of his life, call him my friend?

After my father’s death one book that I discovered from his library that he had distributed to us was Al-Hatorah. It is a compact Hebrew volume of nearly 600 pages and contains the Torah teachings, anthologized and original, of Rabbi Mordechai HaCohen, published in 1956. As I leafed through, I saw my father had marked passages. Over the last several years, I have read it many times looking for inspiration, sermon material, and to see the trail my father left in his notes.

This scholar whom I never knew has both aided me in my learning and shown me what my father learned and treasured. Rabbi Mordecai HaCohen is my teacher to be sure. But for such a precious service, I must also call him my friend.

Stand On Your Feet

In our daily and sabbath prayers we do bow, but nonetheless stand up straight when saying God’s name. In reciting the Amidah, the central prayer of the service, the Shuchan Aruch instructs us not to lean on anything, but to stand before God (O.H. 94:8).

Bowing is a posture of submission and Judaism certainly instructs human beings to submit to God’s will. But submission does not erase individuality or even an element of defiance. There is a long tradition of Jews arguing with God, questioning God, placing their fallible, mortal judgment next to God’s own decrees. It began with Abraham and chutzpah kelapei shemaya, brazenness toward heaven, is woven into the tradition.

In the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel, we read of a wild, corybantic vision. In the culmination of the vision Ezekiel hears God’s voice and falls down on the ground.

The first words God speaks to Ezekiel are as follows: “Son of man, stand on your feet that I may speak to you (2:1).” Not until Ezekiel rises to his full height and is able to confront God with strength and presence, will God speak to the prophet. The lesson of being before God is the lesson of life – learn to stand on your own two feet.

Have You Read All These Books?

When people come into my office and see the room full of books, they will often ask, “Have you read all these books?”

Well, absent the encyclopedias and dictionaries, the answer is most of them. But I am continually giving books away and ordering new ones, so every room of books I have (and I have too many) is filled with aspirational books – books I plan to read someday.

And that is my answer when someone asks me what to read on Judaism. Read whatever book will lead you to more books. The great critic Randall Jarrell advised “read at whim!” Some of my greatest reading experiences are books I plucked almost randomly off the shelf, or in a bookstore, because something caught my eye. Then the trail continues: the author mentioned another book, and so on and so on, until there was a long chain of learning and storytelling whose beginning was that single instant of curiosity.

I already own more books than I will probably ever read and yet I still buy new ones. Maybe this new book or that classic one will give me the insight and wisdom I lack. I don’t wish to overstate the point, but there are moments when I cherish the wry words of critic Logan Piersall Smith: “People say life is the thing, but I prefer reading.”


Why We Have The Megillah

Among the Dead Sea Scrolls every book of the Hebrew bible is represented except the book of Esther. Allusions are made to phrases from Esther so the book was known in Qumran, but not considered sacred and therefore not preserved. Some of the Christian church, particularly in the East, also omitted Esther from the canon of sacred books in the early centuries. Why this uncertain status?

We cannot know for sure, although the absence of God’s name, or perhaps the rejection of Purim as a holiday may have been a reason. Yet the Rabbis found God in the Megillah, or more accurately, God’s spirit moving through the Megillah, and I’d like to suggest another reason why our sages preserved this wonderful story.

The Rabbis were not prophets but they were often gifted with remarkable foresight. They anticipated a future when communities outside of Israel would be frightened and need encouragement. How often did the story of Esther remind Jews that things could be reversed, that there was still hope, that even in the brutal diaspora there was a promise of survival? The Rabbis kept Esther because they knew we would need it. More than two thousand years ago Esther and Mordecai saved the Jews of Shushan; since that time they have helped save us as well.

Animal Rights and Wrongs

Can you spot the difference in these two injunctions?

  1. Ex 23:4. “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering you must take it back to him.”
  2. Ex. 23:5. “When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and wish to refrain from helping him, you must nonetheless raise it with him.”

In the first instance, you come across the animal of the person you hate. You must nonetheless return it, because you are otherwise colluding in depriving another person of what belongs to him. But in the second instance, you do not encounter the animal – you merely “see” it. You would have to go over, out of your way, to assist.

Why do you nonetheless have to take action? Because in the second instance the animal is suffering. It is crushed under the burden. The loathing you feel for your enemy is not to be transferred to the animal; rather you need to have compassion for its suffering. Judaism has an entire set of laws, “tsa’ar ba’alei hayim,” the requirement “to prevent the suffering of living creatures.”

As a vegetarian I take the suffering of animals who are cruelly slaughtered seriously. Kashrut is a way of eating meat that attempts to minimize pain to the animal. But whether you eat meat or not, you are part of a tradition that in small ways and large is concerned to lessen the pain of the world.

Hard Hearts

The Torah tells us ‘Do not harden your heart (Deut 15:7).’ The verse is speaking particularly about the poor, who turn to you for help.

Hard-heartedness is a general affliction as kindness is a general attribute. Every human being is at times beleaguered, no matter their social status. In our sadly shrill society, when discourse operates by insult as often as by argument, there is a constant turning away from the humanity of the other.

In a beautiful passage, G.K. Chesterton says of Charles Dickens: “Dickens did not dislike this or that argument for oppression; he disliked oppression. He disliked a certain look on the face of a man when he looks down on another man. And that look on that face is the only thing that we have really to fight between here and the fires of hell.”

Jews have too often seen that look (indeed, Chesterton himself was far too inclined to look that way at Jews). Therefore, it is painful when Jews themselves look cruelly or indifferently at others, more preoccupied with triumphalism than compassion. When everything is turned to politics, then to shouting, then to denigration, faces are disfigured by that ungodly look. Maimonides teaches that “one who is insolent (literally ‘fierce faced’)” is suspected of not being a Jew. Hard hearts, sneers and shouts are not the way to a light unto the nations.

Judaism Works!

The world of work is changing and especially given the pandemic, many people face an uncertain future. Judaism seems a cerebral tradition, and the knowledge economy well suited to a bookish people. Yet the Talmudic Rabbis had jobs involving their hands and our tradition has a lot to say about all types of labor. In this uneasy age, when menial jobs are newly understood as essential work, it is worth reminding ourselves of Judaism’s understanding of work.

“Six days shall you work,” says the commandment concerning the Shabbat. Work is as essential to human dignity as resting from work. Human beings are created in part for work; God places Adam and Eve in the garden “to keep and tend it.” Labor, say the Rabbis, honors the person engaged in it (B. Nedarim 49b).

There are many regulations about the dignity and proper treatment of workers. The Talmud tells a story of two laborers charged with repairing wine bottles which they accidentally broke. The employer took their cloaks. When the Judge ordered him to return them the employer asked, “Is that the law?” The Judge answered by quoting proverbs, “So you may walk in the way of the good” and when told the men were hungry and poor ordered their wages paid as well. When the employer again asked, “Is that the law?” the Judge quoted the end of the verse, “And keep to the paths of the just” (Prov. 2:20).

To learn more about the future of work, its problems and possibilities, see


Of Hearts and Homes

There is a poignant story on kindness and status told about R. Levi Yitzchak of Bereditchev. He was passing through a town and asked of a well-known and respected member of the community if he could stay for the night. The man, having no idea it was the famous Rabbi who asked, refused, insisting “My home is not an inn for wayfarers.” The Rabbi eventually found a warm welcome and a place to stay with a poor teacher.

Later word spread that the renowned Reb Levi Yitzhak was in town and the man, now abashed, asked for forgiveness. “I did not recognize you,” he said. “Now that I know who you are, please come stay with me. My home is large and comfortable and it would be an honor.”

In response, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak explained the difference between Abraham and Lot. Each hosted angels. But with Lot it says, “And two angels came to Sodom” (Gen. 19:1). In Abraham’s case the verse reads, “And behold, he saw three people facing him” (Gen. 18:2). Lot offered hospitality to angels, Abraham saw three travelers, covered with dust from their journey, and opened his home to them.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak spent the rest of his stay with the poor teacher.

American Law and Jewish Law

Many scholars of Jewish and American law have noted a fundamental difference in the underpinnings of the two legal systems. American law is built primarily on a notion of rights and Jewish law on obligations and responsibilities.

As with all such generalities, there are many exceptions. But everywhere in Jewish law is the question of what I owe to others and what I owe to God. Ramban wrote that one can be “a scoundrel with the permission of the Torah” – in other words, one can formally obey the rules of the Torah and yet be an unkind person. In truth, it would not be easy; general prohibitions such as “you shall be holy” (Lev.19:2) on which verse Ramban first made that comment, exist to instruct us to be better than mere rote observance.

Therefore, when questions arise of social accommodations such as, “should I wear a mask when near someone who might be afraid of the virus?” or “Do I have to let this pedestrian walk when I my car has the right of way?” as Americans some react with an assertion of our freedom. Judaism would have us prioritize kindness and consideration. “Love your neighbor as yourself” may not be in the constitution, but it is in the Torah.