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Audio / Video
Open to Hope - Click here to listen to a radio interview for "Open to Hope" - a non profit organization with the mission of helping people find hope after loss. .
A Gathering in Support of Israel and Peace, August 13, 2014. Click here to here to listen to "Reflection & Text Study: It is written in the Book of the Wars of Adonai, 'There will be love in the end.'" Click here to list to a prayer for Israel's soldiers, a prayer for healing, a prayer for Israel and a prayer for peace.
Click here to watch the burial of ashes from Dachau in the Durham Hebrew Cemetery, Memorial Day 2014.
Clcik here to watch a panel on Huffington Post Live - February 4, 2014 - on Untimely Death.
Click here to for a podcast with Amy Ziettlow, Host of FamilyScholars Conversations.
Click here to listen to Rabbi Greyber and Rev Joe Harvard on Your Health Radio for their conversation on "Faith and Death" - August 2013
Click here to listen to Rabbi Greyber's conversation with NPR's Frank Stasio on The State of Things.
Click here to watch a panel on Huffington Post Live - December 18, 2012 - on Holiday Loss.
Click here and listen in to minutes 10 to 31 for the conversation for a conversation about Faith & Healing with Drs. Adam Goldstein and Cristy Page on "Your Health Radio."
Click here to listen to a talk given at the Rotary Club of Chapel Hill on June 1, 2012.

 

Thursday
May122016

Beyond Letters on Parchment

Parshat Kedoshim, 5776
If you tell a child, “don’t move an inch,” what do they do?  They move, an inch.  Why?  Because they know you don’t literally mean, “an inch” and, most children enjoy proving you wrong!  Jewish tradition also rarely suffices itself with literal reading.  Even those with a distaste for more mystical, esoteric readings of the Torah understand that the literal understanding of a verse is rarely its simple, plain (p’shat) meaning.  Take a verse from this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim: “Do not curse the deaf; before the blind, do not place a stumbling block; rather, fear your God, I am Adonai” (Leviticus 19:14).  A literal reading of verse demands one read the verse as prohibiting two specific actions towards two specific people.  Do not curse a deaf person; do not place a stumbling block before a blind person.  Read literally, if one rarely comes into contact with the blind or deaf, one could avoid transgressing this verse quite easily.  Yet who believes that that is all that is meant by this verse?  Reading this way is not only boring, it is inaccurate.  We should not be surprised then that even those commentators considered “pashtanim” - seekers of plain textual meaning - explain this verse as prohibiting more than specific actions (cursing, placing stumbling blocks) towards specific classes of people (the deaf and the blind).
Rashi explains that what is prohibited is not only placing a physical stumbling block before someone who is physically blind, but rather placing a metaphorical “stumbling block” before someone who is metaphorically “blind” to something.  He writes “before a blind person” [refers to] “someone who is blind about something.  Don’t give advice that does not make sense for him/her.  [For example] do not say, “sell your field and buy a donkey for yourself” and then you go and by-pass him and take it [the field] from him.”  Human beings have a great capacity to deceive others.  Someone asks us for advice and we see an opportunity for exploitation.  Someone seeks our strength and we take advantage of their weakness, the blindness they dared reveal to us.
We deceive others, but we also deceive ourselves.  Rashi explains that the phrase, “Fear your God,” is added at the end of the verse “because this thing is not given to [other] human beings to know if his/her intentions were good or bad.”  You ask me for advice about a friend but instead of helping, it makes things worse.  Maybe I just made a mistake and gave poor advice, or maybe I was jealous of your friendship with another and intentionally fouled soured your relationship.  How are you to know?  You cannot.  But also, how am I to know?  Rashi explains, “It is possible to rationalize and say, “I meant to be good” - therefore it says, “fear your God,” the One who knows the thoughts of human beings.  And thus in regards to everything that is given to the heart of the doer, that other human beings do not know, the Torah says, “fear God.””  Be honest with yourself.  God knows your heart.
Literal reading tempts us because it narrows the scope of what is meant by the law so much so as to make it irrelevant.  “I followed the law,” we tell ourselves to soothe our guilt.  But our tradition pushes back.  Not just the deaf and blind.  Why mention them at all?  Rabbi Bachya explains, “to teach you to apply logic.  If the Torah forbids you to curse the deaf person who does not hear it and therefore does not feel angry or saddened [assuming s/he does not find out what was said!], how much more so must we not curse someone whose faculties are not impaired.  All these directives are designed to improve a person’s basic character traits and to ensure that he will not become the victim of bad habits.”  If we avoid cursing the deaf, who may never know what we’ve said, “one will be doubly careful not to curse those who can hear.”  All this, our tradition insists, is contained in the plain meaning of scripture.  Is it possible to read otherwise?  Of course.  We can always close our eyes and cling to what is literally on the page.  But God hopes for more, ever more ways the Torah can move beyond letters on parchment to words in our heart.

 

Monday
Jul202015

Tisha B'Av: Fast or Feast?

This piece ran originally in The Forward on July 20, 2015 in a shortened version.

Two years ago, I served as Team Rabbi for the United States delegation to the World Maccabiah Games in Israel. As part of the role, I helped lead a pre-competition trip for the athletes. While planning the trip, we discovered a challenge: Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, was to fall near the end of the weeklong program.

Along with Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av is one of Judaism’s two major fast days. But it’s largely unfamiliar to American Jews. Of the 800 young athletes on the USA team, just 15 were planning to fast. With so few participants expressing interest in observing the fast, and with the pressures of coordinating travel for 800 people, we went ahead with the regular schedule, which meant spending Erev Tisha B’Av at a cluster of Bedouin tents, eating a large dinner as the sun descended below the desert horizon.

We made separate arrangements for the observant athletes. But I faced my own dilemma – what should I do? In Pirkei Avot, Hillel teaches, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” Each moment I could spend with the athletes during those seven days was a precious opportunity to engage them in Jewish life and to help them forge a connection with Israel and the Jewish people. Was my place on the bus with 15 kids, or was my place at the Bedouin tent with the other 785? I chose to stay.

I started my fast surrounded by a hundreds of happy young Jewish adults, all sitting down to feast. After the bus of 15 fasters departed, I wandered a few hundred yards away from the feast and lay down on rocky ground at the edge of the Negev to chant the Book of Lamentations, or Eicha, as is traditional on Erev Tisha B’Av. What happened next has led me to think differently about Tisha B’Av, the role of Israel in contemporary Judaism, and whether, in our unique moment in history, it’s time to reimagine Tisha B’Av as a celebration, rather than a straightforward day of sadness.

Eicha begins with stark words: “Lonely sits the city once great with people, / She that was great among nations is become like a widow…Judah has been exiled because of misery and harsh oppression” and “Her enemies are now the masters, Her foes are at ease because Adonai has afflicted her.” These words tell the story not only of Israel in 586 BCE, when the Temple was destroyed and we were exiled to Babylonia, but also of thousands of years of Jewish history.

But the present reality of Israel couldn’t be more different. We are not exiled. Our enemies are not our masters. Our foes are not at ease. Instead, we have a powerful army. Jerusalem is a bustling, modern city full of life and vitality. The words of Eicha contradicted the truth of my experience. Was I really supposed to ignore all that and force myself to fast and mourn and cry?

Moshe Benovitz, a scholar at Machon Schechter in Jerusalem (and a former teacher of mine) has one of the most original—and important—responses to that question. Benovitz is a Zionist, and he celebrates Israel’s Independence Day, but he argues that Yom HaAtzma’ut – a holiday created by Israel’s Knesset – is not the Jewish tradition’s way of celebrating the Jewish people’s return to our land. What is? Turning Tisha B’Av into a day of feasting and joy.

Benovitz grounds his argument in the writings of the prophet Zechariah, who predicts that one day Israel’s fast days “will be for the house of Judah joy and gladness” (Zechariah 8:19). In the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18b), Rav Papa explains that verse means “when there is peace, these days are to be joy and gladness; when there is persecution by [foreign] sovereign, they are to be fast days; when there is neither persecution by [foreign] sovereign nor peace, those who wish to fast may, those who do not wish to fast need not.”. What counts as peace? Benovitz cites Rabbenu Hananel, who defines peace as the rebuilding of the temple. But, Benovitz adds, “according to Rashi, it refers to a time when “the hand of the Gentiles” is no longer overpowering Israel.”

It is this last point – that the “peace” referred to by Zechariah need not mean that the Temple must be rebuilt – that leads Benovitz to his second and even more radical argument: that we are living in the messianic era. There’s textual backing for this claim: Maimonides, based upon a statement by the talmudic sage Samuel, says that the only thing expected to change in the Messianic era is the subjugation of the Jewish people to alien sovereignty (Bavli Berachot 34b; Maimonides Hilkhot Melakhim 12:2).

“My sense is that this rebirth and restoration are the totality of the promised redemption foretold by the prophets of yore, for which Jews have prayed for 2000 years,” Benovitz writes. “That is not to say that our lives are perfect…but I believe that striving for transcendence and self-improvement is inherent in the human condition, and even the End of Days should not be expected to tamper with that important aspect of the human soul.”

Why is it important to argue that we are already living in the messianic age? While Benovitz doesn’t say so, I believe this point is crucial. It creates a way to acknowledge the religious meaning of the existence of the modern State of Israel without requiring the building of the Third Temple, a step that would require the destruction of one of Islam’s holiest sites and quite possibly start a third World War.

This isn’t just an issue for our approach to Tisha B’Av. As Rabbi David Hartman has argued, there’s a “pressing need for engaged halakhic response to an event of sweeping historical impact for the Jewish people extends to basic categories of Jewish identity.”[1] This need has not yet been met.

Thinkers such as Benovitz and Hartman are important, but their creative interpretations, deeply grounded in the Jewish tradition, remain relatively unknown within Jewish-Israeli discourse. Instead, halakhic discourse in Israel – from basic issues such as conversion and burial to more peripheral questions such as the meaning of Tisha B’Av post 1948 – remains frozen—due, in large part, to a Rabbinate that has never embraced the Zionist project and declares non-Orthodox streams of Judaism (and some segments of Orthodoxy) as illegitimate.

I thought about all this as I lay there on the edge of the desert, alone, reading Lamentations, and trying to make myself feel sad in order to experience the pain of Tisha B’Av. After a while the feast dissipated, and a dance party started beneath a blanket of stars and a flashing strobe light.

I started to wonder if these athletes—eating, dancing, celebrating their lives and their bodies—were capturing the spirit of Tisha B’Av better than I was. What could I learn from them about Tisha B’Av, and what Judaism should become?

It was appropriate to be confronting these questions near the start of the Maccabiah games, which have deep roots in Zionism. One of Zionism’s greatest goals was to rebuild the Jewish body. Emma Lazarus, best known for her words carved in bronze at the base of the Statue of Liberty, was also a Zionist writer and thinker. In 1882 she wrote, “For nineteen hundred years we have been living on an idea; our spirit has been abundantly fed, but our body has been starved.”[2] The budding Jewish state sought, in part, to correct that imbalance. The Maccabiah Games even predate the State of Israel; they began in 1932, an outgrowth of dozens of Hebrew Gymnasia, Jewish schools in early 20th century Eastern Europe that were aligned with the Zionist movement and emphasized physical fitness as part of the overall curriculum. Weren’t these young toned American Jewish athletes bumping and grinding to the disco beat on Erev Tisha B’av exactly what the early Zionists hoped for?

I got up from my spot in the desert and walked over to the dance party. I did not join in the dancing, but I could not begrudge the kids, or what was happening. Yes, they ate (kosher!) meat, not just during the Nine Days but on Tisha B’Av itself. Yes, they were dancing on a calamitous night for the Jewish people, when thousands of years ago, the Temple was destroyed, twice. But maybe, just maybe, they, not I, were closer to fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy.

Why didn’t I join them? My loving and gentle critique of that night is that the dancing that went on was not mindful dancing; it was not dancing and eating by people who knew it was Tisha B’Av and who ate and danced in response to the reality that surrounded them. Unfortunately, most of the athletes really had no idea that it was Tisha B’Av at all. For the dancing throng that night, Tisha B’Av was a night like any other night.

Part of the strength of Zionism was its willingness, even desire, to forget Jewish history. Haim Hazaz’s famous story, “The Sermon,” illustrates this forgetting beautifully. Hazaz depicts a kibbutz philosopher named Yukda who says that “Jewish history is dull, uninteresting…Why the devil teach them about their ancestors’ shame? I would just say to them: Boys, from the day we were exiled from our land we’ve been a people without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play football.”[3]

Forgetting a history of passivity and suffering may have helped Zionists summon the courage and chutzpah to found the State of Israel. But forgetting history is also a weakness; Zionism sometimes entails so much forgetting of the Jewish past that we are too quickly left without roots to our past. Our challenge is to create an approach to Judaism – both in Israel and in the diaspora – that is neither so tethered to the past we deny and resist the miracles unfolding before us, nor so disdainful of the past we forget our identity and the precious gift of our tradition that has been passed to us for generations.

Could Tisha B’Av become a Jewish festival? Could Jews knowledgeable of Jewish history and dedicated to observance of God’s laws gather around the table on Erev Tisha B’Av, recall the suffering of our ancestors and, over a glass of wine and a sumptuous feast, recite blessings of thanks for returning us to our land? I don’t know. I have yet to find – or foster – a community with which to do so and, heeding Hillel’s injunction, I remain part of the community and continue to fast. But I wonder about what could and should be.

My Tisha B’Av with the American Maccabiah team was a blend – I was an insider and an outsider, a teacher and a student. It was also the most meaningful Tisha B’Av I’ve ever experienced. The fast day is coming again soon (Saturday night, July 25th). Whether you fast or feast, cry or dance, don’t let the day just pass you by.


[1] Hartman, David, and Charlie Buckholtz. The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting & Rethinking Jewish Tradition. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Pub., 2011. 161. Print.

[2] Konner, Melvin. The Jewish Body. New York: Nextbook :, 2009. 163. Print.

[3] Haim Hazaz, “The Sermon,” trans. Ben Halpern, in Robert Alter, ed., Modern Hebrew Literature (New York: Behrman, 1975), p. 275.

Monday
Sep012014

Open to Hope

Grateful to have been interviewed on the radio for "Open to Hope" - a non profit organization with the mission of helping people find hope after loss. Click here to listen.

Friday
Aug152014

A Gathering in Support of Israel and Peace, August 13, 2014

Earlier this week, hundreds of people from Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill gathered to support Israel and peace. We were blessed to hear reflections from my colleague, Rabbi Eric Solomon, who spent much of the summer in Israel with his family, from community leaders and from Israelis living and visiting the Triangle here in North Carolina. I was honored to be part of the evening. Click here to here to listen to "Reflection & Text Study: It is written in the Book of the Wars of Adonai, 'There will be love in the end.'" Click here to list to a prayer for Israel's soldiers, a prayer for healing, a prayer for Israel and a prayer for peace.

Thursday
Jul032014

Memorial Service for Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel and Gilad Shaer

July 2, 2014 / 4 Tammuz, 5774

It is an eit tzara – a time of distress and despair for the Jewish people. First and foremost because we mourn Naftali, Gilad and Eyal – three of our kids, who were kidnapped and brutally murdered. But also because, in the past 24 hours since their funerals, our mourning has, for some, spilled over into vengeance and violence.  The burned body of an Arab teenager was found earlier today in Jerusalem; one Israeli security source said it is suspected the youth had been kidnapped and killed, possibly in retribution. Others say it was an honor killing and that we, and the world, are jumping to conclusions too quickly. Whichever turns out to be true, we cannot ignore that an Israeli Facebook page calling for revenge got over 30,000 "likes" in the past 24 hours.  Some Jews protested in Jerusalem by shouting, "death to the Arabs.” Thankfully, another crowd gathered a few hours ago to call for an end to violence.Jerusalem Demonstration Against Vengence  For all who care about the Jewish people, this is a precarious time, an eit tzara. We mourn. Those who perpetrate evil must be brought to justice. Israel must not be criticized unfairly – by us and by the world – for fighting to defend itself. "Justice justice you shall pursue," the Torah tells us. But the Torah also tells us: Lo Tikom – do not avenge, not to save our enemies, but to save ourselves.

In a moment, I will recite El Maleh Rachamim, the memorial prayer for Naftali, Gilad and Eyal. Before I do, I want to blow the shofar, an action the Jewish tradition bids us to perform in a time distress. According to the Talmud, the voice of the shofar contains within it the sobs and wails of Sisera’s mother. Who was Sisera? He was our enemy. Sisera, from the book of Judges, was commander of the Canaanite army of King Yavin of Hatzor. After being defeated by Barak, Sisera was killed by Yael.  Sisera’s mother looked out the window, crying for her son who would not come home. The shofar is the sound of a mother, even, perhaps especially, the mother of our enemy*, whose child is dead. Too many child are dead.  Yeats once wrote, “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed.” May we grieve, not avenge, our dead. May we cry and wail for our children, for too many children. May God comfort the mothers, and all of us, and May God save us from this perilous moment.

Fraenkel Statement in Hebrew

* Since delivering these words on July 2nd, someone pointed out to me the sad truth that the mother of one of Palestininian murderers did not publicly wail with grief and shame, but rather praised her son's despicable actions. This is a sad but unavoidable truth of the darkness with which we wrestle. Today, I would add how great a contrast is her reaction with the statements by the family of Naftali Fraenkel z"l about the killing of an Arab teenager still under investigation: "We do not know exactly what happened tonight in East Jerusalem, and the incident is being investigated by the police, but if a young Arab was in fact murdered for nationalistic reasons, we are talking about a horrible, shocking event. There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder, whatever the age or nationality may be. There is no justification, no excuse and no absolution whatsoever for murder." The Fraenkel family embodies the best of the Jewish tradition and humanity, even amidst unbearable suffering and sadness.