Sunday, January 29, 2017
I am a proud third generation American who has now fathered a fourth generation of Americans. My family's story is like that of many Ashkenazic Jews: my great-grandparents families fled the Pale of Settlement at the turn of the twentieth century due to pogroms and persecutions. They fled to North America with virtually nothing. They came on a hope and a prayer. They struggled so that their children might have a better life than they experienced in Russia. They came to a country which embodied the ideal of the United States as penned by Emma Lazarus, a Jew born in New York City. Her words from her poem "The New Colossus" can be found on pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
The truth is, all of us are immigrants, except of course for those of Native American ancestry. All of us have a story to share. Some of our ancestors were seeking out religious freedom like the pilgrims. Some were fleeing famine and blight like the Irish. Some were simply seeking out better economic opportunities. This is the American story. This is the American dream.
Sadly the story of America is also filled with waves of anti-immigrant sentiment. It was the Irish. Then it was the Jews. Then, it was and still is the Hispanics, and well now, it's the Muslims. We've seen the rhetoric before, and I am sure we will see it again. But it has always been our better nature to eventually reject the politics of nativism. Though sometimes too late. Most notably the 'Voyage of the Damned.' 900 refugee German Jews were denied entry into Cuba, then the United States and then Canada. They ended up back in Europe where at least one quarter of them were ultimately murdered by the Nazis.
We have also been reminded recently that the most famous Holocaust Victim, Anne Frank, and her family were denied entry into the United States because of our restrictive immigration policies. These policies were based in part in fear that Jews from Europe would spy on the U.S. on behalf of the Germans. Sound familiar?
Now I am not going to get into the politics of targeting Muslims from specific countries, namely those that have never been involved in terrorist attacks on our soil. I'll leave that up to others. Instead I am writing this to appeal to the humanity of my readers. The current Executive Order banning Muslims from specific countries is cruel, ineffective, anti-American, and in some cases, un-Constituional.
Part of the reason why Islamic terrorists hate us so much is because we are a free and open society that is tolerant and welcoming. We embody everything they despise. Let's not do them any favors by becoming more like them. Please do not allow fear of the other to turn us into that which we will ultimately come to hate about ourselves. We are better than that. I know this because we are all immigrants or the sons and daughters of immigrants. Many of us are also refugees or the sons and daughters of refugees. Instead let's live up to the words written in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty rather than ignore them.
Monday, June 13, 2016
I have not posted anything as of yet because I wanted time to think and process and to cry. But all I found myself becoming was more and more angry. I am angry because of this horrible act of hate. I am angry because in the face of the murder of 50 people we immediately turn on each other. People are passionately proposing solutions and rather than have intelligent discussions, anyone who posts something others disagree with, they are demonized. I am angry because we turn on each other for expressing words of sorrow and grief. I am also angry because there is an immediate urge to put the perpetrator in a little box and label him. As the story comes out we are discovering this was far more of a disturbed individual and not so easily fit into a single description.
Was this a terrorist act? Absolutely, but so much more. Was this a hate crime? Absolutely, but so much more. Was this a vindication of those who question why individuals need access to military style weapons. Absolutely, but so much more. Was this a response to those who are concerned about the radicalization of unstable individuals? Absolutely, but so much more. Was this the culmination of years of hate spewed by communities and politicians against the gay, lesbian, transgender, and transsexual communities? You bet your ass it is. Was this an attack on those of Hispanic and Latin heritage? Absolutely, but where does that fit into the narrative?
I am angry because to battle this silent but deadly enemy will take a multi-faceted approach. But instead all we do is point fingers, and do nothing. But this doesn't have to be the end of the conversation. Reasonable people can argue and disagree, but they can also come to consensus and actually act.
The solution demands a willingness to take a good hard look at our gun laws, and requires sensible limitations. It demands we take a good hard look at our own ignorance of Islam. How many people know the difference between a Sunni and a Shia, let alone a liberal Muslim versus a radical Jihadist. And yes, Muslims come in all stripes, just like Christians and Jews. It demands that we change our individual and political discourse and stop demonizing minorities thus justifying the anger of deranged individuals. It demands that we not only strive to stop ISIS access to our citizens. And to work with our allies to build stability in the Middle East. Easier said than done. Lest we forget, ISIS arose in a political and military vacuum. This is not the result of one president, but of many failed policies of multiple administrations.
It also demands that we recognize that the vast majority of mass shootings and mass murders in this country have not been committed by radicalized Islamists, even if it feels that way. Lest we forget Virginia Tech, New Town, and Aurora and only focus on Boston, San Bernardino, New York, DC, Pennsylvania, and Orlando. We have a violence problem in this country, and we are far too good at giving easy access to weapons of mass murder to determined individuals.
And these proposals are just the tip of the iceberg.
Thursday, January 28, 2016
Day 2 Snowmageddon report: cookie supply running low. Children starting to turn feral. Just saw #3 attempt to lick #2. Snow piling higher. Contemplating hiding under bed with last jar of Nutella. Need more spoons. The laughter, the laughter
Parenting tip #4967: do not discuss the possibility of a snow monster kidnapping the children with a gullible 3-year-old in the house
Day 2 Snowmageddon update: the grill is buried. Food options dwindling to only a household full of carbs. Trying teach kids how to tunnel in the snow. Their efforts are weak and lethargic at best. Must resist bingeing on the Sopranos, but Tony is so mesmerizing. The laughter, the laughter
Hey Dominos, how's that whole drone delivery system coming along. I'm asking for a friend
Snowmageddon Day 3 Update: sad to report that the excursion to summit the grill failed. Lost three Sherpas along the way. All three monkeys successfully put on snow clothes and ventured outside. We hope to hear updates from them by April. All is quiet now as snow related insanity sets in. Nutella supply nearly depleted. Bummed Amazon doesn't use drones yet. Pray for us.
Snowmageddon Day 3 Update: Have not heard back from the children's expedition. Not concerned yet. Will check in again after nightfall. Hoping they make it back before snow weasels come for them. Ran out of Nutella. Experimented mixing peanut butter with chocolate sauce. Failed miserably. Thought about learning a foreign language. Turns out Rosetta Stone does not offer a Klingon module. Bummed. Snow boredom has set in. Searched kitchen to see if we have enough equipment to resurrect the dinosaurs. Turns out, we do not. Pray for us.
Snowmageddon Update Day 4: Tragic news struck Camp Sharff, I have lost my sense of humor. We sent out three expeditions to find it. None have returned. Nutella supply is exhausted. Now living off of a container of mini marshmallows and chocolate powder. Starting to hallucinate. I see Paw Patrol everywhere. Whatever you do, do not send Canadian dogs to rescue us. Planning my escape. This may be my last post. Pray for us.
This just in, BCPS officially closed until June.
Snowmageddon Day 4 Update: Re-read Into Thin Air. The snow mountain in the yard silently mocks me. Attempted to build a Snow-Removalanator. I was foiled by a platypus in a fedora. Didn't know they wore hats. Contemplating why fedoras went out of style. Began googling haberdasheries. Did you know you can hide a whole jar of Nutella in a properly sized headpiece? Attempting to make one out of tin foil. Hoping it will keep the voices out. Pray for us.
Snowmageddon Day 5 Update: Escape! Operation Giant was a success! Imagine the Iditarod only with children instead of huskies. No loss of life recorded, though demands for Chex mix were high. Provisions successfully restocked. Mt. Nutella rebuilt. Did not need to resort to eating the other, other white meat. Voices silent for the time being. Now back to the slow decline of sanity. Pray for us.
Snowmageddon Final Update: Freedom! Kids back in school. Roads somewhat clear. Snow monsters vanquished. Booze carefully restocked. Enough Nutella to last until the next ice age. Thank you for your prayers. Urge to kill ... fading...
|This is a stock image of what may or may not have transpired|
in the Sharff household
Tuesday, December 8, 2015
I tend to stay out of the political fray when it comes to Social Media. As a rabbi, I have congregants of all political persuasions, and I tend to stick primarily to issues viewed through a Jewish lens rather than focus on candidates. However recent events have reminded me of what transpired eighty plus years ago when a hate monger targeted a small minority and rallied his nation against them. The end result was the murder of six million Jews along with five million other undesirables including those who were gay, disabled, and/or political rivals.
Not that I like making Holocaust comparisons in modern politics because I am incredibly leery of diminishing the memories of all those who were murdered for simply being who they were. That being said, I feel, what we are seeing today is something that is reminiscent of Jewish history. There is a particular candidate to be the next President of the United States who is using similar language and scare tactics to help his rise in the polls. Donald Trump's rise in popularity due to his continued verbal assault on Mexicans, women, the disabled, and now Muslims demands a response.
So far I have been silent. But in my silence I was reminded of the words of Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was a prominent Protestant pastor and outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
I will no longer be silent. This is not politics. This is hate. And hate has no place in place in our political discourse. Hate only breeds hate. And I am greatly saddened that this man has risen to such popular levels in this country. I for one will speak out because I am afraid for what it says about the soul of our nation.
Let us turn away from the politics of xenophobia and hate and return to the politics of solving problems. Our country faces many challenges both internal and external. We may not agree on how to take them on, but we must not take the easy path of giving into fear and hate. Because hate truly is, in the wise words of Yoda, "the path to the Dark Side."
Friday, October 16, 2015
In just a few weeks the Union for Reform Judaism will be celebrating its Biennial convention in Orlando, Florida. The Biennial "is where Reform congregational leaders gather to learn, pray, share ideas, hear from inspiring guest speakers, and network." If you are interested in attending you can register at the following link: Biennial Registration
The URJ was originally the Union of American Hebrew Congregations or UAHC for short. It was founded in Cincinnati, OH in 1873 by Isaac Mayer Wise. His vision was to gather together a group of like minded congregations to help to fund a rabbinical seminary which was established in 1875: the Hebrew Union College.
There were originally 34 congregations who joined this endeavor including our very own Har Sinai Congregation. Har Sinai Congregation has been heavily involved in the Reform Movement ever since.
The URJ not only supports the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, it also supports a number of summer camps including our regional camp, Camp Harlam. It funds the Religious Action Center in Washington DC. It supplements NFTY (The North American Federation of Temple Youth) including our very on HaSTY, Israel programs and so much more.
The URJ, like many religious institutions has faced dramatic financial challenges and is still very much working on its vision for the 21st Century. That being said, Biennial is one of the URJ's signature programs, and it is very well worth attending. It provides tremendous opportunities to network, learn, and experience the vibrancy of Reform Judaism.
As an aside, we are going to be doing something brand new at this year's Biennial. Along with all of the wonderful programming, we are going to be taking #36ShavefortheBrave to Biennial. This means I along with fellow rabbis, cantors, Jewish professionals, and others will be raising money to fight pediatric cancer by shaving our heads in memory of Sammy Sommer and all those children who have fought or are fighting Pediatric Cancer. You can go to the following website and donate if you wish #36ShavefortheBrave
|Me with Sammy's Parents Phyllis and Michael Sommer|
after Shaving our heads in Chicago
Friday, September 25, 2015
Right now, we are living in a new golden age of comic books. True the popularity and sales of comic books has never recovered from the bust in the late 80s, but with new movies and television shows seemingly coming out almost every week, it is a great time for us comic book nerds to be alive. As a matter of fact, I will be teaching once again at the Adult Institute beginning on October 13th at the Park Heights JCC on the very topic of Jews and the Comic Book. It is a continuation of my previous course where we delve into the medium that so many young Jewish men and even some women helped to invent.
So many of their early creations like Superman, Batman, and Captain America fought for truth, justice and the American way. Many of their creations were the embodiment of what these young men aspired to be. The most well known of these creations is of course Superman which was created by two Cleveland boys, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1933. As one blogger goes on to explain, “Originally Superman was a villain based on Nietzsche’s idea – or rather, more accurately based on the Nazi interpretation of Nietzsche’s idea. The Nazis viewed the Ubermensch as a kind of superior physical entity, rather than a morally transcendent entity, that by right of its mechanical superiority should rule over lesser men. Anyway, Joe Shuster redesigns him, he becomes a hero, and eventually a paragon of morality. A super-moral character,” the Superman we know today.
As an aside, “Nietzsche’s view of the ubermensch or overman is one who is willing to risk all for the sake of enhancement of humanity … an overman is someone who can establish his own values as the world in which others live their lives, often unaware that they are not pregiven. This means an overman can affect and influence the lives of others …. An overman is then someone who has a life … with the purpose for humanity.” In this sense, Nietzsche’s vision of the ubermensch is more in line with Siegel and Shuster’s creation.
This ubermensch is in stark contradiction to another genre emerging in British culture at the same time, which has had as equal a profound impact on our culture as well, the dystopian novel. Brave New World, written by Aldous Huxley was first published in England in 1932. Huxley, who may or may not have borrowed heavily from the novel We by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin, envisioned a world where a benevolent dictatorship used conditioning to force its citizens to accept their station in life. In his novel, Huxley anticipated such developments as reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation, and classical conditioning.
It is a fascinating juxtaposition to see the interplay between these visions of the present and the future. In one you have superheroes conquering evil and injustice. In the other there is the expression of the fear of the loss of individualism and humanity to the growing forces of an overwhelming world of the future. The narratives of the strong, dynamic, powerful individual versus the nameless, faceless, all-powerful bureaucracy have continued to capture the imaginations of writers and filmmakers alike to this very day. However one of the greatest of this genre has to be Kurt Vonnegut.
In his collection of short stories, Welcome to the Monkey House, Vonnegut tells us of a dystopian vision of the future in his story Harrison Bergeron. It begins, “The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else.”
It goes on to tell the sad story of how for one brief moment Harrison, the son of George and Hazel Bergeron broke out of the societal imposed handicaps on television by proclaiming himself emperor and dancing with a ballerina. The story ends very suddenly, very disturbingly, and very profoundly.
A similar lesson is recounted in one of my favorite Pixar Movies, the Incredibles where the evil character Syndrome speaks to Mr. Incredible, “I'll give them the most spectacular heroics anyone's ever seen. And when I'm old and I've had my fun, I'll sell my inventions so that everyone can be superheroes. Everyone can be super. And when everyone's super, no one will be.”
One of the great fears expressed in both Harrison Bergeron and The Incredibles is the idea that society is becoming so focused on the idea that each of us is unique and special, but we are all equal to the point that none of us will end up being unique and special. This concern is part of a larger debate which is where are the boundaries between the individual and the communal? Or to put it another way, where are the boundaries between the particular and the universal?
In order to flesh out this debate we should first define our terms: Universalism searches for what is systematic and tries to impose the rules, laws, and norms on all of its members so that things can run more efficiently. Particularism searches for what is different, unique, or exceptional in order to create something that is incomparable or of special quality.
But what does Judaism have to say about universalism versus particularism we wonder? We come from a particular people, a particular tribe, a particular religious tradition. However we often ask ourselves: are we Jewish-Americans or are we American Jews? And is there a way to reconcile these two competing notions?
As Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove wrote about one of his favorite rabbis, “Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who in 1836 at the age of 28 years old, wrote a slim volume entitled The Nineteen Letters. Hirsch was a dynamic and charismatic speaker, teacher, and leader, who eventually went on to become the founder of Modern Orthodoxy. The letters document a fictional correspondence between Naftali, a young rabbi, and Benjamin, a youthful intellectual. Naftali seeks to explain to Benjamin how a modern Jew may remain steadfast in his or her commitments to both Judaism and modern society, in other words, to explain how one can embrace a very particularistic notion of Jewish identity and also embrace all the universalism of Enlightenment Europe.
Hirsch’s answer, still powerful today, is that it is not an either/or proposition. One does not have to choose between a particular and universal conception of Jewish identity. Hirsch coined the phrase “Israel-Mensch” as the ideal expression of a Jew. The Israel-Mensch is a Jew who serves humankind best by living as a Jew. To be an Israel-Mensch does not mean, as others argued, to be a Jew in the home and a secular citizen in the street. To be an Israel-Mensch means that you know how to apply the principles of your Jewish identity to the concerns of all of humanity. Neither Judaism nor humanity, Hirsch reasoned, is served by a Jew shedding his or her particular identity. Rather, humanity and Judaism are both enriched by the Jew who leverages his or her Jewishness towards the universal concerns of all of humankind.
The tragedy of the Jewish community today is that we have not internalized this notion of the Israel-Mensch. We find ourselves either entirely consumed with our own concerns or believing that we must shed our Jewishness, lest it interfere with the secular commitments we hold sacred. The philosopher Renan didn’t realize the truth he had hit upon when he wrote “He who is 100% British or 100% American or 100% Russian is only half a man – the universal part of his personality, equally essential to becoming human, is still unborn.” As Jews we walk a tightrope between our two identities, or more precisely, we believe that universalism and particularism are two sides of the same coin. This balancing act is perhaps best expressed at the intersection of Hillel’s two classic questions: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I?” The point is not one question or the other, but in their juxtaposition, in the breath that we take between the two.
To be part of the chosen people means that we are chosen to serve the world by means of expressing our Jewish faith. We are a chosen people, not because we are better than others, nor because we must stand on the sidelines. We are a chosen people because within us lies a unique and particular message and mission that cries out to all people. As Zwi Werblowsky, Professor Emeritus of Religion at the Hebrew University, advised, to be Jewish is to adopt a stance exhibiting a “commitment to humanity… an openness to the world and all men.” There is no greater credit to a particular religion, Judaism or other, than to place the needs of humanity at the forefront of its communal agenda. Over 100 years after Hirsch, Abraham Joshua Heschel reminded us that “no religion is an island,” we are all involved with one another. “A religious man,” Heschel wrote, “is a person who holds God and man in thought at one time, at all times, who suffers in himself harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 289) Like the Sukkah itself, our Jewish communal institutions must be built in a way that provides shelter to the Jewish community, but always leaves open the ability to appreciate and express concern for the outside world.
My favorite story about Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch took place towards the end of his life. He was a deeply religious man, severe in his beliefs and punctilious in his observance, the father of German Orthodoxy if not Orthodoxy as a whole. The story is that at the end of his life, when already in frail health, Hirsch went to visit the Swiss Alps. Many people found this a strange and impulsive thing for such a learned rabbi to do. Wouldn’t it be more fitting for him in his the final days to turn his attention to the people and the Torah that had sustained him throughout? So his disciples asked why he was making such a trip. He responded, “I have a feeling that after I die, and I am called in before God, one of the questions that the Almighty will ask me is: So Shimshon, you lived so close to my Alps, did you ever get a chance to see them?”
As Jews, we are a community with concerns and needs unique to us that ultimately only we will protect. But there is also a bigger world in which we exist; and as Jews, we are obligated to appreciate its beauty, to serve its needs, and not be afraid of its occupying our agenda. This is what it means to be an Israel-Mensch, to serve humanity by serving Judaism, to serve Judaism by serving humanity. This is the key to our Jewish identity, the essence of who we are, and it is towards this bar that we strive, here today and every day of the Jewish year.
This is further emphasized by Rabbi Elliot Niles Goldstein who takes a more particular approach as he goes on to explain in his book Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith. “Modernity gives tribalism a very bad rap. Part of why most of us look down on tribal religions or religiously motivated groups is the result of what we see around us, events that we associate with more primitive mind-sets and cultures: the violence in the Balkans; the bloodshed in Chechnya and Sudan; the terrorism of the radical Islamists. To most of us tribalism means feuding and fighting, ethnocentricity and triumphalism, ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders,’ closed-mindedness.
But it doesn’t have to. It is usually only when political or personal agendas (or vendettas) get mixed up with social or spiritual ones that such horrific problems occur. If we look deeper – and see tribalism at its best and most authentic rather than at its worst and most distorted – it has much to teach us.”
As Rabbi Goldstein goes on to explain, “When it works, tribalism breaks down barriers that separate people from one another. In this technological age, when so many of us feel estranged, detached, and guarded, it has never been more necessary. Reconnecting with our most basic selves will allow us to reconnect with other human beings. But in genuine tribalism, the external rituals must serve internal core values – values such as interdependence, compassion, commitment, generosity, and spiritual largesse.”
Now before you think this is too academic a topic, keep in mind one of the great debates raging today: the #blacklivesmatter movement versus the #alllivesmatter. This debate at its core is about particularism versus universalism.
Those who support #blacklivesmatter would argue they are working to “broaden the conversation” around race with an emphasis on the disparity the justice system metes out when it comes to issues of color.
This disagreement over their perceptions along with a response to the violence in places like Ferguson and Baltimore City and the violence against law enforcement has led to the rise of a counter movement called the #alllivesmatter movement.
Right now there are two battle lines being drawn, each not truly understanding the other.
We Jews have an important role that we can play in this ongoing debate. As a people we can help to translate the thoughts and expressions of the particular to the universal and visa versa.
For example, as professor Judith Butler wrote in an op-ed, “we cannot have a race-blind approach to the questions: which lives matter? Or which lives are worth valuing? If we jump too quickly to the universal formulation, ‘all lives matter,’ then we miss the fact that black people have not yet been included in the idea of ‘all lives.’ That said, it is true that all lives matter … but to make that universal formulation concrete, to make that into a living formulation, one that truly extends to all people, we have to foreground those lives that are not mattering now, to mark that exclusion, and militate against it.”
Or another way to look at it, if there was social media in the 1930s and 40s would we have not also stormed this country proclaiming #Jewishlivesmatter?! The ultimate goal is to bring about one day when #alllivesmatter because all lives are viewed and treated as equal.
There is value to the individual. There is value to the community. These are not contradictory terms in opposition to one another. As Jews we have and we continue to straddle these two worlds. We should be engaged in these conversations. We can help to heal the wounds.
This summer the NAACP, fifty years after the march in Selma, coordinated a 860 mile ‘Journey for Justice’ March from Selma to Washington DC. During every step of the journey, there were rabbis. Over 200 rabbis ultimately participated in this march while carrying a Torah, the symbol of our tradition. It reminded us of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching beside Martin Luther King, Jr. Yes it was symbolic, but symbols as we know can be powerful.
We started by talking about the symbol and symbolism of Superheroes. In the initial vision of their young Jewish creators, these heroes stood up when no one else could or would to fight injustice. Both Batman and Superman used their particular skill set not fighting grand supervillians, but instead they took on petty thugs, abusers, and low-lifes.
Our Jewish heritage gives us tremendous insight as both insiders and outsiders to continue to fight for what is good, just and honorable. Helping to combat racism is just one of many examples .As a nomadic people, we have a lot to say about immigration and the immigration experience. As a people who have been refuges more times than we care to think about, we have a lot to offer in the debate about the current Syrian refugee crises. And the list goes on and o
This is the particular skill set of our tradition. We have the power of our words and our deeds to be more Israel-mensch. We can change the universal for the better by helping to lift others up by listening to the very particular teachings of our tradition. This is our superpower. So lets use it for good.
 Vonnegut, Kurt, Welcome to the Monkey House, New York, Bantam DoubleDay, 1988, pg. 7
 Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove http://pasyn.org/resources/sermons/%5bfield_dateline-date%5d-6
 Goldstein, Rabbi Niles Elliot, Gonzo Judaism: A Bold Path for Renewing an Ancient Faith, Boston, Trumpeter, 2010, pg. 91.
 Ibid. pg. 108