Friday, March 15, 2013

#Blog Exodus Day 4 - Chametz

One of my dear friends and colleagues Rabbi Phyllis Sommer has for several years now challenged us to blog Exodus.  She has come up with daily themes.  Today's theme is chametz, usually translated to mean 'leavened food.'  These foods are forbidden according to Jewish law to be consumed during the festival of Passover.   We avoid chametz to remind us of how the Israelites had to flee Egypt so quickly that their bread did not have time to rise.  Instead they consumed matzah, or unleavened bread.

Any foods that have been allowed 'to rise' are off the menu for the festival of Passover.  Being a community so closely tied to carbs, it is hard for many of us to give up our breads, cakes, cookies, and just about every other type of baked good.  It also includes any alcohol made from grains like beer, whiskey (or whisky depending upon where you're from), scotch, etc.

And yet as Rabbi Sommer points out in her blog, because it is forbidden, we spend most of our time thinking about being able to enjoy chametz.  A similar issue arises (pun intended) during Yom Kippur when we spend the day fasting.  Of course much of the time is dedicated to thinking about our next meal.

This got me to thinking about the whole notion of gastronomic Judaism.  Our tradition is heavily tied to foods, and not just forbidden foods.  For example, during Chanukah, we eat foods fried in oil like latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (Middle Eastern doughnuts).  On Purim we eat a special cookie called a hamentaschen which has a triangular shape.  There is an ongoing debate about the best kind of filling for a hamentaschen.  Personally I would argue that it is apricot, and that there is no debate once you accept this fact.

Then there are the laws of kashrut which have to do with permitted and forbidden foods.  And that is just for a start.

So the question I often get is why all of this focus on food?  I have spent a lot of time thinking about it and come to the conclusion that food represents a core part of the human experience.  At some point we have to eat in order to live.  Also one of the central tenants of our tradition is from Leviticus 19:2, "You shall be Holy, for I, the Eternal your God, am holy."

This means not that we are inherently holy, but that our mission is to bring holiness into the world.  And one way we can do that is to be more holy and more ethical in our food choices.  Being limited at certain times and in certain ways with our food, especially in a society that has an overabundance and an unhealthy relationship with food, is a good thing.

So during Passover, I'll be grateful for not having Chametz because not enjoying it reminds us of how we came to be a free people.  At the same time, I will also very much enjoy pizza and beer when the festival is over.  For it is holy to enjoy both the unleavened and the leaven, just not always at the same time.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Concerning Church (Synagogue) and State

On Monday March 13, there were two major events of religious significance.  The first being the election of Pope Francis to head the Roman Catholic Church.  Of course it was significant in part because Pope Francis is the first pope from the Americas.  As an outsider and as a religious moderate, I do have many thoughts about the challenges facing the Church, its institutions, and its hierarchies.  But I will have to leave that for another day.

The other major event of historical significance was that Prime Minister Benjamin "BiBi" Netanyahu, of whom I share a nickname with, came to an agreement in order to form his coalition government.  What is significant about his agreement with Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Naftali Bennet (Habayit Hayehudi) is that the ultra-Orthodox for the first time in the last decade will be excluded from the coalition government.

Benjamin Netanyahu

Israel's government is based on a parliamentary democratic model.  So unlike our system here in the United States, the Prime Minister has to form a coalition of disparate groups in order to be able to have a functional government.

The results of the last election were striking however in that there appears to be a striking rebuke of Netanyahu's failures to oversee domestic issues.  And because of this, Yair Lapid garnered 19 seats in the Knesset.  With this surprising result Lapid is working to refocus the government on issues like draft exemptions for yeshiva students, reforming the educational system of yeshivot, and other important issues.  

Yair Lapid
According to the Israeli Newspaper HaAretz, "Yesh Atid is expected to receive the Health Ministry for Yael German, the Social Affairs Ministry for Meir Cohen and the Science Ministry for Jacob Perry. Yesh Atid MKs will also head the Knesset’s prestigious Education Committee, the Immigrants Absorption Committee and the Committee for Women’s Status."

Bennet, whose Jewish Home Party, is made up primarily of Religious Zionists and settlers.  Their main focus is on annexing more of the West Bank, which would make any Two State Solution with the Palestinians even more challenging.

Naftali Bennet
The long and the short of it, according to the New York Times is, "Writing in the Israeli daily Maariv, Shalom Yerushalmi said the new government “will in fact be two governments” — one of foreign policy, led by Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Lieberman, and one social-economic, led by Mr. Lapid and Mr. Bennett, whom Mr. Yerushalmi called “the big winners.”

How long the government will hold is anyone guess.  It is going to take some major work on Netanyahu's part to hold this government together and to hold his position as Prime Minister.  If there is anyone who can do it, it is Prime Minister Netanyahu.  

But in the meantime for us religious moderates, this does represent a chance for us to push for more openness and inclusiveness of Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Jews in Israel. It is a chance to open religious observance especially with regards to the Western Wall and life cycle events such as weddings, funerals and conversions.  As a Jewish State, Israel needs to join the 21st Century in terms of recognizing all branches of Judaism, and not just of those who wear black hats.  And if Israel is capable of modernizing in terms of its religious observance, perhaps there is hope for the Catholic Church as well.  But again, I'll save that for another day.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Cuba Part III

We recently had a fascinating presentation by the Joint Distribution Committee, often referred to simply as "The Joint."  The JDC, whose website is The Joint Distribution Committee is a major philanthropic organization that supports Jews and Jewish communities throughout the world.  They has an especially strong presence in the countries that made up the former Soviet Union as well as in many Latin American countries as well.  They also work in Africa, Asia, Israel and many other locations around the world as well.

Needless to say, they also have had and continue to have a strong presence in Cuba.  One of their primary goals is to work to create self-sustaining Jewish communities.  Or as our presenter indicated, to be so successful that they work themselves out of a job.

According to their website the, "JDC in Cuba helps the community meet the basic food and medical needs of its most vulnerable.  They are also working to build a base of current and future leaders to sustain and grow the Jewish community.  This involves training and outreach as well as connecting Jewish visitors to the Jews of Cuba.

We very much saw this in action as we visited with the various Jewish communities of Cuba.  They have historians.  They have service leaders.  They have synagogues, cemeteries, and dedicated volunteers.  And yet, it is all so very new.

During the communist period, Communism was the official religion of Cuba.  As Ruth Behar wrote in her book, An Island Called Home, "Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, all mention of God, spirits, and saints disappeared from everyday speech.  But in 1991, the Cuban Communist Party decided to reverse its adherence to the Marxist dogma that religion was the opiate of the people .... By 1992, it was written into the Cuban constitution that the state was now secular rather than atheist" (Pg. 20).

So this resurgence, this resurrection (to borrow from another tradition), of the Jewish community is a recent endeavor.  The goal is of course for them to become self-sustaining.  In the meantime, I encourage you to go to Cuba and meet with our fellow Jews and learn from them their stories.  And to also by An Island Called home and read it.  For they truly do have so much to share.