Monday, October 31, 2011

Can We Agree to Disagree? First Adult Ed Class this Thursday!

Liberals vs. Conservatives, West vs. East, Humentashen vs. Latkes. The world is full of disagreements. However, is there a right way to disagree? And why is it that we Jews love to argue so much?!

Check out our first adult education class in the series, "Top Ten Stories of the Talmud."

November 3, 2011
Selah Tea Cafe
5:30 pm


See you there!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Danger of Moral Equivalencies


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Annual Lipman Lecture, November 16th: Jonathan Safran Foer


Jonathan Safran Foer, the author of the international bestsellers, Everything Is Illuminated, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, will give the 2011-12 Lipman Lecture on “When Jews Laugh at Things that Aren’t Funny,” November 16, 2011, 7.00 pm, at the Ostrove Auditorium, Diamond Building, Colby College. Open to the public.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Earth was Filled with Lawlessness: Parashat Noah


One of the questions that emerges each year as we read Parashat Noah is, "How big was the sin that his generation committed? What did they do that convinced God to destroy the world?" The rabbis respond to this question in an unexpected way. The sin that they committed was not "large" in the traditional sense. Rather, the people of Noah's generation stole just enough so that it was worth their while, but not enough to be prosecuted by the courts. In both Bereshit Rabbah and the Jerusalem Talmud, the rabbis tell us that these individuals would:

ונוטל פחות משוה פרוטה וזה בא ונוטל פחות משוה פרוטה עד מקום שאינו יכול להוציאו ממנו בדין

"...take less than a prutah (a small amount of money) -- just the right amount so that they could not be brought before a court for their crime." (Genesis Rabbah 31:5)

Etz Hayim, the Conservative Commentary explains why God considered this act to be so heinous, " The Jerusalem Talmud understands the word translated as 'lawlessness' (hamas)to mean that people cheated each other for such small sums that the courts could not prosecute them. This caused people to lose faith in the power of government to provide them with a a fair and livable world, and society began to slip into anarchy." (p. 41)

The true evil behind Noah's generation was not the amount of money that was stolen, but rather, the way in which the theft occurred. By playing the system and looking for loopholes, this generation damaged the rule of law and the claim of justice. The effects of their crime were not limited to the two immediate parties involved. Rather, they cumulatively degraded the moral standing, purchase, and authority of their government. The ultimate effect of this insidious, "barely legal" behavior was a society so wicked that God could not let it continue.

In David Brooks' column today, he opens with the following observation, "The elemental question in American politics is: Do voters trust their government? During the middle of the 20th century, more than 70 percent of Americans said that they trusted government to do the right thing most of the time. During the 1970s, that fell. By the Iraq war, only 25 percent trusted government. Now, amid the economic slowdown, public trust has hit an all-time low. According to a CNN/ORC International poll, only 15 percent of Americans asked said that they trust the federal government to do the right thing most of the time."

At least part of the loss of faith in the US government is due to its inability to prosecute individuals who commit financial crimes that are "barely legal." With loopholes and fancy legal footwork, large banks manage to evade taxes and financiers can profit by betting on the failure of businesses. The current state of affairs is clearly wrong, but often, still within the framework of legality. Therefore, due to the fact that the government cannot correct these wrongs, the citizens of the United States have lost faith in the art of governance almost completely.

Part of what can be learned from this week's portion is that legality is not morality. Just because a court cannot prosecute for something, does not mean that it is morally justifiable. An ethically bankrupt society cannot stand before God, and cannot command the loyalty and faith of its citizens -- all of which are needed for the survival of a nation. Through faith, the propagation of the Torah's teachings, and the personification of Torah values, we can all play a part in redeeming our society. Communities of faith play a unique role in the cultivation of conscience, both on personal and communal levels. Let us all take part in this essential process for the safety and security of our nation.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Wine, Women, and Death: Love and Piety in Medieval Judeo-Arabic Culture

Check out this awesome event happening at Colby:

Professor Raymond Scheindlin of the Jewish Theological Seminary is coming to Colby on to give a lecture entitled "Wine, Women, and Death: Love and Piety in Medieval Judeo-Arabic Culture."

The lecture will take place on November 9, 2011 at 7 pm in the
Lovejoy building, room 205.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Creation and Health: Lessons from Parashat B'reisheit


One of the most famous lines from the Torah is its first verse which is located in this week's portion, Parashat B'reisheit:

א בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. 1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Many lessons can be learned from the linguistic characteristics of these opening words. The first has to do with the root that is used for creation: bet, reish, aleph. The root for creation in Hebrew is the same as that for health. The word, breiut, health, is related to bara, God created. What does this teach us? That health and creativity are interrelated concepts. One of the symbols of vitality is the impulse to create, and creation itself. One of the clear signs of an unhealthy person or organization is the repetition of the same stories, behaviors, events, and behavioral patterns without new thought, innovation, or the desire to be something better. Without creativity and creation, we are are not healthy. Even though creation takes energy and effort, it is what ensures our future life and success.

The second element of this parasha (Torah portion) that is noteworthy is how God creates. The idea of creation is intricately linked to havdallah, separation. God does not create out of nothingness, but takes the amorphous chaos of the universe and provides ordering and categorization. Often when we assume leadership positions, we think it is upon us to re-create the wheel. However, Divine creation is about using the materials at hand and making what already exists manageable, usable, and meaningful.

At the beginning of this new Jewish year, let us learn from God's example about how to how to live a healthy, creative, and effective life of leadership. Let us always strive to be creative and break paradigms that have failed us, while using the resources we already do have in order to craft a life of richness and fulfillment.

Shabbat Shalom!

P.S. Thank you to Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz for the central ideas in this post. His words were sent to me via the weekly JTS Torah Commentary email!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Rabbi David Ellenson on Shalit: Historical and Theological Perspective

Some of the best Jewish commentary on the topic from personal role model, Rabbi David Ellenson, President of the Hebrew Union College:

NEW YORK (JTA) -- Political sovereignty in the restored Jewish homeland often means making decisions with life-and-death implications. That reality was brought home last week with the agonizing decision to authorize the terribly imbalanced swap to gain the release of Gilad Shalit.

The criticisms and concerns lodged by many supporters of Israel within and beyond its borders against the Netanyahu government for exchanging more than 1,000 prisoners for a lone Israeli soldier are legitimate and understandable. Undoubtedly some of the released prisoners will attempt again to wreak murder and mayhem against inhabitants of the Jewish state.

At the same time, the overwhelming majority of Jews and people of good will throughout the world have rejoiced over a decision that will allow Shalit to return to the safety and love of his family and nation. Agreeing to the lopsided deal involved great pain for an Israeli government charged with balancing numerous and competing concerns in providing for the safety and security of its soldiers and citizens. The decision involved no easy or obvious choice.

However, as so many reflect upon the action taken by Israel, it is instructive to remember that Israel unfortunately has confronted the same heartbreaking and excruciating question before. In 1985, the Jewish state had to decide whether to return 1,150 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners for the release of three Israeli soldiers.

While the exchange never took place and the fate of the three Israeli POWs remains unknown, two prominent Israeli rabbis -- Shlomo Goren and Haim David Halevi – addressed the issue directly at that time. Their words from that time have resonance and meaning today, as they provide important perspectives for reflecting upon the policy position adopted by the current Israeli government in agreeing to this exchange.

Rabbi Goren served as Chief Ashkenazic rabbi of Israel and was formerly chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, while Rabbi Halevi was the chief Sephardic rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Rabbi Goren, in an article written on May 31, 1985, stated that Jewish law absolutely forbade the Israeli government from redeeming “our captive soldiers in exchange for 1,150 terrorists,” and based his ruling on a Talmudic passage in Gittin 45a that stated, “Captives should not be redeemed for more than their value.”

Rabbi Goren emphasized his great distress at the personal plight of these captives – they were surely in “mortal danger.” However, he still insisted that the state should not redeem them, as an exchange for the release of known terrorists bent on the destruction of Israel and its Jewish population surely would imperil all Israeli citizens and only fuel Arab attempts to capture more Jews in the future. The price exacted from Israel through the release of these terrorists was simply too steep for the state to afford.

Rabbi Halevi, responding to Rabbi Goren soon after the article appeared, said he was sympathetic to the position advanced by his Ashkenazic colleague but disagreed with the conclusion. In Rabbi Halevi's view, the conditions that obtained in a modern Jewish state were vastly different from those that confronted the Jewish community in pre-modern times when the Talmudic passage was written. The Jewish people were now sovereign in their land, and the “political-national” aims that motivated the terrorists “to wreak havoc among the Jewish people” would continue regardless of whether their prisoners were released in exchange for Israeli soldiers.

Indeed, these terrorists would persist in their efforts until a political solution to the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict was achieved.

The “impossible choice” before the government, as Rabbi Halevi saw it, was whether to “strengthen the power of the terrorists through the release of their comrades or to strengthen the morale of IDF soldiers should there be future wars.” Faced with the two options, Rabbi Halevi believed that priority had to be assigned the latter -- the Israeli government should do all in its power to uphold the morale of the Israeli soldiers.

If a soldier and by extension his family and all residents of the Jewish state knew that the government would spare no effort or expense to liberate a captured soldier, and that such release possessed the highest governmental priority, then the resolve of the citizen-soldiers of the State of Israel to defend their nation would be fortified and absolute.

In a moral universe where alternatives were limited and where the military might of the State of Israel could protect its citizenry despite the preposterous numerical imbalance of the exchange, Rabbi Halevi felt this choice was still the wisest one that the government could make in an imperfect world.

In responding in this way, Rabbi Halevi enunciated a position that provides a rationale for understanding why the current Israeli government made the decision on the issue of prisoner exchange. As its critics contend, surely it is a policy fraught with danger for the state. At the same time, it appears to be a policy that continues to guide Israel legitimately as it continues to provide unlimited support to its citizen-soldiers as they all too often confront an enemy bent on the state's destruction.

(Rabbi David Ellenson is the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Two Moving Images




Israel Does not Abandon it's Soldiers in the Field. Blessed is your return home!




Mom, I'm coming!

Gilad Shalit is Home!


Blessed are you God who frees the captive. Today is glorious day for the Jewish people. A captive son has been returned to his homeland and to his family.

There is no moral equivalence between the 1,027 terrorists released and Gilad. Gilad, as opposed to those for whom he was exchanged, was held without medical care, international observers were barred from seeing him, and he was denied all basic human rights. Yet he persevered and has be returned back to a jubilant people who places human life before all other values. For Israel, human life is an end, not a means and that is why the Jewish State has taken such heroic measures to secure Gilad's return.

You can read more about Gilad's return here.

May his family and all the people Israel be blessed with peace and security.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Is it all (Life, Humanity, etc.) Absurdity?

Great question! Read some of what Kohelet (the Book of Ecclesiastes) has to say on the topic. We covered this source sheet this past Shabbat -- the Shabbat when we traditionally read and discuss this underrated book!

Also, here is the source sheet that we used at the Barrel's event this past weekend. It is a collection of classical and contemporary texts about the connection between Jewish ethics and eating. Thanks to David Gulak of Barrels and the generosity of our community, the event was fun, delicious, and educational!

Moadim L'Simcha -- Happy Sukkot -- Eat, Drink, and be Merry!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Simchat Torah Celebration - Thursday October 20th!


We will be celebrating Simchat Torah again this year at Beth Israel Congregation! Let us make it a success again this year! We will be making caramel apples and reading a story together at 6:00 pm and celebrating Torah together at 7:00 pm.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Local. Organic. Kosher? Joint Program with Barrels


This Sunday at 5:30 pm in the Waterville Sukkah (between the Foss Dining Hall and the Marylow Coffee House) there will be a joint educational program with Barrels and the Waterville Jewish community. David Gulak and Rabbi Isaacs will be co-teaching about the connection between Jewish values and ethical eating. Samples will be provided and congregants are encouraged to bring food for a potluck dinner!

This is going to be an amazing event and I'm looking forward to seeing you all there!

Shabbat Dinner and Services - Rain Location

Unfortunately, due to rain, Shabbat services will not be held in the sukkah. Both will be held in my apartment on the Colby campus. Contact me for further details if you are interested in attending!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Erev Hag (The night before Sukkot), and it Looks like Gilad is Coming Home!

It looks like Gilad Shalit is coming home soon! Here is a video that was made 2 years after his abduction. The chorus repeats, "there is a place set for you at the table." May this sukkot, this zman simchatenu, time of happiness, truly be a time of joy for the Shalit family and the entire House of Israel!



Upcoming Sukkot Activities: Be There!!

Upcoming Sukkot Activities:

The Colby Sukkah will be located next to the Foss Dining Hall.

Thursday, October 13, 2011, Sukkot Morning Services 10 am

Friday, October 14, 2011 Sukkot Dinner with Colby Hillel
at the Colby Sukkah at 6:00 pm

Sunday October 16, 2011, Program with Barrells Community Market, "Local. Organic. Kosher?" A Talk by David Gulak and Rabbi Isaacs (samples will be provided) at Colby Sukkah 5:30 pm

Thursday October 20, 2011, Shemini Atzeret Services (Yizkor) 10 am at Beth Israel Congregation

Thursday October 20, 2011, Simchat Torah Services 6:00 pm at Beth Israel Congregation. Come make caramel apples and celebrate Torah!

Yom Kippur Sermons

In case you missed the Yom Kippur Sermons, you can check them out here:

On the necessity of forgiving people for their transgressions against you, click here.

On the complexity of supporting Israel as an American Jew, click here.

Looking forward to seeing you all on Sukkot!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Living a Torah Life - A Thought for Tishre

This month has been one where I have looked often to Rav Kook for inspiration regarding how to life a better more holy life. I found this quote from a friend and collegue, Rabbi Eitan Bendavid:

"Therefore, the pure righteous do not complain of the dark, but increase the
light; they do not complain of evil, but increase justice; they do not
complain of heresy, but increase faith; they do not complain of ignorance,
but increase wisdom."


Let our actions speak louder than our words, and let us make the world brighter and better instead of bemoaning that which troubles us.

G'mar Hatimah Tovah. May everyone be inscribed in the Book of Life.

Missed Rosh HaShannah at Beth Israel Congregation?

Here are the sermons from the holiday!

Click here for the Erev Rosh HaShannah sermon about the spiritual guidance provided by Jewish time.

Click here for the first day sermon about the spiritual dimensions and depth of being a Jew in Maine.

Click here for the second day sermon on the importance of living wills and advanced directives. You can access the necessary paperwork for the State of Maine by clicking here. You don't need a lawyer to fill out these documents!

Looking forward to seeing you all on Yom Kippur and the many forthcoming events for Sukkot!