Monday, February 27, 2017

Parshat Mishpatim 2017/5777

In the Midrash, Rabbi Joshua’s nephew Hananiah taught: Just as in the sea there are ripples and wavelets between each major wave, so between each of the Ten Commandments there are Torah’s minutiae, both written and unwritten. Rambam teaches that when we consider each and every potential extension (all Toldot) and every imaginable iteration of each and every Mitzvah, it is impossible to imagine such a voluminous and complete understanding of what is the spirit and the meaning of each and every law.

In addressing this impossible task, Rabbi Jonathan Kligler teaches as follows:

Standing at the foot of the Holy Mountain the entire People of Israel have now witnessed and received the Ten Commandments (or “Ten Utterances”…) Moses then ascends the mountain and disappears into the mysterious cloud that obscures its summit. Here this week’s portion begins: V’eleh hamishpatim asher tasim lifnayhem – And these are the rules that you shall set before them. (Exodus 21:1) What follows is a detailed law code covering damages, civil law, criminal law, capital offenses – the fine print of the covenant, and the foundation of a living code of law that sustains Jewish discourse and codes of behavior to this day.

These are the ripples and wavelets that bring our Aseret HaDibrot and all Given Law to life. These details are the clothing that allows us to interface with the skeletal ideals that we are given that should dictate how we live individually and collectively; and in turn will inform further development and definition of our laws as we continue in our existence. This is the beginning of Civil Law as we know it, where everyone in society has rights and everyone who has more privilege than others have responsibility towards those who are less resourced in any way.

It is interesting to note that in discussion of law, we are told that there are משפטים and חוקים – the second of these are those laws that we do not necessarily understand but do because they were dictated, whereas the first, from which our Parsha takes its name are those laws that (elmaleh she’hem lo ichtivu) even if they were not written, we would know to do them as thinking rational human beings. Would we? All we have to do is look around our world today and note that there is still abuse, slavery, degradation of human beings and so much else that is proscribed against in this Parsha – yes, those laws that we would do even if they were not written – if, that is, we have a conscience and a sense of good and bad or not so good. These ideas of shared and reasonable use of power, freedom and initiative are at the root of all of Jewish law as reflected in our Torah and in the commentaries that will further explain both the letter and the spirit of its letter.

Einat Kramer, the founder and director of Teva Ivri, a non-profit organization promoting Jewish social-environmental action in Israel and the coordinator of the Israeli Shmita Initiative understands this well. Her organization is a nationwide coalition that seeks to restore the meaning of the Shmita year (mentioned in our Parsha in 23:10 ff, immediately after being told וגר לא תלחץ as a time of holding back not just in terms of our relationship to the land but also in our relationship to each other – using this SHABBAT, if you will, for personal reflection, learning, social involvement, and environmental responsibility in Israel in which the notions of shared destiny and cooperative spirit dictate decisions made.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells the seemingly fantastical story, though it is absolutely true, of Csanad Szegedi, the leader of Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, which cited as one of its foundational beliefs that Jews were indeed trying to control the world and as recently as April 2014, was asking for a list of all Jews that are in any way connected to the Hungarian government for purposes that cannot be for their benefit. However, at this point, the party was no longer under Szegedi’s leadership because in 2012, he found out that he was indeed a Jew. While being ostracized and villianized by those he led for so long in solidarity while maligning others, Szegedi today is a practicing Shomer Mitzvot Jew who has undergone complete conversion even though he was Jewish according to his rooted identity. His name is David.

Today he works to defend human rights for all people. He has stated as follows, “I am aware of my responsibility and I know I will have to make it right in the future.” Here is an example of someone who now observes these משפטים but apparently came to them not from a basic and natural inbred knowledge as suggested in our Gemara, but rather through learning and more akin to the notion of “וגר לא תלחץ “ (found in Chapter 23.9 in our Parsha is one of the 36 times this is cited as a requirement of Torah based practice) – NOT to oppress the other for we had that experience and know what it feels like. One would like to think that our basic human instincts are to be good, but unfortunately way too much glitter and personal validation and other extraneous stuff gets in the way of that instinct, if indeed it is so.

As Sacks narrates this rather remarkable story, he teaches us that

What makes us human is the fact that we are rational, reflective, capable of thinking things through. We feel empathy and sympathy, and this begins early… Yet much of human history has been a story of violence, oppression, injustice, corruption, aggression and war.

The core elements of Parshat Mispatim insure that hopefully we work towards the former of feeling empathy and concern for the other and not the latter where power overtakes and precludes all use of reason and identity with those in a different station in life than the one in power. In the Code of Hummarabi, for example, so much of the law is to protect the King and his rule. Here the ideal expressed by Einat Kramer above is what holds sway in the details – the waves and ripples of this Parsha of Civil Law. In fact this reinforces the fact that religion properly practiced for the observing Jew is NOT singularly about rite and ritual, but rather that is merely representative of and part of the daily life well and appropriately lived. As I often teach, most of the Gemara, Mishneh Torah and the volumes of other “How To” appendices to our Book of Law is about our dealings in business, our treatment of family, our use of land, our taking care of each other and NOT about the RITUAL of Jewish Life. Baba Kamma 30a is just one of many texts in which we are taught that the chasid, the pious Jew is one who is knowledgeable about and agile in the practice of civil and tort law. Is this natural or too demanding as we consider every possible motivation and evolution of the laws and practices we are given through Rabbinic generations of insuring that we live justly and practice intentionally?

We learn in Baba Kamma 79:2 as follows regarding that Rabbinic extension of law as Rambam referred to in indicating that this is an almost limitless task:

אין גוזרין גזרה על הצבור אלא אם כן רוב צבור יכולין לעמוד בה - A decree cannot be made if the majority of the public cannot follow it.

Unfortunately, it feels like more and more of our public are not following the basic standards of behavior that our Parsha would have us assume as human beings. So do we forget these basic human instinctive proper behaviors?

Part of the darker reality of life is clearly found in this Parsha, as we talk about the existence of servitude, selling of daughters, murder, injury to others, death caused by animals and other challenges to life as seen in the culture of the Torah, and still evident in our lives today. So what do we do with this code of behavior? The Jewish ideal is NEVER idyllic, that is to say, this is not about the eradication of these practices and incidents, which will occur wherever human history plays itself out, but the question is what you will do about these realities of life. Einat Kramer, our social and environmentalism ethicist, presents a really interesting and provocative thought regarding the Yovel, the year after every seven cycles of Shemitah years. As in the Shemitah year, we are COMMANDED to allow the land to rest as we do every seventh period of counted time, the Yovel is something that has not occurred in our history since the B’nai Yisrael lived tribally in a fixed location. It is not something that we do but rather is the idyllic – the time when all land goes back to original owners, all individuals have complete and total personal agency and all live in peace.

It is, says Kramer, our idea of Utopia – to be striven for in our daily actions, acknowledging both those elements of our lives that tempt us to not be the best we can be while trying to withstand their lure and striving for what are hopefully those actions that should indeed be the frame for our lives and be those behaviors that we would observe as Sacks’ thinking and rational human beings, not needed to be told to be, well human and caring. These are our משפטים – let them continue to guide us and remind us both of our experiences that have taught us well and our instincts that will hopefully serve us as well.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward – The Publication of My Book

During the second week of February this year, my book Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward was published. The work of writing the essays in this book and in fashioning its total effect was done over the course of about a decade, reflecting parts of lessons, observations of events in my life personally and in our public domain and so much else. It was in every sense of the word a process and it still is a process with each chapter ending with questions for discussion that I hope will be taken up in this forum or in another one at a future point. It is my hope that we will all join together in understanding that the questions we ask are often more important than answers we take on, and in fact, approaches may be better suited to the complexity of our queries. We acknowledge that to one such inquiry there may and no doubt will be a plethora of approaches, all worthy of consideration and thought. The discussion in which I hope you will join me concerns religion, our foundational beliefs, the history and the chapters of that history attributed to others that form the basis of our reality today and our concerns and hopes for our present situation and the future. At the center of this discussion is religion – those beliefs and truths that each person, each people, each collective hold onto as part of their humanity.

I do not have illusions about this book becoming a best seller or achieving the type of popularity that would place it on the front of Barnes and Noble’s book displays. I will humbly say it would be nice because I think the message is critical. As critical as that indicated by Omar Saif Ghobash in his book Letters to a Young Muslim or in Charles Kimball’s book When Religion Becomes Evil and other treatises that look at what has gone so terribly wrong with the very institution that is supposed to inspire us to be our best and want the best for all of humanity. The focus is both as true to the value and legitimacy of holding onto a system of beliefs while recognizing and appreciating the good in other such systems as the Dalai Lama or Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and so many others would ask of us to do. I do think it would be an important read for those who are concerned with interfaith relations, with how we hold onto what is wonderful about our religious traditions while being honest about potential challenges and shortcomings, and for all of us who are so concerned about what is going on in our world today around the increased perceived danger of holding an ideology. I think it would be most valuable in classes as a text for advanced high school students, college and graduate school courses on the Value of Religion in our Society Today.

It is the conversations begun here that I hope will spark other conversations that we all engage in as we purposefully and intelligently realize that religion can be gentle and kind and not, as the extremists and radicalists amongst all of us would have it, vicious and vindictive. It is about the religion that I love as an observant Jewish woman; it is about the ideology I share with so many monotheists and about the ethical core that is the possession of the collective called humanity who believe that what is in your heart is as valuable as what is in mine. I ask you to join me on this journey and to use this space to share your perspectives and thoughts as you read through the pages of these thoughts and ideas that I bring together from the arts, from the different Monotheistic Faiths, from Native Americans, from the Eastern world and from my own spiritual home, the faith that we trace all the back to Abraham in Canaan.

For ordering information please go to and search for Life Journeys: Stepping Back and Moving Forward by Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein. It is available both as a paperback and as an e-book on Kindle.

Please use this space to begin discussions that will be continued… And for more thoughts and writings from my blog, please go to May we all continue to work for a peaceful world of understanding and sharing of humanity, accountable to The Creator of All (or to whatever Source you deem appropriate for you). And now, please do discuss in our virtual room without walls …

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Jewish Community Response to the Refugee Crisis of Human Beings in our World Today

A while back, one of my daughters and I were speaking and she was explaining to me that shuls/synagogues have offered to sponsor and take care of refugee families in her city, which is a Sanctuary City, but found out that a family that was supposed to come, will not be allowed to do so. What should the synagogue do?

It is indeed troubling that freedoms and aspects of life that we took for granted are not at risk. It does feel like we have jumped back several decades, unfortunately and sadly; so let me suggest an approach from the 70s and 80s. Any of us who remember the days of fighting for the rights of Soviet Jews, remember so many actions that we all took.

There were public rallies on behalf of Soviet Jewry; long and concentrated letter writing campaigns to our Congressman, Senators and other officials; shuls/synagogues would “adopt” a Soviet Jewish family and make their pictures public, speak of them constantly and try to maintain whatever contact was possible; there were bracelets we all wore with names of Soviet Jews on them; ceremonial mention of families at our Sedarim and our family Semachot. Mostly, we KNEW THOSE NAMES and they were part of our lives until they could live their own lives freely and within the parameters of basic human rights without fear for their safety and well-being.

I would suggest that Jewish communities, schools, shuls and synagogues, JCRCs, Jewish Federations and so many other agencies should consider these actions. We are taught that each and every one of us should see ourselves as if WE LEFT EGYPT so that we remember the experience of not having agency in our lives and G-d taking care of us. There is a Jewish teaching that G-d gives us resources and blessings so that we can use them responsibly to help others.

For those of you who may say “But that was for Jews…” let me remind you that first of all, NOT all of those Soviet Jews were in fact Jews given so many mixed marriages and other factors; and secondly We are commanded to NOT OPPRESS and take care of the OTHER person as Jews no less than thirty six times in the Torah; and thirdly, and most important we are to help all of G-d’s created members of humanity. And here is our opportunity to act responsibly and do so.

So I recommend taking out those files from 40+ years ago and so and consider you plan of action. If your files are missing, contact me. I still have mine! Let us all work together in meaningful and foundationally faith driven ways to show our concern for our fellow human beings, for if one is threatened, well, you know the rest….

Please note that I do not normally put up more than one post every two weeks or so, but this is of timed importance.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Beyond Google: Why We Are In the Place We Are or Are You My Shul?

I have often said that our lives and what happens to us is as much about timing and place as anything. Those who watch and go by the stars or astrological signs say something so similar. I have been doing wonderful things in the past several years professionally and am really enjoying the path my life is taking at this point as I continue my passion of teaching (i.e. learning with) people of all ages in so many different settings. That having been said, I have often felt that if I was not located in this place – Elkins Park, Pennsylvania in the Greater Philadelphia area, my life would have been so much more gratifying professionally. Why did G-d ordain that this was where I was to play out the involvements and elements that are my life? In terms of both my profession and personal life as a Halachically (referring to the laws and dictates) observant and well-educated Jewish woman and as one who truly believes in Klal Yisrael – that is all Jews are part of this community regardless of where they identify ideologically, and beyond that as one who believes in the rights and our responsibilities toward all human beings as all are created by G-d and in the image of G-d – BeTzelem Elokim, Philadelphia has not been an easy place for me to be, to say the least. That being said, I have been fortunate, humbled, and honored to be involved in the facilitation of learning experiences and programs for tens of thousands of fellow Jews and human beings of all ages and in all settings through the years (decades, actually). For me this has been enough…. On many levels more than enough and it fills me with an ongoing sense of awe and gratitude.

That being said, when people ask me “What shul (synagogue) do you belong to and what community provides sustenance for your personal Jewish soul and experience?” -- which is a normative and expected question for someone like me, I really do not know what to say. What shul do I belong to anyway? While the answer should be simple enough, I always feel like the ongoing message of the three little bears and Goldilocks – except I have a hard time finding the fit that is “just right” on any level. I teach in one place, I feel embraced in another place and I belong everywhere in general but nowhere in particular. My shul of choice is located in another community and I do go there as much as possible (Go Mekor!) but I live in the community I live in and have resisted moving away from because there are so many other things I LOVE about where I live – as a community of intentional diversity, long standing relationships and friendships, beautiful and peaceful environs, and so much else. I am so committed to and enmeshed in this location. These connections are to me critically important components of the community I want to live in so I gave up on finding THE SHUL that works for me and just deal…

Nonetheless, I have recently figured out the answer to this quandary and know now why I am supposed to be here at this place on the Google Earth map, confined to walking distance in finding MY community for Shabbat, indeed a special time for me as a Halachically observant Jew. We have such a special group at our home one Shabbat a month on Friday night to doven and enjoy each other’s company over Shabbat dinner, bringing together a wide swath of Jews with different levels of observance and affiliations – and WE ARE community! I, as an observant Jewish woman can and do exercise my right to doven (pray) as an individual not bound by or to the parameters of a specific prayer quorum. So I take my Koren Siddur (thank you Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) and spend Shabbat in an array of different communities, being part of a group and simultaneously praying on my own to G-d, no different than Rebbe Nachman of Bretslov (for those who understand that reference), praying alone in his corner. And then lo and behold, I found a true treasure about four months ago. It turns out that there is this lovely little Conservative Movement identified shul (Yay MBIEE) that IS JUST LIKE THE SHUL I grew up in as a Jewish Law/Halacha Abiding Jew in my youth in Baltimore. There is a full Torah reading, prayers for the State of Israel and for the country in which we abide, full dovenning, and so much else. I sit down in this space with my Siddur and I feel embraced by the memories of my childhood, in which I learned and was schooled in what it means to be a knowledgeable and committed observing Jew, while also being concerned about and involved in the world around me, putting the foundational Jewish values I hold so dear into important and needed action. I now feel like there is a place where I belong in addition to being able to travel in and out of the different shul communities that exist within the Shabbat boundaries that contain my movement. I am happy!

The Lubavitch Jewish community has this concept called and lived as Shlichut. Mormons call it their Missions. What is this? It is when individuals are sent or placed in specific communities to live as an exemplar of the foundational values and teachings of this way of life to which they ascribe. The Rabbi of this wonderful little shul, Rabbi Charles Sherman (who it turns out I met very long ago when I was a USYer and part of one of the last LTF cadres of that group) referred to me as a Community Jew. Yup, that’s me, a Community Jew in a Community of Jews…. And this is my place and now I feel like I have landed. I am indeed comfortable anywhere and everywhere but it is nice to know that there is a “base” that you can feel is yours. For me that has always been my family, which is also the case for Lubavitch and Mormon communities, by the way. That being said, its important that we all have various spaces to feed our soul in the many different ways we need.

So here is my challenge to all of us. I do believe that we all have our mission or Shlichut in this world. Hold onto that and maybe, just maybe, you too will figure out why you are where you are on the Google map and what it is you are supposed to do there to make a difference as well as how to find the surprise place that will feed your soul.