Friday, December 27, 2013

His Sufficiency: El Shaddai, The God of Enough

In some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the word  YHWH is written
in the ancient Hebrew letters used during the first Temple period.
Other scrolls simply wrote three or four dots in place of God’s name
As a child we loved to annoy our teachers by dropping God’s “explicit name” in class whenever possible. We’d throw out a “YHWH” here and a “Jehovah” there, or simply an “Adonai” when the more benign “HaShem” was called for. Looks of shock and anger would ensue, followed by a stern lecture which would derail the class for at least 20 minutes, much to the delight of students everywhere. In hindsight I justify my childish lashing out as a juvenile theological criticism. I was objecting to the cowardly distancing from the raw power and holiness of the very God they were trying to get us to believe in (really!).
Indeed, part of what is lost by the replacing God’s explicit name – YHWH – with its more benign stand-ins (HaShem, Lord or worse, God) is the fact that YHWH is an unpronounceable name. A straightforward pronouncing produces no more than a breath. Its fleeting meaning is best described by God in last week’s Torah portion: “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh” – I shall be what I shall be.
YHWH is fleeting and ineffable, but never inapproachable. God, Lord, “The Name” and all the rest of those theo-isms don’t get close to the mystery, awe and paradoxicality of YHWH.
This week’s Torah portion opens with a rare reflection on two of God’s names: YHWH and El Shaddai. El Shaddai is the name which God uses in Genesis with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob whenever promises are involved. Now, with the move to Exodus, we seem to graduate from El Shaddai to YHWH:

And God spoke to Moses, saying:
I am ‘YHWH’
I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as ‘El Shaddai’,
but by My name YHWH
I was not known to them.
(Exodus 6:5)
וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה;
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו: אֲנִי יְהוָה.
וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב
בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי
וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.
What does El Shaddai mean? Of the many answers, my favorite come from the Hebrew word “Dai” – די, enough. [Sha-Dai - שֶׁ that, דַּי is sufficient]. Rashi explains the name in those terms when “El Shaddai” first appears in the Torah, with God trying to convince a 99 year old man that he will indeed have a child:

And Abram was ninety-nine years old,
and God appeared to Abram, and He said to him,
"I am El Shaddai; walk before Me and be whole.”
(Genesis 17)

ויְהִי אַבְרָם בֶּן תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה וְתֵשַׁע שָׁנִים
וַיֵּרָא יי אֶל אַבְרָם וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו:
אֲנִי אֵל שַׁדַּי הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי וֶהְיֵה תָמִים.

I am El Shaddai:  I am He Whose Godliness suffices for every creature.… and wherever this name appears in Scripture, it means “His sufficiency.”

רש"י: אני אל שדי: אני הוא שיש די באלהותי לכל בריה, ...וכן כל מקום שהוא במקרא פירושו די יש לו, והכל לפי הענין:

El Shaddai – the God in whom there is enough for each and every being. “His Sufficiency”. To believe in El Shaddai is to believe that there is sufficient, that there is enough for all. It is less a faith, and more of a foundational experience, which colors the way one walks in the world: "I am El Shaddai; walk before Me and be whole.”

It often seems that most of today’s religions worship a God who is “El Kana”, a jealous God, the God of mutual exclusivism. Indeed, “El Kana” seems to be the opposite of “El Shaddai”. The worshippers of El Kana are not wrong – there isn’t enough in this world, at least not enough material. All wars, as Aristotle and Maimonides contended, come from a battle over resources, which are by definition finite. The world is a zero sum game. This psychology seems to be behind all violence, ever since Cain hit his brother Abel.
The only way to move from El Kana to El Shaddai is to move from the material to the spiritual. Material is finite, but emotions are not. There should be sufficient love for everyone. This is what the embrace of El Shaddai seems to imply. Here is an inspiring vision for the religious people the world over: To carry El Shaddai’s name in this world, infusing all creatures with the sense that there is enough. Bringing “His Sufficiency”’s counter-intuitive presence to this material world.

To be fair, it should be “Her Sufficiency”. The probable etymology of the Hebrew word Shaddai of course has nothing to do with Dai, enough, but with Shadayim, Breasts. El Shaddai is the unabashed “God of Breasts” (if only I said that one in my elementary school classroom!). A throwback to the Canaanite feminine Gods, a pre-cursor to the Kabbalistic feminine aspects of God, El Shaddai is God as Mother. El Shaddai is the experience of the baby who suckles their mother’s breasts, and experiences a world of deep sufficiency. There is enough – enough milk, enough love, enough warmth and connection.
Perhaps these names of God can be placed in a developmental structure. The first experience, the Genesis, must be within an experience of El Shaddai. Similar to maternal attachment theory, we creatures need a strong foundation of sufficiency, of unending unbounded love. This is what Cain lacked, and what God tried to instill in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, once that is in place, it is time to grow up, to attain a more complex world – and a more complex Divinity – YHWH, I Shall Be what I Shall Be. Without that, no Exodus will ever take place.

And God spoke to Moses, saying:
I am ‘YHWH’
I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as ‘El Shaddai’,
but by My name YHWH
I was not known to them.
(Exodus 6:5)
וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה;
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו: אֲנִי יְהוָה.
וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב
בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי
וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Edgar M. Bronfman z"l – A Modern Talmudic Jew

by Rabbi Mishael Zion and Rebecca Voorwinde

Edgar M Bronfman, 1929-2013
An oft-told Jewish joke tells of two scholars, arguing over their contradictory understanding of the great Moses Maimonides. Finally one of them declares: “It’s simple – you are talking about your-monides, but I have My-monides!”  Such is the fate of giants. A legend in so many realms, Edgar M. Bronfman lived a rich and varied life, embodying many facets in his work and personality.
Yet while Jews the world over marked the loss of a leader to whom they owe much, for our community, the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, it is a personal loss. We “Bronfmanim”—as we call ourselves-- have lost our Founder and our inspiration, but truly, we have lost the person who invited us to live Talmudically in the modern world.
A devout non-believer, Edgar’s favorite book was the Babylonian Talmud, whose hero is not God but the argumentative and cunning human scholar. The paradigm of the Talmudic scholar requires  a rigorous knowledge of foundational texts and a sharp wit, mixed with a healthy dose of competitiveness, a thirst for justice, an appreciation of one’s own fallibility… and a great sense of humor. All those characteristics could be found in Edgar Bronfman as much as in the best Talmud folios.
To be fair, when Edgar turned his formidable business mind to the service of the Jewish people – becoming President of the World Jewish Congress in 1981 – he did not know the value of learning. Like so many Jews, he found Jewish practice to be an empty vessel, full of double standards and weak nostalgic traditionalism. He assumed the same of Jewish texts. Edgar served the Jewish people because of his loyalty towards family, and the desire to see Jews truly respected in a world that too often flaunted their rights.
Yet, on the airplane back from a meeting behind the Iron Curtain, Edgar noticed his companion studying the daily page of Talmud, and became curious. He quickly engaged in a discussion about the tort law of a violent cow and fell in love with the intellectual joy of Talmudic study. Edgar found the Talmud to be seeking justice through messy dilemmas and imperfect decisions, a reality this global business leader knew well.
Back in the boardrooms of the Jewish organizations he led, he encountered  dysfunctional discourse. The leaders he met lacked the Talmudic ability to harbor a range of contrasting perspectives. The battles he witnessed placed an emphasis on denominational answers and ideology, lacking the Talmud’s appreciation of doubt and compromise. Meanwhile, the intellectual bar of existing Jewish programs kept getter lower and lower, even as the American Jewish community was growing more and more educated.  Jews were abandoning the Talmudic tradition of erudition and excellence.
Edgar with the 2011 Israeli Bronfman Fellows
Edgar decided to invest in young people and in Jewish learning, in service of a “Jewish Renaissance”. Among the endeavors he was proudest of was the founding of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, an identity incubator beginning with outstanding seventeen year olds from North America and Israel. On “Bronfman” they experienced Jewish learning of the highest quality, challenged by friends and teachers who did not share their point of view but gave them the benefit of the doubt. It was an experiment in pluralism: Edgar knew that if  we dictate shared practice – be it expectations around Halakhic ritual, Israel politics or whom one marries – there will be little to keep us together. But if we share a commitment to Jewish learning, we become an interpretive community, allowing for an inclusivity sorely needed in the Jewish world. The Fellowships are effectively a new kind of Yeshiva, a modern house of study, an intentional community which continues to inspire the over 1000 “Bronfmanim”  who are having a deep impact on Israeli and North American life. Edgar continued to give the gift of rigorous Torah learning by founding and supporting some of the best Jewish learning happening in the liberal Jewish world, often led or inspired by his “Bronfmanim”.
This week, Edgar’s loss is felt throughout our community: who will invite us to his weekly Talmud study? who will challenge us with his sharp questions and opinions? But his passing allows us to redouble our commitment to his values, and we plan on continuing to make Jewish learning an ongoing part of our lives. Needless to say, we’re already arguing about which book to study in his honor…

Rabbi Mishael Zion and Rebecca Voorwinde are the co-directors of the Bronfman Fellowships, a community of over 1000 young Jews from Israel and North America that includes some of today’s most inspiring Jewish writers, thinkers and leaders.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Moses in Djerba: The Island of the Lotus Eaters

Pharaoh heard of the matter, and sought to kill Moshe;
So Moshe fled from Pharaoh’s face
and settled in the land of Midyan;
he sat down by a well.
(Exodus 2:15)

Djerba: Island of the Lotus Eaters?
Here stands young Moses, alone by a foreign well, in a moment of dark failure. His adopted father has put a price on his head; his early actions as a “leader” have blown up in his face. Just a few verses ago he “grew up, and went out to his brothers to witness their labors” (Exodus 2:11). He saw – and acted. A promising start for a great leader, no? But then he killed that Egyptian, and somehow now he’s a busybody, a murderer, despised by Israelites and Egyptians alike. Are either of those “his brothers” now? Exiled to Midyan, it doesn’t look like he has any intention of ever going down the activist’s path again.
But then something happens:
Now the priest of Midyan had seven daughters.
They came, they drew water, and filled the troughs
to water their father’s flock; 
Shepherds came and drove them away.
But Moshe rose up,
he delivered them
and gave drink to their sheep.  
(Exodus 2:16-17)
וּלְכֹהֵן מִדְיָן שֶׁבַע בָּנוֹת
וַתָּבֹאנָה וַתִּדְלֶנָה וַתְּמַלֶּאנָה אֶת הָרְהָטִים לְהַשְׁקוֹת צֹאן אֲבִיהֶן.
וַיָּבֹאוּ הָרֹעִים – וַיְגָרֲשׁוּם,
וַיָּקָם משֶׁה וַיּוֹשִׁעָן
וַיַּשְׁקְ אֶת צֹאנָם.

Like a Hollywood film, in the darkest moment, the female lead appears. Harassed by local shepherds, the young lasses need a savior. Despite himself, Moshe finds himself stepping up again. The key word here is “delivered”. Moses delivered them – ויושיען. Just as Pharoah’s daughter “delivered” him from the Nile, just as God intends to “deliver” the Israelites from Egypt (with Moshe in the lead). Yes, he’s young, and juvenile, and he made some early mistakes – but Moses is a Deliverer. משה המושיע. It’ll take many decades and a vigorous shaking from God at the Burning Bush, but eventually, Moshe will return and deliver his brothers from Egypt. And with them give the world the greatest story ever told.
Moses’ Midyan is Homer’s “Island of the Lotus-eaters” in the Odyssey, the narcotic island where Odysseus’ sailors eat of the lotus and decide they no longer have any desire to find their way home. As
Tennyson's Lotos-eaters by W. E. F. Britten
Tennyson puts it in his
poem “The Lotos-eaters”:
Most weary seem'd the sea, weary the oar,
Weary the wandering fields of barren foam.
Then some one said, "We will return no more";
And all at once they sang, "Our island home
Is far beyond the wave; we will no longer roam." […]
Let what is broken so remain.
The Gods are hard to reconcile:

'Tis hard to settle order once again.

In Midyan, Moshe ate of the lotus. For all intents and purposes, he plans on staying there forever, happily shepherding Yitro’s sheep as “round and round the spicy downs the yellow Lotos-dust is blown.” He has “had enough of action”. That is, until his lotus bush bursts into flame, and yet is not consumed…

Djerba, Tunisia
Cut to another Moshe, Rabbi Moshe Halfon haCohen, who lived on the island of Djerba, off the coast of Tunisia. Djerba is perhaps the coolest Mediterranean tourist destination you never heard of. Beautiful beaches, ancient ruins, and – as it turns out - the site of Chalmun's Spaceport Cantina from the first Star Wars movie. It is also the site of the oldest continuously active synagogue in the world and is famous for its Jewish community having one quirk: the community was almost entirely made up of kohanim, priests, which made for some splendid halakhic quagmires.
Yet Rabbi Moshe Halfon haCohen, was not one to bask in self-gratifying halakhic questions. The leader
The El Ghriba synagogue, Djerba, Tunisia, 1940's.
Rabbi Moshe Halfon, center.
of the Djerba community during the pivotal years of nationalism and modernism, Halfon, the author of over 44 books, was renowned as the moral beacon of Djerba. It is said that when he died, the whole island – Jews, Berbers, Muslim and French – came out to pay him last respects.
According to local legend, Djerba is the site of Homer’s Island of the Lotus Eaters. But for Rabbi Moshe Halfon haCohen, Midyan is not the place where Moses eats the lotus, and declares “let what is broken so remain.” Au contraire, Midyan was the place where Moshe reached the height of his moral development. And it is now up to us to follow suit.
In a small book called “Darkhei Moshe Halfon reads each weekly portion for its “moral teachings”. He begins his discussion of our portion, Shemot, by noticing that Moshe’s actions in Exodus 2 follow a symbolic path: Egyptian over Jew, Jew over Jew, and finally – Midianite over Midianite:

The four actions of Moshe inform us of Moshe’s greatness of spirit:… (1) While in the royal palace he left, to see with his own eyes the situation of our brothers the house of Israel. (2) Beating the Egyptian who beat one of our fellow Hebrews. (3) Rebuking the evil Hebrew who beat his fellow man, and (4) saving the seven daughters of the Medianite priest, Yitro, from the hand of shepherds and robbers.
Now, all people of open heart and righteous spirit must learn from Moses. Take a stand and deliver your brethren from the hand of those who exploit them. This is especially true in those places where our brothers are oppressed and tormented by those of “no covenant”. However, even if one of our fellow Jews is exploiting others– one cannot turn a blind eye. Action must be taken to help and rescue the oppressed. Even when the oppressed person is not of our faith, it is proper that even in such a situation one stand in support of those that are being persecuted, because “any oppressor is repulsive to God” (Deut 25:16).
Halfon here takes a rare stand for a Jew in a Muslim society, a brave stand which goes against some opinions in Jewish law. Our obligation, like Moshe, is to stand to the right of the oppressed, regardless of their religion, nationality or citizenship. Indeed, that is what God does.
It is important to note that Halfon’s push towards universal, blood-line-blind justice, is rooted in a particular identity. Moses’ sense of justice sprouts forth from a concern for his brothers. From this he learns the value of morality, the price of oppression. Once that is in place, the subsequent universal mission crystalizes. Concern for my brothers doesn’t make me blind to the world, it trains me to be a morally responsible citizen of the world. Where I earlier described a Moses fleeing and failing, Halfon sees a moral evolution, which stems from – and returns constantly to – its rootedness in a particular community.
Refugees off Lampedusa, Oct 2013
Halfon calls on us to read Torah and look – ethically – at the world around us. I wonder how many people read this week’s portion and look differently at the African refugees protesting in Israel this week, or the hundreds of African refugees who drowned recently at Lampedusa – not far from Djerba – seeking a better life in an indifferent EU. Indeed Halfon is not satisfied with inspiring his fellow Jews to be concerned for justice within their usual boundaries. He returns to Moses’ first action – leaving the comforts of the palace (and a lucrative career in slave-driving?) to fight for justice. He expects nothing less from the members of his community, and bravely tells them so:
And from [Moses’ actions] we must learn that even when a person is in serenity and security, in peace and comfort in his home, wealth and honor surround him, and his requests are heard by the local government – even then he must not think "Here, I have peace in my home, and what do I care about my brothers or my sisters or indeed the whole world…"In truth, many of our fellow Jews are good hearted, holy spirits, that will rescue an exploited person from his abuser – but due to our sins we also have no lack of people that only see themselves and their own profit, completely ignoring that which happens to others – as long as they themselves are in peace, while if the issue related to their own personal interests even by a hairbreadth, they would turn worlds...
Shabbat Shalom,
p.s. In the interest of brevity I skipped over the most poignant paragraph of Halfon’s sermon. Here it is, an inspiring Talmudic unpacking of all the justifications we give ourselves for inaction.
A person must also not think to himself: "Perhaps by attending to someone else’s issues I will suffer some physical harm or monetary loss, or my status will fall in the eyes of the local government", even quoting the Rabbinical rule that "Your lost object and your peer's lost object – your lost object takes precedence" etc.
Only someone who is of an unclean spirit would say such things! Firstly because if he does not act to help and save the poor and impoverished – tomorrow or the day after the persecution will arrive at his door – and then it will indeed be his own affliction.
Moreover, in issues that regard the rule of the land – it is an obligation and a commandment for every person to protest, thus fulfilling the verse: "And you shall purge the evil from your midst" (Deut. 13:6). And whoever turns away from such situations is a despicable lost wretch.
Rabbi Moshe Chalphon HaCohen, 1874-1950,"Darkei Moshe", Djerba, Tunis, 19th C. Thank you to my teacher Drori Yehoshua, advocate of rabbinic writings from Islamic countries and paragon of moral activism himself, for first introducing me to Rabbi Chalphon, Drori exemplifies St. Francis’ dictum I learned this week (from The New Yorker!): “Preach the gospel, and if necessary – use words.”

ר' משה כלפון הכהן, "דרכי משה"  לפרשת שמות
ארבע הפעולות אשר פעל משה רבינו מגידים ומודיעים לנו גודל רוממות נפשו: מלא רוח גבורה אלוהית, רם המעלה, אשר לא יוכל להביט את העול והחמס, ומציל היה בכל מה שאפשר לו להציל: אשר עם היותו בבית המלכות הלך לראות מצב אחינו בית ישראל, והכאתו את המצרי אשר היה מכה את אחד מאחינו העברים, ותוכחתו לעברי הרשע המכה את רעהו והצלתו לשבע בנות כהן מדין מיד רועים וחמסנים.
ומזה ילמד כל בר לבב ובעל נפש יקרה להיות עומד בפרץ להציל את אחיו מיד עושקיהם נפש. ובפרט באותם המקומות אשר אחינו שם מדוכאים ומעונים מבני בלי ברית. וכן גם בהיות אחד מאחינו בית ישראל עושק אין להעלים עין וראוי לעזור ולהושיע את הנעשק, גם בהיות הנעשק נכרי ראוי גם כן בבוא מעשה כזה לעמוד לימין הנעשק כי תועבת ה' כל עושה עול.
ומן האמור יש ללמוד גם כן שגם בהיות האדם בהשקט וביטחה שלום ונחת באוהלו ועושר וכבוד סביבו ודבריו נשמעים אצל הממשלה, אל יהיה חושב בלבבו לאמור הנה שלום באוהלי ומאי איכפת לי מן אחי או מן כל העולם כולו. וכן אל יחשוב בלבבו לאמור שמא על ידי זה שאני מטפל בעסקי זולתי פן יבולע לי ויהיה לי איזה הפסד ממוני או גופני או לא יהיו עוד דברי נשמעים אצל הממשלה, ואבידתי ואבידת חברי אבידתי קודמת וכיוצא. כי לא יאמר כזאת רק מי שהוא בעל נפש לא טהורה, האחד כי אם כה לא יעשה להציל ולהושיע עני ואביון למחר או למחרתו יוסיפו עוד בני עולה לענותו גם הוא ונמצא כי הדבר נוגע ממש אל עצמו ואל בשרו. ועוד כי בדבר כזה שהוא כללי לישוב המדיני, החוב והמצווה על כל אדם למחות לקיים מה שנאמר ובערת הרע מקרבך.
וכל המעלים עין בזה אינו אלא טועה נבזה וחדל אישים.
ובאמת יש ויש מאחינו בעלי לב טוב ונפש טהורה להציל עשוק מיד עושקו אך בעוונותינו הרבים איננו חסרים גם כן מאיזה אנשים שאינם מביטים רק להנאת עצמם ומצבם ומעלימים עין לגמרי מכל עסקי זולתם אם נעשק ואם עושק, ובלבד שיהיו אתם בשלום. ואם כזאת יהיה נוגע הדבר להם אפילו כמלא נימה בונים עולמות ומחריבים אותם.
ר' משה כלפון הכהן, "דרכי משה", ג'רבא, תוניס, מאה ה-19

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Seventeen: Joseph and Judah

And Yosef was seventeen years old” (Genesis 37:2)

Suddenly, we are in the midst of the Joseph story. It’s the novella hidden within the Torah, rife with emotions, drama, jealousy and much soap-opera worthy intrigue. Take an evening and a glass of wine, and re-read this 13 chapter novella in one of the recent two excellent English literary translations (Fox or Alter). You might see yourself in a new light by the end of it.
Joseph feels so familiar – the promise, the dreams, the loneliness; the self-absorption, the over confidence concealing a deeper insecurity. Reading the Yosef story is an invitation to revisit sibling relationships, parental prejudice, personal calling and the burden of promise, betrayal, displacement, hunger and authenticity. It is also an invitation to be seventeen again.
Since joining the Bronfman Fellowships and spending half my time with this age group, I am struck each year by that opening line: “And Yosef was seventeen years old”. What does being seventeen mean, and how does that age continue to shape our community? Developmental psychologist Erik Erikkson described it as the “ideological age,” an age when – as a passage to adulthood – one is empowered to decide on one’s own beliefs. Ideas, issues and agendas become burning pursuits. Recent psychologists describe three competing frames which play a role in this moment – Autonomy, Community and Divinity. It’s as true in the Joseph story as it is with our fellows each year.
But what happens to those ideological questions later in life? Where does the “urge to figure out one’s own beliefs” live on? How do adults make time to wrestle with autonomy, community and divinity?
This question has been on our mind a lot at Bronfman. In recent years we have become as focused on our 1,000 alumni as on our Fellowship Year. The alumni community experience is far less intense than the immersiveness of being a fellow, in fact it is the strength of weak ties that makes our community strong. We are spread out across many fields, representing a wide variety of ideological communities and outlooks, practices and narratives. Yet we all have all experienced the value of learning from others and questioning ourselves (at least those of us who have stuck around this far). And we share a foundational experience, a common language that allows for connection and inspiration at a deeper level than adult life commonly allows for. This is what makes for great conversations, exciting opportunities, or that “jolt of ideas” we’ve come to expect from this community. It also doesn’t hurt that somewhere along the way, someone thought we were worthy of wearing a Technicolor coat.
If maturing well is the topic, though, Joseph is not the right place to look. The adult hero of the Joseph cycle is his big brother, Judah. Re-read the novella and notice how Yehuda develops, how he steps up where the eldest, Reuven, fails. How it is he who “comes near” to Joseph the Egyptian and speaks truth to power. The key to Yehuda’s growth is chapter 38, a seeming digression from Joseph’s superstardom, in which Yehuda makes a series of mistakes involving his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Tamar takes action, seducing Yehuda to reclaim her rights (did someone say soap opera?). Significantly, Tamar awaits Yehuda in a place called פתח עיניים  “eye opening”. Surprisingly, when Yehuda’s eyes are opened, he finds the rare courage to admit his mistakes. צדקה ממני - “She is in-the-right more than I!” he says.
For me, that moment is the definition of maturity. The ability to see one’s own mistakes, and grow from them. It is a skill often lost on those in the throes of the “ideological age”. Yehuda’s leadership emanates from his ability to recognize his mistakes, to open up his eyes. He not only seeks eye opening encounters for himself, but also creates them for others.
Two weeks ago we celebrated the 15th Anniversary of our Israeli Bronfman Fellows, the Amitim. It was an opportunity to reframe the community from a nostalgic teenage program to a network of over 300 adult Bronfmanim passionate about improving Israeli society (you’ll be hearing more about this soon…). At that event I shared a poem that combines the tension of the seventeen year old upstart with the wisdom of the “homeowner” adult.

Let me know right away 
if I'm disturbing you. 
he said 
as he stepped inside my door, 
and I’ll leave the way I came. 

Not only do you disturb me, 
I answered, 
You turn my whole world 
upside down. 
As we seek to combine the dreamer and questioner which is Joseph, with the wisdom and perspective of Yehuda, my blessing to the Bronfmanim in Israel, as it is to those in North America, is that while no longer seventeen, that once or twice a year we knock on each others door, sharing something of ourselves that is worthy of the courageous response:
Not only do you disturb me, 
You turn my whole world 
upside down. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Thanksgivukkah Manifesto

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Bronfman Fellowships | Text and the City | Thanksgiving 2013


A once in a century holiday is upon us. The menurkey will soon sit at the table with the pumpkin pie and the latkes. Let us not underestimate this moment for the American Jewish community. Thanksgivukkah is here. 

Jews have always loved Thanksgiving. Now that their favorite American holiday finds itself face to face with America’s favorite Jewish holiday – Hanukkah – the encounter can say an enormous amount about the American Jewish collective story. In other words, Thanksgivukkah tells us something important about what Jews are doing in America.

It starts with good timing. When Hanukkah falls on Christmas, it highlights Judaism as a religion, a fair contender on the scene of American denominations. But Thanksgivukkah yanks the carpet from under the convenient Christmas-Hanukkah dichotomy.

The Thanksgiving of today grew out of its religious roots. The same could be said of the Judaism of many Americans. Thanksgiving is about America, not in a celebration of patriotic triumphalism. It’s about America as a promise, an idea, a project. If, any other year, most American Jews sideline Judaism and celebrate Thanksgiving simply as Americans, this year’s calendar demands owning up to the Jewish take on the American story.

In Thanksgivukkah this generation of Jews might just have found their model holiday.

Indeed, if there is an “American Project”, Jews have been some of its most avid contributors. As narrators, critics, troubadours and activists, they took care of themselves while making plenty of room for others. To be sure, America is far from the only contemporary Jewish story. Jews have not one, but two Promised Lands: Israel and America have become the yin and yang of the Jewish people. As Hillel might have put it: “If I am not for myself – who will be for me?” – such is the Israeli project. “And if I am only for myself, what am I?” – the American Jewish project.

“And if not now, when?”

Thanksgivukkah brings home some of the challenges of a Jewry so invested in America. For the most part, American Judaism has failed at being a homemade identity, outsourcing the task to synagogues, Hebrew schools, Bnai Brith or AIPAC. Yet Hanukkah leaves the synagogues orphaned. With all due respect to public square Menorahs, any halakhist will tell you it’s the Menorah in the home that counts. Thanksgiving is the same: it is a homemade celebration of Americanism; it convenes the family in a feast of gratitude. Pilgrimages by air, track and road attest to the home’s centrality.

Thanksgiving is a much needed model for an increasingly secular American Jewry. Where “cultural Judaism” is often “soft” and “optional”, Thanksgiving has an undeniably “commanding” presence. Who doesn’t come home for Thanksgiving, from wherever that may be? Who doesn’t have a turkey at the table, even if it’s made of tofu? Thanksgiving is an unapologetic model for a cultural identity being a commanding presence in one’s life.

But Hanukkah one-ups Thanksgiving - it turns family time into story time. When asking where the Bible commanded us to light the Hanukkah candles, the Talmud responds: “We learn that we must light candles from the Biblical verse: ‘Ask your father, he will tell you’.” The candles set the stage for a story.

Buzzfeed's delicious Thanksgivukkah Table
Yet in those rare moments where a family Thanksgiving allows for a discussion, it is often of a “here and now” gratitude. Hanukkah’s gratitude, on the other hand, is rooted. A Thanksgiving-style family meal with Hanukkah-style stories ask us to place the individual narrative on a longer trajectory — why did we come here, how did we achieve the things for which we are grateful, and where do we - individuals, community and country - go from here. That is what Thanksgivukkah should be. It should turn a generation of immediate gratification into one of rooted gratitude. It’s not about religion or musty history, but about the power of local family stories. America and Judaism each face severe struggles adapting to a flat world. Both are undermined by an increasingly divided base. They need their stories more than ever. Ask your mother; she will tell you.

For an American Jewish community increasingly consisting of families of both Jewish and non-Jewish members, Thanksgivukkah is a moment that allows for a diversity of stories at the table. Hanukkah’s Jewish coat over Thanksgiving’s American jersey throws us back to the vision of America as a series of cultural pluralisms. Thanksgivukkah asks us to keep telling the stories that go beyond America.

Thanksgivukkah is an invitation to celebrate the places where Jewishness enriches America, and where America enriches the Jewish people. Jews have always preferred stories to dogma and ritual to creed. This November American Jews are invited to sit down at the Thanksgivukkah table and tell stories of rooted gratitude. Let's make sure this happens more than just every 70,000 years. Happy Thanksgivukkah.

For further discussion of these ideas, including ideas for family Thanksgivukkah conversations, and links to other Thanksgivukkah resources, visit Text and the City.

At the Thanksgivukkah Table: Stories, Rituals and Conversations

Following the ideas in my Thanksgivukkah Manifesto, here are some suggestions for conversations, rituals and activities for Thanksgivukkah night. I’d love to hear your suggestions and ideas – you can reach me at mishzion @ gmail com, or just leave a comment on this post.

Spark Conversations:
It isn't Passover, I have few illusions of getting into anything to elaborate. But a few pointed questions can get a good conversation going, even with the football in the background…
  • The juxtaposition of Christmas and Hanukkah is so strong in our minds and has served as a crucial part of American Jewish identity building. What “happens” when Hanukkah is juxtaposed with Thanksgiving? What similarities and tensions does this raise? What does it mean for Judaism in America?
  • Thanksgiving is an opportunity to take stock of the “American Project”. How are we doing? Where does your own story fit into this idea? What are the ways we dedicate energy and resources to bettering this country and furthering this project? And what is the role of criticism and counterculture in this project?
  •           The fantastic folks at Ask Big Questions put together a conversation guide for asking "What are you Thankful for" Use it with your family at Thanksgiving. Get a group of friends together around the fireplace during the long weekend. Or invite your neighbors from down the hall or around the block for a living room conversation.
  • If Thanksgiving was a Jewish holiday, how would it look different? What laws, rituals or prayers would it have?
  • Many of us struggle with Thanksgiving’s founding myths – the relationship to the Indians, the unclear religious roots. The same if often true of Jewish founding myths. What lessons can we learn from these various struggles?

Tell Stories:
Families tell stories in many ways, not just the overt “once upon a time”. Thankgivukkah is a powerful opportunity to unearth some of those family stories. Some stories to look out for:
  •           Have someone share a story of a first Thanksgiving in America – from an immigrant or an older participant; or try and research your family’s earliest Thanksgivings…
  •           Of the various ethnicities or families around the table, what has been the path to Americanness of each family, and what “additional” identities continue to play out in America?
  •           Participate in StoryCorps’ National Day of Listening ( 
  •           Hanukkah is the holiday of Jewish heroes – from the Maccabees to Bella Abzug, a great Jewish American heroine. What “heroes” do you recall on Thanksgivukkah?

Invent Rituals:

What else? Let us know and we'll feature it here!