Wednesday, January 21, 2015

When International Politics Become Domestic

Sadly, our natural and strong alliance between the United States and Israel was coopted today by both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Speaker of the House of Representatives, John Boehner.  Our alliance with Israel must be larger than this, and broader than this.

According to multiple news reports, the morning after President Barak Obama's "state of the union" address, which aggressively warned Republicans against trying to undue his past policies, the Republican leadership of the House will announce today that it is unilaterally inviting Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress on February 11 [As of Jan. 22, the date is moved to March 3 - even closer to the Israeli election]. Many pundits are seeing this as "tit-for-tat" politics.

I love America and Israel, so why does this bother me? Don't I want free invitations back and forth, and a common dedication to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear arms?  I believe, without supporting or attacking anyone's own political views, that this is a horrible move at this precise time.

First, it is contrary to the U.S. Constitutional system of the division of powers.  There is a very serious matter of diplomatic protocol involved in inviting foreign heads of state to come to Washington in a formal capacity, and to address our government in particular.  This is the role of the Department of State, as led by the White House. Congress is the legislative body, not our foreign policy arm.  And while spending bills and foreign aid packages do constitutionally originate in the House of Representatives, unilateral invitations to foreign dignitaries are not the constitutional role for congress in our system.  The Speaker and the Prime Minister are ostensibly working to stop a Nuclear Iran with sanctions, against the President's diplomatic negotiations to achieve the same goal.  By the U.S. Constitution, it is the President's constitutional right to negotiate treaties and the Senate's role to approve or reject them.  It is a tremendous breach of protocol to deliberately side-step the White House in order to advance foreign policy initiatives with the actual leaders of foreign states, and it is contrary to the division of powers in the constitution.  Speaker Boehner's role is to pass or not pass economic aid packages and sanctions, and to encourage the Senate to reject treaties that he dislikes.

Second, inviting Prime Minister Netanyahu to undercut the president in this manner is inviting him to become involved in the internal politics of the American system, and sets a dangerous precedent for other nations to get involved in the domestic politics of the American system. Driving a wedge between the President and our chief Ally in the Middle East is a very short sighted political maneuver by speaker Boehner, and far beneath the dignity or the real relationship between our peoples.

Third, inviting Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a joint session of congress in the final weeks of an Israeli election is also meddling in the internal politics of Israel, offering a platform which other Israeli parties do not have access to.  We have been careful in all previous governments to avoid the air of favoritism or endorsement of particular candidates in the Israeli electoral system.  This is the correct stance to demonstrate that the nature of our alliance transcends particular parties. Pandering to a particular candidate's primary point of conflict with his rivals with such an opportunity is inappropriate and beneath the dignity of our alliance.

This invitation narrows, and thereby degrades, the relationship for the future, and sets dangerous precedents for the world. It is tremendously short sighted.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Legal War

Israel Update:

In my first day Rosh Hashanah address last fall, I revisited where we stood in the wake of the intense military conflicts in Gaza.  That summary, and those predictions, continue to hold true.

First, low level terrorism has continued in a rough and unorganized fashion. Brutal individual attacks with cars or knives have replaced suicide bombers, but are no better.  The cousin of one of our members lies in hospital still, while his wife and ten children at home, from the November machete attack on a morning minyan in Har Nof.  (To help his family, go to

Second, the post military phase always results in investigations.  Israel has proceeded with these credibly, as always. Rhetoric and accusation eventually gives way in the face of facts, and Israel has nothing to hide.

Third, Abbas' leadership of the Palestinian Authority is in serious trouble. Hamas has successfully convinced large parts of the Palestinian electorate that only they can take action against the status quo. On the other hand, they have also demonstrated that their leadership results in destruction.

Fourth, the Israeli government views Abbas and Hamas as linked and sees no immediate openings for peace talks.  In this situation, Netanyahu has done what he has always done: proceed with land development, secure the borders, punish attackers and their homes that are in reach, keep an eye on Iran, and assert the Jewish nature of the State. He is confident enough in his position to have called for early elections, to be held in March.

Fifth, with no progress in negotiations, devastation in war, and lack of confidence among his own people, Abbas has made his only remaining move: complete commitment to legal battles in the international political arena. This is their only, and best, unilateral move. If he fails in this regard, his career may very well be over.

Sixth, the bid for statehood.  This past week, the Palestinian bid for statehood recognition in the United Nations failed by one vote in the security council.  Of course a US and British veto would have stopped it, but they were not needed.

Now, their next best move will be the International Criminal Court in The Hague. There is no clear way to keep them out, so what will occur when they join it?  This move will also trigger Israeli and US economic sanctions.  Whether the PA as an organization could survive a failure here also be in question.

The truth is, the court will become a regular venue for Israeli and Palestinian incriminations.  Neither side ever thinks that it is wrong, so we should be prepared for new levels if recriminations about the court as cases are won or lost. Stay tuned as early cases become precedent law for future talks or treaties. Despite the risks, I firmly believe that the sweep of legal decisions in the ICC will be for Israel's good. Israel has nothing to fear from a legal court, and having a venue to try Palestinian terrorists will surely be a good thing.  While military superiority is still necessary, peace is ultimately ushered in by lawyers and diplomats.

And with all of this, Israel stands to prove its democratic nature once again in a free and fair election.  There is no internal consensus on any of Israel's policies, and there is much to openly debate. Read some Israeli news, or even plan a trip.  Now, more than ever, we need to stay educated and involved.

Rabbi Robert L. Tobin

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Who Wrote the Torah, and Why Does it Matter?

It has become a shorthand matter of faith in contemporary Judaism to speak of the first 5 books of the Tanakh [Hebrew Bible] as having come entirely from Moses, al pi Adonai by the word of our God.  Yet this question always was, and probably always will be, messier than that.

"Who wrote the Torah?" is a live question of faith in our tradition, and no single answer could possibly be affirmed with any certainty. Surprisingly, we are not the first generation of Jews to ask the question. Even more surprisingly, we are not the first to accept the possibility of historical development of the Torah over time.

In the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Bava Batra 14b-15a, the classical presentation of the question is best portrayed.

Who wrote the Scriptures? — Moses wrote his own book and the portion of Balaam and Job. Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and [the last] eight verses of the Pentateuch. Samuel wrote the book which bears his name and the Book of Judges and Ruth. David wrote the Book of Psalms, including in it the work of the elders, namely, Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, Heman, Yeduthun, Asaph,... etc...The Master has said: Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and the last eight verses of the Pentateuch. This statement is in agreement with the authority who says that eight verses in the Torah were written by Joshua, as it has been taught: [It is written], So Moses the servant of the Lord died there. Now is it possible that Moses being dead could have written the words, 'Moses died there'? The truth is, however, that up to this point Moses wrote, from this point Joshua wrote. This is the opinion of R. Judah, or, according to others, of R. Nehemiah. Said R. Simeon to him: Can [we imagine the] scroll of the Law being short of one word, and is it not written, Take this book of the Law? No; what we must say is that up to this point the Holy One, blessed be He, dictated and Moses repeated and wrote, and from this point God dictated and Moses wrote with tears, as it says of another occasion, Then Baruch answered them, He pronounced all these words to me with his mouth, and I wrote them with ink in the book.  Which of these two authorities is followed in the rule laid down by R. Joshua b. Abba which he said in the name of R. Giddal who said it in the name of Rab: The last eight verses of the Torah must be read [in the Synagogue service] by one person alone?  — It follows R. Judah and not R. Simeon. I may even say, however, that it follows R. Simeon, [who would say that] since they differ [from the rest of the Torah] in one way, they differ in another.

The essential point here is that a simple reading of the peshat (plain sense) of the last verses of Deuteronomy demands that we conclude that Moses did not author the final verses of the fifth book of the Torah. The rabbis of the Talmud let the words of the Torah and simple logic prove it to them. They could have concluded "Well, God must have given it to Moses as a vision of prophecy," but they did not.  They drew the conclusion that the next leader, Joshua, wrote the verses about Moses' death.

The importance of this can not be understated, because in fact there are many places in the Torah where anachronisms or geography force a logical conclusion that a given passage was not written in Moses' time and place. This idea, heretical to some, is not new or modern. As we see, the rabbis of the Talmud engaged in this idea, and so did Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, one of the chief traditional commentaries on the Torah.

Ibn Ezra, who lived and worked in Spain, Italy and Northern France in the 12th century, was the first to genuinely conclude that the examples of later authorship are widespread.  In his commentary on Deuteronomy 1:1-2, he points out that the whole narrative of the final book of the Torah is from the point of view of someone who is living already within the Land of Israel.  It could not be Moses, therefore, since Moses never entered the Land.

He proceeds to cite several of the examples:  Deut 1:1-2, Deut. 21:22, Gen. 12:6, Gen 22:14, Deut. 3:11, and more.  For example, Gen. 12:6 reflects, "And the Canaanite was then in the land..." which could not have been written by Moses OR Joshua, since it is reflecting backwards on a past time when there were Canaanites in the Land.  In Moses' time, the Canaanite was still in the land, so he could not have addressed the issue in that way. In Deut., 3:11, it reflects that the captured iron bed of King Og of the Bashan is "today in the hands of the Ammonites," who also did not exist at Moses' time. Since it was Moses and the children of Israel who defeated King Og of Bashan, he would still have had possession of it! Only a later author could have written such a line about it being in the hands of some other (later) nation.

Of course, Ibn Ezra's thinking is clear, precise and correct. Whether we like it or not, we must conclude that at a minimum there are a fair number of instances where the lines of the Torah could not have logically been written by Moses. So what? Nu?

There are a few ways you could take this information.

You could, as fundamentalists will, decide that all of these examples are prophetic visions of Moses writing the entire 5 Books of the Torah as we have them today. This is unnecessarily pious and contrary to the ethos of the Talmudic discussion and the teaching of Ibn Ezra.

You could, as humanists will, decide that all of these examples prove that the Torah is entirely a later compilation of human authors whose works are redacted deliberately, but unskillfully, into a large hodgepodge of passages.  This is unnecessarily critical of the unity of the final document, and is dismissive of centuries of Jewish belief in the divinity of these books and their ultimate value as sacred beyond mere human ingenuity.

Both of those options are equally strong positions to take, but in my mind are extreme and unhelpful.
Inbetween those bookends you have a range of possibilities - Ibn Ezra and others have claimed that these are all entirely books of prophecy, but that much of the Torah is written by later prophets, not Moses.  This idea should be entirely comfortable for the religious Jew. It endorses the sanctity of the Torah and God's role in its authorship, while affirming the peshat of the Torah as being both sensible and authentic.

The alternative middle road, from a religious view, would be to say that most of the Torah is "authentic" from Moses, but certain lines got added, tinkered with, or errantly changed by later scribes. This is also logically possible, but the least palatable, as it makes the Torah a receptacle of widespread error and "forgery."

There is, therefore, only one path which is reasonable, authentic to the words of the Torah, and entirely faithful to the God of Israel as author of both Jewish sacred writ and Jewish sacred history as found in that writ:  The Torah is a compilation of prophecy over a long period of time, largely written in the Land of Israel long after Moses had lived and died.  "And God spoke to Moses, saying...." is a refrain to be understood in its most simple and direct meaning.  A narrator is remembering for us a time when Moses and God spoke, and he is conveying the content of that conversation.

Did Moses write "Sefer HaTorah HaZeh," this very book of the Torah?  Yes, he most certainly wrote a Book of Instruction (Heb. Sefer Torah), and the content of that Book is still with us.  But the Torah which we have is that PLUS much more. 

The fun part is trying to figure out which is which, and when they came from.  That is the work of biblical criticism - to identify the contexts and origins of the prophecies in the Torah.  It is still sacred work, and it is not necessary to experience it as an attack on Judaism.

Why does it matter?

1) It is true.  And truth matters, even when it is inconvenient.
2) It preserves the Torah in the face of secular critique.
3) It broadens the kinds of study we can engage in when we seek meaning in the Torah.
4) It recaptures the talmudic spirit of inquiry in an age of religious reactionaries.
5) By allowing the use of the human intellect, Judaism can remain relevant to the greatest scientific and secular minds of our people, not just those who already accept all of its teachings.

Truth is truth, God is truth, Torah is truth.

Enjoy it all.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

When a rabbi embraces that he is gay.

A prominent friend and colleague announced publicly today that he is a gay man. He is lovingly divorcing with his wife - another friend and colleague - and his Congregation has given him their full support for him to remain as their rabbi.

We have come so far.  We must allow every person to recognize and welcome who they really are.  God's creation of people is so varied, so diverse... finally we see a time when fear and prejudice do not rule the day.

I am proud of the Conservative movement's advances in the past 30 years, and that this can happen so beautifully - albeit poignantly and painfully for my friends on their most human level. But the discovery and embrace of truth is always sacred, and this is especially so.

May these two rabbis, their family, friends and congregation all be blessed for a sweet new year.

Please read this remarkable announcement.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

From our colleague in Jerusalem, Rabbi Chaya Rowen Baker

From: Chaya Baker, Rabbi, French Hill, Jerusalem
Sent: 7/30/2014 8:07 AM
To: Chaya Baker
Subject: Ramot Zion checking in...
To all our dear friends and supporters overseas,
We so appreciate your concerned and supportive emails and phone calls.  I apologize for the group email... but do want to update you on how we are faring these difficult times here at Ramot Zion.

At the beginning of the fighting there were several sirens in Jerusalem.  Thankfully our preschool classroom is itself a bomb shelter and therefore the kids could stay protected and relatively unalarmed.  Last night Hamas shot another rocket at Jerusalem, which luckily was intercepted by the Iron Dome system.  Our families and friends elsewhere in the country - all the way from the Gaza border to Tel Aviv and beyond - are less fortunate: they must run to find shelter several times a day and hear the rockets exploding overhead either intercepted by Iron Dome or sometimes - regrettably - on the ground, on homes, schools, businesses and vehicles.  People leave home as little as possible because you never know when you will be under attack.  Even during a ceasefire...  You can imagine what that does to the economy and to the general morale.  Not to mention the elderly, the sick and the disabled, who cannot easily run to shelter and who are often alone and helpless...   It's scary and sad and we are praying for it all to be over.

We at Ramot Zion have been supporting our members and our brothers and sisters in the south, checking in on the community elderly, offering home hospitality to families from the south, sending foodstuff and supplies to families who spend more time in bomb shelters than out of them, and home-cooked meals to our soldiers.  We are in the midst of organizing - in collaboration with the municipality - a farmers' market for merchants from the south to sell their merchandise in Jerusalem (of course in a facility with a bomb shelter) since they have had virtually no business for over three weeks.

Some 30 soldiers from RZ were drafted on the emergency draft to active reserve duty: Sons, daughters and siblings of congregants (including my own sister...), husbands and fathers.  We are all very tense and worried for our loved ones.  However we realize that this is necessary for the survival of Israel; that if it weren't for our soldiers there would be scores of terrorists roaming Israel, having sneaked in through the many tunnels they have dug right into our border towns and kibbutzim, murdering or kidnapping the residents of those places and others, and there would probably be hundreds more rockets shot at our cities.  So we pray for the safety of our soldiers and keep busy offering help and support to their families: periodical phone calls, cards, home-cooked meals, and help with the kids.

It is all so terrible, since on top of all this difficulty the human tragedy in Gaza is overwhelming.  Our hearts ache for the Gazan civilians who are suffering such terrible casualties.  We wish the international community would exert pressure not only on Israel but also on Hamas for using them as human shields, forcing them to stay in their homes that house terrorist activity when they would rather evacuate, and executing those who dare to protest.

It is so distressing to see the way this war is portrayed in the world, the anti-Jewish (not anti-Israeli) demonstrations across the world, the lies and false footage dispensed by Hamas, and the double standard and one-sidedness of the media.

On the social front we are dealing with groups within us lashing out at one another.  This war, coupled with the intensity of new social media, is bringing to light a great deal of animosity among Israelis of different political convictions and we at Ramot Zion see the amelioration of that animosity as one of our main missions at this time.  Our Tisha B'av commemoration will be a joint study session with Orthodox synagogues in French Hill - the first ever and the result of delicate, intensive efforts - in the spirit of finding common ground and nurturing fraternity.

I would like to end with a prayer for peace - among Jews, peace in our entire region, and peace among the nations.  I hope you will dedicate time in your services for prayer for the safety of our soldiers and civilians and for an end to this violence and peace for all.

With warm regards,
Rabbi Chaya Rowen Baker


הרבָּה חיה רואן בקר
קהילת רמות ציון
בר כוכבא 68, הגבעה הצרפתית

Rabbi Chaya Rowen Baker
Congregation Ramot Zion
Bar-Kochba St., French Hill
Jerusalem, Israel
Office: 972-2-540-0621
Cell: 972-54-553-2393

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why the FAA is helping Hamas, not America

On Tuesday, a single missile hit between two houses in the Yehud neighborhood near Ben Gurion airport.  The FAA responded by banning U.S.A. air carriers from flying to Ben Gurion airport.  Today, I was very disappointed to learn that they have continued the ban for another 24 hours.

It is a horrible decision, with no basis in actual danger to the airplanes that fly in and out of Israel. The decision empowers Hamas, and leaves Israel alone to help her people once more.

Here are several facts that everyone should know:

1) After 10 days living under Iron Dome we learned quickly last week what every Israeli knows: most missiles are not a threat, and are allowed by Israel to hit the ground. The Iron Dome technology immediately tracks the incoming missile, and projects very accurately where it will land.  If it is not landing in a populous location, it is ignored. If it is headed toward an important target, like the airport, it is destroyed by the Iron Dome missile. 86% accuracy on intercepts has kept Israel, and the airport safe through this incessant barrage.

2) Of 2,000 missiles launched, less than a half dozen have been anywhere near the vicinity of the airport (meaning within 3 miles), and NONE have ever entered the past present or future flight path of any airplane going or coming from Israel.

3) The Hamas missiles are "dumb" bombs.  They have no tracking or guidance.  They are basically large fireworks tubes with an explosive head. They can only hurt what they actually run into. They are not "aimed," but "pointed" - up and north, for example. The odds of a 4 ft. long dumb missile on a South-North trajectory hitting an airplane coming or going from the Mediterranean on an East-West trajectory are nearly zero. Astronomically small.  Bird strikes and turbulence baffles are much more common and much more dangerous.

4) The Hamas missiles are weak. Their payload can blow up a studio apartment, but not a whole building.  When landing on the ground, they cause a hole about 2 feet deep, and send shrapnel flying. They can not significantly harm the runway or buildings of the airport. Even a direct hit is almost purely symbolic.

5) The FAA is making a false link to the Malaysian flight.  The FAA announcement linked their decision to heightened concern after a Malaysian civilian airplane was shot down over the Ukraine last week, killing everyone on board.  Are you kidding me?!. There is NO analogy. The Malaysian plane was targeted with sophisticated Russian military grade Surface-to-Air missiles, with full navigational controls and targeting capabilities. Hamas missiles are surface-to-surface "dumb"missiles fired from over 40 miles away. The two have nothing to do with each other.

6) El Al continues to fly. So do a majority of airlines that service Ben Gurion airport.  This FAA ruling was a leadership move by the U.S., which other airlines and countries then followed.  Why would the U.S. do this?

6) Is Secretary of State John Kerry is looking for leverage with Israel? I am sure that the FAA made this decision, but that doesn't mean it can't be used in the larger context.  As long as Iron Dome is working, and Israel can continue business as usual under its protection, there is no reason for Prime Minister Netanyahu to do anything but charge ahead against Hamas and its tunnel and missile infrastructure. Shutting down U.S. flights to Israel supports the Hamas agenda and puts pressure on Israel.

7) Israel must respond as it always has: take matters into its own hands.  Already El Al has increased its flights, and reached out to those stranded in Paris and elsewhere. Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg flew back and forth on El Al yesterday just to make the point:

The Jewish State's airline stands ready to bring you home, when nobody else will.  

After all, isn't that the whole point behind Israel, anyways?  Isn't that the founding ethos of the Jewish State at its core?

Hopefully the FAA bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.  will grow a backbone, listen to the military analysis, and lift the ban.  There is NO reasonable assessment of danger at Ben Gurion, and NO reason to continue the ban.

After all, John Kerry flew in and out of Israel in the last two days... why can't we?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Our Last Day: Tel Aviv - the "old-new" city

Saying Goodbye - for now

We began the day today with a pilgrimage of sorts to Independence Hall - Heikhal Ha'atzma'ut. This building was Meir Dizengoff's original home from the first settlement outside the walls of Old Yafo, and was a clear and new beginning of a new city. 

After a short film about the building....

When we entered the Hall at about 9:00 a.m., the news was telling us that there was a cease fire agreed upon.  Our "Red Alert," "Y-net," and "Ha-aretz" I-Phone apps all buzzed to tell us that a final missile had been fired in the south from Gaza at 8:57.  We enjoyed that idea for about an hour, until it became clear that Hamas had no intention to honor a cease fire.  Instead, they enjoyed the Israeli quiet and fired dozens of missiles in a barrage into Israel once again. 

...we entered the hall were David Ben Gurion pronounced the State of Israel on Friday afternoon, May 14, 1948. We heard a recording of the actual pronouncement, and stood for HaTikvah.

From there we went to Kikar Rabin, the open park where Yitzhak Rabin, z"l, was assassinated by an Israeli extremist opposed to the peace process.


From there we needed a dose of living modern Tel Aviv, so we went to Nahalat Binyamin and the Carmel Market.  Here we tangibly supported Israel with a fair dose of tourist spending!  The Carmel market has everything from artist colony jewelry and art, to fresh fruit and open air music.  Well worth the trip for any visitor.

Chocolates and Candy abound!

Sundries of all sorts

And the freshest fruits and spices you would ever hope for!

After supporting the Israeli economy in the market, we made one last touring stop at the Palmach museum.  The Palmach began under the British mandate as a resistance movement, but eventually was absorbed into the regular army in the war for Independence in 1948.  

The "War for Independence" is poorly named, as Independence was granted freely by the United Kingdom and the United Nations, who were the legitimate authorities at the time. Ever since, Israel has fought for its existence, not its independence.  There is no real war any more with the neighbors, as Egypt and Jordan are invested in peace, and Syria and Lebanon have their own worries. 

The current situation is about Tel Aviv, not the territories.  The West Bank and the Palestinian authority have not joined Hamas' private war out of Gaza.  Israel joined a cease fire effort and the Hamas announced clearly that they are not interested "as long as we are occupied."  Since there are no occupiers in the Gaza Strip, and the Palestinian Authority is willing to talk, Hamas is clear that it is the existence of any Jewish state at all that is the problem in their eyes.  Theirs is the 1948 war, still raging.

None of the missiles came near us in Tel Aviv until the late afternoon when we were back in the hotel... we spent 10 minutes in the shelter, heard two big booms from Iron Dome destroying the incoming missiles, and back to our rooms to watch t.v. until dinner.  Just another day.

I am proud of my tour, of my people, and of Israel. We behaved like Israelis while we were here.  We kept on. We did not cancel or run. We avoided the places that the army did not want us to go to.  We stayed the course, experienced reality, and saw some of the most informative and inspiring sites in the land. We made real friendships with genuine Israelis in Arad, and have sealed our sister congregation relationship with a warm hug and  a promise of return.

I could not ask more of Israel, or more of B'nai Shalom, at this difficult but important time. This was a trip to remember for all our lives, but even more it is a trip to inspire us to come back to B'nai Shalom ready to work for Shira Hadasha and for Israel.

Kol HaKavod.  Im eshkakheikh Yerushalayim, tishkach yemini.  If I forget thee Oh Jerusalem, may my strength wither.

One last walk on the sea shore, one last schwarma, one last breakfast buffet... and off to Ben Gurion airport for our return.

L'shana haba birushalayim... Next year in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Tobin's B'nai Shalom Israel Trip, 2014

Peace in our Day,

Rabbi Robert L. Tobin