Thursday, May 30, 2024

A Convicted Felon

May 30, 2024

Call me sentimental, but I love the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  In the sappy Jimmie Stewart classic directed by Frank Kapra, a naive young man is elected to the U.S. Senate by a political machine that thinks he can be manipulated by them.  Soon the former boy scout Mr. Smith is challenged to see through the glitzy corruption of the system to rely on his home-born morals and ethics.  He gives a marathon filibuster in the well of the senate inspiring the viewer to believe in the potential of truth to carry the day.  The patriotic spirit of the film is based in old fashioned morality, ethics and apple pie.  We have a lot to learn from that assertion of the good in the face of corruption.

When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, I wrote to the congregation about the importance of respecting elections, honoring the office of president and supporting President Trump as he transitioned peacefully into the Oval Office.  

When Donald Trump lost the election in 2020, I repeated those themes and defended his rights to appeal in court, where he was defeated again and again.  In the end, his claims were repeatedly proven baseless and false, and many of his supporters have since faced legal troubles for their lies and libel in defense of those false claims.  The truth and the system were vindicated.

I called for the recognition of the rule of law after January 6, 2021 when mobs inspired by President Trump attacked the Capitol building to disrupt the constitutional process of counting the electoral college votes and certifying President Biden's victory.  I support the ongoing prosecution of those who committed crimes and applaud each conviction and guilty plea as affirmations of justice.   

I also withheld judgement regarding the case NY v. Trump, and its 34 felony counts against the former President until now when the case is over. Everyone deserves their day in court.  They have a right to a vigorous defense and a trial by a jury of their peers.  I believe in the justice system, and our constitution.  

Not surprisingly I took the same approach with disgraced Senator Menendez of New Jersey this past year, as his corruption charges in federal court have continued to grow.  Before the congregation I also said of him, "If these charges prove true, he has lost the moral right to be a senator and should resign."  

My commitment is to the rule of law, the value of our justice system and the morals and ethics necessary to be a valued public servant. 

So today, without great joy, I recognize that the courts have convicted former President Trump of 34 felony counts that are basically cases of fraud.  His actions were determined under law to be knowingly and deliberately false, in order to mislead and defraud the public.  Like his claims regarding the 2020 election, he is simply on the wrong side of truth.  This is now a fact, proven in the court, not an opinion.

Former President Trump is a convicted felon, and I believe that he has lost the moral right to be a public servant.  Of course, my view doesn't change the electoral system in the least bit.  So I also turn to my beliefs as a rabbi - as a Jew - to process the right and the wrong of the situation.

Religiously, I believe in the efficacy and worth of teshuvah - repentance.  In this process, which we hold so dear, a guilty person admits their guilt, rights their wrongs, and affirms to never repeat their sin.  This is the process that would win me over, and bring me in.  This is the action that would find me defending the former President's integrity and worthiness for public trust.  

Sadly, I see no reason to believe that former President Trump will admit the truths that have been determined in courts of law:  that he lost the 2020 election fairly and that he defrauded the American people in the electoral process in 2016.

I recognize that being a convicted felon will likely have no effect on our divided nation.  He is legally eligible to run, win and hold office.  For his supporters, this seems to not matter.  For me it does.

In the end, I surely wish I could find a Mr Smith to send to Washington, and I wish every voter in the country could agree with that sentiment.

Monday, April 8, 2024

The Berakhah - Hebrew Blessing - for an Eclipse (Yes, there is)

 The Berakhah - Hebrew Blessing - for a Solar Eclipse

The Talmud, on page 29a of tractate Sukkot, proclaims that a solar eclipse and a lunar eclipse  are to be understood as a siman (heavenly sign) against evil and sins.  The solar as a warning against the nations of the world and the lunar against Israel. Since the talmud understood these phenomena as negative, no berakhah was prescribed for their observance. It is time to update this teaching.  

The talmudic masters had a clear scientific misunderstanding of the nature of an eclipse.  In a time where the eclipse was understood to be an intrusive act of God into the normal functioning of nature, the need to explain the divine action was strong.  Assuming that it was a negative message is understandable as both the solar and the lunar eclipses diminish the light shining on the world.  Subsequent poskim through the middle ages often focused on the unpredictability of the event to prove its role as a heavenly sign. In the ancient world, they understood that the power of God shone upon the world through the mediums of the son, moon and stars.  Blackening that overflow would have been blocking God’s overflow towards us.  Essentially, that is astrology.

Now we know that the eclipse, and even all weather patterns that make it possible or not to see the eclipse, are completely mechanical phenomena, unrelated to human morals, ethics or mitzvotThey are rare, but they are not extraordinary. With enough observation, data and math, they are entirely predictable (even though we aren't quite there yet with the weather).

Therefore, our experience of an eclipse is of an ordinary, and awe-inspiring manifestation of the regular laws of nature which God created.  There is no miracle, or divine intrusion into the regular functioning of our world.  Therefore the explanation of “why” is irrelevant, and the answer to “why” should be rejected.

We are commanded to appreciate the natural world around us through the saying of berakhot.  Just this week, here in New Jersey we were able to say the berakhah for experiencing an earthquake - certainly a more dangerous experience in potential.  Yet we declared that God is indeed the Master of the Universe, and that God’s power does indeed fill the Earth.  

When we see lightning, comets, or other amazing sights in the starry heavens - perhaps the rings of Saturn through a telescope - we do in fact say a berakhah - a Hebrew blessingBarukh Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam, Borei Ma’asei Bereishit - Blessed are you oh Lord our God, Master of the Universe, who creates the acts of Creation.  

Our tradition has great reverence for the idea that we can not invent a “new berakhah,” if the Talmud did not indicate it.  On that basis many halakhic authorities in Jewish law have declared that there is no berakhah for an eclipse.  It is time to correct that historic misunderstanding. and apply the proper berakhah (blessing) to its experience.

When viewing an active Solar or Lunar Eclipse say the blessing:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹקֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, עוֹשֶׂה מַעֲשֵׂה בְרֵאשִׁית

Barukh Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh HaOlam, Borei Ma’asei Bereishit