Monday, December 23, 2013

Blind Boycotts - How smart college professors can be stupid and prejudiced.

In mid December, news reached the world that the American Studies Association, an interdisciplinary organization of over 5,000 university professors, had endorsed and called for an academic boycott of Israel Universities and visiting Israeli professors internationally.  Smart people can be so stupid sometimes.

To quote the ASA National Council’s announcement:

The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians. The ASA’s endorsement of the academic boycott emerges from the context of US military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and finally, the support of such a resolution by a majority of ASA members.

As with the Durbin conference, and other moments of Anti-Israel bias, no other country was named or considered: China, North Korea, Russia, Cuba… no military regime with control of academia was condemned: Iran, Syria, Egypt, Burma, … No, just Israel.

Israel, where academic freedom combines with freedom of the press, television and radio… Israel where free expression in society and on the internet are core values of the very identity of every Israeli… Israel, the only functioning democracy in its region… Israel.  Yes, it is Israel that they choose to boycott. 

And it is not criticism which is so wrong.  Everyone has a right to an opinion. It is the concept of an academic boycott.  Why burn books, when you can silence academic thinkers entirely? Cut out the middle man, and refuse to let your students be exposed to their ideas or experiences. That is the way of the ASA.

It is unthinkable that an organization of teachers would boycott academics of any origin. A university is supposed to be where ideas are put into play and challenged by peers and history. But it is not about ideas.  It is simple anti-Israel bias. It is prejudice masquerading as piety.

Harvard, Yale, PrincetonBrownCornellUniversity of ChicagoNorthwestern University and New York University condemned the boycott in a growing chorus of universities, including 26 schools have so far rejected the ASA boycott in the days following its passage. Additionally, two universities–Brandeis and Penn State Harrisburg–have cancelled their institutional membership in the organization.

The chancellor of Washington St. Louis University, Dr. Mark S. Wrighton wrote: [We are] deeply troubled and dismayed that the American Studies Association (ASA) , among others, has engaged in a boycott of Israeli academic institutions We believe strongly that a boycott of academic institutions directly violates academic freedom, which is not only one of our university’s fundamental principles but one of American higher education in general. This boycott clearly violates the academic freedom not only of Israeli scholars but also of American scholars who might be pressured to comply with it. 

Forceful comments like these have been made by several university leaders.  Is your university one of them? I encourage you to write the head of any university that you or your children attended, and express your view asking for their statement. In this country, such blind bias against freedom and learning is intolerable.

At the core, this is not about human rights.  If it were, they would be boycotting other countries as well.  This is about the idea that a Jewish and Israeli connection to the land of Israel is not legitimate.  It is an assumption that the State of Israel itself is intolerable and must be erased from social discourse.  The idea that Israel is not only “not wrong,” but “good” would never occur to them.

This is why we must learn our history, stay active on the political stage, and form our own relationship with Israel and all that it is facing.  I will be teaching 3 classes this Winter/Spring about our eternal relationship with the land.  I hope that you will come to all of them, and join me as we see these historical sites in July on our congregational journey.

Monday, January 13th 7 PM:           Our Eternal Connection to Jerusalem
Tuesday, February 4, 7 PM:             Our Ancestors in the Negev
Tuesday, May 6, 7 PM:                    Great Moments in Zionism – Multimedia

Am Yisrael Chai,

Rabbi Robert L. Tobin

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Link to Video for Parshat Vayeitzei 5774 by Rabbi Tobin

A continuing presentation of some gems from the Ralbag - Rabbi Levi ben Gershon (Gersonides) as adapted by Rabbi Tobin for contemporary Jewish living.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Do “Movements” exist anymore?

In the 1920’s American Judaism had a strong sense of the new term “The Melting Pot,” in which Jewish Americans could be Jewish and yet not be so very different from their fellow citizens around them.  The compatibility of Judaism and Democracy was the theme of the day.  The first English-Hebrew prayer books, and bibles were published.  The Conservative movement, previously centered on the Jewish Theological Seminary of America became lead by the new United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.  English, not Yiddish, became the language of the sermon, and Jews began attending colleges and universities in record numbers. In 1925 the largest Boy Scout Troop in America was at Beth Shalom, in Kansas City, MO.

After WWII, the G.I. Jew solidified our place in American society, and became a builder of the suburbs as well as a champion of civil rights.  In the 1950’s, social clubs and fraternal organizations defined the landscape of American society.  Fraternity and Sorority groups existed in High Schools, as well as colleges, and community organizations such as the Lyons Club, Kiwanis, Masons, Rotary and more lead much of the volunteer and networking activity in suburbs and cities alike. Jewish groups were created to parallel those organizations, and some Jews joined the secular groups as well.

In the 1970’s, however, extended families were breaking down, followed soon by the rise in divorce and the breakdown of nuclear families as well.  The individual was the center of attention, and fraternal organizations throughout America were in decline.

The Conservative movement was founded in the idea that communal responsibility was best experienced through communal affiliation. And we thrived. The USCJ boomed in the ‘50s and ‘60s as baby boomers grew their families and yet were committed to traditional expressions in the modern world.

But over the past 30 years, to focus on the individual and the loss of fraternal appeal has taken their toll. The Reform movement, based in the idea if individual ethical autonomy, fits the new ethos successfully.  The smaller Renewal and Reconstructionist groups also tap into these ideas. And the Orthodox movement, based in a high standard of individual responsibility to mitzvot and communal involvement, has been largely insulated from the change in external culture. Indeed, some say that it helps to define Orthodoxy very clearly to be so different.  The Conservative movement, however, has lagged.

In the coming month, we will explore what these “movements” truly are in our day.  Are they “movements” at all? What defines them? Come learn from Rabbi Leana Moritt (Reform/Renewal), Rabbi Marc Spivak (Orthodox) and me as we each spend an evening teaching and talking about what it means to be “our kind of Jew.” For us, more than others, knowing who we are – and how we are different – is critically important for our future as a synagogue. For dates and times, view our 3 Rabbis Flyer at

Parshat Toldot - Lessons from Ralbag by Rabbi Tobin

4 minutes of Torah from Rabbi Tobin on Parshat Toldot

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Rabbis and Rugby - The Holy Scrum

I remember from my Georgetown days a friend of mine, Bradley Stein, who played on the club rugby team.  Most of the time he was bruised and battered, and he spent a good portion of my sophomore year in a sling.  He had a T-shirt that said: "Give Blood: Play Rugby."

I tend to watch college basketball, major league baseball and the NFL.  These are tame sports compared to rugby, which begins with a massive pushing pile over the top of the ball and then turns into a series of rapid advances down the field, multiple lateral passes, and - inevitably - tremendous collisions, crashes, pushes, hits and more pile ups to restart the action.  This is done without pads or helmets, "of course."  I wouldn't last a minute on a rugby field!

Yet as I studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America recently, a course entitled History and Homilies with Dr. Benjamin Gampel, we played with idea of other alliterative course titles:  Rabbis and Rugby came to mind.

The metaphor is actual a fun and apt one.  The ideas and practices of Judaism have always been subjected to the crucible of debate and controversy. The topics at hand are the football, which are often handled at first by an individual or two who advance the ball downfield by a series of lateral moves.  Prooftexts are gathered from existing material, and colleagues are rallied to the side of the idea to adopt it.  Opposition may arise from a stalwart individual who intercepts the idea and brings opposing texts, rabbis and arguments against the innovation. Often the scrum, the pile up of people and texts becomes a seething and unfocused mess, if the topic is controversial enough, until the original idea squeaks out in some unforeseen direction.  A race to grab the ball, to own and redirect the topic ensues, and off we go downfield in history advancing the ball again.

When you hear of a political/religious turmoil in Judaism, look beyond the pile up.  Sift past the texts, prooftexts, accusations, protestations and incriminations and look for the ball.  Somewhere in there is a small and dynamic piece of Torah that is going to escape the scrum.  When that happens, changes will come quickly.

L'shanah Tovah tikateivu,

Rabbi Robert Tobin

Monday, August 12, 2013

Expect the Unexpected. Believe the Unbelievable.

As Rosh Hashanah comes barreling down upon us “early” this year, we are reminded that life does not wait for our convenience.  Judaism is complete with steady reminders of reality, and opportunities to get a better grip on our fleeting moments on earth.  The sun is setting: it is time for Shabbat to begin.  The stars are not yet out: let Shabbat linger a bit longer.

The world pulls us in so many directions that we often feel that life is out of our control. Our involvements and hopes drive us to fill our days with commitments that diminish our freedom.  Judaism – God, Torah and Israel – offers a life of meaning, and tools to expect the unexpected.

The sorrow of death is confidently met with the funeral rites, shiva home and support during a time of kaddish.  The joy of birth is transformed into entry into a live of covenant, the gift of a name’s legacy, and the gathering of friends and family.  Early adulthood is challenged by the responsibility of synagogue leadership, Torah mastery and thoughtful teaching in a credible bar/bat mitzvah celebration. Daily minyan focuses our days into assertions that today is a gift, with a purpose, and the belief I have the time and will to pursue it.

And our religion gives us hope.  Those who have gone before us are not gone forever, and life is more than it seems. We are given permission to believe the unbelievable and pray for eternal love.

Come be part of a loving synagogue this year. Learn to expect the unexpected, believe the unbelievable and live the life of meaning and purpose.

Rabbi Robert L. Tobin

B’nai Shalom, West Orange, NJ.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Halfway Home for Open Scouting

The BSA "may" vote to admit openly gay youth this week, even as they affirm the ban on gay adults.  They are "halfway there," but the thinking deserves serious attention.

The national organization of the BSA is dominated by powerful blocks of charter organizations that come from religious organizations which condemn homosexuality as a matter of creed.  That is their right in a country which believes in freedom of religion.  However, a significant minority of the national BSA pie chart is also made up of liberal religious units and civic organizations which uphold not only the equality of homosexuality in scouting, and often the morality of it as well.

It would seem that the BSA national board can either let the majority rule the morality question, thereby forgoing religious freedoms for the minority in their midst, or they can assert the priority of religious freedom and allow the question to be solved at the local level by individual charter units.

Scouts has decided to do neither. Instead, they will vote this week on a seemingly bizarre position with no amendment process nor any empowered and relevant debate. The decision will be to allow (or not) openly gay youth to be scouts.  Openly gay adults will still be barred from membership or participation in the BSA - at least for now.

Clearly, the position is absurd. An 18 year old gay eagle scout will suddenly be banned from volunteering in his own unit as an adult.  "Here's your Eagle.  Congratulations. Now get out."

Similarly, the venturing program goes to age 21, and their gay scouts would be allowed to register for years after the other branches of scouting would have thrown them out. It is messy to be sure. So why do it this way?

First, the national board clearly has no intention of letting local units get in front of them and empower themselves to preach their own messages.  This need for central control is contrary to the entire ethos of scouting. Scouting touts that the boys and the unit run an "inverted pyramid" at the grassroots level.  So much for that.

It is also clearly contrary to the statement of Religious Principles of the BSA as I have often argued already. The national organization should be ashamed on these grounds alone.

But the real issue here is also money. The voting blocks of anti-inclusion units simply don't care - or worse may actually be happy - when liberal groups boycott scouting.  There is a growing feeling that they do not want scouting's pluralist past to be its future.  They want a homogeneous social fabric, even if it is smaller than it was, to avoid their children ever being exposed to things like - well - gays... but also liberal Jews, Episcopalians, or other similarly minded people. They want them out of scouting. And they are willing to shoulder the financial burden of the slimmed and purified movement that they are creating.

So why change anything at all?  If they want to continue to alienate the rest of us, why not really antagonize us and reassert the policy at the youth level as they did last summer?

In fact, they may do that this week.  The inclusion proposal seems to be slipping in the anecdotal polls. Yet perhaps there is hope that they have a reason to update the youth policy.  The main reasoning follows:

By changing the youth policy to be inclusive, they are willing to forgive the perceived sins of the gay child, in hope that their message will buy time for the gay youth to reform themselves before turning 18.  Some seem to feel that the gay child should be kept in the fold as an act of kindness, love and hope that it is only a phase - and what better than scouting to provide the moral context to help them grow out of it?

For the rest of us, it is small comfort to see "progress" expressed in this way. Yet, we should still hold our noses and vote yes on the compromise.  Why?  Because there is no second step unless the first step is made.  Let's get the youth policy right.  And then we will keep hammering at the adult policy from within as we move forward.

One brave council that I know of has made the following statement.  I wish that my council and others would follow suit:

Patriot's Path Council Membership Policy Statement

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Patriot's Day and Yom HaAtzmaut

Both Israel and the United States of America were founded by peaceful emigration followed by violent wars for independence.  There are times in the course of human events when freedom and hope are challenged by oppression, injustice or avarice. As democracies, both nations hold core values that stand against capricious violence, prejudice, and oppression.  And both are at the bullseye of the terrorist elements in the world. This is not coincidence.

Both Israel and the United States have internal elements who hold on to a mythology of government oppression. In fact, peaceful and participating members of both societies enjoy civic privileges, government services and personal freedoms that are the envy of the world.  Both Israel and the United States have external enemies who fan the flames of international discord and war by claiming that we are destroying and conquering their cultures, stealing their natural resources and lying about our true belief in peace.  In fact, the spread of American cultural and economic influence is organic to the human condition in the world: we are attractive and the peoples of many other countries want what we have, and want to be much like us.  This social and economic revolution towards democracy and capitalism - diversity and empowerment - is a threat to all who seek power for its own sake.

The bomb is only a patriot's tool in a time and place where oppression, injustice and prejudice rule the people by force and despotism.  A bomb against the Nazi government is a blow for justice.

But a bomb against civilians - whether on a bus in Jerusalem or Bulgaria, or at the JCC in Argentina or at the finish line of the Boston Marathon - is the murderer's tool. Its only purpose is to spread hatred and violence against a world that is free. It is an admission that the murderer's ideas are not convincing to the world around him, and he is simply wrong-headed.  It is hate's hope that from chaos our peaceful freedoms will be become compromised and the world will become more like the mind of the murderer.   Soft targets exist because the society is peaceful and just. They will, in Israel and the United States, always exist.

Now is a time for the Israeli and American friendship to once again come in to play.  Israel has sad experience in protecting soft targets.  Grocery stores, malls, public events, religious services and civic ceremonies all have tremendous visible and invisible security in Israel. Boston, New York, and all of America can continue to grow the security advisor role of Israel for the United States.  The years of cooperation are mutually beneficial, and the relationship between the two can only become stronger in the face of our shared experiences in sorrow.

May the souls of those killed in Boston be protected in the presence of God.  May the wounded be granted full healing through the divine hearts minds and talents of their doctors nurses and counselors, and may the God of justice guide the tools of civilized society to find, prosecute and punish those who pursue terror in their political impotence.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Who is Yair Lapid? Israel Today.

Who is Yair Lapid?

Last week's stunning Israeli elections saw the decline of the Likkud/Israel Beiteinu coalition by nearly 25%, and the advent of Yair Lapid's "Yesh Atid" {"there is a future"} party with a victory of 19 seats out of the 120 in the Kenneset.  The Likkud/Israel Beiteinu, plus other right wing and religious parties won a total of 60 seats, but needed 61 to form a government.  If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tries to form a coalition with anyone to the left of Lapid, he will certainly lose coalition members from the right wing.  Yair Lapid is suddenly the most influential man in Israel.

Lapid's professional history as a journalist and television analyst is well known.  And his biography as a secular son of a major political figure who founded the now defunct shinui party is also well known.  But with this public a personality, do we know who Lapid really is?

Lapid has an historian's eye on Israel.  He is well versed in the origin and development of the ethos of the Israeli population as well as the economic and social struggles the various constituencies experience.  He is an adept politician who can speak the language of the audience while maintaining a frank agenda of his own.  And he is ambitious to lead, with the confidence of one who firmly believes that his cause is not just correct but just. Like him or not, agree with him or not, he is just beginning in this game and he will be around for a long time.

The following video on YouTube will help you know who he is better.  It is 25 minutes long, but well worth the effort.  English subtitles are provided and, though glossed over in one or two places, the translations are excellent.

Here Lapid goes into the Lion's den: a  highly religious Haredi College audience.  He lays out his understanding of the role of the Haredi population as central to the well being and future of Israel, while insisting in no uncertain terms that they come out of their ghettos (his word) and take responsibility for the well being of all Israelies.  He admits a history of anti-Haredi sentiment in the Zionist cause, yet shows how in every field the Haredi have already won those battles.  As "winners" he challenges the Haredim to consider their role as leaders of the mixed tribes that make up Israel today.

While the video doesn't show the audience's response or questions, it is a fascinating snap shot of this exact moment between Israel Secular and Haredi world views.

Yair Lapid at Kiryat Ono College, in Kiryat Ono, Israel - 10 miles east of Tel Aviv.

Yair Lapid Speaks to Haredi Israelis

Monday, January 28, 2013

Scouting for Equality: Will the BSA get it right at last?

Mr. Wayne Perry, President
Boy Scouts of America 
1325 Walnut Hill Lane 
P.O. Box 152079 
Irving, Texas 75015-2079

Dear Mr. Perry,

As a Rabbi, Charter Organization Head, Cubmaster, BSA Chaplain, Northern New Jersey Council Member at Large, father of 3 cubs, supporter of Friends of Scouting and member of the Jewish Committee on Scouting...

...I was thrilled to hear that the national policy of the Boy Scouts of America on homosexuality may finally be changed to no longer conflict with the Declaration of Religious Principles.  

Just this year my own children's Jewish Day School refused to renew its charter over this issue.  

The morality of homosexuality is informed by the religious community to which a scout, and/or a charter organization belong.  My religion teaches me that homosexuality is a valid creation of God.  The national organization must not abrogate BSA's own Declaration of Religious Principles by vetoing my approval of scouts and scouters in my synagogue's scouting program.

I recognize that other religions, and even other denominations of my own religion, interpret this teaching differently.  That is precisely why the national organization must leave the matter up to the conscience of the individual scout and scouter, or to the house of worship if it is a religious charter organization.

I was sent an e-mail saying that your board is "actively considering an end to their national ban on gay and non-theist members and leaders. Chartered organizations that oversee and deliver scouting would accept membership and select leaders consistent with their organization's mission, principles or religious beliefs, said Deron Smith, a spokesman for the Boy Scouts'..."

Please confirm that this is true.  

I have, while in the Heart of America Council and here in New Jersey, always said that this is the only policy consistent with scouting's core values of religious diversity in service to God and Nation.  

If we can affirm the priority of the Declaration of Religious Principle in this matter, it will help in my recruitment and my ability to find tangible support for scouting in my region.

I look forward to your timely reply.

Yours in Scouting,

Rabbi Robert L. Tobin

CC: Stephen Gray, Scout Executive NNJC