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

Friday, March 8, 2024

Humanitarian Aid, War, Terror and Hostages. Day 153.

Humanitarian Aid, War, Terror and Hostages.  Day 153.

Today is 153 days that over 130 hostages stolen from their homes family and friends remain in the cruel captivity of the Hamas Terrorists in Gaza since their day of slaughter on October 7, 2023.  Recent reports from the negotiations between Hamas and Israel indicate that, God forbid, more than half may no longer be alive.  The war continues, and Israel is now dropping leaflets in Rafah indicating another expanded ground and air campaign is imminent - this time in the last remaining refuge of the southwestern edge of the Gaza Strip.  Calls for ceasefire and humanitarian aid have increased, and President Joe Biden has announced the construction of a sea port to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza directly.  

There is ample reason for a supporter of the war to feel immense discomfort and doubt about its current status. 

The truth is, Israel is running out of military targets and has not achieved its goals. 

In that circumstance, the unthinkable possibility of the war being a failure becomes thinkable.

The moral case for the war:

First, to always be clear:  the war against Hamas begins as a just war of complete moral clarity. 

No terror group can be allowed to do what they did, and to remain at rest and in control of a city state

like the Gaza strip from which to continue their nefarious and bloody actions.  And, when terrorists are

fully embedded within a sympathetic and supportive civilian population, collateral deaths of non combatant

men, women and children are inevitable.

Second, with equal clarity:  The military attempt to rescue hostages from the hands of terror organizations

is also entirely legitimate, and may also come with collateral death of civilians.

Assessing the War as it really is:

The failure to achieve the strategic goals of the war will ultimately result in condemnation of the war itself by objective outside analysts.

The failure to rescue hostages: 

The fact is that the stated goals of the war may have gone a long way to justify the death and  

destruction had those goals been successful.  Unfortunately, that is not the case.   

Hamas remains in place, including its entire leadership structure.   

To date 2 hostages have been rescued by the military, As of February 8, Israel had reported  

the deaths of 219 soldiers in the war in Gaza so far. Many thousands of non-combatants have  

been killed. The price of rescue alone demonstrates the failure of the operation.

The failure to destroy Hamas among the civilians:  

Even if the Hamas' number of 30,000 Gazans dead is remotely accurate, and we assume

25% of those to be combatants, there is no military target in sight to justify a claim of victory

over the Hamas organization.

Israel would rather not find civilian non-combatants in the theater of war against Hamas. 

That was made clear by the multiple rounds of “leaflets,” maps and QR codes dropped

prior to major expansions of the ground campaign.  But those attempts have proven entirely

ineffective.  There are no completely safe zones to go to because Hamas continues to move

and operate from anywhere at any time.  

True, Israel has nearly eliminated the launching of missiles from Gaza, and the regularity of

RPG's and other larger infantry weaponry has also significantly degraded. But Hamas soldiers

who drop their weapons and melt into the civilian background remain to fight another day.

The actual military victory is highly questionable for the long term.

The result has been to attempt to discover and degrade the maximum amount of usable

infrastructure (buildings, tunnels) possible to force Hamas to be uncovered and reveal/abandon

their locations, weapons stashes, support materials and - the hope was - hostages. 

Hamas leads the hunters to new targets every day, and Israel obligingly destroys in their wake. 

Without a significant and convincing military victory, such as the surrender of the Hamas

leadership team in Gaza, the only measurable outcome is the destruction of the living space

for millions of Gazans, and the accompanying loss of tens of thousands of lives.  In recent days,

the Israeli army has brought cement trucks to fill tunnels and more explosives to destroy

underground infrastructure.  The war is clearly nearing its end point and the emphasis is less

on military targets and more on what will be left behind for them to use again in the future.

The war to destroy Hamas has instead become a war to destroy Gazan infrastructure.  

Starvation and Disease.  It has proven impossible for Israel to both prosecute the war  

against Hamas and guarantee the humanitarian support of the population in Gaza at the same time.  

While there are those who support the war who are not bothered by that fact, I am. Even as  

Israel aims at Rafah - the only ground route for aid trucks - the United States is opening a sea  

port to bring more aid in.  None of it will be enough.  The specter of actual starvation, and the  

spread of disease from lack of clean water, is the ubiquitous handmaiden of war.  Would it hurt  

Hamas? Of course. But it will equally hurt the innocent and the hostages themselves.

The only reachable goal is the release of hostages through negotiations.

The urgency of an increased focus on the hostages is real.  Yes, destroy the tunnels and degrade military infrastructure. Yes, continue to kill as many combatants as possible while staying at the negotiating table.

But there is only one proven way to get hostages out, and that is through those negotiations - with the threat of s

evere war to keep Hamas at the table.  The current situation is terrible, as all war inevitably is.  But the goal to

eliminate Hamas in the short term must take a second seat to the return of the hostages.  Humanitarian aid must

be surged to prevent starvation in the Gaza strip by any reasonable moral code of war, so that those international

partners who might very well need to take over the basic needs of Gaza after the war can already demonstrate

that they are part of the solution.  Jordan, Egypt and the United States are the most present in that capacity, and

must be affirmed in their efforts.

The Future:

President Biden, in his State of the Union speech last night, asserted that a two state solution is the only reasonable hope for peace for Israelis and Palestinians. That is true. But is it possible? Will the world, Israel and the Palestinians all come together to seek some place of Palestinian sovereignty while affirming the legitimacy of Israel?    So far the world says yes.  The Palestinian Authority since Oslo says yes. Hamas says no. Netanyahu says no. The current combatants disagree with President Biden, so how exactly does he think he will achieve that goal?

This war is not over.  But it may have already failed. Will Hamas surrender and face justice?  No.  Will the horror of the suffering prevent another attack in the future?  Probably not.  Will the conflict be a painful and necessary step to a just peace? It is hard to imagine. That is the problem with failed wars: they don't produce anything.

For the hostages, the only hope is to make bring them home now the focus of every Israeli priority, and to plan for the conflict to continue even after the current fighting is done.

I believe that there is still only one hope for the future that makes any reasonable sense, if one believes in

sovereignty, self-determination and peace - two states.  But there is still no clear path to its creation.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Sacred Ground: Condemning Islamophic and AntiSemitic attacks on Mosques and Synagogues

 Sacred Ground

Today I soundly and completely condemn the http://protest/disruption by a single Jewish person against the Islamic Center of Mellville, NY yesterday.  As covered in the news, this person entered the premises and walked around shouting to free the Israeli Hostages, refusing to leave when asked.  They have been arrested and will be charged, as they absolutely should be.

My synagogue can not stop the war between Israel and Hamas any more than the Islamic Center in Melville can release the hostages held since October 7th by the Hamas terror organization.  Transferring our political desires onto a religious site in America is unacceptable and wrong.

Let's be clear:  When someone pulls up to my synagogue and shouts "F* Israel" as happened a few weeks ago, that is AntiSemitism.  When someone goes into a mosque and shouts for the release of the Israel Hostages, that is Islamophobia.  Neither has any place in our civil discourse, and neither should be suffered silently by either religion.

When a house of worship in America is targeted because of one's view of an oversees political conflict, that is a form of hate, bias and intimidation.  Houses of Worship are Sacred Ground.  

Do most of my members support Israel?  Absolutely.  I can't speak for the Islamic Center of Melville's position on the war but it is easy to imagine that they at least oppose the war and want a ceasefire immediately.  None of that justifies bias threat and intimidation against those religious organizations in their peaceful and protected right to operate and support their communities.  

We are free to exercise our religion and have a right to do so without taunt, threat or slander.  Anyone who does so must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

The Importance of Doing Something.


The Importance of Doing Something.

Travel to Israel has always been a priority in my work as your rabbi.  Upon arrival in 2011, I began working relationships with Jewish National Fund, the Masorti Movement and the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.  I have sought genuine relationships to nurture in between congregational trips, and have made a point of connecting with our friends and associates every time we go there.

None of these things stopped on October 7, 2023 on that terrible day of slaughter at the hands of Hamas.  We lost friends, and the world is disrupted by war.  The communities near the border with Gaza that did not come under direct attack still have lost their workers, and their men and women have been drafted into the army.  They struggle to re-establish schools, and to maintain farms without labor with the sad truth that irrigation helps weeds as much as crops and their fields are overrun months later.

Jewish National Fund was able to organize emergency volunteer missions to the south and back in October - even before I had anyone committed to come with me - I promised our congregation would come.  It was never in doubt.

From January 20-15 we went with a single goal:  Just tell us what to do.  What do you do in the face of nearly infinite needs?  The Mishnah teaches וּבְמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין אֲנָשִׁים, הִשְׁתַּדֵּל לִהְיוֹת אִישׁ: In a place where there are no people, try to be a person.   There was no one to weed this crop, or clean this path.  They are killed, captured, at war or relocated elsewhere  There are not enough people to do the daily work to save the vegetables for market, to prepare the schools for children or to support the soldiers on leave.

Pick up a shovel, a rake, a paint brush or a wheelbarrow.  Get to work.  We farmed one day, and weeded another.  We stood in the now horrific beauty of the Nova festival and planted trees in memory for the future.  We stood at graves of entire families and wept the memorial prayers.  We went to the hospital where the free hostages were first treated - the same hospital that had hundreds of terror victims arrive minute after minute on those horrible first days.  We did nothing extraordinary.  We were a group of people trying to help our people in their time of need.

On the bus we sang songs, held serious conversations, and got to know and love each other as members of Bnai Shalom in a way that only happens when we travel together.  New friends, and old come home closer to each other and Israel as a result.

We are not alone.  They are not alone.  In another age, the cossacks, the crusades, the nazis murdered and plundered at will and no one was there to stop them.  Today we have Israel, and we will defend our people.  Those of us who can not go to war, can go to farm, sweep or support.  We can never forget, that we are people.

I hope that you will join me on March 6th for the JNF Breakfast for Israel, that you will find an opportunity to travel to volunteer, that you will donate generously and that you will continue to stay engaged during our people’s time of need.

Am Yisrael Chai,

Rabbi Robert L Tobin