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Orthodox V Reform

Yom Chamishi, 7th of Av, 5776
Thursday, August 11, 2016

Seven score years ago the Jewish people in Germany broke into two groups when Orthodox Jews officially separated from the general Jewish community.1 This division in the Jewish nation happened in reaction to Reform Judaism, a movement to bring Judaism up to date with the social and intellectual developments of the modern world. Since that time, other Jewish movements have formed, partly in reaction to the Orthodox/Reform split. While in many ways the Jewish people has remained one nation, the Orthodox and progressive movements have such different philosophies that in some ways we are a nation divided.

Now 140 years later, the two parts of our nation are still locked in a struggle to resolve the differences that led to their formation. One of the main battlegrounds in this conflict is the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, which is, ironically, the one place where all of the Jewish people should be able to come together as one. The Western Wall is a remnant of the Temple in Jerusalem, built as a recreation of our nation's birth at Mt. Sinai, where thousands of years ago all of our people stood united, and in the merit of that unity had an encounter with the One G-d.

The Jewish people were charged with a mission at Mt. Sinai - to be a mamleches kohanim, a kingdom of priests, and a goy kadosh, a holy nation.2 To show the world how a people should live - in relation to G-d, and in relation to each other. As part of the former role, we observe the ritual of Shabbat each week, recognizing the Creator of the world. To fulfill the latter role, we fight for social justice, treating our fellows as we ourselves would like to be treated.

While in some ways it is an oversimplification, the division between Orthodox and Reform Jews can be seen as a split between those Jews focused on G-d and ritual observance and those Jews focused on their fellow human beings and civil law. And so, in the conflict at the Western Wall, Orthodox Jews attack Reform Jews for their relative lack of emphasis on G-d and ritual. And Reform Jews rail against Orthodox Jews for not recognizing equality and human rights. Neither group is wrong, and neither group is right - we are simply two parts of one people.

Although both philosophies are part of Judaism, I want to suggest that ultimately one is more important than the other. In this month called Av (Hebrew for "Father"), consider how G-d sees us.3 As any parent knows, if you come home and find your kids doing something bad together, even something disrespectful to you, that is unacceptable, and everyone needs to sit down for a long talk. But if you come home and your kids are all fighting with each other, that is simply intolerable, and it needs to stop right away. So, for G-d's sake as well as our own, let's focus for the time being on how we're treating each other. And, maybe then we can all talk about Shabbat and other observances.

About a week ago, on Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the month) of Av, I went to the monthly Women of the Wall (WOW) prayer service. I've been a regular at these events for five months now, and there's always conflict, but this month was especially bad. The ultra-Orthodox protestors in the women's section blew whistles so loud4 that it became unbearable for some WOW members. And in the outer plaza, where the men stood, the shoving was more violent than I've ever seen. At one point, soldiers moved people to either side, separating the Orthodox and liberal camps. I was the last one left, and a secular soldier asked me something in Hebrew and then motioned with his hands - this way or that?

An Orthodox yeshiva student had asked me the same question at another event a couple months before. In the month of Sivan, the month of our rendezvous with G-d at Mt. Sinai, the Reform and Conservative movements held a mixed-gender afternoon prayer service at the Western Wall. In what became a rowdy family reunion, the Orthodox gathered next to the liberal Jews on the plaza, heckling and pushing. As a liberal Orthodox Jew, I stood in the middle, prompting the student's question. "Both," I answered, "I want everyone to be able to come here."

I didn't realize it then, but for the brief time of the service, everyone was there. When the Reform and Conservative Jews first came onto the plaza, they were singing. The Orthodox charged at them, and then, stopped, and - started singing their own song. Toward the end of the service, some of the Orthodox sang the song Toras HaShem Temima (G-d's Torah is Perfect) while the Reform and Conservatives sang Aleinu (Us). We had different tunes, even completely different songs, but we were undoubtedly both Jewish groups - two distinct, yet complimentary parts of one people singing to G-d there at the foot of the Wall.

I think this could be how we really complete the mission given to us at Mt. Sinai. Not by being one big mamleches kohanim and goy kadosh, but by being a mamleches kohanim AND a goy kadosh, two - or more - different parts joined together as one. That's how we show all of the peoples in G-d's very diverse world how to do it, by demonstrating that different groups can join together as one, completing each other. Orthodox AND Reform, Jews AND Muslims, Women AND Men.

Sometimes there's a little friction when two people are trying to come together. Like two fifth-graders with crushes on each other, we fight or act avoidant, unaware of our real feelings. So often it's the person who condemns the loudest that has a hidden liking for their object of scorn. So I'm not worried about the whistlers at WOW events. Eventually we'll break through the conflict and avoidance and see that we really do want to connect.

And on that day, let it be soon, all of our different voices will join together in a new song, a great symphony of many distinct parts, a beautiful combination of countless unique instruments that, some of us didn't even realize we were playing. I'm looking forward to that day, and to hearing that new, most beautiful song of all. But until then, I'd like to offer an oldie. Well, it's an oldie where I come from.

My country, tis of thee, sweet Land of liberty, of thee I sing

Land where my fathers died, Land of the pilgrim's pride

From every Mountainside, let freedom ring!

1 Ellenson, David. (1990). Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press. p. 87. Retrieved from
2 Shemos (Exodus) 19:6
3 This is a common analogy, not my original thought.
4 Glassman, T. (2016, August 5). WATCH: Ultra-Orthodox Protestors Heckle Praying ‘Women of the Wall’ Members. The Forward. Retrieved from

Long Time, No See

Yom Sheini, 12th of Tammuz, 5776
Sunday, July 17, 2016

A human being is like a letter of the alphabet: to produce a word, it must combine with another. - Mandelstamm

Last month, in A Time for Love, I wrote about the special time for achdus that comes each year with the holiday of Shavuos. That spirit of love and unity fills the entire month of Sivan, the third month of the Jewish calendar. The number three is closely related to Shavuos, as the Talmud says, "[G-d spoke] to a three-fold people through a third-born on the third day in the third month.”1 So too the Jews can be said to have achieved three-fold unity on Shavuos.2 It was an easy level of achdus to reach, though, because it was mainly G-d Who brought us together at Mt. Sinai.

In this month of Tammuz, the fourth month of the year, we have the potential for a much greater degree of achdus - on the level of four-fold unity - but it's much harder for us to achieve. It's so difficult, in fact, that when our ancestors had the same opportunity, thousands of years ago, they blew it. The united, three-fold Jewish people stood around Mt. Sinai for almost 40 days, waiting for Moshe to come back from meeting with G-d. Moshe, though he was only one person, was the fourth, unique part of the nation. The Jews waited, and waited, and waited, and then - Moshe was late.

Our tradition is that only a little more time and we would've had it. Moshe, the spiritual link to G-d, would've returned to the people with the two stone tablets, and that powerful combination of leader and people would go on to fulfill G-d's plan perfectly. Instead - panic, and the making of the golden calf - and it wouldn't be until the seventh month of Tishrei that the Jews would have repented, put the pieces back together, and finally achieved that greater degree of unity. But this fourth month of Tammuz, which sizzles with potential, ended up being a month of tragedy.

Yet there is a happy ending. In the seventh month, during the holiday of Sukkos, we do the mitzvah (commandment) of joining together four species (kinds) of plants, in a beautiful expression of four-fold Jewish unity. We bring together in our hands the lulav (date palm branch), hadassim (myrtle twigs), aravos (brook willows), and esrog (citron fruit). There are a number of ideas about what the four species mean in terms of unity. Some say they relate to different parts of a person - the spine, mouth, eyes, and heart - that we must use together in the right way.3 Or they could refer to various kinds of Jews that need to join together to be complete.4

Whatever meaning one gives to the four species, they have a structure that teaches us something about achieving four-fold unity. We start, as in the third month of Sivan, and Shavuos, by putting together the three similar plants - the lulav, hadassim, and aravos. Because they're so similar, that's the easy part. Then we add the very different fourth part, the esrog. As anyone who has ever held all four species during morning prayers on Sukkos knows - that's much more difficult. This principle - combining three similar parts with one very different part - is the main idea and challenge in achieving four-fold unity.

One Theory of Four

We can learn more about four-fold unity, and see how hard it is to achieve, by looking at an example in a different field. In science, the famous theory of relativity by Albert Einstein is also about joining three like parts with one very different part. Until about 100 years ago, people thought the world had only three dimensions - length, width, and height. Einstein showed that time, which people had always thought of as something completely different, is actually a fourth dimension, just like space. Thus Einstein joined the three parts of space with one part of time in a four-fold unity.


People can only see the world in three dimensions, so there is no way to know what time "looks like." Einstein and others figured out that time is a fourth dimension using mathematics. For example, the theory of relativity says that we can find the distance to any place in space and time with this math equation:

distance2 = x2 + y2 + z2 - (ct)2

Notice how the four parts of this equation look very similar. The three parts for space (x, y, and z) and one part for time (t) all have the same form. Because of this similarity, scientists know that time really is another dimension, just like space.

But there is one obvious difference in the time part of the equation - it has the letter "c" and the letter "t." That "c" stands for the speed of light, which is a huge number. The time dimension is very different than the three space dimensions because it includes the speed of light in this way. But, even with that big difference, all four are still dimensions. And each is one part in a four-fold unity.

Einstein's joining of space and time led to even bigger ideas about unity in the physical world. Scientists now know that there are four forces of physics: three similar forces and one very different force.5 It turns out that one four-fold unity can lead to another, even bigger four-fold unity.

Four Quartets

In the Jewish and wider world today, there are some very clear examples of groups that could be joined in a four-fold unity. The most obvious case may be the four denominations of religious observance. In America,6 we have the three liberal camps - Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist - and the one Orthodox camp. The liberal movements have already joined together in a three-fold unity that they call pluralism, the view that there is more than one way to be Jewish. The Orthodox, in contrast, say that their way is the only way to be Jewish. People have struggled for over a century to unify these four parts of the Jewish nation, with little success.

The ideas above about four-fold unity could help solve this achdus problem. Part of the solution may be to realize that the Orthodox will never see themselves as only another denomination in a pluralist group. They are like the esrog of the four species, or time, the fourth dimension. Yes, only one part of the Jewish nation, but a very special, unique part. However, they could still come to accept that there are other parts to the Jewish people, even another group of parts, which for certain reasons are very different from them.7

The structure of four-fold unity goes beyond the Jewish people to the greater family of nations - for instance, to the relationship between Jews and Palestinians. One sad example of this larger-scale achdus took place in the summer of 2014, when the Jewish family mourned the loss of three boys - Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach. Their kidnapping and murder united the Jewish people in a profound way, and each year around the time of Shavuos and Sivan we observe Unity Day to commemorate our loss and work for achdus.

But there is an opportunity for much greater unity, and peace, if we remember our loss that summer of a fourth boy. Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian, was kidnapped and murdered a few weeks later, in Tammuz, as an act of revenge by Jewish terrorists. Abu Khdeir's murder showed, by the worst sort of tragedy, that we are all part of one people. If it can happen through terrible loss, then it can also happen by coming together in mutual acceptance and a desire to live in peace. Perhaps someday soon the parents of all four boys will be able to come together in their shared grief, and transform it into a much greater love for all of us.

In Israel, and especially in Jerusalem, the conflict between peoples goes beyond Jews and Arabs to include the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While some people in each group want the Holy City for their faith alone, the fact is that all three religions have valid claims to Jerusalem. Whether they've been there for 1,300, 2,000, or 3,000 years, all three faiths have been connected to Jerusalem for a long time.

Time has shown that even when different nations make peace with each other, we can still lack equality and unity in our most basic relationship: the connection between women and men. According to Jewish tradition, gender inequality began almost at the beginning of time. But our tradition is also that women and men will ultimately be restored to full equality. We see this struggle happening today at the heart of Jerusalem, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, where the Women of the Wall strive for equal rights to full Jewish observance and closeness to G-d.

I think the unity between women and men, or any intimate couple, is so difficult to achieve because it's a deeper level of connection. It isn't three similar types combining, or even the more difficult four-fold unity, but two very different yet completely equal halves joining to make one. Like the "c" and the "t" nestled together within that special fourth dimension, it's a much deeper and more powerful bond.

In A Time for Love, I said that Shavuos is like the wedding day between G-d and the Jewish people. Sukkos, when we finally achieve four-fold unity, is like the week-long honeymoon. But there is still one more holiday, the quiet fourth yearly festival of Shemini Atzeres.8 Called the "eighth day of assembly," it's one day after Sukkos, when we come inside from the sukkah, like a couple returning home to start their ongoing life together. If Shavuos is "the time of our love," Shemini Atzeres is "the time of our intimacy." It's only one day, but it represents the love that's become timeless.

In this hot and strained month of Tammuz, we're almost guaranteed to lose the love that we've waited for so long. Each year we go through the same cycle, and this time is about loss. But we also know that by year's end we will put the pieces back together and win that higher love. Like Moshe and the Jewish people, G-d and all of us, one day we'll take that love we had in that one place and time and make it into a love that lasts l'olam va'ed (everywhere and always).

1 Shabbat 88a
2 One view is that the three parts were Kohen, Levi, and Israel, but really those groups did not exist at that time. I'm saying that the number three characterizes much of Shavuos and the month of Sivan.
3 Vayikra Rabba 30:12
4 Vayikra Rabba 30:14
5 The three similar forces are: the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and electromagnetism. The one very different force is gravity. However, no one knows how to unify them with mathematics yet.
6 In Israel, it's the chareidi (ultra-Orthodox), dati (national religious), masorti (conservative), and chiloni (secular) groups, but the 3-and-1 split is not as clear.
7 I may write an article explaining these reasons for next month's 140-year (seven score years ago) anniversary of the Orthodox secession in Germany. I think if people understood more of why the Orthodox-Reform split happened they could accept the validity of the various denominations today.
8 The day is celebrated as a double holiday with Simchas Torah, the end and new beginning of the yearly Torah reading cycle.

A Time for Love

Yom Shishi, 4th of Sivan, 5776
Friday, June 10, 2016

I was so shocked by the proposal to split the Western Wall into two separate prayer spaces, and the bitter debate that followed, that I decided to come up to Jerusalem to see if I could do something for the sake of achdus. The Kotel (the Wall) is the one place where every Jew should be welcome, and equally so. I may be only one person, but in a Jewish world so focused on division I am one voice for unity, and at this urgent time we need every person we can get, here, at the Wall.

I came to the Kotel at night time on Rosh Chodesh (the first day of the month) of Adar II. At night, the Wall is crowded with ultra-Orthodox Jews in black-and-white, studying Torah or swaying in prayer. I stood in the outer plaza for the longest time, trying to decide "which Kotel" to go to. Do I express support for the liberal movements and go to the southern end? Or do I go to the place that has always been the Kotel for me, where I connect to G-d? I chose to go to that one and only place for all of our people.

In the morning at the Kotel there is a special neitz (sunrise) prayer service, when everyone begins the main prayer at the instant the sun comes up. I've been praying the neitz service at the Wall nearly every day now for the last three months. It's not without challenges, though; some of the ultra Orthodox try to interfere - standing in front of or near me, or talking to me as I pray. Thank G-d, I'm always able to complete my prayers. But I often find myself thinking, "How can it be like this here? Everyone has a right to come and pray at the Wall."

That's how it was one sunrise 49 years ago, when the Western Wall was liberated in June of 1967.1 Two hundred thousand Jews came to the Kotel as the sun was coming up, on the day of the festival of Shavuos, that year. After two thousand years, the Jewish people were finally free again to come to their holiest site, and everyone came together. The report by the Jerusalem Post is well known:

"Every section of the population was represented. Kibbutz members and soldiers rubbing shoulders with Neturei Karta. Mothers came with children in prams, and old men trudged steeply up Mount Zion, supported by youngsters on either side, to see the wall of the Temple before the end of their days.... Some wept, but most faces were wreathed in smiles."

That's how it was at sunrise about 3,300 years ago, on the first Shavuos in Jewish history, when a united Jewish people stood around Mt. Sinai to hear G-d speak:

"And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there was thunder and lightning, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the sound of a shofar exceedingly loud; so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with G-d; and they stood at the lower part of the mount."2

In every generation, we come together on Shavuos morning as one people, whether it's at Mt. Sinai, at the Western Wall, or some day soon at the Temple in Jerusalem. By joining together in unity on this day, we're able to have a one-on-one connection with G-d. In Jewish tradition, Shavuos is like the wedding night, and day, between the Jews and the One; we're the bride and G-d's the groom, or vice versa.

People often say that Shavuos, unlike the other major festivals, has no mitzvah (commandment) of its own. On Passover we eat matzah. On Sukkos we live in sukkahs. There is a custom to study the Torah all night on Shavuos, but it is not a biblical or even a rabbinical mitzvah. But I note that the Torah passage describing the yearly festivals does, in the same language used for the mitzvahs of the other holidays, give instructions for Shavuos:

"And you should come together on that same day; it should be a special gathering for you; you should do no work on it; as a law forever in all your dwellings throughout your generations."3

In the present-day Jewish world, people don't talk about gathering together on Shavuos. Instead, the rabbis describe Shavuos as the day that we got the Torah, and so they emphasize the custom to study Torah (in particular, Talmud) on Shavuos night. It's true that G-d spoke the Ten Commandments to all of the Jewish people that day, beginning to give us the laws of the Torah. But the main purpose and meaning of Shavuos was that all of the Jewish people came together as one, and literally met G-d at Mt. Sinai.

You can see an unusual emphasis on the Torah in Shavuos observance in the siddur (prayer book) too. In our prayers for the three festivals, we praise G-d for the holidays, saying: "And you gave us, HaShem, our G-d, appointed times for gladness, festivals, and times for joy:"

Unlike the Passover and Sukkos prayers, which express the feelings connected with those holidays - "freedom," "gladness" - the Shavuos prayer sounds oddly plain: "the time of the giving of our Torah." While G-d did start to give us the laws of the Torah, what we really recall each year at this time is the excitement of coming together, experiencing the "Revelation at Sinai," and being intimate with G-d. It is "the time of our unity," "the time of our closeness," even "the time of our love."

Today in Jewish life there is a big emphasis on "the Torah" in many other areas, and not enough focus on a living, meaningful Judaism. This is partly because of the relatively recent rise of ultra-Orthodox, specifically Chareidi Judaism, which values Talmud study above all else. It's also partly due to the fact that the rabbinate, with its focus on Torah teaching and study, has dominated Jewish spiritual life during our long two thousand year exile.

That began to change about 100 years ago, however, with the Zionist movement and its focus on Jewish peoplehood. But it was not without resistance from the rabbis. In 1967, not long after that wonderful Shavuos of achdus at the Western Wall, the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate took control of the site.4 They set up a mechitza, separating women and men, and have forbidden prayer by other denominations. Today, the Women of the Wall face harassment for trying to pray at the Kotel in a gender equal way. And even a more modern Orthodox Jew like myself can't get too close to the Wall for too long.

In the bigger picture, we're now seeing a generational change in Jewish leadership playing out at the Western Wall. The Kotel is, after all, the site of the Temple, which is a recreation of the Mt. Sinai experience in permanent form. The Temple represents the one place where we can "come together" and connect directly with G-d. In the rabbinic period, the Torah is the intermediary in that relationship. But to re-establish our connection, we need everyone - women and men, and every type of Jew. Only a fully united people can make that one-on-one connection with G-d. And that's why the rabbinate resists any Kotel deal that gives equal access to everyone. Full achdus at the Wall would be a big step out of the rabbinic period and into a new era of the Temple.

In the last 100 years, the Jewish people, with G-d's help, have made miraculous progress at emerging from the dark night of exile and into the dawn of connection. And it looks like there's not much farther to go to complete the reunion with each other and with G-d. The Western Wall is, more than any other place, the key location to restoring our achdus. And at this Shavuos season of love, let's all recognize that this is the time for us to come together. I, for one, am standing here at the Wall, watching the clock tick toward the one instant of sunrise, when everyone joins together in praying to the One. All I need, now, is you.

1 Domnitch, L. Magic of Shavuot 1967. Retrieved from
2 Shemos 19:16-17
3 Vayikra 23:21
4 Timeline of the Kotel. Makom Israel. The Jewish Agency for Israel. Retrieved from

Wake Up!

Yom Sheni, 29th of Sh'vat, 5776
Monday, February 8, 2016

The Western Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is the place where Jews - all of the Jewish people - have come for nearly two thousand years to connect to the most special place in the world for them.1 The Jewish people have come to this place for almost two millennia because this is the place where the Temple stood. Long ago, when the Jewish people all lived in Israel, they would come to Jerusalem from all over the Land, converging on this spot to connect, as individuals, and as a people, with G-d, HaShem. They brought prayers, they brought sacrifices, they brought thoughts, feelings - they brought their whole selves to this place.

The location of the Kotel, the "Wall", in the time of the Temple.
The location of the Kotel, the "Wall", today.

The section of the Western Wall known as the Kotel, literally the Wall, is the place that is nearest for us to where the Temple stood. Some people say that this place, where all the Jewish people connect, is the nearest prayer site to the Holy of Holies, the specialist of special places, but that is not true. There is another place in Jerusalem today where you can get close to the Holy of Holies, and even another place - in the tunnels under Jerusalem - where you can get really close.2 But the Kotel, the Wall, is the place that is simply nearest to the Temple, which is the place that all Jews - every Jewish person, every kind of Jew - came to connect with G-d.

Last week a plan was announced, in negotiations that lasted for only three years, to separate some of the Jewish people from this place that belongs to all of the Jewish people.3 The Netanyahu government, with influence from Chareidi, or ultra-Orthodox, members of his coalition,4 issued its latest divisive proclamation, giving the Kotel, the place where every Jew belongs, to the ultra Orthodox, who make up only 10 percent of the Jewish people, and sent the other 90 percent of the Jewish people to the southwest corner of the wall, the place where no one belongs.

The proposed plan for Orthodox (purple), and WOW, Reform, and Conservative (blue), prayer spaces.
The Temple Mount, showing the corner to where the non-Orthodox are excluded in the plan.

News sources have praised this plan as an important step toward broader religious acceptance in Jerusalem and Israel, claiming that it gives the Women of the Wall (WOW) and the Reform and Conservative movements official recognition in Israel. But that is clearly stretching the truth. WOW, Reform, and Conservative do not really win. This is another move by the ultra Orthodox, better described as an ultra-conservative - fundamentalist - group within Jewry, to exert control over the whole of the Jewish people. The deal gives the Chareidim complete control of the place that all of the Jewish people have long considered their most sacred site.

And even at the Kotel, the place where all Jews now belong, the future could, G-d forbid, appear worse in the new plan. Rightly, women and men should get half of the space at the Wall, but today men have nearly three times as much space as women.5 For now, the ultra-Orthodox authority at the Kotel - and one can debate whether that authority is even appropriate at the Wall - still has to contend with the interests of the other 90 percent of the Jewish people. If, G-d forbid, the plan were to take effect, the space available to women could diminish, or there could be further restrictions - G-d forbid.

The Kotel plaza, 74% for men, 26% for women.
The Kotel plaza, 100% for all of the Jewish people.

I think we need to question whether the group that believes it should be closest to the site of the Temple, the place where all Jews belong, truly represents the most important ideals of the Jewish nation - viewing all people as being created in G-d's image, deserving of fair treatment and compassion. That's what qualifies a person and a nation for closeness to G-d. Instead this exclusive group within Jewry is disrespectful to women and to other Jewish groups6, and rejects major social changes in the world of the last century and a half. Do they deserve exclusive access to this place that is special for the entire Jewish nation? I think, no.

I think we need a new plan for the Western Wall, the place where everyone belongs. The Kotel should be a place where every Jew can come and pray to G-d, read the Torah, observe any of the commandments in Judaism, connect with their fellow Jews and with HaShem in joy and freedom, as one people, with one G-d, even if we're not all the same kind of Jew. It's time to end the ultra-Orthodox dominance at this most important place, so that everyone can have a voice at the Wall. That's how it was when the Temple stood, and how it will be again - we can all always come to this one place.

1 Gitlitz, David M., and Davidson, Linda K. (2005). Pilgrimage and the Jews. Westport, CT: Praeger. Retrieved from
2 HaKotel HaKatan. Yeshivat Ateret Kohanim. Retrieved from
3 Kershner, I. (2016, January 31). Israel Approves Prayer Space at Western Wall for Non-Orthodox Jews. New York Times. Retrieved from
4 Magnus, S. S. (2016, January 28). Deal or no deal: We shall not be moved. The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved from
5 Ettinger, Y. (2016, January 31). Compromise Creates Two Western Walls for Two Peoples. Haaretz. Retrieved from
6 Kershner, I. (2016, February 2). New Western Wall Prayer Space Highlights Wider Divide Among Jews. New York Times. Retrieved from

Night Light

Yom Revi'i, 29th of Cheshvan, 5776
Tuesday, November 10, 2015

It's now the twilight of the Jewish year, when the glorious sunset of the high holidays fades away and we head into the dark time of year. It's many months to Passover, when day breaks again on the Jewish calendar. We go through the same cycle each year, enduring the oppressive dark of winter until the dawn of freedom in spring. "Vayehi erev, vayehi voker," "And it was evening, and it was morning" - each day begins with darkness and fear, but eventually light and love win out.

Watching the news over the last few months, it feels like the Jewish world, and all the world, is struggling through the dark of a night. The Jewish family around the globe suffers from a lack of achdus. In Jerusalem, we saw Orthodox Jews fighting with secular Jews over the culture of the Holy City.1 In the debate over the Iran nuclear deal, the Jewish community in America became deeply divided,2 and the deal strained the community's relationship with Israel.3

We also saw a lack of achdus within the family of nations. In Jerusalem, Jews and Arabs fought over the right to go up to the Temple Mount, the place destined to be a "house of prayer for all peoples."4 We saw Muslims stabbing Jews on the street, and Jews shooting many more Muslims. For some time, the Netanyahu government divided Jerusalem, "Jerusalem, built like a city joined tightly together."5 Some Jews, Muslims, and other peoples came together to march for peace, while others built concrete walls to separate. Vayehi erev - it's night - and the darkness is like exile, separating us from each other.

Yet as Jews, we know, vayehi voker, the morning will come. From the Exodus from ancient Egypt to the founding of the modern State of Israel, we've come through many dark nights of exile and into the daylight of freedom. It's evening, and then it's morning, and each "day" is different. Right now the darkness that we're struggling through is a lack of achdus. We can't see each other, we feel separate from each other, we need a little light to show us that we're not alone. The powers that be try to divide, but a new generation strives to connect, bringing together the different parts of our people.

The Jewish nation has a special ability to break free of the dark and into the light, but it's not only for our sake. HaShem charged the Jews with a special mission, "to be a light unto the nations,"6 leading all peoples in fulfilling G-d's plan for the world. On this day of creation, our task is to achieve achdus, healing the breaches in the Jewish family, and within the family of nations. If the Jewish people can succeed at coming together in peace, despite our differences, then we can inspire the others nations of the world to join together as one.

Each week on Shabbat we look forward to this great dawn, saying "... And it was evening, and it was morning, the sixth day. And the heaven and the earth were completed, and all their legion. And on the seventh day G-d finished His work that He made ..."7 In Jewish tradition, the number 7 represents completion. We wish each other a Shabbat Shalom on the seventh day of each week hoping for that seventh and final period of this world, when all peoples will live together in peace with each other and with HaShem.

Yet while Shabbat is about completion, it's not the end. Each week after Shabbat, night comes again and we journey into the dark of a new week. Each year after the sunset of the high holidays, we go through another dark period at the start of the new year. Though the sun sets behind us, on the other horizon a new light begins to glow. It starts with only a pinpoint in the black, but then another, and another, as the stars come out. In another month we'll celebrate Chanukah, the eight day festival of lights.

On Chanukah we remember the miracle of a light that was supposed to last only one day, but went on day after day after day - for eight days - and even to this day, when we kindle our own lights. "Eight is the number of infinity," sings Jewish reggae star Matisyahu in his Chanukah pop song Miracle, "one more than what you know how to be." On Shabbat we look to the seventh "day," the final era of peace in this world. On Chanukah we look beyond, to what comes next. It's the Jewish belief, and the belief of many of the world's religions, that there is more to life than this world - there's a much bigger world to come that is our ultimate destiny.8

As Jews, we have a special role to play in HaShem's plan for the world. G-d gave us the job of leading all of the nations to recognize HaShem and live together in an ethical and peaceful society. And to achieve that goal, the different parts of our family must unite. But while we are special in one sense, G-d gave all of the peoples of the world unique abilities, spiritual and physical, each nation with its own special role in HaShem's plan. I wonder if perhaps all of the nations of the human family might need to join up to fulfill our ultimate purpose. I think that could be the larger promise of our efforts for peace, though it may be far away.

For now, we still struggle through the dark of separation, vayehi erev. It's night in Jerusalem, in America, and in all of our communities. The different parts of the Jewish family, and the various peoples of the world, remain divided. We feel so small, and alone, and it's scary in the dark. But all it takes is a little light to see that we're not alone. Each connection we make matters, each step toward achdus with another Jew kindles more light. And as that light grows, it inspires all peoples to connect with each other, and with HaShem.

Sometimes the night is so dark that we wonder if we'll ever make it to the light of day. But the Jewish people, perhaps more than any other, know that's not true. Each week at the Shabbat table, each year at Passover, in every generation, even after thousands of years, vayehi voker, it will be morning, and we'll go into that light together.

Layla tov. :)

This post is dedicated to the memory of Chaim Haviv, 78, who was killed in Jerusalem in the attack on Egged bus #78 on the 30th of Tishrei, 5776, Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan. May there soon be peace in Jerusalem, and may his neshama have an aliyah (may his soul go up).

1 Chabin, M. (2015, Sept. 13). Orthodox and secular Jews fight over shaping Jerusalem’s character. USA Today. Retrieved from Religion News Service.
2 Grossman, R. (2015, Aug. 26). Iran nuclear proposal brings discord among Jews. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from Chicago Tribune.
3 Ackerman, G. and Bloomberg. (2015, Oct. 1). Israel's divide with U.S. Jews exacerbated by Iran Nuclear Deal. Bloomberg. Retrieved from Chicago Tribune.
4 Isaiah 56:7
5 Psalms 122:3
6 Isaiah 49:6, et al.
7 Genesis 1:31-2:2
8 In Jewish tradition, the present world is called olam hazeh (this world) while the next world is known as olam habah (the world to come).

Yes, Please

Yom Shishi, 20th of Elul, 5775
Friday, September 4, 2015

"Ani LeDodi, V'Dodi Li," "I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me," sings King Solomon in a famous verse of Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs.1 In Hebrew, the initial four letters of this phrase spell a new word: ELUL, the name of the sixth month of the Jewish calendar, the month we're in right now. The month of Elul is a month of love, when, after the breakup period during the months of Tammuz and Av, HaShem is extra sweet to us to help us back into our relationship with Him. This time of special closeness comes before the serious days from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur, when we take stock of our relationships with HaShem and with each other. After being forgiven on Yom Kippur, HaShem and the Jews finally consumate their love in the sukkah, a kind of honeymoon suite, during the year-end holiday of Sukkot.

The month of Elul is also known as the month of the besulah (the virgin), symbolizing the Jewish people as a bride, and HaShem as our groom.2 The book of Shir HaShirim is actually a love song about a bride and a groom who have been separated but seek to reunite. Traditionally, the song is understood to be about the love between HaShem and the Jewish people. But I think the story of an estranged bride and groom can also represent any relationship where people have become separated but want to get back together, like one Jew with another. In Elul, it's time to make up, and as in any relationship, there are two ways to do that. One is to look back at your mistakes and apologize, which we do from Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur. But in Elul we do it the other way, by being a little nicer to our beloved, showing them a little more sweet.

Sugar - Maroon 5

In the month of the Elul, "the King is in the field," the parable goes - HaShem comes out to meet all the Jewish people, whoever we are, wherever we are, to draw us closer to Him.3 It's an act of great kindness for the King to make Himself available to everyone in this way. During the rest of the year G-d is in His palace, as it were, and without a special pass we can't get close to Him. But HaShem doesn't only come out to see us for our sake, G-d comes because He wants the relationship too. HaShem is not a stoic, unfeeling King, but a warm and loving King, even a King with a sense of humor. When the sixth month of Elul ends and the seventh month of Tishrei begins, on Rosh HaShanah, HaShem enters the palace, and the Jews again crown G-d as our beloved King. But if you get close to HaShem in the field, you might see the King wink at you from beneath the crown.

The first seven months of the Jewish calendar, from Nissan to Tishrei, parallel other time periods in Jewish life. Each week we go through a seven day cycle - six days of work and preparation for the seventh day of Shabbat. Like Elul, the sixth month, Friday, the sixth day, is also a time when we need a little more kindness from HaShem and from each other. After a long week of ups and downs, and many mistakes, on Friday we somehow have to put everything together for Shabbat. Preparing the meals, finalizing the guest list, doing the laundry, cleaning the house. On the sixth day of the week we might need to cut a few corners and give each other some slack as we hurry to prepare for the holy seventh day. Once the sun goes down, it's Shabbat, the special day of rest, but hopefully we can still feel the love within the holiness.

Part of the reason why Jews celebrate Shabbat is because we believe that, on a bigger scale, the world is going through another sequence of seven time periods. According to Jewish tradition, there will be six millennia, six thousands years, of effort and preparation for a seventh millennium of peace and tranquility. We're now in the year 5775 on the Jewish calendar, and many religious Jews believe that the great Shabbat will start soon. For the Jewish people, for all people, and for HaShem, it's been a long "week" with many ups and downs, big and little mistakes. And there's still a lot to do to prepare for the worldwide Shabbat, a lot of pieces to put together. So as in the month of Elul and on Friday, we might need some slack from HaShem and from each other to have everything ready on time.

The cycle of seven "days" in Jewish life also happens on the scale of generations. As I've explained in the first five posts of Achdus Now, the Jewish world today is characterized by some sharp divisions. That's not wrong, it's an essential part of the seven-day cycle. When making a braided challah for Shabbat each week, at some point you need to split the dough into separate pieces - it's a necessary part of the process. But the next step is to put those pieces together, and in the end we have a beautiful braided challah. Without the division, the final united challah wouldn't be nearly as beautiful. I believe it's now time for the Jewish people to take the sixth step, to combine our separate parts into one beautiful whole.

Andy Grammer - Honey, I'm Good

The work of achdus is about connection, joining together different parts. Orthodox "and" Reform, Diaspora "and" Israeli, women "and" men, combining these seemingly opposing parts of the Jewish world. In Hebrew grammar, the connective word "and" is simply the sixth letter of the alphabet, the letter "vav," which actually looks like a link. In contrast, the fifth letter of the alphabet, the letter "hey," is one of few Hebrew letters that has separate parts, implying division. While the previous generation was focused on and defined by differences, the task of the Jewish world today, for a new generation devoted to unity, is to focus on joining together the parts that were previously separate. Each of us might be good separate, but when we come together we're even better.

As in the month of Elul, when HaShem is very sweet with us to help us to reconnect to Him, in a generation of unity we might need a little honey to rejoin the various parts of the Jewish family. There has been a lot of hurt between the different groups in the Jewish world over the years, so we all need some extra love to get over our differences and come together again. And, as on Friday when we have to hurry and give ourselves slack to get everything done on time, an achdus generation might need to be lenient and forgiving. It's been a long week, and though we haven't been perfect in how we've treated each other, it's time to put all of our pieces back together.

We haven't been perfect to each other, and we haven't been perfect to HaShem. But at some point in every relationship, we realize that our partner is not perfect, yet there's still something about him or her that makes them perfect for us. At Mt. Sinai we signed a kesubah (marriage contract) with G-d that obligated us to do every commandment to the last detail. But that wasn't why HaShem fell for us at Sinai. HaShem loved us then because we had achieved achdus, we were living together as one people in peace. If the Jewish people can come together again in unity, we wouldn't be perfect, but we still might be perfect to HaShem.

So ultimately the task of achdus is about more than connecting one Jew with another Jew, it's about connecting all of the Jewish people with G-d. There's a "vav" in that famous verse of Shir HaShirim, and it connects two different parts of the phrase. "Ani LeDodi," "I am for my beloved," could be understood as each Jew being for their fellow Jews, "and" then "Dodi Li," "my Beloved is for me." The Jewish people are HaShem's bride, but we're only beautiful to G-d if all of our pieces are braided together as one. That's how we looked at Mt. Sinai, and it's how our ancestors looked after they repented and reconnected with HaShem in the month of Elul. Step one is for each Jew to love their fellows, and in step two the King will show His love for us.

1 Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) 6:3
2 "The Month of Elul According to Sefer Yetzirah", Gal Einai,,
3 Ibid

Half Calf

Yom Revi'i, 28th of Tammuz, 5775
Tuesday, July 14, 2015

I remember before I started dating, I would tell my family and friends that I wanted to date dutch - I'd pay for my half of the meal or coffee, and my date would pay for her half. It seemed only fair. My friends and family made fun of me, and when I did start dating they'd nervously ask "did you make her pay?!" "No," I said, and smiled, and they'd seemingly collapse in relief. And I admit it felt right, like I was being a man. But if you really think about it, is it very fair?

We're now in the Three Weeks, a time of mourning on the Jewish calendar. No weddings, no music videos, and no haircuts or shaves, so dating is even more difficult. The Three Weeks began on the 17th of Tammuz, when HaShem nearly broke up with the Jewish people over the making of the golden calf. The golden calf appears to be only between the Jews and HaShem, but I claim it was also about our relationships with each other. We connected with HaShem at Mt. Sinai because we were unified as a people. If our achdus broke in any way, it would also affect our relationship with G-d.

The incident of the golden calf occurs in a section of the Torah called parshas (portion) Ki Sisa, which begins: "And HaShem spoke to Moshe, saying: When you take a census of the Jewish people,... each man should give .... a half a shekel as a portion for HaShem."1 By counting up those half shekels, we can find the total number of Jews. The use of a half shekel teaches us, commentators note, that a Jew alone is only half a Jew; we must join with others to achieve our full potential. So too, every person, man or woman, has a zivug, their other half whom they need to fulfill their purpose in this world.

(Video added after the Three Weeks.)

Later on in parshas Ki Sisa, the people panic when it appears that Moshe is not coming down from the mountain. They approach Aaron and ask him to make a god to lead them on. "And Aaron said to them, remove the gold earings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me."2 Why does Aaron ask for gold only from the women and the children? The most well known answer comes from the major commentator Rashi, who cites a Midrash (an ancient commentary in story form) saying that Aaron figured the women and children would not want to part with their jewelry, and that delay would be long enough for Moshe to come back.3

Maybe it's only me, though I hope not, but I think there's something very wrong with this explanation. It's gender biased, inappropriate, seriously lacking in respect for women. Even if Rashi and the Midrash are wrong, it's still hard to think of an appropriate explanation for why Aaron made that statement. Let me say first that Aaron HaKohen was one of the most spiritually advanced people who ever lived. He would become the High Priest in the Sanctuary, and he was known as a great peacemaker, the Mr. Achdus of his day. But I want to suggest, nervously, that he was also a human being, subject to the biases of his culture.

Aaron's comment revealed a flaw in our achdus, one that we still struggle with today. We learned at the start of parshas Ki Sisa that men and women are two halves of the same coin. Those halves, while different in some ways, are of equal worth, and they complete each other. Yet from Adam and Eve until now we fail to recognize this fact. This problem took on one of its worst forms in Egypt with Pharoah's decree to throw all the boys in the river and keep the girls alive. The prophet Jeremiah called Egypt "a very fair calf" - for all its cultural advance, Egypt was terribly lacking in basic dignity for all human beings.4

The Jewish people ultimately repent their mistake, and HaShem forgives us. When the call is put out for people to contribute to build the Tabernacle, so that HaShem can dwell among us, the Torah records that "The men came with the women, everyone whose heart motivated them brought... all sorts of gold ornaments... for HaShem."5 Some of this gold would be used to make the cover of the Holy Ark, where, from between two gold cherubs, one male and one female, HaShem would speak to Moshe and the Jewish people. For HaShem to dwell among us, we need to make a welcome space for G-d between us - as individual women and men, and as a people.

Sadly, the sin of the golden calf has not been completely forgiven, as we recall at this time each year. We continue to bear the mistakes of our ancestors. Part of that heritage is the underlying cause for the sin of the golden calf. Every morning when I open my Orthodox siddur to pray, I'm faced with the following pair of "blessings" prescribed for women and men.

The * refers to comments that seek to justify the difference.

If this is how we see each other, and ourselves, how can G-d dwell between us? Perhaps it is appropriate for men and women to say different blessings, as there are indeed differences between the genders. But those blessings must express the dignity, nobility, and fundamental equality of both women and men. For some time now, I've been saying "for having made me according to His will." It's my own small effort to fix the gender inequality in the Orthodox camp. I still say the rest of the prayers,6 keep Shabbat, study the Torah each day, and live my best Orthodox Jewish life, but some things need to change. We're still in the process of fixing the world that we've inherited.

While it's beyond the scope of this post, the equality of men and women is not only a matter of achdus between the genders; it affects the achdus of the entire Jewish nation. Gender equality is perhaps the biggest issue separating Orthodox Jews from Jews in other denominations. But it doesn't have to be. Some movements, like Conservatism, have made great strides at achieving gender equality. Though in some cases they go too far, ignoring appropriate gender differences that do have a place in Judaism. In my view, Judaism should include some of the gender equality of Conservatism and some of the traditional gender roles of Orthodoxy. Just as a person needs both of their halves to be whole, so the different parts of our nation need each other to be complete.

During these Three Weeks, we mourn the loss of HaShem's presence among us, and reflect on past mistakes that led to that loss. Our tradition tells us that eventually these days will be transformed from a time of mourning to one of celebration. But for that change to happen, we must work to fix the mistakes of the past. To restore our connection with HaShem, we need to work on our achdus, each lone half-a-Jew joining with all other Jews. Only when we can look across that table in the coffee shop and see the other person as the essential other half that completes us, whether man or woman, Conservative or Orthodox, will we feel that spark of G-d between us again.

Shalom Aleinu, and don't forget the tip. :)

1 Exodus 30:12-13
2 Exodus 32:2
3 Rashi, Exodus 32:2 from Midrash Tanchuma 21
4 Jeremiah 46:20
5 Exodus 35:22
6 With one exception. In one other blessing, instead of saying "for not having made me a goy (gentile nation)", I say "for having made me a kadosh (special) nation."