From Rabbi Lieberman

  • Purim and the Politics of Power

    Posted ‍‍יא אדר ב' ה תשעא - March 17, 2011 By in Rabbi's Thoughts With | Comments Off


    Have you ever noticed the phenomenon in which, as soon as you turn your attention to a given subject, it starts popping up in all kinds of places? Our Text Tuesday group began its exploration of the Book of Esther a number of weeks ago and, since then, I have encountered a number of news articles and essays which, in one way or another, relate to the Book of Esther, to Purim or to both. Just within the past few weeks I came across an essay in the online digest, Jewish Ideas Daily, on “Cyrus, Ahmadinejad, and the Politics of Purim”. Before that, it was a press release from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency documenting Iran?s downgrading of the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai as an official pilgrimage site (calling it a shrine to the “genocide perpetrated by Jews against Iranians” in the fictitious story of Esther).


    As we approach the celebration of the multivalent holiday we call Purim, we will profit from making the time to explore its themes that bring us the ever-new message of the capriciousness of Jewish existence, the vagaries of power, and the need for vigilance in a constantly-shifting political landscape.


    Now, if all of the aforementioned is making you think of events that have been unfolding in Egypt over the past month, it is no coincidence. Among other things, the story of Purim reminds us that political certainties can be transformed overnight; that today?s partner in peace may be tomorrow?s deadly antagonist; that the despot calling the shots today may be swinging from a gallows, or booking a flight for Saudi Arabia, tomorrow. The complex drama unfolding in the Middle East that has sent shock-waves through Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan, has even the sharpest pundits guessing about the outcome and, especially, its long-term implications for Israel.


    And, if we are tempted to view this situation through the lens of the lessons that Purim brings us, what shall we conclude? Is Egypt?s Moslem Brotherhood the “Haman” who must, at all costs, be kept from gaining control? Does the plot of the story of Esther and Mordechai blind us to the fact that it is, more than anything else, a carefully constructed farce, blurring any possible parallels with what is unfolding in the Arab world? Does the implicit message of Purim that, when push comes to shove, only Jews will defend Jewish interests, resonate with us and, perhaps, suggest the relationship we choose with the State of Israel?


    Scholars note that the Book of Esther is one which very much reflects the reality of a Diaspora Jewish community, one that, like its Jewish counterparts through the centuries, knew what it meant to be, alternately or simultaneously, marginalized, valued and, at times, persecuted. This is how many of us understand the position of Israel on the global stage. How ironic that Israel, the culmination of the Zionist dream of escaping the problems inherent in living in Diaspora, should find itself experiencing so many of them: vilification, opprobrium, anxiety, isolation.


    Like you, I will continue anxiously to follow the dramatic changes that threaten to reshape the Middle East political landscape. In the interim, I will throw myself into our celebration of Purim, on Saturday night, March 19with a heightened respect for the holiday?s themes and with a deepened commitment to the joy of Jewish living that it also bring us. I hope you?ll be there to celebrate with me!


    Reb Elias


  • We’re all working for Pharoah

    Posted ‍‍יב אדר ב' ה תשעא - March 18, 2011 By in Rabbi's Thoughts With | Comments Off

    Call it England, call it Spain
    Egypt rules with whip and chain
    Moses free my people again!
    We’re all working for Pharaoh

    Pharaoh he sits in his tower of steel
    Around his feet the princes kneel
    Far beneath we shoulder the wheel
    We’re all working for Pharaoh

    [from Pharoah, by Richard Thompson]

    Contemporary folk-rocker Richard Thompson is not a Jew. In fact, he’s a Sufi, but I believe that he understands the essence of the festival we begin celebrating on Monday evening, April 18. Passover is that annual reminder of some quintessential truths: the world is still well-supplied with Pharaohs and that back-breaking, soul-deadening labor is still the lot of hundreds of millions of human beings.

    How sadly ironic that, as the Feast of Freedom approaches, we are witnessing in this country (Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana) unprecedented assaults on unions and upon the very principle of labor organizing and collective bargaining.  A new book by Philip Dray, There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America, documents the long struggle between Pharaohs of industry and the workers whose labor enriches those Pharaohs and their shareholders.

    Dray notes that the story of organized labor in America is “much more than a catalog of strikes, picket lines and flailing police batons. The debate about work and industry and the struggle for workers’ rights and dignity have ben consuming subjects since the birth of our nation; they have shaped laws and customs, acted as a crucible for social change, and ultimately helped define what it means to be an American.”

    And Jews have been in the thick of it, on both sides certainly, but most tellingly and significantly in the vanguard of labor organizers. “And that’s hardly surprising. After all, Jewish names dot the annals of the labor movement to the point of ubiquity. While excluded from the traditional European trade guilds – and relegated to careers as pawnbrokers, money changers, tobacco handlers and jewel traders – Jews formed their own bunds (labor leagues) in the 19th and 20th centuries.

    Left-wing activism borne of years of harsh repression found a fertile home in the crowded, inner-city homes Jews carved out in American cities, and was recharged when the children of these immigrants came of age in the turbulent 1960s.

    Throughout history, the typical Jewish labor activist was unlikely to be found at Shabbat services or Torah study. In a study conducted by U.C. Berkeley’s Institute of Industrial Relations, a full 20 percent of the California union leaders interviewed identified as Jewish, but very few considered themselves to be religious.

    But, to many, fighting for the underprivileged is what Judaism is all about, going back several generations.”


    We now take for granted the fruits of those struggles waged by organized labor, concepts as basic as fire escapes, 40 (not 60 or 70)-hour work-weeks, benefits, paid vacations, and, as Dray writes, “the principle that workers have a right to be equitably paid for the work they do, treated with dignity, and to believe their efforts might better their own prospects and the lives of those dear to them.”

    Whether we think of Moses as the first labor organizer or not, Passover affords us a perfect opportunity to look critically at the world in which we live and the extraordinary degree of comfort and privilege we enjoy as a direct consequence of the labor of others. While globalization and world-wide economic recession both undermine the principles of unionization and collective bargaining, there could not be a better time for us to reflect on the history of unions in this country as well as their troubled future.

    Reb Elias

  • What the Devil?!….

    Posted ‍‍ד שבט ה תשעא - January 9, 2011 By in Rabbi's Thoughts With | Comments Off

    From time to time, I read an article in the press that both fascinates me and astonishes me.

    Such was the case last month when I came across an article, in The New York Times, whose headline read, “For Catholics, Interest in Exorcism Is Revived”. In it, reporter Laurie Goodstein described a recent conference of Catholic Bishops whose purpose was to train Catholic clergy “to distinguish who really needs an exorcism from who really needs a psychiatrist, or perhaps some pastoral care.” It was attended by 66 priests and 56 bishops. The reporter quoted Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, who organized the conference: “[Exorcism] is only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of a person. But it’s rare, it’s extraordinary, so the use of exorcism is also rare and extraordinary. But we have to be prepared.”

    One Catholic scholar, R. Scott Appleby, a professor of American Catholic history at the University of Notre Dame, thinks that the timing of this conference makes perfect sense.

    “What they’re trying to do in restoring exorcisms,” he says, “is to strengthen and enhance what seems to be lost in the church, which is the sense that the church is not like any other institution. It is supernatural, and the key players in that are the hierarchy and the priests who can be given the faculties of exorcism. It is a strategy for saying: ‘We are not the Federal Reserve, and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons.’”

    Setting aside images of Linda Blair’s head-spinning, bile-spewing, Devil-possessed character in William Friedkin’s 1973 film, The Exorcist, and, in the interest of full-disclosure, acknowledging that rituals of exorcism are also known to have been part of Jewish practice in centuries past [though they focused on possession of the living by the souls of the dead, not the Devil], I find the news of a conference on practical exorcism in the Catholic Church both amusing and disturbing on a number of levels.

    That, in 2011, the same institution that mercilessly hounded Galileo should still affirm the existence of an extrinsic and irrational source of evil–The Devil–is simply disheartening. Our world needs more, not less, rational thinking. I shudder for the “possessed” Catholic whose priest decides that exorcism is to be preferred to psychiatric evaluation and intervention. I also lament the growing trend within the Catholic Church toward conservative views and practices, a seemingly conscious rejection of Nostre Aetate, the document that enshrined significant Church reforms initiated by Pope John XXIII in 1965.

    The Judaism that I embrace and cherish coexists easily with the world of ration and reason. While it affirms the reality of the spiritual and the sacred, it does not posit a source of evil that stand in opposition to God or that is a free agent, seeking to sow seeds of evil in the world by taking possession of hapless souls. “The Devil made me do it!” has never been, in Judaism, a defense for transgressions.

    One of the daily blessings that we encounter in our siddur (prayer book) praises the God “sh’asani Yisrael….who has made me a Jew.” Sometimes all it takes is a newspaper article to remind me how much I value that blessing!

    Reb Elias

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