From Rabbi Lieberman

  • 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

  • Sunset, Chanukah, Gratitude

    Posted By in Rabbi's Thoughts With | Comments Off


    David Budbill, from While We’ve Still Got Feet .
    Tonight at sunset walking on the snowy road,
    my shoes crunching on the frozen gravel, first

    through the woods, then out into the open fields
    past a couple of trailers and some pickup trucks, I stop

    and look at the sky. Suddenly: orange, red, pink, blue,
    green, purple, yellow, gray, all at once and everywhere.

    I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
    and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening

    a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
    in this life, in this evening, under this sky.

    Chanukah—the Festival of lights—arrives “early” this year. Which is to say that it always begins on the 25th of Kislev but that, with respect to the secular calendar, there is a significant gap this year between Chanukah and Christmas? Which, for many of us, is a nice thing insofar as it diminishes our exposure to the inevitable and inappropriate comparisons between those holidays?

    As December 1st approaches, we will pull down from our shelves or out of cupboards our heirloom Chanukiyot (Chanukah candelabra) or, perhaps, we will fashion a new one this year out of recycled materials, and we will ready ourselves for that first night’s candle-lighting ritual.

    On that first night of Chanukah we recite three b’rachot (blessings). The first references our obligation to light the festival lights; the second reminds us of the miracles our ancestors experienced at this season of year in ages past. And on the first night, and the first night only, we add that blessing known as Sh’hechianu, giving praise for the Power that “gives us life, sustains us, and enables us to reach this season.”

    The older I get, the more I treasure the opportunity to recite that particular b’racha. Which is why I was delighted to encounter the poem by David Budbill reproduced above. Its closing lines strike me as a beautiful translation of Sh’hechianu and, having just bit the bullet and joined AARP, I can speak the poet’s words and mean them:

    I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
    and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening

    a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
    in this life, in this evening, under this sky.

    As the dark of winter closes in to enfold us, and we gather round the Chanukah candles on the first night to warm our souls with light and with memory, may the words of Sh’hechianu and/or Budbill’s poem, call us to the kind of gratitude that engenders generosity in spirit and in deed.

    Reb Elias

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