A Note of Confusion: Shabbat Rosh HaShanah 5781

Do you find the shofar service confusing? Good, because it is supposed to be that way! Many rabbinic traditions about shofar, such as blowing it daily for a month prior, but then stopping the day before Rosh HaShanah, and then blowing it at different points of the service are supposed “to confuse Satan.” Poor Satan—Jews…

The Gates of Tears: Nitzavim VaYelekh 5780

A student touched me deeply today when I opened our Zoom meeting and found them weeping. “Why are you crying?” I asked. They said, “How can I stand before my community and lead them in prayer when such terrible things are happening? How can I pray for blessing when things are so wrong?” How indeed?…

Covenantal Judaism: Ki Tavo 5780

About fifteen years ago Rabbi David Wolpe suggested that Conservative Judaism be rebranded as Covenantal Judaism. I felt this to be an attractive solution to our brand challenge. Wolpe spoke of the covenant on numerous levels—a theological covenant between Jews and God, a national covenant between Jews and each other, and an ethical covenant between…

Who’s a False Witness? Shoftim 5780

Honesty is the bedrock of justice. Legal proceedings to determine innocence or guilt, obligation or exemption, depend on honest and truthful testimony. For this reason, the Decalogue includes the prohibition of false testimony among its list of severe social crimes, beside murder and theft (Exod. 20 and Deut. 5). In Parshat Shoftim we learn that…

Remembering Rabbi Steinsaltz z”l

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has been a towering presence in my Jewish learning for the past forty years. I did not have the privilege of knowing him personally, but I feel that he has been my steadiest hevruta since ninth grade, when our high school presented us each with his Hebrew edition of Brakhot for Talmud…

Complicity and Conscience: Rosh Hodesh Tammuz 5780

The Torah says that Caleb ben Yifuneh was blessed with “a different spirit,” and that this differentiation allowed him alone to survive the curse of death in the desert. At Numbers 14:23, God tells Moses that the entire generation that had witnessed divine miracles in Egypt and the desert but had nevertheless acted testily ten…

Separation from Cain: Naso 5780

“When a man or a woman commits any wrong toward a fellow person, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes their guilt, they shall confess the wrong that they have done. They shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one who was wronged.”…

As if a slave, as if free: Pesah 5780

Pharaoh says something odd to Moses and Aaron right at the start of their confrontation: “Why do you distract the people from their tasks? Get to your labors!” The first half of the sentence implies that Moses and Aaron are not enslaved like other Israelites with “their tasks.” But by the end of the verse…

Sheltering in Place: Shabbat Tzav/HaGadol 5780

Confinement is the dominant experience of the Covid-19 crisis, whether one is healthy but avoiding unnecessary outings, or ill and under quarantine. My favorite time of day here in NYC is 7 PM when people lean out their windows and cheer for health care providers and other front line workers. From our apartment we see…

Minyan in Cyberspace?

The Coronavirus pandemic has affected our lives in many unfortunate ways, and we worry that much worse is yet to come. Saving lives is our first obligation, and this responsibility led most Jewish communities across the world to cancel public worship as soon as public health officials recommended this measure. As with other aspects of…

Temples of the Mind: Terumah 5780

A wood model has been on display in the JTS entrance for the past few years. It depicts the 21st Century campus with all its structures—the atrium, gardens, library, auditorium and residence hall. In its three dimensionality the model is more evocative than the posters fashioned by computer aided design of phantom students occupying imagined…

Mountain Man Moses: Mishpatim 5780

Orson Schofield Phelps, AKA “Old Mountain” was a famous guide to the Adirondack mountains in the mid-19th century. Based in Keene Valley, NY, he cut the first trail to the top of Mt Marcy in 1861 and gave many of the high peaks their current names. His face adorned with a bushy beard, his head…