The Waning Moon of Elul by Yosef Kanefsky

September 15, 2014

A couple of years ago I read an essay entitled The ‘Busy’ Trap written by a fellow named Tim Krieder. Although I hadn’t thought about the essay much since then, it came flooding back to me in a sudden torrent last week, as I watched the moon of Elul wane.

Here’s the essay’s opening paragraph:
If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”

Yeah, that’s me. That’s probably a lot of us. Crazy busy. And it’s probably not such a good thing. Especially this time of year.

I’ve often thought, that in an ideal world a total stranger would be able to look at our appointment books and our to-do lists, and through these alone understand who we are, and what our life is about. He’d be able to describe our most cherished goals, maybe even catch a glimpse of our deepest dreams. In this ideal world, our daily calendar would be the concrete expression of our life’s vision, and the entries therein would be the pixels which together form a snapshot of our highest aspirations – the contributions we want to make, the impact we want to have, the progeny that we want to be able to offer to the world. But in this world, the one we actually inhabit, this “stranger” experiment wouldn’t work out. I can tell you that were a stranger to have tried this with my appointment book and to-do list this past week, he’d have concluded that my most deeply cherished goal is to replace the burned out fluorescent bulbs in our kitchen fixture, and that my grand personal vision revolves around securing an appointment for a colonoscopy.

There are two reasons for the disparity between what ideally might be, and what is. One is that we are basar v’dam. We are human beings with material needs and material problems that we need to spend time addressing. No less a giant of the spirit than Rambam divided God’s Mitzvot between those which are aimed at developing our moral and spiritual/intellectual selves, and those intended to improve our society’s material conditions. There’s no shame in this. This is the way we were created.

But the other reason that our daily schedules don’t tell the story of who we are and what our life’s vision is, has nothing to do with our flesh-and-blood composition per se. It is rather that we have all become – to one degree or another – crazy busy. We have, usually out of sheer necessity, surrendered to the un-time bound nature of modern-day work. And it now fills out our daily calendar wall-to-wall. It’s not that work isn’t meaningful. It should be, and hopefully is. But as we’re all keenly aware, work cannot all by itself constitute the story of a life. Work cannot all by itself comprise a vision for our short time here on this planet. You and I alike have experienced that dreadful feeling of running through life at break-neck speed, but without a firm handle on where we’re going, or what we really want to achieve. To borrow Moshe’s image from last week’s parasha, we often feel like the fully-sighted person who is “groping around beneath the noontime sun, as a blind person gropes in the darkness”.

And it might even be even a little worse than just that. At the end of his essay, Kreider alleges that as a society we’ve not only allowed busy-ness to steamroll our living with vision, we’ve actually adopted busy-ness in place of living with vision. He describes “Busyness” as serving “as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously our lives cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if we are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day”. This is a rather pointed allegation, taking “groping in the light” to a whole other level. Of course it may be that he was referring to other people here, and that this isn’t true for us. Or maybe, it’s a little bit true for us too.

The moon of Elul is already waning. And what the waning Elul moon means for us is that the time has come, today, right now, to step out of our Busyness, and to reacquaint ourselves with our personal vision. To ask, “what is my story? Where am I going? How can I find my way back to those things, the mere thought of which causes my heart to pulsate and my soul to vibrate? What are my dreams? What is my vision?

It’s that time of year again. The moon of Elul is waning.


There’s Enough Room in the Heart. by Yosef Kanefsky

August 4, 2014

I know it’s an absurd question.  So I’ll only entertain it for a moment.

The eighth verse of Eicha (Lamentations) simply and plainly states that the Jews of Judea were themselves responsible for the Destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile from the land.  “Jerusalem sinned grievously, and therefore became an abandoned outcast”. This assertion is central to the theology and religious worldview of Eicha, and is consistent with the predictions and pleadings of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and virtually all of Israel’s prophets.

Nonetheless, despite this clear assignment of blame and responsibility, despite the assertion that the military defeat was justified in spiritual and moral terms, the book immediately proceeds to mourn over the loss of all the children who were caught up in the war. “For these I weep, my eyes run down with water. My children are lost, for the enemy has triumphed.”

On then, to the absurd question:  Why does the book mourn? Isn’t this sort of mourning misguided and wrong? Doesn’t it reflect ignorance and willful disregard for the larger moral narrative? Isn’t it an expression of a dangerous – even threatening – emotional softness, when what it required is a hard, unflinching focus on the right-and-wrong of the story?

I know. It’s an absurd question. It’s an absurd question because the death of children, no matter how it happens, is a profound tragedy.  Woe for the horrible waste of it. The undeserved suffering. The loss of innocence and beauty. What heart is there that can look the other way?  The book of Eicha reflects what we all know. That no matter how compelling or morally weighty the explanation for it may be, the death of children is still heart-wrenching.

Each one of us has privately quietly mourned, after seeing the pictures and reading the stories of children who have died in Gaza. We have mourned because we are humans, and because we are Jews. And we have mourned thus, despite our knowledge that the blame and responsibility for these deaths lie squarely with the enemy, an enemy which holds children on its own lap while it fires at ours. We have mourned, because this knowledge does not make the outcome less tragic.

But while we have mourned in our hearts, we have been afraid of admitting to others that we have done so. We tend to feel that we mustn’t say it out loud. That we mustn’t include Gazan children in our public prayers for Divine protection.  Because we think that this would be perceived as a betrayal of our people, a betrayal of our selfless and courageous soldiers.  While in reality of course, such a failure to mourn would only be a betrayal of our own souls, of our deepest nature.

Each one of us is mourning the loss of every precious fallen chayal. Which of us could not see his own child in the sweet face of Hadar Goldin, or in the smile of Yuval Dagan? And we have, all of us together, just now completed the shloshim for Naftali and Gilad and Ayal. And the mourning for our own will always be more profound and more wrenching than the mourning for the other. But chevre, let us not be afraid to say publically that we also mourn for the dead children of Gaza. Because what kind of Jewish heart would not? What kind of Jewish nation could not?


Jewish Strength and Jewish Beauty in a Time of War by Yosef Kanefsky

July 25, 2014

There is no strength like the strength which emanates from one’s moral core. There is no beauty like the beauty which radiates from one’s innermost soul. The Jewish moral core and innermost soul are the ones that have been shaped and formed over thousands of years by the words of our teachers and sages.

Consider the following rabbinic teaching. When the Biblical King Avimelech was warned by God to not touch Sarah for she was a married woman, the king promptly returned her to Avraham in the morning. But as a residual consequence of God’s displeasure, all of the women of Avimelech’s household became infertile. Avraham prayed for then, and in response to Avraham’s prayer, God restored their fertility.

The Torah’s next chapter begins with God remembering Sarah, and blessing her with conception. As our Sages read the stories, Sarah conceived precisely during that short window between when Avraham prayed, and when God restored fertility to the women of Avimelech’s household. From which we are to learn that, “Whoever requests mercy for another, and is himself in need of the same mercy, he is answered first” (Bava Kamma 92a). Which is to say, that what  God admires most in a human being, what makes a human being worthy of God’s response, is his ability to pray for someone else who has the same need that he does. In this case, the need was for fertility. But it could equally be the need for one’s children to be protected from dangerous explosives that are dropping out of the sky. This is what our sages intended for us to understand. That the most beautiful tehillim gatherings are the ones which also include prayers for the protection of all the innocent Gazans who are in harm’s way. This is the beauty that radiates from our innermost soul, the soul shaped by the teachings of our Sages.

Another sage whose teachings have shaped our soul is Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg, the Rabbi of Königsberg in the 19th century, and the author of a Torah commentary called HaKetav V’HaKabbalah. When Rabbi Mecklenberg reached the 16th chapter of Devarim, he puzzled deeply over 4 particular words there, part of Moshe’s instructions concerning the conquest of the Canaanites. Instructing the warriors Moshe said,  לא תחיה כל נשמה, “leave no soul alive”. Not woman, not children. Though not the first sage to be stunned by the moral implications of this command, Rabbi Mecklenberg invested an unusual amount of energy in struggling with it.

“It appears”, he says, “to be an act of great cruelty to spill the blood of innocents. If the men sinned (took up arms) what sin was committed by the children or by the women??” And after reviewing earlier rabbinic grapplings with this question he proposes a radically new interpretation. He first points out that the Biblical verb used here (l’hachayot”) often means “to sustain”. And then he proposes that Moshe was here reacting to the then-common practice of taking the vanquished women and children, and sustaining them with food and clothing only to then utilize them as maid-servants and slaves. Moshe is here prohibiting this practice, urging Israel to “send them free so that they can flee outside the places of  Israelite settlement.”

Recognizing the novelty of his interpretation, Rabbi Mecklenburg concludes, “And even if you do not accept my interpretation…you have no choice but to agree that the meaning of the verse cannot possibly be that they were to kill all the people (even the men) in the city without distinction. Did all of them agree to initiate hostilities?? There are times when the army imposes its will upon the population. Could it even enter your mind that in such a situation the Torah would say “Leave no soul alive?!”

This is our moral core, as shaped by our Sages and as codified in the IDF’s ethical code.  As Professor Moshe Halbertal wrote (in his 2009 critique of the Goldstone Report)

Three principles are articulated in the IDF code concerning moral behavior in war. The first is the principle of necessity. It requires that force be used solely for the purposes of accomplishing the mission…The second principle is the principle of distinction. It is an absolute prohibition on the intentional targeting of non-combatants…. The third principle, the most difficult of all, is the principle of proportionality. Its subject is the situation in which, while targeting combatants, it is foreseeable that non-combatants will be killed collaterally. In such a case, a proportionality test has to be enacted, according to which the foreseeable collateral deaths of civilians will be proportionate to the military advantage that will be achieved by eliminating the target” (The New Republic, 11/18/09)

One final teaching, this one from the Mishna. Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages disagree as to whether a man may wear his sword on Shabbat in a place where there is no eruv, in the same manner that a woman may wear jewelry under such circumstances. Rabbi Eliezer notes that the social stature achieved by the warrior and the glory that battle accords him, and rules that implements of war are indeed to be deemed as ornaments and may be worn on Shabbat. The Sages however cite Isaiah’s vision of the day when people “shall beat their swords in to ploughshares and learn war no more”, and on that basis rule that weapons are not ornaments, rather implements of shame.

Obviously, Rabbi Eliezer was also aware of the passage from Isaiah. But he could see no reason why a vision of a world far in the future should impact the Halacha in the here and now.  But the Sages taught that the vision of a future world can and must inform the way we see and understand the present world. Yes, in this world, war is necessary. In circumstances like the ones we face today, the refusal to fight would constitute a reckless abdication of moral responsibility. But the Sages insist that we must never confuse the necessary with the good.  Even as we fight, the battle screams of how unredeemed the world is, of how spiritually undeveloped humanity still is.  And when the battle ends, they contend, we are bidden to go back to the drawing board and search for a new paradigm – as stubbornly elusive as it may be – in which people can live with each other without lifting swords. According to our Sages, weapons do not qualify as ornaments. They are reminders that we are a yet-unredeemed species. Here again, our teachers are molding our moral core and shaping our innermost soul.

It is not easy at times like these to pray for the other, to care for the non-combatant, to experience the sword as necessary but not good. What we need to remember though is that we must do things not in order to adhere to modern western values, or to respond to international pressures that often come dripping in hypocrisy or wrapped in barely-concealed anti-Semitism. We must do them in order to remain faithful to our own moral core and innermost soul, which our teachers and sages have painstakingly curated for us over thousands of years.

A few days ago, I davened and recited Tehillim with our teenagers, and toward the end I asked them to share what they are thinking about, what they are feeling. One precious young man, just back from Bnei Akiva summer camp, simply said, “How could anyone have thought that it made sense to kill a Palestinian teenager?”

There is no strength like the strength which emanates from one’s innermost moral core. There is no beauty like the beauty which radiates from one’s innermost soul.

May God give strength – and beauty – to His nation. May God bless His nation with peace.


Muslim and Jewish Leaders Jointly Reject Violence posted by Yosef Kanefsky

July 8, 2014

Late yesterday, my LA-based Muslim and Jewish colleagues and I released the following spiritual statement. Remarkably, it wasn’t difficult to put the statement together or to gather signatures. In fact, it was very easy. A testament, I think, to what years of patiently cultivating Muslim-Jewish relationships can achieve.
In a dark and difficult time (may God protect Israel and our chayalim), I hope that it gives you a moment of light.

(You can also view the statement at

http://www.jewishjournal.com/israel/article/muslim_jewish_statement_on_the_murder_of_innocents_in_israel

and at https://www.facebook.com/scmjf )

Press Release from the SoCal Muslim-Jewish Forum regarding the murder of Israeli and Palestinian Teens

We are a group of Muslim and Jewish community and religious leaders in Los Angeles and Orange County. Although we have important disagreements about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it ought to be resolved, all of us together affirm that the murder of innocent people, be they Muslim or Jewish, is a desecration of God’s name and violation of the most basic tenets of our faiths. There is no possible justification for such acts and we utterly reject them. We are all children of Abraham and are beloved of God.

We together extend condolences to the families of Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Muhammad Hussein Abu Khdeir. We pray that their memories serve to spur both of our communities to loudly and definitively reject the paths of violence and revenge, and to embrace negotiation in the spirit of mutual respect as the only way forward.

Signed,

Melissa Balaban, IKAR

Rabbi Karen Bender, Temple Judea

Rabbi Sharon Brous, IKAR

Noor-Malika Chishti, Sufi Order International

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, Beth Shir Shalom

Sheikh Yassir Fazaga, Orange County Islamic Foundation

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom

Rabbi Susan Goldberg, Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, Senior Claremont Lincoln Fellow for Interreligious Curriculum

Rabbi Judith Halevy, Malibu Jewish Center

Atilla Kahveci, Pacifica Institute, Westwood

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, B’nai David-Judea

Mohammed Khan, STOPP. Society To Offer Prosperity And Peace.

Rabbi Peter Levi, Temple Beth El of South Orange County

Mohannad Malas

Dr. David Myers, Chair, Department of History, UCLA

Dr. Sadegh Namazikhah, Iranian-American Muslim Association

Rabbi Laura Owens, B’nai Horin and The Academy for Jewish Religion California

Barrie Segall, Segall Consulting

Imam Jihad Turk, President, Bayan Claremont, an Islamic Graduate School

Shepha Schneirsohn Vainstein MA LMFT, reGeneration

The SoCal Muslim-Jewish Forum was convened in association with the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, Rabbi Marc Schneier, President


Will We Look in the Mirror? posted by Yosef Kanefsky

July 6, 2014

We did it. We carried out the revenge killing, just like we shouted we would. We slowly, over time, slid down the poisonous chute of racism and dehumanization, until murder could be rationalized. We tolerated the writing of Halachik treatises permitting the killing of non-Jews, and then, as we always do, followed the dictates of Halacha. We did it.

The only question now is whether we will look in the mirror. There are definitely alternatives to doing so. We can say that it was extremists; it wasn’t us. We can say that it’s all a conspiracy in which Obama pressured Israel to arrest Jews, but in fact Muhammad Abu Khdeir was killed by his own family because he was gay. We can say that given the intensity of the hatred that is directed toward us, any act of introspection on our part will be perceived as dangerous weakness. We can say these things and some of us undoubtedly will.

Kol Yisrael areyvim zeh l’zeh. We are all responsible for one another.

Will at least some of us look in the mirror?


Judaism in the time of Climate Change. Posted by Yosef Kanefsky

May 25, 2014

A spiritual reflection one of the biggest elephants in our room.

It’s basic to our religious system that when human life is in danger, we stop and pay attention. This is true not only when human life is clearly and certainly in danger, but also whenever there is a reasonable possibility that life is in danger. We set aside Shabbat and virtually every other law in order to address even these possible dangers. Equally indicative of this religious attitude are the stories told in Mishna Ta’anit about the circumstances that prompted the Sages to declare days of communal fasting and prayer. On one occasion they declared a day of fasting because a tiny amount of wheat in Ashkelon had been ruined by shidafon, a dry, destructive wind. On another occasion they declared a communal fast when two wolves- capable of killing children – were merely spotted in an inhabited area. This is the way we live. When a real possibility of danger to life lurks, we don’t avert our eyes. As a matter of spiritual course, we take notice, and consider how to respond.

We’re at an interesting and challenging juncture right now in humanity’s journey on Earth. There’s at least a reasonable possibility, and many respected voices insist that it is more than just that, that in the coming years and decades, we will be dealing with a natural world that is less accommodating, and more hostile to human life, than the one we’ve come to know. We will experience bigger and more destructive storms, longer and deeper droughts, more frequent wildfires, and the spread of crop-threatening insects and fungi to places where they didn’t use to appear. These are reasonable enough possibilities that normative Jewish law and thought indicate that we are obliged to pay attention to them – and to their possible consequences. Accordingly, simply as a regular Jew doing what regular Jews do, I recently began the process of trying to place these possibilities into a religious framework, into a framework of appropriate spiritual response. Here are three ideas, drawn from our classical sources, that I believe serve to create this framework, both for today, and more importantly for tomorrow and beyond.

The first idea is SOLIDARITY. Back in the 41st chapter of Genesis, Yosef accurately interprets Pharaoh’s dream about the years of plenty and the years of famine that will come, and then finds himself charged with the awesome responsibility of storing food in the good years that would be eaten in the bad ones. In the middle of that story, we find the report that “two sons were born to Yosef, before the years of famine came”. The Talmud wonders about the significance of that last phrase. Why did the Torah specifically point out that the sons were born during the years of plenty? The Talmud then concludes – and this conclusion is codified into law with only with slight modifications – that we are to learn from Yosef’s behavior that it is prohibited to engage in marital intimacy during years of famine. There is a limitation on pleasure-taking during times of suffering.

The medieval Tosafists though challenged the Talmud’s analysis, pointing out that Yocheved the daughter of Levi was born just as Jacob and family were entering Egypt. Clearly, she must have been conceived during the years of famine! And while many answers are offered to this question, one of the most compelling is the one given by a 19th century thinker, Rabbi Boruch HaLevi Epstein. There would have no purpose in Levi’s refraining from marital relations, Epstein explains. The Talmud’s teaching is specifically about people like Yosef, who due to their own personal social or economic circumstances, are not personally affected by the famine. The Talmud is teaching us to vicariously experience other’s people’s suffering, and to consciously cultivate a sense of solidarity with people whose lives have been turned upside down by nature’s unfortunate surprises. And out of this solidarity, to develop the will and the strength to make political and economic decisions which respond to the challenging circumstances being experienced by others.

The second idea is PRIORITY, i.e. giving priority to human life over all other considerations. Here we’ll draw upon the example of a halachik decision made by Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spector in the spring of 1868, in the midst of drought that had dramatically affected numerous crops, leaving peas and beans among the few foods readily available, especially to the poor. Rabbi Spector decided that the custom forbidding kitniyot would be lifted for Pesach of that year. While this may sound like a no-brainer of a decision, we know that rabbis face numerous pressures around decisions such as these. Would he be accused of overstepping his authority? Was he setting a dangerous precedent for the waiving of other time-honored customs? Was such a move especially perilous at a time when Jews in other parts of Europe were abandoning Jewish practices with abandon? Rabbi Spector might have decided differently based upon any of these considerations. But he did not. Because human life and welfare had to be given higher priority than any of the political or historical considerations that in other circumstances might militate against taking action. In times of trouble, human life must the highest priority.

And finally, we come to PRAYER. The model here is the prayer attributed to Avraham on the morning after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the prayer which our morning Shacharit is modeled upon. The Torah records that in the morning Avraham returned to the spot overlooking the cities, and saw nothing but smoke. The feared destruction had occurred. We can’t help but wonder, “What kind of prayer would he have said at that point?” I think that we must assume that it was a prayer similar to the one that we ourselves say each morning. “Place in our hearts the ability to understand and discern”. Teach me, God, what I should be doing differently. What changes I need to make in the way I conduct my own life, in the way that my household and my society conduct their lives, so that next time the outcome will be different, so that destruction can be averted? “You, who shine light upon the earth and its inhabitants with compassion”. You, God, are a benevolent God, who created out of love, and who does not desire the death of His creatures. Standing in Your presence, we do not despair. We continue to look forward, for we know we stand before God who desires life.

This is the prayer of our time and for the decades to come. It is the third element of the spiritual framework. We know before whom we stand. And we know what He expects of us, when we live in challenging times.


Israel Meir Kin is a Threat to all Jewish Women, by Yosef Kanefsky

March 25, 2014

A little over a thousand years ago, Rabbenu Gershom of Mainz, the leading scholar of Ashkenazi Jewry, enacted bold legal measures to protect Jewish women from abuse.

Last week a fellow named Israel Meir Kin poked his finger in Rabbenu Gershom’s eye, and now every Jewish woman is at risk.

In his day, Rabbenu Gershom began to notice a disturbing and outrageous trend. Husbands, who found that they now fancied another woman, were taking advantage of the Biblical law allowing them to divorce their wives unilaterally and virtually without cause. And with the stroke of a pen, and the cold delivery of a divorce document, they were shattering the lives of their wives and families. Rabbenu Gershom strode into the breach and proclaimed a ban of excommunication against any man who divorced his wife without her consent. And to insure these husbands who lusted after another woman wouldn’t simply marry their new love without divorcing their first wives, he placed the same ban of excommunication on any man who married more than one wife, effectively ending the practice of polygamy in Ashkenaz. Rabbenu Gershom was determined that Jewish women would no longer be subject to this kind of abuse at the hands of their husbands.

In our day, Israel Meir Kin has undone Rabbenu Gershom’s work. This past Thursday, as about 30 of us stood in protest, he blatantly violated Rabbenu Gershom’s ban, by marrying a second woman without divorcing his wife. As if it were not enough that for the past 9 years he has spitefully been refusing to grant a Jewish divorce to his wife Lonna (allegedly unless she were to pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars), he has now completed his journey of shame by toppling the age-old ban on polygamy. (See the articles in this past Saturday’s New York Times, and the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/22/us/a-wedding-amid-cries-of-unfinished-business-from-a-marriage.html?_r=0″; and http://www.jewishjournal.com/bloggish/item/modern_orthodox_protest_against_agunah_wedding_in_vegas”>)

Make no mistake. Israel Meir Kin’s actions are not merely outrageous and despicable. His actions threaten all of our daughters and all of our sisters. I can guarantee you that at this very moment there are men who are watching, waiting to see whether Israel Meir Kin gets away with this. And if he does, there will be more Israel Meir Kins. And every single married Jewish woman will be shorn of the protection Rabbenu Gershom had afforded women for the past millennium.

If you know Israel Meir Kin, a physician’s assistant now residing in Las Vegas, Nevada, or if you know someone who knows him, you must act now. Bring whatever legal form of social or economic pressure to bear on him that you can. This is a moment that has the potential to wreak havoc and misery for generations to come. Unless we act to stop it.


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