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What the Four Children Can Teach us about Gender Fluidity

This article was originally published on March 19, 2018, on the Keshet Blog at MyJewishLearning.com. The full article can be found on their website here.

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Q: We are taught to ask questions at the Passover seder. We are not instructed to give answers because answers aren’t the essential part of the seder experience. It’s the asking of questions that is most important. The four children ask a variety of questions that represent their identities and relationship with supposed societal norms.

The second Q in LGBTQQIAA stands for questioning, when someone questions their sexual orientation, gender identity, or isn’t sure how to label themselves. The four children represent the wide spectrum of gender identity and understands that we do not live in a binary gender system.

The Haggadah refers to four children: the chacham, the rasha, the tam, and the She’Ano Yode’a Lishol, often referred to as the Wise One, the Wicked One, the Simple One, and the One who Doesn’t Know How to Ask. However, these labels couldn’t be further from the truth. These labels represent that which is expected of them, or the societal stereotypes put on them. If we look at the four children as a way to gain insight and come to understand the fluidity of gender, these labels are placed on these children by a binary gender normative society. These labels don’t reflect truly who these children are. Rather, they reflect how society has forced them to conform for too long.

What does the Chacham ask? “What are the testimonials, statues, and laws God commanded you?” You should tell this child about the laws of Passover, that one may not eat dessert after eating the Passover offering.

The supposed ‘Wise One’ is hardly smart. This child simply accepts societal norms. The Wise One was taught not to question, but rather only to do what was told. The Wise One fits into a set system and falls into the stereotypes of this system. The Wise One is certainly cisgender — someone whose identity conforms with the gender associated with their biological sex – but also is only able to see and understand a gender binary system. This child isn’t wise at all; wisdom is misconstrued here as “conventional wisdom.” This child is not interested in pushing societal norms. Unfortunately, it’s these supposed “wise” children that are responsible for promoting transphobia. They are the ones who should be labeled “wicked.”

What does the Rasha say? “What does this mean to you?” To you and not to the child. Since this child chooses to be excluded from the community, this child has denied a basic principle of Judaism. You should blunt the child’s teeth and say: “It is for the sake of this that God did for me when I left Egypt. For me and not for you. If you were there, you would not have been redeemed.”

Wicked is not a fair definition of this child. We tend to think of those who are inexplicably evil as wicked: murderers, terrorists, dictators, etc. There is nothing that this child does that is evil. Yet our tradition uses this label because the child questions societal norms. The supposed ‘Wicked One’ does so in hopes of finding purpose. This child doesn’t settle for societal parameters or stereotypes. Instead, this child challenges norms, to find meaning to accept one’s true self. This child is far from wicked. Maybe that is how Judaism traditionally referred to this child. But, this child is simply transgender or gender non-binary — someone whose gender expression or gender identity differs from the sex one was assigned at birth, someone whose identity is different from the stereotypes of society. This child though doesn’t deserve to be labeled or discriminated. This child must be loved, just like every other child.

What does the tam say? “What’s this?” You should say to the child, “With a strong hand God took me out of Egypt, from the house of servitude.”

The supposed ‘Simple One’ has been taught something their whole lives and only now has

been exposed to something else. The Simple One never knew about the diversity of the gender spectrum. It is our job to offer a simple explanation to a simple question; to educate the Simple One by teaching our children about the gender spectrum. A study from the Medical University of Vienna reveals that there is a neurological distinction between gender identity and biological sex. This scientific study is the basis of what we should teach our children – that we don’t live in a binary gender system, that gender is fluid.

And the She’Ano Yode’a Lishol, you begin, as the Torah says, “And you should tell your child on that day, saying ‘It is because of what God did for me when I went out of Egypt.’”

The child who is silent is not silent out of ignorance. This child is silent out of fear. This child grew up in a society that taught that one cannot challenge the binary gender system, that one’s gender identity must be related to their biological sex. However, silence is scary. A study by the Williams Institute reveals that 41% of transgender youth have attempted suicide, compared to 4.6% of the overall population of this country. But a study out of the University of Washington suggests that transgender youth that are supported and loved by their families, teachers, friends, and clergy are no more anxious or depressed than any other child their age. This study reveals that love and acceptance saves lives. This child is silent because this child remains in the closet. The child is closeted because of fear of exclusion or rejection by community. We must respond to this child’s silence by simply showing this child love and support, and honoring who they are, made in God’s image.

At our seder tables, on a holiday that celebrates freedom, we still declare: This year we are still slaves. Next year, may we be free people.

This year, despite progress that we as a society and as a Jewish community have made, transphobia, homophobia, hate, and bigotry still exist. May we continue to build inclusive communities so that next year, we can celebrate the uniqueness of all of us.

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Action item at the Seder: Go around the table and ask each person what their preferred gender pronouns are. To ensure that all around the Seder table feel welcome, make sure that you refer to them in a way that corresponds to their gender identity.

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There is Nothing Sacred about Guns

V’Asu Li Mikdash, V’Shachanti B’tocham. Make for me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.

Parashat Terumah focuses on the Israelites giving a variety of gifts so that they may build the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness. But God explains that doing so allows God to dwell among them. We build buildings, but God does not reside in these buildings. Sometimes we need to build buildings to help us see the divine spark within ourselves and our communities. This reminds us that God resides within People, not a single place. That means it is within the power of the people then to act on God’s behalf. God dwells among us.

17 students and faculty were murdered on Wednesday, victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Children who are scared to go to school. Teachers are wearing Kevlar vests at work. Parents worry that every goodbye each morning may be their last. Many demographics are impacted and effected by gun violence. And there is much demand about what laws should be passed. But can we at least talk about children? Children are the most vulnerable in our society. This may not be the case with other species; birds leave the nest once they can fly. Other mammals learn to hunt for themselves as soon as they are able to walk. But about human beings, our children remain dependent on parents, caregivers, teachers, and community. Children are not expected to take care of themselves, defend themselves, and protect themselves. That is on us. That is our job.

Just as Parashat Terumah focuses on the building of the Tabernacle, the traveling sanctuary in the wilderness, the Haftarah reading for this Torah portion, taken from I Kings focuses on Solomon building the Temple in Jerusalem. In the middle of instructions and dimensions of the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, the Haftarah clearly states:

When the House was Built, only finished stones cut at the quarry were used, so that no hammer or ax or any iron tool was heard in the House while it was being built (I Kings 6:7). 

The rabbis introduce the concept of a shamir, a worm that was able to eat away at stone. Since iron tools weren’t permitted in shaping these stones, rabbinic literature explains that Solomon used this worm to eat at the edges of these stones to make them smooth and not jagged. Mishnah Avot suggests that such a creature was so miraculous that it must’ve been created by God immediately prior to Shabbat during the week of creation.

The Talmud clarifies that the reason King Solomon used such a worm, instead of hammers and axes, was because the Temple was a place that promoted peace – a place that celebrated God’s presence – and thus, one shouldn’t use tools that promoted bloodshed, war, and violence. Because you cannot claim something is holy if it promotes violence. You cannot cling to objects and argue that they are holy when these objects that cause harm are antithetical to the teachings of our faith. But this is where we are at as a society. I thought things would change almost twenty years ago with the Columbine shooting. We all thought things would change five year ago following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. But nothing has changed. In fact, things have gotten worse. Because our society clings to their guns.

While we read of instructions to build the Tabernacle in the wilderness, it is only chapters later that the Israelites build the golden calf, read in Parashat Ki Tissa. How is it possible that only chapters after God instructs the Israelites to build a sacred space, they abandon God by worshipping idols.? After being enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, they were only accustomed to worshipping idols and it was difficult to change. It is a reminder to all of us how difficult it is, despite the verses of scripture that we may espouse, to rid ourselves of the idols among us that we worship.

We are stuck in this vicious cycle of gun violence because we live in a country that worships guns. The religion of guns is controlled by gun manufacturers, whose goal is not to protect lives, but instead to sell more guns. Rather than being guided by ethics and values of scripture taught by clergy, the religion of guns is guided by the NRA and lobbyists who fatten the pockets of elected officials, ensuring inaction continues, and this epidemic of gun violence continues as well. And those who practice the religion of guns, Avodah Zarah, Idol Worship, also forget the essence of what our faith teaches us, that something that promotes war and violence cannot be sacred.

The Haftarah clarifies that which causes harm to others cannot be sign as sacred. And as the Torah portion teaches, sacred space is not about buildings, it is about people. It’s about community. It is not about armed guards or metal detactors in our schools either. It is about changing society, and doing all that is possible to prevent harmful tools from ending up in the hands of those who will use them to cause harm. And I don’t understand the argument of “It’s not about guns. It’s about people.” To me it’s about making it harder for people who will use objects to cause harm to gain access to them. But don’t listen to me. Listen to Carly Novell, 17, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School:

“I was hiding in a closet for 2 hours. It was about guns. You weren’t there. You don’t know how it felt. Guns give these disgusting people the ability to kill other human beings. This IS about guns,” she said. “And this is about all the people who had their life abruptly ended because of guns.” 


V’Shachanti B’tocham. And I will dwell among them. God is found among the people. So it is up to the people. It is up to us, God’s partners in creation, to end our society’s obsession with worshipping idols, to change a society where the right to own a gun is more important than the right to live. It is up to us, to do better, to be better. God expects that of us. And so does our children.

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Songs of Resistance

There’s a great story told about Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech. His words may have echoed off the marble pillars of the Lincoln Memorial when he preached his “I Have a Dream” speech fifty-four years ago. But according to Kingʼs speechwriter, Clarence B. Jones, those were not the words he had planned to share. Kingʼs speech was all set the night before. Sitting in his hotel room with seven advisors, his words were put on paper and the press was given advanced copies. And his speech that day on the March on Washington began the same with Reverend King carefully sticking to the script. However, after a brief moment of silence, Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who sang at the event earlier in the day, shouted to Dr. King, “tell ʻem about the dream, Martin.” Dr. King was startled and flustered, but stuck to the script. Again, Mahalia Jackson called out, “Martin, tell ‘em about the dream!”  Next thing you know, King pushed aside the text and shifted gears. The speechwriter leaned over to the person next to him and said: “the people donʼt know it yet, but they’re about to go to church.”

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of learning with Rev. William Barber, when he taught Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox rabbis and rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He retold this story and referred to Mahalia Jackson not a Gospel singer, but as a theomusicologist. He said that Dr. King would sometimes call her up in the middle of the night, wake her when he couldn’t sleep, and say, “I need to hear the Lord’s voice.” She would sing, and that ease his anxiety, knowing that God was with him. A theomusicologist. This term suggests that there is something holy, something divine, about singing. This suggests that singing is an act of praying, but also, like prayer, singing is meant to lead to action.

On Shabbat Shira, we read of two such theomusicologists: Miriam in the Torah reading and Deborah in the Haftarah reading. Miriam and Devorah are both called prophetesses; in fact they are two of only five women in the entire Bible referred to as female prophets. Clearly, their song and action is divinely inspired. Deborah is even mentioned as a judge, the only female judge in the entire Hebrew bible, further supporting the case that through her songs, she fights for justice. And these women leaders acted through music to lead the resistance. While it was Moses who sang the Song of the Sea as the Israelites crossed the split Sea of Reeds – Az Yashir Moshe, and Moses sang, the Torah says – the text also says that it was Miriam, who sang with timbrel in hand, that led the Israelites onward in celebrating throughout the wilderness after they crossed the split sea.

Shirat Devorah, Deborah’s Song, makes up most of the Haftarah reading, taken from chapters four and five of the book of Judges. In this song, Deborah declares that we rise up! Song is our declaration to Rise up!

Uri Uri Dabri Shir. Rise Up. Rise Up. And Sing a Song.

There is an inherit connection between song and protest, between songs and marching. This is true for the songs that Moses, Miriam, and Deborah sang. This is equally true for the songs that we sing, for the protests that we participate in, for the marches that we march in. Last weekend, so many in our community participated in the second annual Women’s March, locally in Morristown and Westfield, in Trenton and Manhattan, in Washington DC, and all across the nation. And they marched – we marched – and we prayed, and we sang.

The song I immediately think of as a song of the resistance, a song of protest, is “We Shall Overcome.” This song was an early twentieth century gospel hymn. It was a song of faith. But in 1945 it was sung for the first time by tobacco workers on strike in Charleston as a song of protest. In the 1960s, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger made it an unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

We Shall Overcome, We Shall Overcome, We Shall Overcome, someday…

A song of protest that remains a song of prayer.

HistoryHasItsEyesOnYouAnd we sang. And we sing. For Miriam and Deborah led us through song, and song got us through the darkest of moments. And song continues to do so. Song inspires us for what we will be, for what we can be, for the future that we will create. I encouraged members of our community to share pictures and experiences of those women’s marches with me that inspired them. And those pictures inspired me. Specifically, pictures of the youngest members of our congregation holding signs, including those that read: “History has its eyes on you,” “Girl Power,” “Fight like a girl,” “The Future is Female,” and “Girls will save the world.”

We have a long way to go, but what was inspiring about these marches were not the speakers standing at podiums, or those holding the banner who led the way. What was inspiring about these marches, were these children, the future leaders – and in many ways current leaders – of our community. Like the songs of Deborah and Miriam, we need song to move us and inspire us. A powerful song is not just a catchy pop-tune about a crush or a broken heart. A song of protest is a song whose message is as powerful as Torah, whose message is the essence of Torah. These songs remind us to march in the rain and in the cold, when our legs are tired and when we approach the banks of the sea without a clear path in front of us. We need these songs of protest, these songs of resistance, to teach us to rise up and act.

The beauty of the Haftarah is that the song serves as a backdrop; it is the inspiration that leads to action. The narrative of the Haftarah speaks of Sisera, the commander of the Canaanite King Yavin’s army. Deborah declares that she will deliver Sisera and the army into the hands of Barak and his soldiers. But when Sisera flees on foot to Yael’s tent, she greets him, invites him in, seduces him, gives him a strong glass of milk, and waits for him to go to sleep. Although she promised to stand guard, she takes a tent pin and a mallet and drives the pin through his temple, killing him.

Of course I’m not advocating such action. But I think it’s important to remember that is wasn’t Deborah’s song that defeated Sisera. It was Yael. Song leads to action. Song leads to purpose. Song inspires us to rise up. It’s not the leaders, the preachers, the theomusicologists, or the activists whom we know by their first names, that will ultimately make change in our society. It’s not those marching in front leading the way. It’s all of us, in the crowd, marching arm in arm, hand in hand, declaring in acts of civil disobedience that we shall not be moved, that will ultimately bring about the change that we seek.

In the middle of Deborah’s song, she declares:

 Tidrechi Nafshi Oz, March on, my soul, with courage and strength!

She sings so that we have the courage and strength to keep going, to know that our values are right, to keep going in spite of daily headlines that make us want to cry and scream, to keep going when it seems like we are marching against headwinds, to keep marching until we have crossed the split sea and can finally, like Miriam, take timbrel in hand, and have our songs of resistance become songs of freedom. Until then, we continue to sing. And we continue to march. We continue to act. May the words of our lips and the songs of our hearts inspire us to do so.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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We cannot be Free, until we are all Free

Every year, at our Passover Seders, a ritual meal when we celebrate the Israelite journey from slavery to freedom and our own freedom today, we begin the Maggid portion of our Seders by declaring that “this year we are still slaves. Next year, may we be free.” As a child, I thought this declaration made the Seder an absurd experience. We are either free or not. We cannot celebrate freedom from oppression and still declare that we are not yet free. It was only as an adult that I came to truly understand the power of this text, for this declaration defines the Passover experience. We cannot be free until all celebrate freedom from injustice and oppression. We celebrate the Israelite journey to freedom not as a historical event, but rather as a call to action, a reminder that freedom must not stop with us. 

As Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: 

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

All of humanity, all of God’s creations are connected. We do not – and cannot – only care about that which impacts us. We must stand up against all discrimination and injustice. Most importantly, we cannot let our success cause the suffering of another. And we must demand that justice for all.

Dr. King also wrote:

 “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.” 

That means knocking at Pharaoh’s door again and again, just as Moses did. That means continuing to declare “let my people go,” in spite of hardened hearts. And that means that each and every time we bang on Pharaoh’s door, it gets louder and louder, for at first just Moses approached Pharaoh, but with each showdown, the number of individuals that accompanied Moses increased and increased. For the power of the people is ultimately always greater than the people in power. Still, Moses understood that the Israelites’ fight for freedom couldn’t come at the expense of others. Rashi explains That the first plague of dam, blood, represented the life force of Egypt. The land was watered by the flooding of the Nile, so it was worshiped by Egyptians. Turning it to blood was not just a blow to their water resources, but to that which they considered to be divine. But Moses was uncomfortable with this reality as well. 

There is a midrash in Shemot Rabbah that teaches us that Moses was uncomfortable with God’s command to smite the river because the act represented pain and suffering. And Moses reminded God that the Nile saved him, as a baby in the basket, the basket did not submerge under the water. Instead the waters protected him. He couldn’t imagine striking that very water. I believe this midrash has an even deeper meaning. Moses is finding the possibility of harming Egyptians for the sake of Israelites’ freedom difficult to accept. Moses is asking: must we bring harm to the innocent bystander? Must we hurt those who were also scared of Pharaoh’s wrath? These are not Pharaoh’s taskmasters or courtiers. These are citizens who were scared silent. Why must they suffer? In fact, by Moses asking this, he is representing God’s own struggle. 

After all, the Torah reminds us:

“See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh” (Ex. 7:1).

God tells Moses to see yourself as a representative of God to Pharaoh. As Moses struggles with harming those who are innocent bystanders, he acknowledges that this isn’t something that God wants either. In fact, Mesechet Megillah tells of when the Israelites crossed the split sea into freedom and says that God’s angels were celebrating. God chastises the angels as the Egyptians are drowning in the sea:

“God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?'”

It is clear that God is equally uncomfortable with the suffering of others. As God and Moses teach us through midrash, we cannot celebrate when others are harmed. We cannot celebrate when our freedom is caused by another’s pain and suffering. The freedom of one cannot be caused by the suffering of another. This is our struggle. The Torah also tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, they did not leave alone:

“And a mixed multitude went up with them” (Ex. 12:38). 

The Torah reveals that the reason so many left Egypt was because an erev rav, a mixed multitude of individuals, joined with the Israelites. Egyptians who dealt with their own hardships and pain and suffering also set out to leave Egypt and were also freed from Pharaoh’s rule. In the end, it was not just the Israelites who were freed. It was all who suffered from injustice. 

Moses and God agonized over the pain and suffering that others felt because they understood that one cannot be free unless we are all free. One cannot suffer while the other succeeds. That is not true freedom. That is not true justice. May we learn from God’s and Moses’ hesitation. Let Martin Luther King’s legacy snap us out of complacency. As Rev. William Barber reminds us: 

“In recent years, NGOs and government officials have sanitized Dr. King’s legacy, turning his birthday into a call for service. Meanwhile, politicians of all stripes stand up at podiums to honor Dr. King, but then pass vulgar policies that threaten the very soul of our nation.”

We cannot claim to fight for justice and encourage — or at the very least ignore — racist policies. We cannot only fight for the freedom of some. For as long as injustice continues, we are still slaves. Next year, may we be free. Next year, may Dr. King’s dream finally be realized. And may we stand up to the Pharaoh’s among us until it is. 

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Mister Joe’s Neighborhood

One of the most powerful experiences of our recent congregational was spending time talking to our bus driver. Mister Joe drove us from Tel Aviv to Caeserea, to Zichron Yaakov, to Haifa, to Rosh Hanikra, to Kfar Blum, to the Golan Heights, to Tiberias, to Jerusalem, to Masada and the Dead Sea, and back to Tel Aviv. Mister Joe’s story resonated with me. It began by asking him his name, knowing that it wasn’t Mister Joe. He explained that he called himself that because it made the American tourists that he always drove around more comfortable. 

His name was Joulwan and he resided in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. Mister Joe is an Israeli Arab. He explained to me that his passport was Jordanian, as he lived in East Jerusalem prior to 1967 when it was still under Jordan’s control. As a result, his grandchildren don’t have any passport. He shared with me that he has a home in the West Bank, but it has become an Israeli settlement, thus making it illegal for him to live in that house. 

Mister Joe told me he was not angry with Israel, but with its leaders. He was not supportive of the PA’s leadership because he didn’t think Abbas really wanted peace. He was frustrated with politicians that were only interested in themselves and no one else. He said if Abbas and Netanyahu were not involved, then he and his Israeli Jewish neighbors, who he gets along with well, would be able to solve everything and be fine. But it is the leaders who get involve. It is the leaders who claim they are leading, but actually are just interested in what’s in it for them. 

The book of Exodus begins with a new Pharaoh intimidated and scared by the growing Israelite population and demands that the Hebrew midwives throw Hebrew baby boys into the river, drowning them in the process. The two midwives mentioned, Shifra and Puah, refused. This wasn’t just an act of resistance or civil disobedience. What they were really doing was seeing the humanity in another human being. They weren’t listening to the commands of authoritarians or tyrants. They were listening to God. Through Yirat Shamayim, awe of God and seeing God’s Image in the face of another, they were concerned with the wellbeing of the other. Most rabbinic commentators conclude that these Hebrew midwives were Hebrews themselves; many suggest that they were Moses’ mother and sister, Yocheved and Miriam, even if there is no textual basis for such a suggestion. Abarbanel concludes that they must be Egyptians serving as midwives for the Hebrews, seeing God in each baby that was born, regardless of ethnicity or faith.

Mister Joe taught me – at a time when so many government officials make generalizations about those that are different than us – that it is those government officials, those so called leaders, that are the problem. Like the king that rises up and chooses not to know Joseph, they choose to ignore the kinship of their neighbor. But we cannot live in generalizations. It is the narrative of the individual, the Shifras and Puahs and Mister Joes among us, that helps us see the humanity in each other. 

Much of what Mister Joe has experienced is not fair. He should be mad. He should be angry. But he is content. He is happy. And he works to build peace through his relationships with his neighbors. So we must ignore the commands of the new kings that rise up around us and work to find God’s image in each other, Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian, Hebrew Midwife and Israelite. Then, and only then, will we know peace. May it happen Speedily in our time. 

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Ignoring Hate Has Consequences

Many gathered around the Thanksgiving table last week grateful for life’s blessings. Breaking bread with family and friends, we were not only thankful for the turkey and stuff, but especially thankful for those in our lives. However, many of us also concluded the Thanksgiving holiday thankful for “surviving” it. We had much to be thankful for, but we survived the great uncle who always says something racist, or the cousin whose world view is completely different than ours. These meals are often like ticking time bombs waiting for one bigoted comment too many to finally cause someone to explode. We fear these holiday meals because we no longer sit at the table with those we disagree with. We share our tables with those who share our values. We don’t have sacred disagreements. They are emotionally exhausting. So we bite our tongues and hope that that xenophobic relative behaves himself.

This past Shabbat, when reading Parashat Vayishlach, we read of Esau’s reunion with Jacob. Furious and angry over his brother pretending to be him to steal a blessing from their father, Esau seemed determined to harm and hurt his brother only chapters ago. Yet, upon seeing his brother, and his brother’s family, Esau runs to Jacob and embraces him. They hug, kiss, and weep together. The rabbis go out of their way to be critical of Esau, since Judaism sees him as the polar opposite of Jacob and they try to celebrate Jacob as a biblical patriarch. Yet Esau should truly be celebrated. He is a shining example of how to forgive and not hold a grudge. We should all learn from his example. Still, I can’t help but think that Esau failed in some way. Esau hugging and kissing his brother shouldn’t be that remarkable, but it is because he stays in contact with someone who harmed him. When someone says something offensive, we unfriend them. We block them on social media. We think their views are offensive. And maybe they are. But we never tell them.

This past week, as part of the Anti-Defamation League’s Glass Leadership Institute, which I am honored to be a part of, I had the privilege of learning from Jason Sirois, ADL’s director of No Place for Hate. I am proud that we worked to bring the No Place for Hate educational program to South Orange Middle School eighteen months ago. Sirois joked about the all too commonplace “Thanksgiving eye roll,” when a relative says something that is hurtful to you or to someone else — something that is rooted in prejudice or bias — and you just roll your eyes because your family has expected that, well, that’s just how your relative is. And it is easier to ignore than confront.

But that’s how we got here. By ignoring instead of confronting. When the leader of the free world tweets such offensive comments so frequently that we’ve stopped calling them out, we just roll our eyes. When people in positions of power have abused their power to sexually assault others, and for too long we have ignored it and not called it out, causing many to be fearful of coming forward, fearing being doubted, challenged, blamed or shamed. We didn’t call it out because we say we like their movies, of that we appreciate their journalism, or we ignore it because they promised us tax cuts, and as a result, we normalize it. We normalize violent behavior and we normalize bigoted beliefs. When meeting with Jason Sirois of the ADL, he explained that bias leads to prejudice, which leads to discrimination, which leads to violence, which leads to genocide.

So don’t think that ignoring that which is harmful doesn’t have consequences. We must always have room to forgive and believe that people can change. That’s the lesson we learn from Esau. But he still failed because he never called out Jacob for his hurtful actions and words. In fact, even in his initial anger after learning that his brother tricked their father into giving him a blessing, even when he declares that he wants to kills Jacob, the text says Vayomer Esav Belibo, Esau says this in his heart. He keeps his feelings to himself. He never shares his hurt, his heartache, his pain, his anger. He never shares why his is offended.

And then he returns and hugs, kisses, and embraces Jacob. Loving family — no matter what — is important. But if we roll our eyes, and simply ignore that which is hurtful to be said and spread, then we are condoning such hate. The Talmud reminds us that silence is tantamount to consent. It is physically and emotionally exhausting to call out such hate and bigotry all the time. But ignoring it has consequences and leads to that which is far worse.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Don’t Claim to be Righteous When You are Just being Selfish

One of my favorite television shows is The Walking Dead. I am glad I am not alone in this, since it’s one of the most watched dramas on cable. The show tells the story of survival of a group of strangers who have become family, trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. I started watching believing it was a horror series, but despite the amazing make up and special effects, it is much more than that. It focuses on what one is willing to do in order to survive. And there are moments in the story where things seem normal to the viewer. There was the season where Rick and his friends set up a garden and a farm and were again living off the land. There was another moment when they were living in a gated community in modern homes, relying on solar panels to once again have electricity. They were eating freshly cooked meals around dining room tables. They were sleeping in king-sized beds on freshly washed sheets. For a moment, all was well in the world and you forgot the realities of this dystopian future. Then someone got bit by a “walker” and the terrible reality set in again. The characters realized that it was truly impossible to “play house” when the world around them – and the realities of that world – were destroyed.

I thought of my love for this pop culture phenomenon when reading Parashat Noach, this past week’s Torah portion, which tells the story of Noah building an ark to survive the deadly flood of forty days and forty nights. The Torah portion begins with the explanation that Noah was a righteous and simple person in his generation. Much inked has been spilled exploring what this means, debating how righteous Noah was exactly. Was he especially righteous because he didn’t give in to the peer pressure of doing wrong just as those around him did? Was he judged on a bell curve, only seen as righteous compared to those around him, but not compared to other righteous individuals in past or future generations? This is a question that without a doubt Noah asks of himself following the consequential flood.

The rarely taught in Hebrew School post-flood narrative shows the dark acceptance of a dystopian reality, much like the survivors of a zombie apocalypse. Noah exits the ark and immediately plants a vineyard. A verse later, the Torah tells us that he gets drunk and reveals his nakedness, and that his own child exposes his nakedness. Clearly, Noah is so inebriated, that he is unable to control his actions, or those of others. This was not a spontaneous decision to drink in excess. Anyone who has ever made their own wine knows that it takes time to till the soil, plant the vineyard, wait for the vines to grow, wait for them to bear fruit, wait for the grapes to ferment, wait for the wine to age in a dark area, and then eventually drink it. This is a months – if not years – long process. Noah knew exactly what he was doing, and this was his first action once he exited the ark. He did not declare how blessed he was to be saved. He did not thank God for the opportunity to repopulate the earth. Instead, he saw a world of doom and destruction, a world where he and his family were all that was left of humanity, and couldn’t live in this world without being intoxicated. If he did, then he would see the dismay and devastation; if he did, then he would realize that it was his fault.

One of the reasons that biblical commentator Rashi suggests that Noah would not be viewed as righteous compared to Abraham is because when Abraham hears that God is going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, he stands up to God and fights to save the masses. He acknowledges the wrong doing of some, but fights for all – including the strangers that he doesn’t know. Noah is told by God to build an ark because a flood will annihilate the world and Noah doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t question, debate, or argue with God. He just builds the ark, relieved that he and his family will be spared. Only after the flood does he realize that this world is impossible to live in alone. He has survivor’s guilt, not just because he survived and others did not, but because he had the ability and opportunity to help others and chose to remain silent.

How often are we only concerned with how something directly impacts us? How often do we ignore the suffering if we are not harmed, or worse benefit because of that suffering? How often do we forget the teaching of our Mishnah, that if we only look at for ourselves, then who are we?

If we are not concerned with the millions that may lose healthcare as a result of cheaper monthly premiums for us, then we are not so righteous? If we are okay with ignoring the many programs that will be cut that help those who need it most in this country, just so we pay less in taxes, then we are not so righteous. If we ignore the pain and heartache of others for our own gain, then we are not so righteous. It took Noah until the world was completely wiped out to realize that he was wrong. He didn’t realize that his seemingly righteous actions were quite selfish until it was too late. Let us not make the same mistake. Let us not ignore the rights of others and try to justify it through religious conviction. Let us not threaten he most vulnerable among us and claim to still walk in God’s ways. Let us not be complacent with hurting others for our own gain and advancement. Let us not claim to be righteous when we spend so much of our time being selfish. Let’s begin by caring about others before we care for ourselves. Otherwise, we will end up regretting our actions or inactions, our decisions, and our votes, but it will be too late.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Yom Kippur Sermons

Shana Tova! I continue to be on a spiritual high for a meaningful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I hope you feel a sense of hope as well as we begin the new year.

For those who are interested, here are the sermons I shared with the Congregation Beth El community during Yom Kippur 5778. The first – delivered on Kol Nidre – deals with teh struggle of loneliness and is inspired by the musical, “Dear Evan Hansen.” The second delivered on Yom Kippur day prior to the Yizkor service, forces us to question how we will be remembered when we leave this world.

I look forward to your comments and feedback.

Kol Nidre 5778: You Will Be Found

Yom Kippur 5778: Who Will Mourn For You?

Wishing you a happy and healthy new year!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Rosh Hashanah Sermons

Shana Tova! For those who are interested, here are the sermons I shared with the Congregation Beth El community during Rosh Hashanah 5778. The first deals with my own personal struggle as a parent having a child in the hospital and understanding our liturgy so that we don’t necessarily change our fates, but change our perspectives. The second deals with the rise of hate and anti-Semitism in this country and ponders what our responsibility as Jews and as humanity is to fight back against such hate.

I look forward to your comments and feedback.

Rosh Hashanah Day One 5778: Accepting Our Fate

Rosh Hashanah Day Two 5778: When Awe Becomes Fear 

Wishing you a happy and healthy new year!

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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Celebrating and Welcoming Everyone

This article was originally published on June 26th, 2017, in the Ops & Blogs section of Times of Israel. The full article can be found on their website here.

Times of Israel

I received two phone calls in recent months, one from a good friend from college who is a lawyer and the other from my cousin who is a speech and language pathologist. Each had been asked to officiate at a wedding of a friend, so they called me, a rabbi who has officiated many weddings, for advice. They wanted to understand the different traditional Jewish rituals so that they could incorporate them into a meaningful wedding experience. They went online to get “ordained,” making sure that their weddings were legal in the states they took place, in addition to being legal “according to the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.” Neither of these weddings were interfaith weddings. In each case, the couple wanted someone to stand under the chuppah with them that they were deeply connected to, and also to have the ceremony be meaningful and sacred. These were also clearly conscious choices to not have a rabbi — or other clergy member for that matter — officiate. This was about the established institutions in the Jewish community failing to bring these families in.

To be honest, I am not interested in having a discussion about rabbinic officiation at weddings in this forum, mostly because writing an opinion piece on a website is not the appropriate format for such a conversation. As it is, I expect plenty who will comment in agreement and disagreement. But as we’ve seen over these past several weeks in recent articles and op-eds, this conversation is filled with a multitude of opinions. Some are from a halakhic perspective, and some from a sociological one, some from personal experiences of joy, and some from personal experiences of hurt and heartache. All needs to be a part of any conversation in guiding one’s understanding of this. This conversation should be had in a appropriate way with respectful dialogue, respectful of one’s beliefs, but most importantly, of one’s choices. This conversation is not about hypotheticals. This conversation is about actual individuals and their choices.

I appreciate colleagues Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavieand Rabbi Roly Matalon for finding ways that they feel comfortable with to celebrate the wedding of members of their community, even if one of the partners in that couple does not identify as Jewish. However, I turn back to the experiences of these two friends who called me and are now officiating at weddings just as I am and realize that the problem is deeper, if rabbis aren’t being called to officiate at weddings, even when both partners identify as Jewish. Yes, if a rabbi officiates at a wedding and participates in a couple’s most meaningful and sacred moments, whether both members of a couple are Jewish or not, then it is much easier to help that couple become involved in the Jewish community and navigate Jewish experiences. As someone who understands the importance of halakha as a guide to Jewish living and Jewish ritual, I also understand the complexity of a halakhic framework at times. And I know that it is much more difficult and challenging, and arguably hypocritical, for a rabbi – including me – to say “I cannot officiate at your wedding, but the day after your wedding, I want you to be involved in our community.”

Rabbi Abby Treu reminded me this week of these calls from my friends. She wrote in the New York Jewish Week that:

It turns out that in 2017, very few Jews care what rabbis say. Just look at The New York Times’ wedding announcements, and count the number of weddings performed by friends rather than clergy. Or ask around to find out how many people ask a rabbi when they have a question of Jewish law, and how many more turn to Rav Google.

 

The question then is not “What should rabbis do? Officiate at interfaith weddings or not?” The question is: “What does it mean to be a rabbi at all?” And its corollary: “How can rabbis create connection and community for what I call “Jews and those who love us”?

Standing under the chuppah is one way to create connection and community. But it’s also only one way. My responsibility as rabbi and I believe the responsibility of every synagogue is to create connection and community for all who walk through the synagogue doors. As you enter our lobby at Congregation Beth El, it says exactly that:

We welcome people of all ages, genders and backgrounds to join us on our journey – learned and novice; born Jewish, Jew-by-choice, or non-Jewish living Jewishly; single or partnered; gay or straight. We hope that all who enter find a Makom Kadosh – a holy space – in which to seek God, connection, and community.

The Jewish Theological Seminary, my alma mater, of which I am a proud alum, came out with a statement last week that I was particularly critical of. First I wasn’t sure what they were trying to say – simultaneously reaffirming their age-old stance which seemed to be exclusionary while also striving to be welcoming, and using language at best missed the point and at worst was offensive. Most importantly, statements like this only make it harder for those of us in our communities to build the welcoming and inclusive institutions we strive to build. I believe this conversation is not really a conversation solely about rabbinic officiation. It is about the language we use and the culture we create. It is about how we make sure to connect with all whho identify as Jewish and all who have cast their lot with the Jewish people. It is about how we make sure all who are raising Jewish children feel welcome, regardless of their own faiths. If we fail to help people connect and we fail to create multiple entry points for them to connect, then nothing else matters.

My friend and colleague Rabbi Steven Abraham wrote in the Times of Israel this past week about his commitment to create inclusive communities. He concluded his writing with this analogy:

For years, educators have bemoaned the practice of teaching abstinence only in our school systems. To my knowledge, they did not disagree because it isn’t the best form of birth control, but because the facts on the ground tell us that our children are in relationships and they require more information than simply being told “wait till your married”.

His point is that we need to do better than just saying ‘date someone who is Jewish’ and ‘marry someone who is Jewish” or ‘rabbis won’t officiate at your wedding.’ We need to give individuals meaningful spiritual experiences and connection so that they’ll want to make Judaism a core part of their identities and their lives. We need to realize that individuals are going to make the decisions that they are going to make, the decisions that are right from them, and we need to do better as communities to accept, and yes even celebrate, those decisions. We need to do a better job to celebrate those who want to be a part of our communities and make sure that they feel welcome. We can’t just open our doors wide and say “look how welcoming we are.” We need to show it with our actions. That won’t mean the same thing for everyone and every synagogue or Jewish communal institution, but that does mean that digging our heels in the ground does not do anything to make people feel welcome. It only turns people away.

I truly believe that creating a welcoming and inclusive community is what is most important. Everything follows from that. We cannot create meaningful spiritual, sacred, educational, communal, social, and social justice experiences if we do not first ensure that someone feels welcome here. We as a Jewish community often only get one chance at making sure someone feels welcome. And if we miss that chance, then we will not be able to help someone grow in their Jewish journeys. We will not be there to help them build their Jewish homes and grow their Jewish families. We as a Jewish community – and Jewish communal leaders – must do better, to not judge other people and their life decisions, but to. Instead, we must truly welcome each and every person who we interact with, and help them navigate their own Jewish journeys, even if their journeys, and ultimately their destinations, may look different from our own personal ones.

My father, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, the greatest of all my teachers, has been a leading voice in this work, and spent almost two decades as Executive Director of the Jewish Outreach Institute/Big Tent Judaism. A number of years ago, he introduced me to their work with renowned Jewish demographer Sergio DellaPergola of Hebrew University, who calculated population projections for American Jewry through the year 2080. That study suggested that based on the status quo, the Jewish community from now until 2080 would decrease by millions. But get this: if there was no intermarriage, the population would still decrease by millions. But if the Jewish community was more welcoming and celebrated every family and welcomed them into our institutions, and truly understood the importance of outreach, then the size of the Jewish community would actually increase! This has proven to be the case.image

 

This past Shabbat, the Jewish community read from Parashat Korachand of Korach’s rebellion. Rabbinic tradition concludes that Korach’s rebellion fails because his rebellion was more of a coup to overthrow Moses as leader. But the essence of his words still resonate.

You’ve gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the rest of God’s people? (Num. 16:3).

Rashi explains that when Korach says that all of the community is holy, he means that each person heard God’s voice at Sinai. Each individual is sacred. No person is anymore closer to God than anyone else, even Moses! Each individual is holy and we should not deny the holiness of anyone or of any decision they make, because of who they love, or because their Jewish family may look a little bit different than yours.

When Moses heard this, he fell on his face (Num. 16:4).

Rashbam suggests that Moses was praying and Ibn Ezra explains that Moses did so in a fit of prophecy. But I believe the Bekhor Shor is spot on: Moses fell on his face out of shame. Moses realized that there was a part of what Korach was saying that was true, that he was seeing some people as better than others, instead of seeing each individual as sacred.

It doesn’t matter if a rabbi will officiate at a couple’s wedding if we fail to help that couple find connection to a rabbi, a synagogue, or the organized Jewish community at all. We need to ensure that everyone feels like they belong in the community. So let us no longer simply fall on our faces. Instead, let us see, and celebrate, every person as holy and welcome them in.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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