Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Thank You, PrezBo, for your commitment to pluralism and diversity!

Although I did so from my couch and laptop in Toronto, I was extremely proud as a Columbia student to watch the 2009 University Commencement ceremony, which brings together graduates from all of Columbia's four undergraduate and dozen graduate schools. With over 30,000 graduates, family and friends in attendance, the ceremony takes over all of Columbia's Morningside Campus. While no individual graduates are singled out at this event (which are reserved for individual school class days), this is nevertheless a momentous occasion, as the President of the University, Lee Bollinger, officially conferred degrees on the sea of light blue caps and gowns which filled Low Plaza.
I write this short reflection to thank President Bollinger for his sensitivity to the needs of the University's Jewish students in his commitment to reschedule the 2010 commencement from its conflict with the major Jewish Holiday of Shavuot.
I believe that I speak for many observant students at Columbia when I say that my attendance at the school represents a commitment to being a part of the larger University, while staying true to my religious beliefs as well. While I am forced to miss classes for Jewish holidays, for which I often make up work or turn in assignments early, I perform this balancing act because I care about both my traditions, and my responsibilities to courses just like every other Columbia Student.
Some faculty, as stated in the report of the University Senate's Education Committee, opposed moving commencement for Shavuot for the reason that the school is a secular institution, and should not respect religious observances. On the contrary, PrezBo publicly threw his support behind the charge, stating:
“When there are a substantial number of students who have a conflict of conscience ... we want to do everything we can to accommodate that,” Bollinger said in an interview on Friday, when he first announced the change. He noted that Columbia is a secular university, which usually accommodates religious groups with makeup exams and classes, but “this is one that you can’t help people make up.”
As a well-spoken academic and public figure, Bollinger recognized his commitment to pluralism and inclusion at Columbia. The date change is not forcing anyone to mark Shavuot; rather it is giving all who wish to the opportunity to recognize and be recognized as part of the larger University.
Many argued that the date change would lead to a slippery slope; the University calendar, set ten years in advance, already lists a conflict between Commencement and Ramadan in 2018. On the contrary, changing the date for Shavuot should be a first step towards an equal commitment towards accommodating Ramadan as well.

Columbia holds a Baccalaureate service each year on the Sunday prior to Commencement. In this non-denominational service, students of all faiths are able to publicly share their engagement with their own faith traditions as a larger Columbia community. This past Sunday, Jacob Taber, a close friend of mine, spoke eloquently about how his observance of Shabbat, as a period of menucha, rest, from routine helped him to get more out of his four years at Columbia. This is a model of how religion should operate in the public sphere. All religions should be able to share their values and contribute to a more colorful discourse; no religion should be imposed or forced on any member or facet of the university.

In the book of Bemidbar, the Torah states (10:10):
וּבְיוֹם שִׂמְחַתְכֶם וּבְמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם וּבְרָאשֵׁי חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּתְקַעְתֶּם בַּחֲצֹצְרֹת עַל עֹלֹתֵיכֶם וְעַל זִבְחֵי שַׁלְמֵיכֶם וְהָיוּ לָכֶם לְזִכָּרוֹן לִפְנֵי אֱלֹהֵיכֶם אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם
And on your days of joy, and on your festivals, and new moons - you should blast trumpets on your sacrifices and peace offerings, and it shall be a remembrance before your God, I am Adonai your Lord.
Thank you, PrezBo, Hillel Staff, and others for their work in allowing us to hear both the words of the giving of the Torah on Shavuot, and the sounds of Pomp and Circumstance at University Commencement in May 2010!

For Further reading: Columbia Spectator

Friday, May 15, 2009

Take a Sabbatical, Don't Forget Your Brethren! Parashat Behar 5769

(apologies for the late timing of these words on last week's parasha. I hope that they are timely and meaningful, nonetheless)

Times of transition are always appropriate for words of Torah. The beauty of its being an עץ חיים, a tree of life, is that each parasha is imbued with a sense of vitality, containing so many dimensions that it can always be applied to the situation at hand.
As I mark the point of being half-way through my undergraduate career, and prepare to leave campus after one last Shabbat, many aspects of Parashat Behar (the first half of a double portion with B'chukkotai) speak to my place at this point in the year and in life. Before discussing its first major topic of the commandment to observe a שמיטה (sabbatical) year every seventh year and a יובל, a Jubilee, every fifty years, a four word long condition is placed: כי תבואו אל הארץ - When you come to the land. While it is always important and meaningful to learn about these mitzvot, we are reminded, even before they are detailed, that they can only be performed in the land. I take it as a personal reminder to never forget my commitment to Israel and Zionism. I hope to find a way back to Israel this coming winter. While we should certainly rejoice in our adopted homes in the Diaspora, and be thankful for all they have given us, we must never forget the holiness in the land of Israel, as well as the imperfect, but irreplacable land of Israel.
As I mentioned last week, this semester has been a busy one for me, doing some schoolwork in between Hillel, minyan, work study, other jobs and more. I would like to see this summer as a type of person Sh'mitah, with the hope that the slightly slower pace at which I can move will give me time to reflect on my priorities, and which ways I can improve my actions and interactions. While unfortunately not everyone is luck enough to receive such a long break, we can certainly all take lessons from this mitzvah of letting the land lie fallow once every seven years. As I felt at certain points during the semester, I was spending all of my time and energy on my classes, jobs, and Hillel position, and often failed to think enough of the larger world community beyond Morningside Heights, where there is so much work that needs to be done. Sometimes, we need a reminder like sh'mittah to tell us to think about our families, friends, God, Am Yisrael (the Jewish people) and Kol Yosh'vei Tevel, all the inhabitants of the world.
In the middle of Behar, the Torah transitions into another 6/7 year cycle, that of the Hebrew slave, who often sells him or herself in order to pay back a debt. We are told:
כי ימוך אחיך עמך ונמכר לך, לא תעבד בו עבודת עבד,
When your brother becomes destitude and is sold to you, do not work them as one would a slave. (Leviticus 25:39)
Vayikra Rabbah, the 5th century Palestinian midrash on Leviticus which I studied this past semester, presents a fascinating take on this verse, expanding and connecting a number of important concepts in how to treat the 'other,' reminding us how there really are people who depend on our actions to provide for them in their times of need - just as others help us up when we are down. The author uses a verse from Psalms (41:2), as a jumping off point, using it to explain our verse at hand.
אשרי משכיל אל דל, ביום רעה ימלטהו ה'
Happy is the one who is wise towards the poor/unfortunate, for God will rescue him or her on the day of evil. As it often does, the midrash is making light of the odd wording in the verse. How would someone be wise towards the poor? And Why would God not rescue someone who simply gives to those in need?
A number of rabbis are quoted, each mentioning a personality trait or action through which they are being wise towards those in need. Among the answers are: allowing one's positive inclination (יצר הטוב) to overcome their negative inclination (יצר הרע), giving charity to the poor (litterally, handing a coin to the needy/beggar), one who helps in a burial when there is noboy else to take care of the provisions, and one who visits the sick. Although the answers were given by different indivduals, I believe the common thread lies in the fact that each of these actions takes a level of discernment in how to go about it, but also can have a profound effect on the lives of others.
The themes of Sh'mittah and the needy in our midst in Parshat Behar give us important reminders about prioritizing our busy lives, urging us to step back from the craziness of our daily routines, and consider actions, some easier than others, that can enhance the lives of others as well as our own. Through this lens, we can better appreciate the message imparted at the beginning of the second half of our Parasha, Bechukkotai (Lev. 26:11-12)

ונתתי משכני בתוככם, ולא תגעל נפשי אתכם. והתהלכתי בתוככם וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם, לֵאלֹהִים; וְאַתֶּם, תִּהְיוּ-לִי לְעָם.
I will cause my presence to dwell among you, and my soul will not despise you. And I will walk among you in your midst; I will be for you a God, and you will be my people.
When we are concious of how we spend our time and act towards others, it is possible to create a society in which God's presence is brought into our midst. This is my hope and prayer at this time of transition for so many. May it be an עת רצון, a time of favor before God and humanity.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

ונקדשתי בתוך בני ישראל - That I may be sanctified within the people of Israel - Emor 5769

Shabbat Shalom. You may notice that my divrei Torah have been somewhat sporadic this semester. While I hate making excuses, some of my distractions have been taking six classes, three at Columbia University (Music Humanities, Planet Earth (geology), History of World Migration), and three at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Bekiut Talmud (a fast-paced study of tractate Bava Batra), Midrash Vayikra Rabbah, and Classical Piyyut (liturgical poetry)). I have also been working as a Mashgiach at JTS, computerizing divorce records for the Bet Din of the Rabbinical Assembly, and serving as the Religious Life Coordinator on the Executive Board of Columbia/Barnard Hillel.
Although I have not completely finished my semester, I was moved to share some words of Torah based on a tragedy in the greater Jewish community which I was made aware of yesterday.
This week's Parasha of Emor covers many important topics, a fascinating ideathe idea of considering that many automatically assume that the book of Vayikra/Leviticus is 'boring,' and only deals with sacrifices. As was proven to me yet again while studying the midrashic collection Vayikra Rabbah, almost any lesson from the gamut of Judaism and the range of human experience.
The first large tract of the parasha is concerned with priestly regulations, but does so in the spirit of the oft-quoted maxim from Spiderman,'with great power comes great responsibility.' As the Kohanim are charged with fulfilling some of the holiest rituals and occupy a position of closeness to God, they are bound by special rules restricting whom they can marry, and a requirement to remain in ritual purity. While these laws may seem foreign and strange, there is a special meaning behind the idea of being set aside, part of the essence of holiness according to many traditional commentators.
The next major theme of Emor, occupying all of chapter 23, is the cycle of Shabbat and holidays, described thus: אלה מועדי ה' מקראי קדש אשר תקראו אתם במועדם (Leviticus 23:4) - these are the appointed times of God, holy assemblies, that you shall proclaim at their appointed time. In a fascinating rabbinic interpretation, God is announcing that the biblical holidays, commanded by divine decree, would not be observed on the day he decides, but based on the new moon declared by the Sanhedrin (supreme court) in Jerusalem. This reflects part of my philosophy when I observe mitzvot. While I do see observing these clommandments as fulfilling divine commandments, they are not without meaning, or even joy, for us in our daily lives.

Sandwiched between the priestly regulations and holidays announcements are a series of short laws (22:26ff) which begin the Torah portion read of the first two days of Sukkot and the second day of Pesach. An animal consecrated to God may not be slaughtered in the first seven days of its life, but only on the eighth day. A thanksgiving offering must be given of free-will, and can only be eaten on the day it is sacrified. In the next verses (31-32), we are told:

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, מִצְו‍ֹתַי, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם: אֲנִי, יְהוָה.
לב וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ, אֶת-שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי, וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אֲנִי יְהוָה, מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם.
And you shall keep my commandments, and do them, I am your God. And you shall not profane My holy name, but I shall be sanctified in the midst of the people of Israel, I am God who sanctifies you.
Just yesterday I was informed of a terrible accidental fire which struck a Conservative shul, Chisuk Emuna, in Harrisburg, PA. After a Shabbat dinner at the synagogue on April 3, 2009, the building caught fire, and the main sanctuary and much of the rest of the building was gutted, and some of the sifrei torah were damaged. Although God cannot be contained in a building, the sacred space of a synagogue in which a community gathers to sanctify God's name is the closest thing we have to a home for God and a focal point for the community as well. Therefore, it was distressing to hear and see pictures of the damage that was created to the structure which served as a place for this congregation to worship, celebrate, learn and mourn for decades. I encourage you to view the moving video on the blog documenting their resiliance and rebuilding: . Through this video and the messages posted by their rabbi, Ron Muroff (an alum of Nativ 1!), I can tell that a warm and caring community was centered around the building that was damaged, but that community has not lost its light and strength.
Chisuk Emuna's response to the loss of their spiritual home has also been an inspirational example of sanctifying God's name. They did not miss one shabbat service or session of their religious school, and have already begun the process of rebuilding the shul. Even if I didn't have some friends from Harrisburg, a tragedy such as this affects the entire Jewish people. The Robert K. Kraft Center for Jewish Life of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, in which I am writing these words of Torah serves as a place of study, worship, and a social and communal center for hundreds of Jewish students on our campus. Because this building means so much to me, I can imagine what such a loss would be to our community.
While a community is not based on bricks and mortar, a building such as these is a focal point and holds sacred memories for those who enter its doors. Thus, I can easily imagine the pain that members of Chisuk Emuna felt at the damage to their sanctuary, and my prayers for a speedy and joyous rebuilding go to them as part of the family of אחינו כל בית ישראל, our brethren of the house of Israel. I hope that you will join with me and keep Chisuk Emuna in your thoughts, as well as render any possible assistance. May we also be inspired by their dedication to each other, Judaism, and sanctifying God's name as commanded in this week's parasha, to stregthen our own commitments to Jewish life and those around us.
Then, we will be strengthened as God's name will again be sanctified as the Jewish people come together to take care of part of our own family, for all of Israel is responsible for one another.

Shabbat Shalom!