Sunday, February 12, 2017

For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt

We are pleased to share with you Rabbi Schwartz's op-ed that appeared in the February 10th issue of the Jewish Standard, entitled For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt. His commentary directly speaks to a burning of issue of Donald Trump's new presidency, and it's relation to our religion's emphasis on social justice. Here it is:

In the national debate over immigration, it is worthwhile to remember that the status of immigrant residents is not peripheral to the Torah, but central to it.
In his just published book, Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics, biblical scholar Jeremiah Unterman writes that “…it is startling that the legal portions of the Torah contain more than fifty references to the resident stranger….” Unterman examines the multitude of general admonitions not to harm the stranger, along with the positive exhortations to provide the stranger with basic food and clothing, with prompt payment of wages, and with legal justice. He points out that quite a few of these verses about the treatment of the stranger are juxtaposed with statements about God. The Torah understands the care of the stranger as imitatio dei, the imitation of God through the observance of the commandments. Unterman sees this as part of the ethical revolution of the Bible and notes that “nowhere in the ancient world is such a divine concern for the alien evinced.” He concludes with a most timely reminder that these laws should serve “to eliminate any shred of xenophobia.”

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A striking phrase courses through the laws of the stranger that provides another powerful motivation for fulfilling these commandments⏤one that appeals to believers and unbelievers alike:
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”(Ex.22:20).
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex.23:9).
“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev.19:34).
“You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut.10:19).
“You shall not hate an Egyptian, for you were stranger in his land” (Deut.23:8).
“Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment” (Deut. 24:22).
I call this the argument from “historical empathy.” Time and again, the Torah reminds us to remember. We are part of a people that refuses to forget. What is more, we are bidden to create a moral memory.
After all, memory can lead to vengeance. It can lead to the oppressed becoming the oppressors. That is a very natural tendency, and history is replete with such examples. The Torah goes out of its way to argue the opposite. Our historical experience should make us more empathic, not less, to the refugees who seek asylum on our shores.
Perhaps this is why so many Jews have felt so aggrieved and outraged at the recent presidential executive order halting the admission of some refugees to our country. We know so well what it is like to flee oppression and persecution. We know what it like when the gates close. We know that our heritage demands that we act otherwise.
We were strangers in the land of Egypt. We know that applies to a time and place in the formative period of our history, but that it also applies to so many times and places throughout our history. That this executive order was handed down on International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a painful irony.
As of this writing the presidential executive order has been temporarily halted by a federal judge. Whatever its ultimate verdict in the court of public law, this order should be struck down in the court of public opinion. As Jews we are responsible for the “Judeo” in the Judeo- Christian values we herald in guiding our country. Our history and our heritage summon us to lead the way.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Challah Baking Workshop A Great Success!

Our challah baking workshop back on December 13th was a great success by all accounts.

A delicious evening, to be sure!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Reform Movement Denounces President Trump's Executive Order

Congregation Adas Emuno is a Reform synagogue and member of the Union for Reform Judaism, and our rabbi, Barry Schwartz, is a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, so it seems only appropriate to share the following press release dated January 28, 2017. It can be found on the website for the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, entitled Reform Movement Denounces President Trump's Executive Order Barring Entry From Several Muslim-Majority Countries. Whether you agree with this statement or not, it is important to be aware of the position taken by the national organizations that we are affiliated with, and that represent our movement.

For Immediate Release
Saturday, January 28, 2017
Contact: Graham Roth or Max Rosenblum
202.387.2800 |

WASHINGTON – In response to President Trump’s executive order barring entry to the United States for refugees, immigrants and others from several majority-Muslim countries, the leaders of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued the following statement on behalf of the Reform Jewish Movement:
“The Reform Movement denounces in the strongest terms the horrifying executive order on immigration and refugees issued late Friday evening by President Trump. The order signed yesterday is even worse than feared, barring entry of all Syrian refugees, imposing in essence a religious test for entry to the U.S., and refusing entry to any individual coming from a list of majority-Muslim nations–betraying even those individuals who have supported our nation's military efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Families are now being held apart and countless individuals who have served our nation in the most difficult circumstances are in jeopardy.
“The Reform Movement called on the President not to sign a discriminatory order banning refugees and others entering from several majority-Muslim nations. Tragically, he did not heed our call or those from countless other people of faith, humanitarians, and foreign service and military veterans. Reports of families separated at our nation’s airports are gut-wrenching. As Jews, we know the impact that xenophobia and religious profiling have on all people whose lives are endangered by exclusionary laws.
“We have not forgotten our charge: ‘When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ (Leviticus 19:33-34)
“The world is learning that under the Trump Administration, America does not honor its commitments to people or to the values that have been a source of strength and moral leadership since our founding. This executive order will give credence to those stoking the flames of religious hatred, making citizens of every nation on earth, including the United States, less safe for years to come.
"In the days, weeks and years that follow, we will work with our clergy, lay leaders, institutions and congregations to provide assistance and support to immigrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and others yearning for the refuge and opportunity for a better life that we know the United States, at its best, can provide.”
Union for Reform Judaism
Daryl Messinger, Chair, North American Board of Trustees
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President
Central Conference of American Rabbis
Rabbi Denise L. Eger, President
Rabbi Steven A. Fox, Chief Executive
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Isabel P. Dunst, Chair, Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose nearly 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 2,000 Reform rabbis. Visit for more.

Published: 01/28/2017

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Dreidel Madness on Hanukkah

Our Hanukkah Party back on December 24th was a truly joyous celebration of the Festival of Lights, and dreidels!

Did Rabbi Schwartz keep his winning streak alive? No comments have been forthcoming...

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Post-Truth and Post-Reason—Big Data and Big Dada Fight It Out

Here is the latest op-ed from Adas Emuno president Lance Strate, published in the December 30th issue of the Jewish Standard and online on his blog for their Times of Israel site, entitled, Post-Truth and Post-Reason—Big Data and Big Dada Fight It Out, an extra long end of year piece:

As we reach the end of 2016, I find I have mixed feelings about the Word of the Year chosen by Oxford Dictionaries: post-truth.

Reflecting the Brexit vote in the UK as well as the presidential election campaign in the US, the term reflects the disillusionment that many of us feel with political discourse in the 21st century, especially as it is conducted via television, the internet, and social media.

But the advent of post-truth leaves open the question, what is truth? In one sense, it is the opposite of a lie, and this year’s election campaign has seen more accusations of lying coming from both sides of the political spectrum than I can recall from past political seasons. A lie is a deliberate attempt to mislead, either by knowingly making a false statement, or by withholding information known to be true.

Over the past half century, two of our presidents have gotten in trouble for lying—Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign, and Bill Clinton, who was impeached. Of course, some of us find that there is a significant difference between Nixon lying to cover up an attempt to undermine the democratic process, and Clinton lying to cover up a personal indiscretion. But both were guilty of failing to live up to the ideal of honesty. Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, campaigned on the promise that “I’ll never lie to you.” Whatever else might be said of him, he tried to tell the American people the truth about the end of postwar prosperity. His message was not well received, to say the least.

The apocryphal story of young George Washington admitting to chopping down a cherry tree with the words “I cannot tell a lie” reflects one type of honesty, honesty in confession of sin, wrongdoing, or error. This kind of honesty is very much a part of Jewish religious and ethical tradition, and the Judeo-Christian foundation of the American republic. It is a practice that our president-elect seems to avoid more often than not, although it has been in general decline through our culture, in part due to the litigious nature of our society, but also due to a decay in people’s willingness to take responsibility for their actions.

Abraham Lincoln was known as “Honest Abe,” reportedly long before he entered the political arena, when he was a young store clerk and, notably, when he was a lawyer. In this regard, beyond telling the truth, honesty refers more broadly to integrity and trustworthiness; beyond lying, dishonesty includes a variety of unethical behaviors, such as cheating. Here too, we can trace this ideal back to biblical passages such as can be found in the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17-27), which includes the commandment “You shall not cheat in measuring length, weight, or quantity. You shall have honest balances, honest weights…” (18:35-36). Accusations of cheating also have been a part of 2016 politics, again directed at both major parties and their candidates.

Admittedly, these concepts of honesty are old-fashioned and obsolescent in our contemporary culture of celebrity, where honestly amounts to self-display and self- promotion. It is the honesty of going on a talk show and talking about yourself, or feeding details of your personal life to the gossip outlets. Donald Trump is seen as honest by his followers not because he accurately conveys the truth, but because he says what he thinks, seemingly with little or no filtering. This stands in stark contrast with the typical politician, who sends different messages to different audiences, especially to wealthy backers as opposed to the general public. Not to mention the fact that officeholders often must withhold information from their constituents.

Because Trump seems to say whatever comes into his head and does not care to be diplomatic in his remarks or hold back in concern over anyone’s sensitivities, he is seen as honest in a way that renders any inconsistencies in what he says irrelevant. So what if he contradicts himself from one situation to another, if what he says at any given moment is what he truly is thinking, what he truly believes to be true? In this way, Trump’s vulgar remarks caught on tape before an Access Hollywood appearance serves as more proof of his honesty, and does not conflict with his statements that he loves women and that no one has more respect for women than he does, at least as far as his fans are concerned.

The kind of honesty Trump represents is associated with the ideal of authenticity. For celebrity logic, authenticity means playing yourself, even if you are playing a role. That’s the difference between being an actor, along the lines of Meryl Streep or Dustin Hoffman, or being a star, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, or Adam Sandler for that matter. What fans often forget is that playing yourself is still playing a role, that authenticity on the part of celebrities is still an act.

Politicians can accuse their opponents of lying as a way of emphasizing their own image of authenticity, but actually proving such claims can be very difficult, because they require some evidence that there was an intent to mislead. The Watergate conspirators avoided charges of perjury by using the phrase “to the best of my recollection” in conjunction with their testimony. Who can prove that a lie is not the result of a faulty memory rather than a deliberate deception?

For similar reasons, journalists rarely accuse anyone of lying, instead identifying statements as false. That leaves open the question of whether the politicians were simply mistaken, or in the neologism used by press secretaries, whether they misspoke. Journalists can, however, report on the accusations of lying made by some other source. While they may not be able to support the claim that candidate A is lying, they can easily show that candidate B said that candidate A is lying.

The important point is that while in one sense lies are the opposite of truth, in another sense it is falsity that is truth’s antonym. The contrast between true and false takes us away from the ideal of honesty, and removes the factor of personal belief. Instead, we are asked to objectively consider the logic of the claim, and the evidence that may support or refute it.

This meaning of truth is closely related to the concept of facticity, hence the Oxford Dictionary definition of post-truth: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This reflects the commonly held view that facts are statements that are true, typically having been verified scientifically. But this is based on a misunderstanding of science.

A scientific fact is a statement that is open to testing. A statement such as “God created the world,” cannot be tested empirically by any known method, and therefore cannot be considered a scientific fact. That means that it cannot be tested to see if it’s true or false. A statement such as “The world is approximately 6,000 years old” can be tested via scientific method, and has been shown to be false. But it is still a fact, in the sense of being a statement open to testing. Ronald Reagan was notorious for citing facts that turned out to be false, but no one accused the former actor of lying.

Actually, according to philosopher Karl Popper, scientists can never prove anything to be absolutely true, because to do so would require observing every possible instance of the phenomenon in question, past, present, and future. And it only takes one exception to prove the theory false. In this sense, science advances by falsification alone, by eliminating error and mistaken notions.

Science cannot give us truth, just tentative explanations that conform to the available evidence, and effective means of predicting outcomes. Science is by far the best method we have for making such predictions. But absent claims of absolute truth, science leaves open the door to relativism, a view that is problematic when it is championed by the left in regard to morality, and by the right in regard to reality.

Stephen Colbert introduced the term truthiness to refer to George W. Bush’s reliance on intuition and gut feelings as a guide to truth, rather than logic, evidence, or even thoughtful reflection. The word seems almost quaint now, as it retains at least a bit of a folksy connection to some sense of the truth, something less extreme than post-truth. It is perhaps a reflection of nostalgic longing and disturbance over contemporary public discourse that accounts for the revival earlier this year of the classic television game show To Tell the Truth, introduced in 1956 by Bob Stewart, née Isidore Steinberg of Brooklyn.

But truth long has been a problematic term, and for many years now we have been rightfully suspicious of anyone who lays claim to the truth. The true tragedy we are witnessing is the decline of rationality. The prophet Isaiah declared, “Come now and let us reason together” (1:18), and it was the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, that gave birth to the American republic. The democratic basis of our government was predicated on our ability to engage in rational discussion and argumentation, and through competition in the marketplace of ideas, arrive at the truth, or at least negotiate a compromise between opposing opinions.

Rationality has been under attack on two fronts, from the irrationality of an image culture that emphasizes appearance and personality rather than sensible language, and from the hyper-rationality of number-crunching information technologies that leave no room for deliberation or value other than efficiency and productivity. We are caught between emotional appeals that leave no room for thoughtful, impartial consideration, and calculations of quantifiable certainties that do not allow for human evaluation and judgment.

In short, reason is being squeezed out by the extremes of big data and big dada.

The end of rationality has had an adverse affect on the State of Israel as well, as Jewish culture, with its long tradition of Talmudic scholarship, which emphasizes reasoned discussion. Israel’s attempts to use logic and evidence fare poorly in the face of its enemies’ use of images and emotional appeals in the international arena.

Liberals have had more difficulty adjusting to a post-rational world than conservatives, given the liberal bias toward intellectualism. One advantage that liberals do enjoy is in the use of humor, so look for comedians to take on leadership positions in the Democratic Party. For this reason, I wouldn’t be surprised if Saturday Night Live alumnus Al Franken, the junior United States senator from Minnesota, was the Democratic nominee in 2020.

But the end of reason is not a problem only for liberals. It is a challenge to liberalism writ large, to our ideals of freedom and equality. And it makes it all but impossible to follow the commandment found in Deuteronomy (16:20): “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” How can we pursue justice in a post-truth, post-rational world?

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Our Reform Shul

 From the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:

A Message From Our President

Dr. Lance Strate

Our Reform Shul

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away (well, actually, back in the 1970s over in Forest Hills, New York), during a Confirmation class at Temple Isaiah (which no longer exists, having merged with five other synagogues decades ago), one of my classmates referred to our temple as Reformed, and our rabbi was quick and quite insistent in responding: It's Reform, not Reformed, we didn't do anything wrong!

This stuck with me all of these years, and it seems only appropriate to bring it up here and now, given that Rabbi Schwartz has devoted this year's Saturday morning Torah Study sessions to the topic of the Reform movement, not to mention the fact that the officers and trustees have recently sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu protesting the treatment of Reform and Conservative Jews wishing to engage in egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, in an area that the Knesset decided would be set aside for such worship.

As Reform Jews, we are reformers, active participants in an ongoing process of reformation. What we stress is the need for individual reflection and choice regarding our form of worship. Each one of us must decide for ourselves what aspects of our religion are meaningful to us. We are asked to make our own decisions regarding what rituals and practices are significant to us, what traditions we wish to embrace, what we do and do not believe in.

Of course, we must make informed decisions, which is why we value education so highly, for our children and adults alike. As reformers, we are not asked to discard all of our 4,000-year-old history and religious traditions, and we are not tasked with creating our religious experience by starting from scratch. Rather, we are taught to view Judaism as a living tradition, one that continues to evolve and grow, and does so through our own efforts.

As reformers, we are not passive subjects who have been reformed by some outside agency. We are active participants, asking questions, engaging in discussion and debate, we are seekers, learners, doers. Ours is a spiritual quest that takes us beyond rote memorization or rituals that no longer convey a sense of the sacred. Our goal is true communion, together, as a caring community.

As reformers, we are inspired by the Torah's call for justice, the ways in which it teaches us to see the face of God in every living being, and directs us to pursue tikkun olam, the healing of the world.

We refer to the Reform movement as a branch of Judaism, acknowledging that we do not represent a schism or separate sect, bur rather one of several legitimate ways to approach living our lives Jewishly. Affirming the unity of the Jewish people, we are reformers, but we do not seek to reform others, we do not claim that ours is the only way to practice Judaism, we do not deny to our Orthodox, Conservative, or Reconstructionist co-religionists the right to practice Judaism in whatever way they find meaningful.

We are reformers only in insisting that each branch has defined our religion in new ways, that no branch lays claim to a more authentic or correct form of religion, that no branch practices Judaism in the way that Abraham, or Moses, or Hillel did long ago. We are reformers in our belief that Judaism has a long history of reformation, and innovation. We are a religion of progress, and Reform Judaism is Progressive Judaism.

Adas Emuno is a Reform shul, not because we are less Jewish than the other branches, and not because we represent some form of light or lightweight Judaism, but because we are an assembly of faithful reformers. We are active participants in our religion, not in adhering to all of its traditions, but in working out how to be Jewish in the 21st century, and what it means to be Jewish today.

That is our mission. We invite all who share in our outlook to join us on this ongoing journey. And we ask all who are willing and able to support us in any way that you can.