Jewish Family on the Verge of Breakdown

Jewish Family on the Verge of Breakdown

Rabbi Mati Kirschenbaum

Angels climbing up and down the ladder that symbolise Jacob’s special connection to the Eternal. Jacob being tricked into marrying Leah instead of his beloved Rachel. The births of eleven out of twelve sons of Jacob. The tragedy of Jacob’s only (known) daughter, Dinah. These are the things that come to our minds when we think of this week’s parashah, Vayetzei. Rarely do we focus on the later part of the current Torah portion, which deals with the separation of Laban and Jacob’s households. Poignantly, it has something to teach us about the state of Israel’s relation to Progressive and Conservative Judaism. Still, in order to understand its message, we need to remind ourselves of events that led to the deterioration of the relationship between Laban, Rebecca’s brother, and his nephew Jacob.

Their relationship starts with a heart-warming family reunion. Laban receives Jacob, fleeing from the wrath of Esau, with great hospitality and treats him as an honoured guest for a month. Sadly, Laban soon starts to take advantage of his nephew’s love at first sight for his younger daughter, Rachel. First, he makes Jacob work seven years to earn the right to marry his beloved. Yet on their long-awaited wedding day, Laban tricks Jacob into marrying his elder daughter Leah instead of Rachel. Laban’s intrigue forces Jacob to endure seven more years of indentured servitude before he is able to marry Rachel. It also sparks bitter reproductive rivalry between two sisters who now vie for attention of their shared husband.

This rivalry results in births of twelve children (eleven sons and Dinah). Blessed (and burdened) with such numerous offspring, Jacob realises that his full economic dependency on Laban does not allow him to adequately provide for his children. He asks Laban for permission to leave with his family. In response, Laban offers to name a price Jacob would accept in exchange for staying. Wisely, Jacob does not ask for a fixed wage. Instead, he requests the freedom to test his cattle and goat breeding skills. From now on, Jacob’s fortune shall be dependent on his herding expertise and adaptability, not on Laban’s favour. Jacob’s decision finds grace in the eyes of the Eternal; soon he becomes a wealthy man. This newly gained affluence irritates Laban’s sons who feel threatened by Jacob’s success. Their dissatisfaction is infectious; soon Laban’s attitude towards him visibly changes. This is when God commands Jacob to leave Laban and embark on the second journey of his life. Rachel and Leah wholeheartedly support his decision. They say:

Are we not accounted by him (Laban) as strangers? Not only has he sold us, but he has used up what was paid for us. Surely all the wealth that Eternal took away from our father belongs to us and our children. So do whatever Eternal has told you.

(Genesis 31:15-16)

Jacob and his family flee in secret. But before they depart, Rachel steals her father’s teraphim, mysterious objects often associated with divination. Unfortunately for the fugitives, after a short pursuit, an angry Laban catches up with them. Because Rachel prevents her father from finding teraphim, Laban lacks an obvious excuse for chasing them. This means that Jacob and Laban need to address the key sore points in their relationship: Laban’s ongoing exploitation of Jacob and Laban’s unwillingness to recognise the autonomy of his son-in-law’s family.

Optimistically, the story finds a peaceful resolution. Laban and Jacob swear an oath not to harm each other; their oath evokes the memory of their common ancestry and shared beliefs. They also put up a stone to establish a border between their domains and to remind next generations about their mutual commitment to peaceful coexistence.

The shifting dynamics between Laban, Laban’s daughters and Jacob reminds me of the complicated relationship between the State of Israel/Zionism and Progressive Judaism. Just like Jacob fleeing Esau found refuge in Laban’s shelter, Progressive Jews embraced Zionism as the threat of Nazism became clear in the 1930s. When the State of Israel became independent, Progressive Judaism fell in love with its cultural vitality just as Jacob (Israel) fell in love with Rachel. It did not matter that the State of Israel, not unlike Jacob’s first bride, turned out to be not quite what they yearned for. Its founders handed over the control of religious matters to Orthodox authorities, putting the Progressive movement in Leah’s position. Still, just like Leah committed to win Jacob’s recognition, and eventually love, Progressive Judaism has faithfully supported the Jewish State even though it didn’t recognise Progressive weddings and gave Orthodoxy monopoly in the area of Jewish funerals.

Sadly, with time the attitude of many Israeli politicians to Progressive Judaism at home and abroad started to resemble Laban’s treatment of Jacob. Promises of giving more recognition to the Reform movement in Israel were repeatedly made and subsequently revoked. However, the new Israeli government has marked a new low in the relationship between Progressive Judaism and the Jewish State. This past week, pressured by its ultra-Orthodox prospective coalition partners, Likud, the winner of the November 2022 parliamentary elections, agreed to end the recognition of non-Orthodox conversion for purposes of citizenship.  If this law comes into force, Progressive converts without any Jewish roots will not be able to make aliyah.

In such a situation, it would not be surprising for the Jews by choice to say, after Rachel and Leah:

Is there yet any portion or inheritance for us in our father’s house? […] Are we not accounted by Laban as strangers? For he has sold us.

(Genesis 31:14-15)

As contemporary Progressive Jews we cannot allow Israel to become a stranger to us. Now is the time to speak loudly about our contributions to the Jewish State, to support the congregations and organisations that promote Progressive worship and values in Israel.

We might not be able to build a ladder that reaches the sky. And we don’t have to. All we need to do now is to set boundaries in conversations we are ready to engage in, to establish norms that would enable both Progressive and Conservative Diaspora Jews as well as Progressive and Masorti Israelis to be noticed and respected by the rest of the Jewish people.

God, you are called Tzuri – our rock, the rock set on the border of Laban and Jacob’s domain to remind them how much they had in common. We ask for Your assistance to remind  the Israeli government that Torah calls for Jewish unity in diversity. We hope that these words of Torah  shall one day become the foundation of a more equitable and respectful relationship between Progressive and Masorti Jews and Israel. May this time come speedily and in our days. Amen and Shabbat Shalom!

Mati Kirschenbaum

The ritual of accepting uncertainty

The ritual of accepting uncertainty              


 Rabbi Mati Kirschenbaum                    

This week’s Parashat Chukat starts with a description of a ceremony called Para Aduma, the ritual of offering a red heifer. This ritual was supposed to enable people who touched a corpse or stayed with it in one room to purify themselves from ritual impurity. This purification took place through the use of ashes obtained in the process of burning the heifer. Here is how the Torah describes the process of preparing these ashes:

“Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.  You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence.  Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. The cow shall be burned in his sight—its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included— and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow. The priest shall wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest may reenter the camp, but he shall be impure until evening. The one who performed the burning shall also wash those garments in water, bathe in water, and be impure until evening. Another party who is pure shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a pure place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for purgation.”  (Numbers 19:2-9)

Why did the process of purification from ritual impurity require precisely the ashes left after the offering of Para Aduma, the red heifer?

Our sages have been pondering this question since time immemorial. They viewed  the Para Aduma ceremony as a typical example of “chok”, a commandment for which it’s impossible to find a rational explanation. In tractate Yoma of the Babylonian Talmud Rabbi Akiva claimed that verse 7:23 in the Book of Kohelet (“I thought I could fathom it,  but it eludes me”) in fact refers to the commandment of Para Aduma. The author of the Book of Kohelet is traditionally believed to be king Solomon. Rabbi Akiva seems to suggest that even King Solomon – the symbol of wisdom – was not able to grasp the logic behind this commandment.

It’s hard to disagree with Rabbi Akiva. There is no way of guessing why the Para Aduma ritual required the offering of a red – and not for example yellow – heifer. In the Torah we also don’t find an answer to the question why before being offered it could not have carried a yoke. What’s more, the procedures of the Para Aduma ritual seem to escape the laws of logic. After all, throughout its course the priests who engaged in the process of obtaining the ashes required for ritual purification are themselves becoming ritually impure!

So the Para Aduma ritual is not only enigmatic, but also inherently contradictory. This makes it an especially hard nut to crack for progressive Judaism, which is based on a rational and scientific approach to religion. The sense of its strangeness is magnified by the fact that progressive Judaism doesn’t recognize the concept of ritual impurity; instead, we focus on “purity” in an ethical sense. But it seems to me that both the procedures and the mysterious character of the Para Aduma ceremony are supposed to help us accept the nature of our existence, which is full of uncertainties.

A lack of a rational explanation for the procedures of the Para Aduma ceremony reminds us that often we are not able to fully explain the reality which surrounds us. The fact that during the Para Aduma ceremony those who are ritually unclean regain purity, but the priest who takes part in it becomes impure reminds us that actions which are beneficial for us in the long term can entail some inconveniences. We are not sure if the benefits stemming from future actions will outweigh the potential losses.

Unsure if we understand correctly the world which surrounds us, unsure if our actions will yield the intended results, we yearn for certainty. The answer to this desire are ideologies and religions which offer us answers to all the questions.

The red heifer offering ceremony teaches us that Judaism doesn’t focus on looking for answers to questions about the essence of what happened or what can happen. Our tradition is interested predominantly in the actions that we can undertake today, here and now, and the readiness to take responsibility for their consequences.

While describing the process of bringing up the priests participating in the Para Aduma ritual the Mishna reminds us that taking responsibility for the fate of the world is not easy and it requires preparations. The priests who were supposed to conduct this ritual in the future were brought up in isolation from the rest of the world. This isolation was supposed to protect the young priests from ritual impurity linked to the contact with that which was dead. I think that the priests participating in the Para Aduma ritual became ritually impure because they had to confront death – the great, uncertainty-provoking unknown. Their ritual impurity lasting until the evening gave them a chance to understand the fate of the rest of the people of Israel whom they were supposed to serve. By spending time outside of the camp they experienced the uncertainty which came with the status of the ritually impure Israelites. Thanks to this experience the priests did not live in an elitist, ritually pure “soap bubble”. On the contrary, they were aware that undertaking actions aimed at changing the world for the better requires sacrifices. They knew that uncertainty and inconveniences are the price worth paying to secure a better tomorrow for their community.

Progressive Judaism has abolished the division between the priests and the rest of the People of Israel. We believe that Jews as a collective are obligated to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6). This means that each individual is obligated to undertake actions drawing Jews as a collective closer to holiness.

The ritual of Para Aduma reminds us that our individual and collective path to a better world entails undertaking actions in spite of uncertainty. I wish you that this Shabbat Chukat you can find your red heifers – the sources of courage and inspiration to take action.

Shabbat Shalom!

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Mati Kirschenbaum


Justice as a collective venture

Thoughts on parashat Bechukotai

Menachem Mirski

Our Torah portion for this week is called Bechukotai, which can be translated as “in my laws”. It starts with אם־בחקתי תלכו (im bechukotai telechulit. 'if you walk in my laws’) and centers on a brief but eloquent promise of blessings for those who follow God’s ways and an lengthy series of curses for those who reject God’s ways:

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land […] I will look with favor upon you and make you fertile and multiply you […] I will establish My abode in your midst, and will not spurn you. I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people. (Leviticus 26:3-5,9-12)

But if you do not obey me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all my commandments and you break my covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you – consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and body to languish; you shall saw your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set My face against you; you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you […] Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit. (Leviticus 26:14-20)

The entire passage of these blessings and curses is 43 verses long. The quotations above are only the excerpts that give us the general picture of what we are dealing here with. it is one more expression of the deuteronomic doctrine of the reward and punishment, which lies a the core of the oldest Jewish concept of justice, which can be summarized in one sentence: if you do good, you will be rewarded, if you do bad, you will be punished, which means that all your (moral) actions have consequences and determine your fate (in a pretty simple way). All of that implies individual responsibility for each and every action we take.

This Jewish doctrine of reward and punishment has been theologically challenged by the rabbis basically in two different ways. Firstly, it was seen through the lens of theodicy, which typically puts the human individual at its center and deals with the problem “why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer”. The answer to that question depends on who is to take a bigger chunk of responsibility for what happens in this world, God or human beings. Another way the rabbis reflected on this doctrine has to do with the question: is there an undeserved suffering? Does the fact of suffering always imply a sin committed prior to it? Is moral wrongdoing the only cause of suffering? If the answer is yes, then it results in reversing the logical implication at the core of the entire concept: not only if you do bad, you will be punished, but also if you are suffering it means that you are punished and this means that you must have committed a sin. This radical answer is sometimes called the doctrine of retribution and it is theologically grounded in the Song of Moses (The Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 32), which defines the default moral and existential position of the Chosen People as pretty low: we are corrupt, stiff necked people, and for this reason we have a huge debt to the Eternal for his great deeds and the miracles He had performed to save us from Egyptian slavery and to lift us from our spiritual misery.

But there is yet another way we can approach this passage and it has to do with how we understand the pronoun 'you’ in it: whether this pronoun denotes a human individual or whether it is understood collectively and denotes the entire group of people. As mentioned above, the rabbis tended, although not exclusively, to view this doctrine through the individualistic lens (and that’s the typical way modern people view it), and this brought them to the problems mentioned above, however, if we understand it collectively, it completely changes the direction into which it leads us intellectually. If we understand it the latter way, it leads us to the vision of what the world will be like when it truly becomes God’s kingdom, when most members of the human community would follow God’s ways. It’s worth mentioning here that the Torah articulates here the necessity to view not only the people, but also the mitzvot in a collective way:

But if you do not obey me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all my commandments and you break my covenant, I in turn will do this to you […] (Leviticus 26:14)

Therefore you, the people of Israel, shall observe ALL my commandments, says God, and if you do so the righteous will (always) be rewarded and the wicked will (always) be punished. Thus, this doctrine will work only if the (vast) majority of the society would observe the (vast) majority of laws (we should have said that ALL people should observe ALL the divine laws to make this happen but given what we experience and know about human beings it seems to be a pretty unrealistic idea).

Only by creating a situation like that are we able to establish a system in which justice prevails. There will still be a margin of people experiencing injustice and unjust suffering – that seems unavoidable given, for example, the general lack of widespread, fundamental and rigid structure defining what’s the proper ethical conduct and what is not. There will always be cases of premeditated evil and inadvertent evil, which will result in undeserved human suffering. But our goal is to always limit the scope of possible wrongdoings and to constantly expand the sphere of justice, Divine law and all other Jewish values – love, devotion to communal life, education, truthfulness, kindness, respect and responsibility. All of that should be done maintaining a proper balance between individual freedoms and the interests of the community, which is a theme for another d’var Torah.

Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Parashat Kdoshim

Parashat Kdoshim

פרשת קדשים

(Wayikra 19:1 – 20:27)

Miriam Klimova Rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and Rabbi at the “Shirat ha-Yam” congregation in Haifa.
Imagine a perfect morning: the smell of freshly brewed coffee, the singing of spring birds outside the window. You open the door to your apartment, you grab a fresh newspaper brought by the mailman already before dawn, you sit at the table, the paper rustles nicely as you open it and you read the latest news. And suddenly it becomes obvious – a perfect world doesn’t exist, and there are no perfect people…

Similarly we open our weekly Torah chapter.

We see that it begins with a surprising commandment: kdoshim tihju, “You shall be holy!”, but right away we face a difficult question – how can humans be holy?! If being holy requires us to become perfect, then most probably this has nothing in common with the reality which surrounds us.

Parashat Kdoshim forces us to reflect on what holiness is. Is it a certain emotion, or an experience, or maybe you need to be born “holy”?

The commandment to sanctify oneself and to be holy appears in many places in the TaNaCh and it usually refers to sanctifying yourself from something or to making someone holy. For example in II Samuel 11:4: “for she was sanctified from her uncleanness”[1]; in the Book of Joshua: “sanctify the people”. We know the commandment to sanctify the name of God, we also make the Shabbat holy. So the concept of “holiness” has different definitions.

One of the most famous researchers of this concept is  Rudolf Otto, a German philosopher and theologist, who wrote a famous book entitled “The Idea of the Holy”, in which he tried to define this concept and the way in which holiness is experienced by humans. Being a protestant theologist, he was worried by the tendency of liberals to reduce religion to ethics. He was trying to prove that there is a religious element in human nature which is inherently independent from the ethical element. It is a part of ourselves which reacts to that which is mysterious and surprising, to the reality which is both stunning and fascinating, which cannot be neither appropriately understood nor rationally explained. According to Otto the word “holy” and its counterparts point to a sense of a “mysterious” divine reality which evokes fear, respect and humility. This feeling in its simplest and most primitive form is terrifying, shocking and horrifying. In his opinion holiness is a combination of two forces: fear of the sublime character of this thing, and also a longing to draw close to it.

Others describe holiness as a sublime and highest dimension transcending reality. Perhaps there is some truth in these definitions, but it’s difficult to combine them with the commandment “you shall be holy” – here and now!

The commandment “you shall be holy” also states a reason for it: “for I, your God, am holy.” Holiness is an attribute of God, and therefore we must understand how a physical person can be close to the One who doesn’t have any flaws?!

I suggest that we look for an answer in the words of Midrash Avot de-Rabi Natan 27:

„Rabbi Tarfon taught: Do not keep away from a measurement without boundaries, or from work without end. A parable: To what can this be compared?… to someone who is supposed to take water from the sea and put it on dry land. The sea gets no smaller and the land is not filled up with water. So he becomes frustrated. Say to such a person, Empty one! Why are you so frustrated? Every day you are paid a golden dinar!”

Seeking that which is unreachable can be a means to achieving it. The distance between the sublime perfectness of God and our earthly limitations is infinite just like the waters of the sea, but the Torah encourages us to strive to reduce this distance.

The key to understanding the concept of holiness in Judaism is the statement that the path to reaching holiness is following the path showed by God. In Rabbinic literature we find many ways through which one can achieve closeness to God and thereby become a holy person:

„וכי אפשר לאדם להלך אחר השכינה? אלא להלך אחר מידותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא: מה הוא מלביש ערומים – אף אתה הלבש ערומים; הקדוש ברוך הוא ביקר חולים – אף אתה בקר חולים; הקדוש ברוך הוא ניחם אבלים – אף אתה נחם אבלים; הקדוש ברוך הוא קבר מתים – אף אתה קבור מתים” – (תלמוד בבלי, מסכת סוטה דף יד)

„But is it actually possible for a person to follow the Divine Presence? Rather, the meaning is that one should follow the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He. Just as He clothes the naked, so too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, visits the sick, so too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, consoles mourners, so too, should you console mourners. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, buried the dead, so too, should you bury the dead.” – Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sota, 14.

Humans can be holy when they walk the paths of God, when they do good deeds for others and when they work towards the existence of the world. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that several verses later we find another well-known and often quoted commandment:

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ…

„Love Your Neighbor As Yourself.”

In Judaism holiness is not an experience, it’s not an emotion, and you don’t have to be born holy. In Judaism holiness – is an action!

So let’s go back to the perfect morning: again, the smell of freshly brewed coffee, birds singing, a newspaper, the latest news… and suddenly it becomes clear: the world needs holiness, your holiness!

Shabbat Shalom!

Miriam Klimova,
Rabbinic student at HUC in Jerusalem, 
A Rabbi at the Shirat ha-Yam congregation in Haifa.

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

[1] English translation according to the Polish version [translator’s note].


Things we deserved and things we didn’t deserve

Thoughts on parashat Shemini

Menachem Mirski 

Does everything (bad) that happens to us happen for a reason? If so, where should we look for answers? In theology, science or our moral conduct as individuals or groups? The Torah portion for this week brings up this topic. On the eighth day, following the seven days of their inauguration, Aaron and his sons begin to officiate as kohanim (priests); a fire comes down from God to consume the offerings on the altar, and the divine presence comes to dwell in the Sanctuary. Aaron’s two elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer a “foreign fire before God” and die before God. Aaron is silent in face of this tragedy. Moses and Aaron subsequently disagree as to a point of law regarding the offerings, but Moses concedes to Aaron that Aaron is in the right.

The reason that Nadav and Avihu died is mentioned in theTorah:

And the sons of Aharon took each his censer, and they put in them incense. And they offered before יהוה foreign fire which He had not commanded them.

(Leviticus 10:1)

Yet the Sages and the midrashim give numerous reasons and explanations as to what their sin was and why they died. Some commentators praise Aharon’s sons and consider them as exceptional people: the sons meant what they did for the best and did more than they were commanded. But they were punished because no man has the right to do more or less in the Divine service than he was commanded. Other commentators find serious faults in the actions of Aharon’s sons. Some claim that they showed disrespect for the Mishkan and the Divine service, for example, that they entered the Mishkan wearing the robes of a regular Kohen rather than those of a Kohen Gadol; they had previously imbibed wine; they offered a sacrifice which they had not been commanded to bring. There are also commentators who accuse them of improper behavior which discredited their priesthood: that they were arrogant and did not take wives because of their conceit, for they felt that no other family was as distinguished as theirs, and they did not have children; that they were not friendly to one another; they wanted to determine the halachah in the presence of their Rebbi (Moshe), or, they awaited the death of Moshe and Aharon, so that they could take over the leadership of the nation.

The list of reasons for their sudden death goes on and on. Thus, it is legitimate to ask why the Rabbis were not satisfied with the simple answer given by the Torah and had to bring all of the other reasons. The answer to that question lies in the two fundamental theological assumptions of rabbinic thinking with regard to theodicy: 1) Everything bad that happens to the (Jewish) people can be and generally should be seen as Divine punishment; 2) The rabbinic mind has always been sensitive to injustice, and consequently, to any sort of incommensurability of the Divine punishment. The first assumption actually belongs to the oldest strata of biblical theology and theodicy: God is always just and every suffering/injustice comes from human sin/error. It’s not the only theodicy in Judaism; other answers to the problem of evil, including various concepts of unjustified suffering, had been successively developed starting from the late Second Temple period. But the idea that every misfortune and suffering is a result of human and not Divine action marks the rabbinic mind definitely until Holocaust and to some extent even until today. Thus, regarding the second assumption, the Rabbis, seeing the disproportion of the punishment, had no other choice than to come up with a variety of reasons for it.

Whether it is right to see everything that happens to us through the lens of Divine reward/punishment is a very extensive topic. To see everything that way is more “faith oriented”, so to say, whereas to admit that there is undeserved pain and suffering seems to be more “reason oriented”. Both approaches have their pros and cons. To see everything through the lens of Divine punishment can be for us, and often is, a driving force to be more moral, more careful, more observant, namely, to be conscious of our own responsibilities. To admit that there is an undeserved pain and suffering opens our eyes and minds to everything we have no influence on and it often helps us deal with our feelings of guilt.

All that is particularly relevant in our political judgments today. There are always things we, as individuals, communities or nations could have done better. But there are also the things we had no influence on, even though we could sense long before that they would determine our fate in a way we would want to avoid. Let’s apply this to the current situation of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people: this country has a long record of corrupt governments and social injustices stemming from it. Had they done better in this matter, as a nation and society, their position right now would have probably been better. Even their president, Zelensky, with my entire sympathy and admiration towards him, committed several mistakes, like those in his speech in Knesset a few days ago: his comparisons of the present situation of Ukraine to the Holocaust, as well as his claims about the role of Ukrainians in saving Jews during that time, were very inaccurate. But none of what the Ukrainians and their leadership did or didn’t do in recent decades makes them deserve Putin’s Russia aggression. What the Ukrainian people absolutely deserve is greater support from the West, in every politically doable matter. But on the other hand, this fact should not make us blind to the difficult and painful events that took place in the course of Polish-Jewish-Ukrainian history. It’s not necessary to talk about these events right now but it’s also unnecessary to idealize the victims in order to help them to bring peace and justice.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Eliyana Adler „Survival on the Margins”

Beit Polska and Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland present a new series

Freighted Legacies: The Culture and History of Jewish Interactions in Poland

Eliyana Adler „Survival on the Margins: Polish Jewish Refugees in the Wartime Soviet Union”

The implementation of the August 1939 accord between Germany and the Soviet Union (Molotov-Ribbentrop) erased Poland. The Jews in the Soviet controlled sector of the former Poland, many of whom fled eastward or were deported by Soviet authorities or simply exiled to vast howling regions found a paradoxical refuge. They were at a far remove from unfolding persecutions and murders the Germans planed. The narrative about the fate of the 200,000 Polish Jewish refugees in the Soviet Union remained peripheral to the study of the Holocaust for over 75 years. Dr. Adler’s ground breaking work has opened up these areas of study for the English speaking audiences.

In the Soviet Union, refuge was an arduous path including meager food, hard labor, freezing temperatures, illness, inadequate shelter, and the Soviet system – all, were a tortuous obstacles to survival. Initially Jewish Poles were designate to the Artic regions – “Siberia” and later, other locations in central Asia. After the war, they were allowed to return to Poland, where they discovered the full extent of the Holocaust’s destruction. By 1946, these Jewish Poles were the majority in the Displaced Persons camps established in Germany. Their story was subsumed into the main Holocaust narratives.

In a prescient supplementary essay What’s in a Name? How Titles Construct and Convey Knowledge about Migrants, Adler frames for us some of the difficulty and complexity facing those of us who seek to understand the circuitous paths of Polish Jewish Refugees. Dr. Adler remarks cross temporal boundaries to indirectly, comment on contemporary and historical constructs about migrants. Dr. Eliyana Adler’s ground breaking study employs the still meager Soviet era archival sources but foregrounds the recollections of survivors. Adler’s work confronts us with several questions: how we understand the Holocaust? What does it mean to be a survivor? We are left to understand and ponder the paradoxes of history.





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Defending our values requires sacrifices

Thoughts on parashat Vayakhel

 Menachem Mirski 

Our Torah portion for this week is among those that deal with the building of the Mishkan / Tabernacle. At the very beginning of our parasha Moses speaks to the Israelites about the necessary contributions they need to make in order to build the House in which God Himself resides.

Moses said further to the whole community of Israelites:This is what יהוה has commanded: Take from among you gifts to יהוה; everyone whose heart is so moved shall bring them—gifts for יהוה: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and the breastpiece. And let all among you who are skilled come and make all that יהוה has commanded: the Tabernacle, its tent and its covering, its clasps and its planks, its bars, its posts, and its sockets […] And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit was moved came, bringing to יהוה an offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments. Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, all who would make an elevation offering of gold to יהוה, came bringing brooches, earrings, rings, and pendants — gold objects of all kinds. (Ex 35:4-11;21-22)

The Israelites brought these precious materials and did this work in the name of faith in fundamental, holy principles, as well as to build their national and religious identity and unity. Today all of this is in a deep crisis, especially in the Western World. We, people of the West, are narcissistic when it comes to our lifestyle and self-obsessed in terms of what we believe our role on Earth is. One of our fundamental mistakes is that we think that the entire world thinks like us and wants what we want, namely, economic prosperity and good life for every citizen. The thing is that this is not the case of countries ruled by dictators and oligarchs, like Russia, China or Iran.

In April 2019 the Levada Center pollster published a poll according to which 70 % of Russians believe that Stalin played a positive role in the history of Russia (only 19 percent viewed Stalin’s role negatively, down from 32 percent in 2016.) The prevalence of such a view in Russian society was almost unthinkable in the 90’s or even in the early 2000’s. Nostalgia for the „old greatness” of the Soviet Empire has significantly grown in the recent two decades and it doesn’t matter that the entire Russian economy has a GPD almost the same as the state of Florida. It doesn’t matter because the leadership of countries like Russia, China or Iran doesn’t care about the prosperity and good life of their citizens – it is actually at the very bottom of the list of their priorities. Their top priority is the “mythical greatness” of their countries, to which, unfortunately, a significant part of their society gives the green light (not forgetting, of course, about those who strongly protest against such mythomania). Thus I suppose that the economic sanctions will have a little, if at all, impact on Russia and her “imperial ambitions”.

Another problem that we have in our Western societies is that currently we can’t even unify what our chief social philosophy is or what our values are. We can’t even unify that our history has a deeper meaning and is worth reverence, or at least – respect. What is pervasive instead is self loathing, pointing fingers at each other and virtue signaling – pointing out who is smarter, more just and more moral, and it is usually “us” who are all those things. It all means nothing if there are no unified standards in this matter and if there are no commonly shared values, it becomes yet another driving force for social tribalism and political divisions. Without unifying standards more and more people involved in politics don’t care about values they used to stand for: all they care about is power, and that is the way they become more and more like Russian or Chinese oligarchs. Falsehoods like “everything is about power” openly spread in the Western intellectual and political discourse not only question all the values we believed in, all our morality and even ordinary decency. Platitudes like that are not only wrong; they are harmful because they relativize everything, open a path to Machiavellism and invite bad actors, like Putin, to the game.

But that’s enough bitterness, especially that our life is disgustingly comfortable compared to what the Ukrainian people experience at this moment, seeking shelter in the Kiev metro or deciding to find a refuge in Poland (like those who found shelter at the train station in my hometown, Przemyśl.) Times and moments like this should make us realize what are the real values on which our Western, free societies are founded; that there are things in life that are more important than comfort and everyday pleasures; that it is the fundamental values such as truth, justice and liberty that make our joyful and comfortable lives possible. The societies that don’t cherish these values drift fast towards the reality of Egypt, where tyrants or a small groups of oligarchs benefit enormously from work of impoverished masses that work from dawn to dusk without the day of rest, or, in an alternative scenario these masses have no work at all and no purpose of life other than survival, or no purpose at all, and nobody cares about it. That’s the reality that is looming everytime our true values are questioned. Maimonides believed that the essence of the first commandment is an unshakable faith in the Eternal and the minute we question His divinity, we question all our values, all our ethics, law and societal order. Absolutism can be a source of injustice, as history has shown numerous times, but there are times and places where being absolutely tied to our fundamental values is necessary and for the benefit of all of us. This, however, often requires sacrifices and that’s exactly the message Moses brought to our forefathers.

Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.


Wykonać Boską pracę zanim On ją wykona

Refleksja nad paraszą Bemidbar

Menachem Mirski

Życie stawia nas czasem w trudnych i skomplikowanych sytuacjach, w których mówimy do siebie “jakoś to będzie”, po czym okazuje się, że rzeczywistością staje się to, czego najbardziej się obawialiśmy. Czasem jest też tak, że jesteśmy w tych trudnych przepełnieni optymizmem, przez co dostrzegamy tylko to, co pozytywne i wręcz nie dopuszczamy do siebie myśli, że może wydarzyć się inaczej. Nasze rozczarowanie jest wtedy dużo większe. Wówczas, po fakcie, rozliczamy samych siebie i czasem stwierdzamy, że nie zrobiliśmy wszystkiego by owej sytuacji zapobiec, że mogliśmy być bardziej przewidujący i zrobić więcej.

Nasza porcja Tory na ten tydzień rozpoczyna się od słów, które wydają się nie mieć nic wspólnego z tym, co napisałem powyżej:

Dnia pierwszego drugiego miesiąca, w drugim roku po wyjściu z Egiptu, tymi słowami przemówił Pan do Mojżesza na pustyni Synaj w Namiocie Spotkania: Dokonajcie obliczenia całego zgromadzenia Izraelitów według szczepów i rodów, licząc według głów imiona wszystkich mężczyzn. Ty i Aaron dokonajcie spisu wszystkich Izraelitów zdolnych do walki od lat dwudziestu wzwyż, według ich zastępów. Z każdego pokolenia winien wam towarzyszyć mąż, głowa rodu. (Liczb 1:1-4)

Bóg nakazuje Mojżeszowi policzyć plemiona Izraelskie w celu określenia ilości mężczyzn zdolnych do sformowania wojska i wyruszenia w bitwy, aby podbić Erec Israel. Możemy zapytać: dlaczego (wszechwiedzący) Bóg potrzebuje tej liczby, czyżby jej nie znał? Odpowiedź na to pytanie brzmi następująco: On tej liczby nie potrzebuje. Potrzebuje jej Mojżesz, inni liderzy Izraela i lud Izraela jako taki, żeby zaplanować i dokonać owego podboju. Potrzebują tego, bowiem od momentu wyjścia z Egiptu boska protekcja i interwencja ulega stopniowemu zmniejszeniu. Jedynie pierwszą bitwę, z Egipcjanami, Bóg sam stoczył dla Izraela, własnymi rękami, zatapiając egipskie wojska w morzu.  Następna bitwa, stoczona z Amalekitami zaraz po wyjściu z Egiptu (Wj 17:8-16) stoczona była już przez Izraelitów, Bóg jedynie pomógł im ją wygrać. W takiej też postaci – relacji partnerstwa, nie zaś kompletnej zależności od Boga – zostaje utrwalona relacja ludu wybranego z Wiekuistym.

Jak ujął to, idąc za mędrcami, Nachmanides nigdy nie powinniśmy zakładać, że wydarzą się cuda; musimy zawsze poczynić wszelkie niezbędne przygotowania, aby realnie móc się zmierzyć z wrogiem. Podobnie w naszym indywidualnym życiu, w naszych zmaganiach z rzucanymi nam wyzwaniami: musimy być stale zdolni oszacować co jest od nas zależne, co jest w naszej mocy i co, w konsekwencji, należy do naszych obowiązków, czym nie powinniśmy obarczać Wiekuistego, ani też innych ludzi. Wtedy powinniśmy zrobić wszystko, co w naszej mocy, aby stawić czoła złu lub niebezpieczeństwu. Z powodu naszej wyjątkowej relacji z Wiekuistym, cuda się (prawdopodobnie) wydarzą (co mieliśmy okazję zaobserwować w naszej nawet nieodległej historii). Jeśli się one wydarzą, będzie to dla nas dodatkowy dar, który będzie nagrodą za naszą mądrość i gotowość do działania, dar który przyniesie nam ulgę, przywróci szczęście oraz pokój między ludźmi.

Szabat szalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

Szirat ha-Jam – Pesach

Szirat ha-Jam

Pesach Pieśń morza

Czytanie „Szirat ha-Jam” Pieśni Morza z Miriam Klimovą – studentką Rabinacką w Hebrew Union College w Jerozolimie oraz Rabinką Kongregacji „Szirat Ha-Jam” w Haifie. Szabat Szalom i Chag Sameach 🌺
Cedaka צדקה
Polska – Związek Postępowych Gmin Żydowskich nr konta: 47 1240 1040 1111 0010 3311 7066 Bank Pekao S.A. Tytuł: Darowizna na cele statutowe

Parsza Tory Wajikra

Parsza Tory „Wajikra”

Czytanie „Szirat ha-Jam” Pieśni Morza z Miriam Klimovą – studentką Rabinacką w Hebrew Union College w Jerozolimie oraz Rabinką Kongregacji „Szirat Ha-Jam” w Haifie. Szabat Szalom i Chag Sameach 🌺
Cedaka צדקה
Polska – Związek Postępowych Gmin Żydowskich nr konta: 47 1240 1040 1111 0010 3311 7066 Bank Pekao S.A. Tytuł: Darowizna na cele statutowe