Tag Archives: Judaism.

Can Heavy Metal Save the World?

My latest on the way in which Orphaned Land, Israel’s biggest heavy metal band, is transforming relations between Muslims and Jews in the MENA.

Sometimes change happens in the most unlikely ways, fostered by the most unlikely of people. In the last few years, while Israel’s relationship with the Arab and Muslim world has drastically deteriorated, an Israeli heavy metal band has been uniting thousands of Jews and Muslims across the Middle East.

Originally published in Common Ground News, a longer version of this piece also appears in The Jerusalem Post.


Wrongful Treatment of Messianic Jews In Israel

Over at Harry’s Place, a good article about the wrongful treatment of messianic Jews in Israel. The article also quotes and references what I have written on the subject for Jewcy.

It seems that the unholy alliance between state and the ultra-Orthodox establishment has created the absurd reality of inverse crypto-Judaism: Where in the medieval era Jews who had converted to Christianity kept their Judaism in secret, today many Messianics feel compelled to hide their beliefs from the rest of Israeli society. The price of disclosure may not be a visit to the Israeli equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition, yet social ostracism, harassment, bullying, and state-sanctioned discrimination is enough to keep many (though not all) living secret lives.

The article was written by the Rosh Pina Project, a new blog that describes itself as:

An online meeting place for Messianic Jews and all those who believe that Messianic Jews deserve fair treatment in Israel and the Diaspora, and protection as a religious minority in Israel. Yeze and Gever, both affiliated with Messianic Jewish fellowships, are currently the main contributors to this site. The Rosh Pina Project will be highlighting the persecution of Messianic Jews in Israel, unfair treatment of Messianic Jews in the mainstream media, and post cultural and political reviews.

Please visit the blog and support the important work that they are doing.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find Out What It Means To Me

Here is my latest from Haaretz:

During this recent campaign trail, Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have channeled the spirit of Aretha Franklin.

“I think that it is a matter of self-pride,” says Netanyahu. “A people that respects itself doesn’t divide its capital. A people that respects itself does not run away from terrorism. A people that respects itself believes in its right to its land.,

The logic of Netanyahu’s position is crystal clear, as is his not-so-tacit message to voters: Since Livni or Barak (along with the international community) believe that dividing Jerusalem and returning land is a necessary condition for peace with the Palestinians and with Syria, they do not respect themselves or the Israeli people.

Of course one can easily flip Netanyahu’s logic and say that a people that respects itself does not value land over life. One can also point out that Netanyahu’s positions are a broken mirror image of a radical and intransigent Palestinian constituency that refuses to compromise with Israel on land and recognition. It will leave no one incredulous if the words quoted above (with slight modifications) came from the mouth of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and not Benjamin Netanyahu.

But the telling problem in Netanyahu’s logic is the overarching value he places on self-pride. Is respect for one’s self the only game in town? What about respect for the rights of others? What about respect for Judaism’s ethical heritage?

To read the rest, click here. As always, if the spirit moves you, please leave a comment.

A Proud Nation: Gay Pride Parade In Jerusalem

In honor of the Gay Pride Parade that recently took place in Jerusalem, I am reposting one of my first published articles. The article, entitled A Proud Nation, appeared in Tikkun on November 9th, 2006. I actually really like this article, it is still one of my favorite pieces. Enjoy.

A Proud Nation
By Roi Ben-Yehuda

Make no mistake about it, the Gay Pride parade that is scheduled to take place this Friday in Jerusalem is nothing short of a litmus test for Israel as a democracy. Can you imagine a gay pride parade taking place in Mecca, Tehran, Kabul, or Baghdad? You can’t. And the reason you can’t is because these places lack basic freedoms. But Israel is different. Israel takes pride in being the only democracy in the Middle East, a title that will ring hollow lest the government protects the right of its minority citizens to free speech and public demonstration.

The arguments against the parade have ranged from the sophisticated, to the absurd, to the immoral. Some have argued that since the parade will undoudbtly incite violence, the right to life should take precedent over the right to free speech. Others have said that in the name of tolerance and respect, that the parade should be cancelled or rerouted to Tel-Aviv. Still others have called out that Jerusalem is a sacred city, and the presence of gays will desecrate its holy grounds.

Fortunately, all these arguments, in one guise or another, have been rebutted. The potential of danger, cannot eliminate people’s right to free speech and demonstration. If that would be the case, then every group that would feel offended would resort to the threat of violence or violent behavior to get rid of the source of their indignation.

Likewise, the idea that in the name of tolerance and respect the parade should be rerouted is equally unacceptable. The French-Arab intellectual Amin Maalouf responded to this type of reasoning best when he wrote that, “Traditions deserve to be respected only insofar as they are respectable – that is, exactly insofar as they themselves respect the fundamental rights of men and women.”

Finally, the notion that the mere presence of gays and those who support them will foul the hallowed grounds of Jerusalem, rest on accepting a particular religious moral construct as normative. Jerusalem, the city, as sacred space is not a legal concept, and the idea that gays are an abomination has no place in the moral discourse of those who have respect for human dignity. In short, none of these arguments are sufficient for putting a halt to the demonstration.

Lost in these debates is an unquestioned assumption that needs to be addressed: namely, that homosexuality is an affront to Judaism. Many orthodox Jews do indeed consider homosexuality to be an abomination. In the Torah, it states that “if a man copulates with another male as one copulates with a woman, both of them have acted abominably; they shall be put to death… [Leviticus 20:13]

Yet in the heat of the moment, what people often overlook is that the word abomination appears all over the Bible (122 times in all). It is used for eating non-Kosher animals [Deus 14:3], to describe the act of man who remarries his wife after she married another [24:4], to describe bringing improper sacrifice to God [Deut 17:1], to describe acting with envy, and to describe shedding innocent blood [Proverbs 3:32, 16:22]. Given that all these are considered abominations, why are the religiously orthodox able to live with some and not with others? Are not all abomination created equal?

Whats more, is homosexuality really prohibited by the Torah? As mentioned above, the prohibition against homosexuality comes from an interpretation of two Leviticus passages which state that males should not lie with other males as if they were females. But the text itself is not so clear cut, and is subject to multiple interpretations. First off, we should note that the prohibition is directed at males only. The Torah says nothing about female to female relations. Next, we need to ask what does it mean to for a man to lie with another man “as one lies with a woman”? [Leviticus 18:22]

Rabbi Simcha Roth, an authority on Jewish law, has written that the major prohibition intimated by Leviticus is that of anal sex and not homosexuality. In other words, what the Torah disallows is for a man to treat another man as he would a woman – i.e. penetrate him. In his essay “Dear David: Homosexual relationships – A Halachic Investigation”, Roth writes that, “If the Torah is prohibiting the specific act of anal penetration of one male by another; it follows that the two verses of the Torah are not a blanket prohibition of homosexuality.”

Going beyond this less-exclusive interpretation, the American Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach summed up the matter beautifully when he wrote that , “Religious people should finally get over their all-too-apparent homophobia and reverse the discriminatory policy which says that homosexuality is an aberration marked by God for special censure. Like heterosexual men and women, gays are God’s children, capable of bringing light and love to a planet whose darkness is caused not only by sin but also misguided judgmentalism.” Amen to that.

It must be remembered that as much as Judaism is the religion that gave us Leviticus 18:22, it is also the relgion that gave us the divine commandment “You should love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypts.” [Deut 10:19] And who is today’s strangers, if not our gay, lesbian, and transsexual brothers and sisters.

Religion should unite us, engendering a spirit of compassion and loving-kindness in all. If it fails to do so, its usefulness will become obsolete. The great irony of the gay pride parade in Jerusalem is that it manages, in the name of bigotry, to unite orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Israelis and Jews across the world would be wise to ask themselves if these are the type of bed fellows that they really want.

I began this article by stating that if Israel wants to march in the Democracy Pride Parade, then it must act in congruence with its democratic principles. Likewise, if the Jewish people want to live up to the biblical injunction to be a “light unto the nations”, they must reject the hatred and bigotry espoused in their name and take pride in their mighty spiritual and universal heritage.

The Post-Modern Matazah Riddle: My Opening Remarks For Last Year’s Seder.

The Post-Modern Matazah riddle

By Roi Ben-Yehuda

In preparing a Passover seder in which many of my guests are first-timers and non-Jews, I am challenged by a number of factors: There is the barrier of language (some of the texts that we read are in Hebrew), food (some guests are vegetarian, some adhere to Koshrot, still others are Muslims and cannot drink wine), and religion (will the guests take offense at the exclusivists and bellicose passages that we read? Will the Christians day-dream about the “last supper”? Will the atheists’ role their eyes and wonder why we are rehashing these old legends? ).

But above all, my main concern is how best to convey to my guests the true spirit and essence of this wonderful holiday. In the process of thinking about this, I found myself asking: Does the holiday have an essence? If so, can it be extrapolated from a single passage of the haggadah (ritual text)? I am pretty sure that the answer is “no” to both questions, Pesach is simply too rich, diverse, and complex of a holiday for that. Yet I still decided to challenge myself and pick a passage, wrestle with it, and see what I am able produce. What follows is my commentary.

One of the most interesting passages in the Haggadah is known as HaLachma Anya (Aramaic for “the bread of affliction”). It is read at the opening of the story-telling session of the night. The passage is composed of three interrelated stages which I have called: Transformation, Responsibility, and Liberation. While no single passage can fully encapsulate the beauty, grandeur, and power of Pesach, an in-depth exploration of HaLachma Anya, as I hope to show, goes along way. Let us begin our study.

Our passage reads as follows:

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.

Let all who are hungry, come and eat.

Let all who are needy, come and celebrate Passover.

This year we are here – next year, may we be in the land of Israel.

This year we are slaves -next year, may we be free.

Transformation: “This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.” The bread of affliction is of course the matzah (unleavened bread) the Jews eat during Passover. The matzah is described as the bread of affliction and suffering, yet we are instructed to feed those who are wanting with this bread. Why? Why offer the hungry and the needy the taste of affliction? Have they not suffered enough? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief Rabbi of Britain, has an interesting answer – He reminds us that the rabbis saw the matzah both as the bread of affliction and the bread of liberation. In Deuteronomy 16:3 we read “You shall eat unleavened bread, bread of oni (poverty or distress), for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly.” In the Haggadah the same explanation is used to describe the matzah as a bread of freedom. It is the bread of liberation because we took it with us as we escaped the bondage of slavery. It was the food of our emancipation.

The Post-Modern Matazah riddle: So how does the same piece of bread mean two different things? Well, according to Rabbi Sacks, what the text is actually telling us is that the transformation of the matzah from the bread of affliction to the bread of liberation comes as a result of our willingness to share it with others. He writes:

“Sharing food is the first act in which slaves become free human beings. One who fears tomorrow does not offer his bread to others. But one who is willing to divide his food with a stranger has already shown himself capable of fellowship and faith, the two things from which hope is born. That is why we begin the Seder by inviting others to join in. Bread shared is no longer the bread of affliction. Reaching out to others, giving help to the needy and companionship to those who are alone, we bring freedom into the world, and with freedom, God.”

Primo Levi, the Holocaust survivor and novelist, tells us in his book “If This Is man” that the first sign of humanity in Auschwitz was people’s willingness to share food. In the concluding days of the war, when the Nazis had left all the sickly bodies to die in the camp, Levi and his fellow prisoners stayed alive by cooperating. As Levi explains, this was not business as usual:

“Only a day before a similar event would have been inconceivable. The law of the lager said: “Eat your own bread, and if you can, that of your neighbor,” and left no room for gratitude. It really meant that the law of the lager was dead. It was the first human gesture that occurred among us. I believe that the moment can be dated as the beginning of the change from Haftlinge [prisoner] to men again.”

Responsibility: “Let all who are needy, come and celebrate Passover. Let all who are hungry, come and eat.” The Bible reminds us, over and over, that we must use our degrading experience in the land of Egypt to sensitize us to the suffering of others. The idea being that the suffering of our ancestors, which we should imagine as our own, is to be seen as an ennobling experience. We are instructed to care for the wanting because we were once wanting in the land of Egypt.

It is interesting to note that the text lets us know that there is more than one way in which we can be wanting. It is for this reason that it differentiates between those who are needy and those who are hungry. What is the difference between the two? Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a leading 20th century Talmudist and philosopher, explains to us that while the hungry are needy, the needy are not necessarily hungry. One can have all the food and wealth in the world and still be needy. One may be in need of love, respect, dignity, family, country, health, truth, happiness etc. It is for this reason that the text enjoins those who are needy to “celebrate Passover”, and those who are hungry to “come and eat”.

Finally, notice that the text refers to “all” who are needy and hungry. It does not refer to all Jews who are needy and hungry, but to all people. It is true that the text was written by Jews and for Jews, but I want to suggest that the inclusive language is deliberate. As mentioned above, the ethics of Passover, in actuality the ethics of Judaism, revolve around the concept of radical sympathy and empathy for those who are suffering. This call for identification and compassion is not reserved for Jews alone. The universalism of Jewish ethics resulted in the Torah instructing us only once to love our neighbor (who surely was Jewish), while commanding us in no less than thirty six places to care for stranger (who surely was not Jewish) “because you yourself know how it feels to be a stranger – you were strangers in Egypt.” [Exodus 23:9]

To love the stranger is a revolutionary concept – revolutionary in the ancient world with its ethics of tribalism, and revolutionary today with the scrooge of xenophobic nationalism. Of course, for these words not ring hollow, for them not to be an exercise in self-indulgence, we need to ask our selves what does it mean to be a stranger? Who is today’s stranger? And Am I, as a Jew, acting with empathy, compassion, and love towards those who are deemed to be strangers.

Liberation: “This year we are here – next year, may we be in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves -next year, may we be free.” This is a passage born in exile. It literally speaks of a people who are not at home. It is written in Aramaic, and scholars suggest that it was composed during the time of the Babylonian exile (beginning 586 BCE). There is symmetry to these lines: to be in exile is to be enslaved, to be in the land of Israel is to be free. Of course the text has also a symbolic meaning – we are internally enslaved when we are alienated from our true selves. Israel, in this understanding, is not a place, but rather a symbolic psychological and spiritual state of internal freedom. It is in this sense that Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1722-1811) had famously stated: “Wherever I go, I am going to Eretz Israel.”

Passover is known in Hebrew is Zman Herutinu (Time of our liberation). It is a holiday of freedom. As such it asks of us to meditate on the meaning of freedom. In his beloved essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” the intellectual Isaiah Berlin distinguished between what he called Negative and Positive freedom. Negative freedom meant freedom from coercion – from being physically constraint. While positive freedom meant freedom to act in accords with my own true nature – to be one’s own master. Throughout history, thinkers have tended to favore one type of freedom over the others. Buddha, Epictetus, Plato, Jesus, Rousseau, and Hegel all emphasized positive freedom, while philosophers like Locke, Mill, Hobbes, and Berlin favored freedom’s negative manifestation.

In contrast, Passover celebrates both types of freedom (in Hebrew they can be respectively referred to as Chufesh and Cherut). We celebrate our liberation from bondage in Egypt, but we know full well that we are still slaves. Mordecai Kaplan, the father of Reconstructionist Judaism, expressed this idea in the following manner:

“Pesach calls us to be free, free from the tyranny of our own selves, free from enslavement of poverty and inequality, free from the corroding hate that eats away the ties which unite mankind. Pesach calls up on us to put an end to all slavery! Pesach cried out in the name of God, “Let my people go.” Pesach summons us to freedom.”

To conclude, a close look at the HaLachma Anya leads us to the two pillars of Pesach: Freedom and Responsibility. In Judaism, the concept of freedom without responsibility is like a boat on dry land. Is this the essence of the holiday? Perhaps? Certainly many secular Jews think so. But as some of you may have noticed, I choose a passage that made no reference to God. Yet God, who had liberated the Jews from slavery, is central to the Passover narrative. It is through God that whole drama of Jewish history unfolds.

In the end, perhaps the essence of Passover is not to be found in the meaning of a particular text, but rather in how we approach the text. The genius of the Jewish people, the secret to their longevity and vitality as a people, has been their paradoxial reverence for tradition and irreverence for dogma. Tonight, we join millions of Jews around the world as they open up an ancient book, ask searching questions, sing songs of praise, and eat delicious food. I hope that your experience is joyful, inspirational, and educational. Let’s begin our seder.


The Agnostic Rabbi

A SACRED DUTY: Applying Jewish Values To Help Heal The World

Emotionally powerful and thought-provoking doc on how Jewish values can be instrumental in healing our planet and selves.

“Produced by Emmy-Award-winning producer, director, writer, and cinematographer Lionel Friedberg, A SACRED DUTY will take its place alongside Al Gore’s AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH and Leonardo di Caprio’s THE ELEVENTH HOUR as another powerful expose of the dangers of global warming. However, it goes beyond the latter two films, by showing how religious responses can make a major difference and why a shift toward plant-based diets is an essential part of efforts to reduce global climate change and other environmental threats.”

Warning: Extremely graphic accounts of animal abuse and slaughter toward the end of this film. The not so subtle allusion to the holocaust should have been avoided, but the film is worth seeing and thinking about.

Passover Is Coming: Reflections of Secular Jews

Jbooks asked me and a whole bunch of other secular Jews to reflect on the way in which we celebrate Passover.

Here is what I said:  

Passover has always been my favorite holiday. I love its traditions, history, imagination, playfulness, symbolism, food, and rituals. It is the one time of year that I get to play rabbi—an agnostic rabbi, that is. For a number of years, my family has hosted large seders for Jews and non-Jews alike. To make the holiday meaningful, to make it resonate with our diverse crowd, we have written our very own haggadah (there are over 3,000 haggadot in existence, what’s one more?). We incorporate modern music with ancient melodies—we actually have a band!—and make sure that all of our guests have an opportunity to participate. As for the prayers, I re-wrote them so that instead of focusing on God, we redirect our attention to humanity and to the always-relevant theme of freedom: existential, psychological, political, and spiritual.

To read some reflections (and get some ideas for your own seder), click here.