Rabbi Joel Levy

Passover: A Reflection on Boundaries & Their Dissolution


The public areas of international airports represent a particular type of multi-cultural coexistence. People from all over the world come together and share space in close proximity. The faces of the crowd are of all hues and their clothes reflect different cultural and religious traditions. Broadly speaking, in these shared spaces, people get on with each other in a certain disengaged middle-class kind of way. There are restrained, polite interactions between the “fellow” travelers and interactions between the by-and-large wealthy travelers and the by-and-large less wealthy airport support staff and shop workers are governed by the capitalist rules of servility and superficiality. The capacity for humans to share space peacefully in this disengaged manner is not to be sneezed at. We see so many examples around the world of ethnic strife and inter-religious violence that it comes as a relief to watch our species co-existing even in such a dispassionate manner.

But there are areas within international airports where the rules of the game are different and I’d like to share a few experiences from one of those spaces that occurred to me recently. I am committed to certain religious disciplines of Judaism, including regular prayer. While travelling I will often need to find a prayer space at a certain time of day and on those occasions I will always seek out the prayer lounges of airports to pray in. Some airports have multi-faith prayer lounges where practitioners of different traditions rub shoulders with each other in quite a different way to the more neutral space only a few metres away. Recently I arrived at a major airport in time for my morning prayers. The multi-faith area was, as usual, filled with Muslim worshipers; men and women, travelers and airport workers, who had each removed their shoes outside the room and taken a prayer mat to begin their devotions. I donned the traditional fringed garment (tallit) and the leather strapped amulets (tefillin) that accompany traditional Jewish morning prayers. There was a degree of tension in the room. This was now an unusual and more intense situation than that prevailing in the rest of the airport. We “co-prayers” were now sharing a space of religious intimacy and intensity and our differences had suddenly become overt. A few moments earlier we would have passed or served each other without a second thought but now we were unavoidably entangled; co-monotheists engaged in similar acts of devotion, the precise cultural details of which jumped out and drew attention to the gulf separating us.

An intense young Muslim worshipper came up to me with agitation and told me to remove my shoes as this was a prayer space. I beckoned him to the doorway and explained to him that it is the normal cultural practice of my community to pray with shoes on as a mark of respect. He insisted that I remove my shoes and I repeated that whereas his culture marked respect through removing shoes, mine marked it the opposite way. He cursed me; we had now crossed the line from politely ignoring each other into a real stand-off. He was angry and confused and sat down to read a copy of the Koran to calm himself a little. After a while he resumed the conversation. He told me that he did not care at all about my traditions, that they held no interest for him, and he told me again that I was a fool not to remove my shoes. I returned to my devotions in the prayer room, shoes intact; now disturbed, distracted and upset.

Another Muslim worshipper finished his prayer and caught my eye. He was full bearded with a long white garment and intense dark eyes. He smiled, approached me, touched my arm and said quietly, “Salaam brother”. At that moment I felt intimately close to him. Menachem Meiri, the thirteenth century Catalan philosopher called the Christians and Muslims of his generation “brothers in Torah and Mitsvot”. This worshipper felt, for a few moments, like a real fellow traveler. He left the room, but I still felt his touch on my arm and on my heart. I finished my davening and carried on with my journey. I returned to the neutral bourgeois safety of the airport. Two interactions with Muslim worshipers had changed my day; one for better and the other for worse.

We are about to celebrate the Passover; the quintessential re-telling of the Jewish narrative. Although some of the themes of Pesach are universal and encourage identification with all oppressed people, many of the practices of the chag encourage a sense of isolation and boundary. The first description of the holiday in the book of Exodus emphasizes that the Pesach offering is only for the circumcised (12: 43-50) and that the eating of matzah, as opposed to leavened bread, represents a marker of inclusion in or exclusion from the community of Israel (12:15,19). The hagadah includes a late interpolation, “sh’foch chamatcha”, which amounts to a curse on the nations of the world. The story of the Exodus recalls the people of Israel emerging as a distinct, free political and cultural entity. Many of the ancient and current practices of Pesach reinforce a sense of boundary and isolation.

A great many practitioners of highly demanding distinct religious traditions around the world seek, for very good cultural reasons, to live permanently behind high walls. It is much easier to maintain a sense of community cohesion and commitment when the borderline between self and other is well delineated. My angry Muslim interlocutor’s encounter with me, an annoying religious other, was disconcerting and confusing for him. In that prayer lounge the boundary between us slipped for a few minutes and the result on his side was fury and incomprehension. The contemporary turn towards religious fundamentalism expresses a yearning for the taken-for-granted-ness of religious life that would have typified most isolated pre-modern societies across the world.

For his white robed co-religionist, on the other hand, a person who seemed equally committed to the particularities of Muslim practice, the slipping of the boundary evoked love. For me too the choice to seek out multi-faith prayer spaces is a principled one. I want to live in a world where the diverse members of my species learn to coexist peacefully in a deeper way than we currently do in the neutral marketplace. I want to be able to pray seriously alongside a like-minded devout Muslim.

I believe in boundaries and I believe in their dissolution. I want to participate in a Jewish communal life that is intense and pious. I appreciate the value of communities of common commitment and practice; communities with walls. I also want to see those walls dissolved by love, compassion, historical awareness and cultural relativism.  

Pesach marks the very beginning of our story as a distinct people. As such some of its motifs push us towards separation. For a few days of the year we turn inwards and emphasize our foundational mythology and our sense of ourselves as isolated. In the Pesach narrative the enemies that we struggle with are without. But just as our yearly holiday vacations are brief exceptional affairs that take us out of our normal mundane lives to somewhere different and offer us intense new vistas, so too religious holydays are “places” that we visit temporarily in order to refresh ourselves and shed a unique light on our lives. To seek to reside permanently in the spirit of Pesach or Yom Kippur is as foolish as mistakenly thinking that our holiday destinations are our true homes.

How can we learn as a people, and as a species, to live together more peacefully? One way to live together in peace is to move our lives metaphorically into the world of the airport shopping mall. Many liberal, heterodox Jews choose to dwell in that polished world. Liberal Jews are not normally so committed to the disciplines of Jewish observance that we are driven to seek out spaces for prayer at all, let alone in the interfaith lounge. This was the unnerving thesis of Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest allegorical novel “The Buried Giant”; that peace of all sorts can only be attained and maintained through systematic forgetfulness.

Many illiberal Jews, on the other hand, are deeply committed to the practice of Jewish spiritual disciplines but do not yearn for the kinds of multicultural interactions that relativize our practice and allow us to transcend primitive feelings of superiority and triumphalism. Like my Muslim interlocutor, the enculturation of many traditionalist Jews has decreased their capacity to hold the complexities of multi-culturalism and has led inexorably to their retreat into cultural self-absorption.

There must be a different path. Is it beyond our species to develop kinds of religious education that will allow us to live out our religious traditions deeply and authentically in a way that will promote a yearning for peace with our neighbors? Is it too much to ask that as our Jewish learning and commitment increases so will our compassion, empathy and love for all people? What more can we do to promote deep, particularist religious commitment together with a sense of deep, universalist kinship? This Pesach as we revisit our foundational story and renew our commitment to cultural distinctiveness we might also ponder how that same story might be read in a way that liberates us from cultural narcissism.

PDF Pesach Reflection

Noah 5776

4 Marcheshvan 5776
October 16-17, 2015
Annual: Genesis 6:9-11:32
Triennial: Genesis 11:1-32
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-55:5

The Choreography of Chaos and Control – Parashat Noah 

By Rabbi Joel G. Levy, CY Rosh Yeshiva

In Parshat Noah we will witness the fragility of those primal partitions. When appalled by creation, God causes the divisions to blur; chaotic liquid pours down from the heavens above and bubbles up from the waters beneath, threatening to return the earth to its original state of entropy.

Bereshit 7:11
יא   … בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה, נִבְקְעוּ כָּל-מַעְיְנֹת תְּהוֹם רַבָּה, וַאֲרֻבֹּת הַשָּׁמַיִם, נִפְתָּחוּ.
11 …on the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened.
That primordial chaos is never destroyed or negated; it can merely be held in check. Despite the promise at the end of the parasha (Bereshit 9:21) that God will never again destroy the world, the rabbis assume that those waters are still there, ready to burst out and destroy the world. In a beautiful Midrash in Masechet Sukkah (53a-b) King David digs down and touches this chaos whilst preparing the infrastructure for the altar in the temple:
When David dug the Pits, the Deep (t’hom) arose and threatened to submerge the world… [David] inscribed the Name of God upon a shard; cast it into the Deep and it subsided sixteen thousand cubits.
Our lives are fragile, even though we attempt to delude ourselves that they are not. Any order that we manage to impose on the world is only ever partial and temporary. We dwell in an evolving bubble of order in a universe of constantly increasing entropy. Like God’s act of creation, every act of human creation involves temporarily stemming the tide of chaos.
So why not try to rid the world of chaos/water entirely! King David’s sees the results of such a solution in the continuation of that Midrash:
When he saw that it had subsided to such a great extent, he said, “The nearer it is to the earth, the better the earth can be kept watered” and he uttered the fifteen Songs of Ascent and the Deep re-ascended fifteen thousand cubits…
To rid the world of chaos/water is to rid it of life itself! To seek order at any price is to insist on desiccated lifelessness. In our mythology water represents the source of both life and chaos; they are two sides of the same coin! Chaos may be terrifying but it is an essential part of the universe – the source of all life and creativity. Like God we seek to carve out a world of order using a sea of creative chaos as our eternally renewed raw material.

A Vort for Parashat Noah

By Rabbi Daniel Goldfarb, CY Faculty

Verse 7:7 says that Noah and his family “went into the Ark because of the waters of the flood.”  Rashi says this showed Noah’s lack of faith – despite God’s word, he waited until the rains actually started.  R’ Yitzhak Isaac of Zidichov, a noted 19th century Hasidic rabbi, explained just the opposite, that Noah had such great faith in God’s mercy for all His creatures, even the evil ones, that he was sure that God would not bring the flood to destroy them. And, the Hasidim tell, when R’ Yitzhak Isaac died and went to Heaven, Rashi came out to greet him to show appreciation for the his explanation of the verse.

Table Talk

by Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, CY Faculty

In the 10 generations since Adam, humanity has managed to create a society that is so corrupt that it cannot continue. Here are  a few questions to start some discussions:

Parashat Noah

1) The Torah tells us that Noah was ‘a righteous man in his generation’ (6:9). Was he righteous in his own right or did he only seem rightous in comparison to the people of his time? What difficulties do you think that Noah faced because of his behavior? Why? (This question is partially based on a discussion found in Rashi’s commentary on 6:9.)

2) God told Noah to build an ark. Who would be saved in the ark (6:17-7:3)?  What might be the logic behind this?

3) Why do you think that God had Noah work hard and build the ark rather than create it miraculously for him?

4) Following the flood, God makes a covenant with the living things on Earth (9:8-17). What is the covenant and what is its symbol? Why do you think that this was chosen as a symbol for this covenant?

*Try to think of at least one other covenant in Torah that speaks of a brit (a covenant) and an ot (sign). What is the covenant and what is the symbol there? Why do you think that symbol was chosen?

5) When Noah finally emerges from the ark he plants a vineyard. Why do you think that he did so? (Did it have a connection to his experience in the ark? To his life before the flood? To what had happened to the Earth – both plants and living creatures?  What might wine symbolize?)

*Challenging question.

PDF Noah 5776

Purim and Assimilation

Purim and Assimilation Sourcesheet (pdf)
Purim and Assimilation E-Shiur (printer-friendly pdf of this page)

Alone among all the Jewish festivals, Purim is a holiday with a traditional injunction to become intoxicated. Our first text is from the Babylonian Talmud and is the primary source for that obligation (Source 1).  This shiur will be an attempt to look at some different ways of understanding this obligation.

The first way is straightforward: drinking is simply a means by which to celebrate. Megillat Esther is the story of a huge inversion. The Jews of Shushan move from being on the verge of annihilation to actually wiping out their enemies. A verse found towards the end of the Megillah describes this huge change (Source 2).

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