The Five Rabbis in Bnei Brak

Like many Jewish educators, I am fascinated by the Pesah Seder.   In particular, I love finding new commentaries and customs for the seder that help enrich portions of the seder that are examined less frequently than others, for while one can always find a new commentary on the four sons or the ten plagues, many portions of the seder receive considerably less attention.  This past week, I published a short seder supplement for the Schechter School of Long Island entitled The Pesah Seder: A Night of Endless Learning, which centers around the five rabbis who spent the entire night studying the Exodus from Egypt in Bnei Brak.   I have felt that the story of the five rabbis never receives the attention it deserves, even though the text teaches us something powerful about what it means to see learning as a process without limits.  Please feel free to use this supplement at your sedarim, and may each of you have a meaningful learning experience as we commemorate our journey from slavery to freedom.

Hag Sameah!

Religion Without God

Since I began studying philosophy in college, and learned the greats text of western philosophy with professors who generally openly professed religious beliefs ranging from mild agnosticism to zealous atheism, I remained fascinated whenever a contemporary thinker writes about their aversion to God-centered religion, while remaining attracted to some of the core belief structures and tenets entailed in religion, more generally.   As a result, I wanted to highlight a new book that is forthcoming from the late legal scholar Ronald Dworkin entitled Religion Without God.    I read an excerpt from this book this past weekend, and wanted to highlight the way in which Dworkin lays out the conflict for those who disavow any notion of a traditional religious belief, yet still believe in some type of greater force in the natural world.  He writes:

  • “The familiar stark divide between people of religion and without religion is too crude. Many millions of people who count themselves atheists have convictions and experiences very like and just as profound as those that believers count as religious. They say that though they do not believe in a “personal” god, they nevertheless believe in a “force” in the universe “greater than we are.” They feel an inescapable responsibility to live their lives well, with due respect for the lives of others; they take pride in a life they think well lived and suffer sometimes inconsolable regret at a life they think, in retrospect, wasted. They find the Grand Canyon not just arresting but breathtakingly and eerily wonderful. They are not simply interested in the latest discoveries about the vast universe but enthralled by them. These are not, for them, just a matter of immediate sensuous and otherwise inexplicable response. They express a conviction that the force and wonder they sense are real, just as real as planets or pain, that moral truth and natural wonder do not simply evoke awe but call for it.”

While I am proud to profess a belief in God and in a set of a obligations that God places upon all of us, I cannot help but feel a deep attachment to Dworkin’s contention that it is too simple to say that one either believes in God, and therefore has a particular spiritual worldview, or that one does not believe in God, and therefore believes nothing about anything.  In an era when people are struggling to understand their own sense of faith and meaning, we need more opportunities to view our definition of faith expansively.   No matter where you stand on the God question, may Dworkin’s forthcoming book challenge your assumptions about what it can mean to bring religion into your life.

Fighting for Food Aid Reform on Capitol Hill

This past Monday, I joined over a 100 rabbis, rabbinical students and volunteers from across the United States to lobby the United States Congress on behalf of American Jewish World Service in hopes of reforming the food aid provisions in the Farm Bill currently being edited in Congress.   AJWS and Oxfam recently published a report that described how reforming food aid in the Farm Bill could easily save over 17 million lives worldwide if we transition from shipping food from the United States to needy countries to allowing local regional procurement to empower local communities to determine what they need to fight hunger in their communities.

My team of activists met with the congressional staff of Congressmen Eliot Engel and Charles Rangel, and were given the forum to share how our experiences with AJWS compelled us to come and speak up for food aid reform.     In response to our visit, one congressional staff member said that in her thirty years working in Congress, this was the first time that anyone ever came to lobby her on this issue.   Much work is left to be done to support AJWS’s campaign, so if you are interested in joining the fight, visit their Reverse Hunger website and make your voice heard.