.Yesterday, I encountered a bearded young man riding a motorized scooter, donning a black yarmulke, with his tzitzit fluttering behind him. His attire juxtaposed traditional garb with modern flair, as his designer black sneakers sported a gilded logo. This sight encapsulated my confusion about how Jews perceive one another – often perplexing as the sight was not as expected. The differences between the way Jewish people look or act can be discordant.  The way we expect each other to look or act can feel disruptive. Yet, the Torah commands Jews to love one another.

At Torah’s core lies Parshat Kedoshim. The text requires that: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against members of your people. Love your fellow [Israelite] as yourself: I am יהוה.” The Torah commands us to harbor love for our fellow Jews. Yet recent events have tested our commitment to this tenet.

In Israel, Ultra-religious groups have been exempt from military service . . . until now. These groups have threatened to withdraw from the ruling political coalition if required to serve in the army. I appreciate that the Haredi of Israel have devoted themselves to Torah study, which we believe sustains the world. Their reluctance to defend Israel strains my ability to love my fellow Jews as I love myself. It’s confounding.

Closer to home, the offspring of cherished friends have clashed with their parents over the conflict in Gaza. For some, empathy for Palestinian suffering has led to a rejection of both Zionism and Jewish customs. The Passover seder table became a battleground, with some refusing to participate. I struggle to comprehend how politicizing and even abstaining from a Seder, the celebration of freedom, serves as a logical response to the ongoing war. It’s bewildering.

I’ve engaged in challenging dialogues with former friends regarding Jewish rituals and laws. Observant acquaintances have rebuffed me with statements like, “I can’t eat in your house because your kashruth isn’t sufficient,” and “Non-observant Jews are detrimental to our community.” Conversely, non-observant friends have expressed frustration, saying, “Your refusal to work on Shabbat or a holiday is absurd,” and “Can’t you make an exception?” Disagreements over religious principles often sow discord. It’s disorienting.

There are moments when I feel uplifted witnessing Jews proudly displaying their yarmulkes and tzitzit in public. This is especially true when on vacation an orthodox man goes whizzing by on his scooter. On the other hand, when individuals sporting religious attire ignore me, or worse, ostracize me, I am disheartened.

Recently while walking my dog on a Saturday, I offered a “Shabbat shalom” to my observant neighbors. I barely received a grudging acknowledgment. Then I realized I had my earphones on and a phone in my hand. I wondered, am I being regarded with suspicion, or is there a deeper rift?

Perhaps it’s natural for us to categorize “others,” thereby reinforcing our own identities. Yet, Jews are separating themselves from other Jews, defying Hillel’s caution, “Do not separate yourself from the community.

In times shadowed by anti-Semitism, we can ill afford to exist as isolated factions within the broader Jewish community. Though we may not always see eye to eye, we can still extend love towards one another. Despite differing interpretations of tradition, we can still show mutual respect. The perplexing truth is that while we aspire to love our fellow Jews, achieving this ideal often feels unattainable.

The injunction to love our fellow Jew may have more transgressors than adherents. Perhaps the best we can strive for is to practice loving each other while acknowledging that perfection in this endeavor may elude us.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Protesters on university campuses this spring embraced a culture of disobedience, prioritizing confrontation over constructive engagement. These protests prompt reflection: what motivates us to adhere to rules, and when is disobedience justified?

Drawing from the Jewish tradition, we find a delicate balance between the duty to challenge and to obey. Throughout history, we see instances of righteous protest, such as Abraham’s respectful objection to God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, guided solely by his internal moral compass. Talmud offers a radical statement of responsibility to object.  “If one is in a position to protest the sinful conduct of the whole world, and he fails to do so, he is apprehended for the sins of the whole world.” Shabbat 54b.

In Torah this week, Parshat Acharei Mot, Moses, and Aaron received detailed instructions about sacrifices for sin. These directions emphasize obedience. Yet, they are not given in a vacuum. As rules of atonement and sanctification, there’s an implicit acknowledgment that justice and morality transcend mere adherence to rules. The failure to adhere to the instructions would be dire. Disobedience that flaunts rules of behavior carries consequences, including the potential withdrawal of divine protection.

When I observe college campus protests, I naturally filter them through a Jewish lens. I can appreciate students’ zeal akin to Abraham’s, yet their disregard for civility and propensity for confrontation leads me to condemn their failure to respect basic rules of nonviolent and civil engagement. Criminal destruction and violence are not protests, they are criminal activity, plainly and simply.

Our tradition unequivocally rejects violent and hateful protest tactics. By comparison, Israelis recently held massive demonstrations, first to protest the government’s intervention in the Judiciary and later to bring home the hostages. I believe that the Jewish way to protest can be both peaceful and potent.

Some politicians criticize these student protests, under the guise of championing law and order. By contrast, they brand student protests as anarchic and subversive. Conversely, liberal commentators like Anand Giridharadas contextualize them within America’s tradition of revolutionary activism. Liberalism has its inherent danger, veering towards romanticizing activism supporting violent regimes like Hamas.

The lack of civility raises an important question: are these students enamored with disobedience culture? Could culpability also lie with their teachers and parents? In my mind, we must teach the value of obedience alongside the obligation to dissent.

Reflecting on my biases, I wonder if I might view pro-Israel protestors more favorably. Yet, I would not abide by anti-Muslim rhetoric or violence as a tool of protest. I cringed seeing pro-Israel demonstrators in forceful confrontations. But, these were rare incidents. On the other hand, the Jewish community at large was too restrained in response to the protests according to NYU professor Scott Galloway.

I also note that protesters have alternatives to campus encampments. They could opt for more personal advocacy methods like door-knocking or political lobbying, which foster dialogue over division. They resorted to disruption, chaos, and confrontation.

A lesson learned from American history is that violent protest further divides our country. Civil disobedience can only be a legitimate tool in a democratic society if it adheres to universal moral principles of non-violence, respectful engagement, and consideration for the rights of all individuals.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

“But I must also feel it as a man.
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on
And would not take their part? Sinful Macduff,
They were all struck for thee! Naught that I am,
Not for their own demerits, but for mine,
Fell slaughter on their souls.” 

  • Macbeth Act Four Scene Three

After the death, acharei mot, of Aaron’s sons, Moses approaches. He warns Aaron not to approach the altar unless prepared to offer a sacrifice or Aaron shall die. Aaron is in mourning, although his emotional state is not described. A glimpse of the grief a father might feel is part of the Shakespeare canon.

Macbeth murdered Macduff’s children and wife. At first, Macduff is silent. The scene is reminiscent of the Torah. Aaron too was silent when his children were consumed.

Then, with the encouragement of Prince Malcolm, Macduff pours out his heart.  In a few words, he expresses emotions I imagine Aaron also must have felt but did not express.

Aaron’s sons were precious to him. He must have wondered why God did not protect them rather than kill them.  Just as Macduff was emotionally torn, Aaron too might have thought that were it not for Aaron’s role as High Priest his sons might still be alive. Or perhaps Aaron was still anguished over the incident of the golden calf. Either way, it is natural for us to imagine what we did wrong that led to our families’ harm.

Both Torah and Shakespeare have me thinking about the parents of the hostages. I wonder about their conversations with Heaven. Do they bargain with God for safe returns or lash out against the God that should have protected their child? Or do they blame themselves? Perhaps they ask if we did not live near Gaza, or if we did not live in Israel, would this have happened to our child?

Macduff’s speech reminds me that the captives are not the only hostages. Their parents also are held hostage by fear, anguish, and doubt.  These are the words of Rachel Goldberg-Polin, mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin and Israeli American Hostage.

“I have learned there are no appropriate words in any language to describe the excruciating, throat-constricting dread I feel at all times from having my only son stolen from me.  I have learned that I can pretend to be a person when all I want to do is disappear . . . I may be small but I can, and will, do whatever it takes to get my son back. I have learned that my love for my beautiful Hersh continues to grow each day.”

May God rescue all of them just as God rescued Hebrews from captivity before.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

A friend sought advice regarding a forthcoming seder. His hosts had issued a pre-Passover caution: the Haggadah they intended to use advocates freedom for Palestine and its people. This preemptive disclosure hinted at potential discomfort during the seder. I counseled my friend to recognize his hosts’ sincerity and compassion for Palestinians. Yet, he should also request mutual respect for his support of Israel in return. This guidance stemmed from the Torah which asks us to be uncomfortable with opposing expressions of holiness.

Since October 7, Jewish households have grappled with difficult discussions. Some are chiefly concerned about the loss of life in Gaza, while others prioritize safeguarding the Jewish homeland. I suspect that at least one invitation to my seder was declined because of my strong support of Israel. However, I am deeply troubled by the threat to Israel and the loss of life in Gaza. Viewpoints can sometimes seem contradictory or unsettling. This tension is inherent in the tradition of grappling with the Torah’s complexities.

From the outset, the Torah emphasizes the sanctity of every life. We all descend from a common ancestor and bear the divine image. This reverence for all human beings transcends geographical, religious, national, or racial boundaries. Yet, the Torah offers other directives that conflict with these initial, sacred values.

The Torah also recounts God’s pledge to grant the Hebrews the land of Canaan, which comprises present-day Israel and the “West Bank”; for some, this is Palestine. In the Torah portion read on the Shabbat of Passover, we revisit this divine promise: “Mark well what I command you this day. I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” Spanning three millennia, the Jewish people have asserted their God-given right to this land. Yet, this claim requires the displacement of one people to accommodate another. Even with the context of Jewish history, the quest for a homeland in the Holy Land presents a discomforting aspect of the Torah.

Jews have been attacked and massacred in their homeland and I despair over lost Jewish lives. Israeli forces have carried out incursions, often couched in pursuit of peace, and I anguish over Palestinian deaths. I can cry over the loss of life and support our claim to reside peacefully in Israel. Both are Torah.

Since October 7, conflicting perspectives have torn families apart. Some emphasize the sanctity of all human life, while others prioritize the safety and security of the Jewish state. Torah is at the core of both viewpoints. It is no wonder that the war in Gaza divides our families and communities. It is as if we continue to struggle to make sense of a Torah that both cherishes life and directs us to engage in God-sanctioned conflict.

Yet, no one perspective provides a comprehensive portrayal of the Torah’s teachings. The best we can do is to honor each person’s view if anchored in the Torah.  Acknowledge that conflicting viewpoints can be formed with good intentions but neither is singularly perfect or correct in every situation. Without this form of reconciliation, the unraveling of our community worsens.

Each of us may firmly believe in the absolute correctness of our perspective. While interpretations may clash, tension is part of the uncomfortable reality of the Torah. However, the Torah is diminished when we disregard the diversity of views arising from holy roots.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

I have just returned from another successful civil rights mission to Atlanta and Alabama. Especially before Passover, the parallels between the histories of Blacks and Jews resonate profoundly for me. Both groups suffered enslavement and oppression. The dark legacy of slavery reminds us of the importance of sharing freedom stories, particularly the narrative of Passover. While there are commonalities between the experiences of African Americans and Jews, it’s also crucial to recognize the distinctions.

For nearly two and a half centuries, Africans were transported to America and endured enslavement. While emancipation technically liberated Black Americans, they grappled with another century of suffering under the weight of Jim Crow laws and discrimination. Visits to Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma underscore a moral chasm in America’s history. The 20th Century was populated by visionary leaders, fearful bystanders, and vicious oppressors. The legacy of slavery continues to manifest in limited opportunities for advancement, inadequate education, and ongoing threats to civil rights for Black communities.

Similarly, the Passover seder commemorates over two centuries of enslavement, with the Haggadah directing our focus toward God’s redemption of our people. As we celebrate freedom during Passover, we express gratitude (“dayenu”) and praise (“hallelujah”). Into the seder, we incorporate extending hospitality to strangers and symbolically expelling hatred from our midst. Each seder serves as a poignant reminder to embrace the belief that all human lives are valuable and a better world is attainable.

While the stories of African Americans and our Hebrew ancestors share commonalities, it’s essential to approach these parallels with two cautions.

Firstly, through the lens of the Haggadah, Jews are compelled to acknowledge God’s role in their salvation. Passover is a time to renew faith in the divine. Your faith may manifest through efforts to combat slavery and expand freedom. Moreover, the primary objective of this celebration is to foster a deeper connection with God. For those grappling with the concept of Divinity, the Seder remains an opportunity to appreciate heritage or hope for change.

Secondly, rather than solely seeking common ground with other oppressed groups, there’s immense value in honoring the unique identities of each community. By making space for the distinct narratives of others, we deepen our understanding and foster healthy connections.  If we honor other groups we gain their respect. Civil rights missions are about acknowledging and uplifting our neighbors, rather than retreating into our histories. With genuine appreciation and active listening, we forge alliances and safeguard our individuality. Successful interactions are a delicate balance of recognizing shared experiences while respecting differences.

May your Passover seder awaken us, inspire us, and instill a profound appreciation for the uniqueness inherent in every human being.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

When walking through a new neighborhood or city, I enjoy counting the mezuzahs I see on doorposts along the way.  Most Jews put this beacon of holiness on the entranceway to their homes. The parchment inside includes the instruction to teach the words of our tradition to the children. As you enter your home, we are reminded that holiness is created through passages, like doorways.

Rituals make sacred our life cycle events, like birth or moving into a new home.  During those events, we move through a portal. In this way, narrow spaces and transition events help us in building a spiritual life.

When we move into a new home, we mark the doorpost with a mezuzah.  A couple getting married enters the chuppah for kiddushin, a portal to begin the marriage ceremony. Even the birth canal through which life begins is a doorway, marked with a brit or circumcision for a boy and simchat bat or baby naming for a girl. Parshat Tazria begins with a cleansing ritual at the time of giving birth. The mother was cleaned of blood and purified spiritually.

In a similar episode, at Exodus 12:7, the children of Israel neared the end of their enslavement. They painted blood on the doorposts and lintels of their homes. The bloodied doorposts conjure up an image of birth. After the first Passover night, the Israelites emerged through bloody portals. They began their exit from Mitzrayim–literally, “the straits,” the narrow place – birthed into being as a free people.

Putting blood on the doorposts and lintels gave their doorways the status of an altar. Upon their portals, they sacrificed their slave identity. Through those entryways, the people attained freedom.

Also, the bloodied doorposts resembled an altar used as an atonement for sin. Blood atones for sins. What sin had the Hebrew slaves commited? Perhaps losing connection with the God of their ancestors or following Egyptian ways. Even in redemption from slavery, the people had to account for their behaviors. In that way, each regained a measure of dominion over their identities.

In a little-noticed text, Pesikta Zutreta (Lekah Tov, Exodus, Parashat Bo, ch. 12.7):  reads “Thus we learn that our ancestors in Egypt had four altars, the lintel, the two doorposts, and the doorstep, as said by Rabbi Ishmael.”  As one’s foot lands on a doorstep and propels the body forward, it becomes a place of restoration of the soul and reclamation of faith.

Similarly, each newborn, emerging through a bloodied portal, is like a step that propels us forward. That mindfulness starts when we witness the moment a baby pushes its head from the womb and takes its first gasping breath.

As we enter the month of Nissan, and approach the Passover festival of freedom, it is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves as if through a portal. Passover is a reenactment of the altar upon which we can again build our world.  We emerge through doorways determined to expand freedom and spread holiness in this world.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

Suddenly, on October 7, Hamas attacked on the eighth day of the Sukkot festival. Unexpectedly, Hamas fighters crossed from Gaza into Israel. Quickly, they killed and raped and destroyed. The disaster stunned Israel and disoriented its people. Some were unable to integrate the distressing information. Sudden tragedies assault the psyche of those who persevered.

At Parshat Shmini, the Hebrews completed 8 days of dedication rituals for their new tabernacle. At the festivities’ end, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Abihu, lit an additional incense offering. Suddenly, Nadav and Abihu were dead as fire came forth from God and consumed them.

Aaron did not cry out at the sudden death of two sons. At first, silence was his response. Unspeakable tragedy sometimes leaves us unable to speak.

Soon after, Aaron returned to his duties as the High Priest. Service replaced silence. Activity replaced immobility. Aaron did not abdicate his role or foreswear his duties.

Upon the death of his nephews, Moses offered cautionary words. “This is what יהוה meant by saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” Leviticus 10:3.

Moses’ warning is that God shows God’s self as holy through those near to God. Perhaps Moses was saying that the people truly near to God would not present an impassioned fire offering. The inappropriate offering was presumptuous and arrogant. Holiness cannot be summoned by ego-driven actions. Those who act for their glory, under the pretense of serving God, might not long survive.

Unsanctioned and self-serving actions can end in disaster. That is the legacy of Nadav and Abihu. After the shock of a disaster, people can be resilient. That is Aaron’s legacy.

God willing, like Aaron, Israel will recover. As for leaders whose actions are self-interested and excessive, God is not discernable within their unholy endeavors. Their legacies are not crowned with glory but will be buried in disgrace.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

My morning ritual is unchanging. I begin each day with the New York Times Games. After Wordle and Spelling Bee, I make the same breakfast, eggs, and toast. Only then do I read and respond to my emails. Afterward, I shower and dress. The routine is predictable, yet my approach can be holy.

In Leviticus, we glimpse the daily routine of the priests. They accepted and slaughtered animals as sacrifices. Torah portion Tzav, read this week, gives nauseating details about the blood, fat, and entrails of the sacrifice.

Juxtaposed to the slaughter is a detailed and surprising description of how the priests were bathed, dressed, and adorned before heading off to the holy abattoir. If dressing for work at the slaughterhouse, I would not first bathe and then dress in fine linens!

Yet, the Torah offers a lesson on how to approach each day. Whether, a butcher, baker, doctor, or lawyer, each can imagine a holy daily pattern. What if my shower and clothing selection is a precursor to a sacred enterprise? I don’t have to be a priestly slaughterer to imagine that the work I perform in this world is productive if not redemptive.

I can begin by being mindful while bathing and dressing. There is warm water pouring on me. Amen! I have a selection of clothes in my closet. Amen! I prepare myself to serve the world with gratitude for all I have.

Our Jewish tradition captures the holiness of our daily routine with morning blessings. The blessing of clothing the naked corresponds to our getting dressed. The blessing of girding Israel with strength is inspired by buckling your belt. Putting on a yarmulka is like crowning Israel with glory. The ancient wisdom, encoded by Tractate Berachot of the Talmud, dedicates our preparation for leaving home each morning. Whatever words you choose, try to sanctify your morning routine with gratitude and praise.

The priestly routine teaches another lesson. To connect with the fullness of your life, take notice of the mundane ways you prepare for the day.  Selecting a shirt and shoes is the foundation for a holy endeavor. If we understand our lives to be purposeful, we find inspiration. Whatever lies ahead in your day – be it cooking, cleaning, consulting, or constructing – notice your preparation, make it holy, and bring dignity to your life.

So how will you prepare yourself each day? I suggest you start with both gratitude and a holy intention. Begin with the way. you attend to the outermost parts of yourself.  Then, offer this world the best within you and become your fullest self. Then you will offer kindness to others, create what is valuable, and improve the world.

Rabbi Evan Krame

Throughout history, leaders made grievous mistakes, often more pronounced during times of war. George Bush’s misjudgment of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, are among these historical blunders. Yet, the leader alone might not be to blame. According to the Torah, the community shares in responsibility.

Even in the Torah leadership made great errors. One of King David’s sins was at a time of war when he ordered census forbidden by the Torah. As a result of this sin, tens of thousands of David’s troops died. Could the community also share in responsibility for David’s sin? When the people learned of the improper census, perhaps they should have disobeyed.

Early in Leviticus, the Torah addresses atonement for mistakes by leaders. A sacrifice, called a hatat, atoned for sins. In particular, the largest Hatat sacrifice, a bull, was offered for the misdeed of a leader. In Chapter 4 verse 13 of Leviticus, the Torah focuses on leadership errors and their impact on the public: “If it is the community leadership of Israel that has erred and the matter escapes the notice of the congregation, so that they do any of the things which by יהוה’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize guilt, when the sin through which they incurred guilt becomes known, the congregation shall offer a bull of the herd as a sin offering.”

Dissecting this verse, first, there was an error by the community leader. Second, the error was unknown to the community. Third, the community violated a Commandment relying upon the leader’s error. Fourth, the error became known. Finally, the congregation makes a sin offering. In this way, the community was also answerable for the leader’s error.

In modern times, George Bush directed an attack on Iraq based on bad intelligence. Initially, most Americans supported the war against Iraq. Soon we knew that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. Our leadership’s error led to the decimation of a country and over 200,000 deaths, including American soldiers. Could the American people also be culpable for the President’s nightmarish blunder? Perhaps our role was to protest and demand an end to the war. Thus, having failed to raise our voices, was the community accountable?

We are now in the throes of Israel’s longest war. Hamas unleashed a brutal attack on October 7.  1,200 Israelis died, others were wounded and 253 were taken captive. Hamas’ savagery and immorality traumatized Jews everywhere.

Yet, the Torah offers that we consider another facet of this insidious war. We may be uncomfortable criticizing Israel, but the Netanyahu government made mistakes. They ignored intelligence about Hamas’ ability to launch an attack. The border with Gaza was poorly patrolled. The Israeli government turned a blind eye to the flow of money from Qatar to Hamas. These transgressions became known after the war began. These errors do not excuse Hamas’ evil. Yet, in the context of the Jewish law of wars, Israel’s response is problematic. If Israel transgressed Jewish law because of the errors of its leaders, the Torah calls to mind that all Israelis may need to make a sin offering.

An Israeli teacher I cherish recently spoke about her sense of responsibility. She believes that Bibi Netanyahu is corrupt. For months she protested in the streets of Jerusalem. She said Israel now suffers for the sins of its leaders. Currently, her children fight in the Army. Over 100 hostages remain captive. Israel is grieving. Yet, my teacher wondered if she bears some responsibility, asking if she could have protested even more. She was mirroring the Torah.

People suffer for the mistakes and the malevolence of leaders. When leaders’ errors become known and the country has violated God’s laws, the community may be culpable for the failure to object. Whether in Israel or the United States, we have power. We are voters. Together, we can demand accountability. We can demonstrate and our voices can rise in protest. Merely complaining about bad leaders will not suffice. And if we fail to respond, the Torah teaches we share in the blame.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame

In the State of the Union, the President acknowledged the hard-working middle class of our country. He thanked the Americans whose labor builds our nation. Appreciating workers is a Jewish value. I found it in the final verses of Exodus.

In the concluding passages of Exodus, God provided Moses with instructions for building the Tabernacle. The generosity of the people led to an abundance of donated materials, prompting Moses to halt further contributions. Skilled artisans then crafted the intricate structures and decorations of the Tabernacle. The narrative concludes with Moses offering his blessing upon witnessing the completion of their tasks. “And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks—as יהוה had commanded, so they had done—Moses blessed them.”

This seemingly overlooked passage holds a profound lesson for us. When individuals perform their work diligently and take pride in their contributions, they warrant our gratitude and blessings. Whether it’s the chambermaid in a hotel or the attendant cleaning an airport bathroom, acknowledging their efforts is a Jewish value.

While Judaism draws us into a relationship with God, our tradition also teaches the importance of our relationship with each other. For example, Talmud tractate Mishnah Peah begins with the requirement that farmers leave the corners of their fields for poor people to glean. The Mishnah continues with these words: “The following are the things for which a person enjoys the fruits in this world while the principal remains for them in the world to come: Honoring one’s father and mother; The performance of righteous deeds; And the making of peace between a person and their friend.”  Essentially, our treatment of others dictates our fate in both this world and the world to come.

In this context, Moses serves as a role model for our conduct in the world. When we recognize and appreciate the labor undertaken for our benefit, we spread godliness everywhere. Let’s emulate Moses’ spirit of acknowledgment, gratitude, and blessing, fostering a world where the divine and the human intersect harmoniously.

Rabbi Evan J. Krame