What Conservative Judaism Can Learn from Chabad

On Yom Kippur this year, Elliot Cosgrove—rabbi of one of the world’s largest Conservative congregations—began his sermon by speaking of the final two rebbes of the Lubavitcher Ḥasidim, and their unlikely decision to encourage their followers to find secular and unaffiliated Jews and encourage them to do just one mitzvah: putting on t’filin, lighting Shabbat candles, or placing a mezuzah on their doorways. Praising this approach, Cosgrove recalls that in his youth, American Jewry assumed that the Holocaust, Israel, and anti-Semitism could serve as “the threefold mystic cord that we could always count on” to keep Jews bound to their tradition and heritage. Yet this triad has manifestly lost its power. Only doing mitzvot, Jewish deeds, can be counted on to maintain Judaism. (Audio and video are available at the link below.)

Mitzvot are the chords—the commitments and commandments—the sparks that can inspire individual and collective Jewish identity. The proud performance of Jewish deeds that are not contingent on the Shoah, that have nothing to do with how we feel about Israel, and that exist independently of anti-Semitism. Let me be clear: I am not talking about being kind, about a nebulous plea to live according to some inchoate set of Jewish values. I am talking about kashrut, about prayer, about Torah study, about coming to shul, about ts’dakah and yes—t’filin and Shabbat candles, too. I am talking about the Jewish obligation and opportunity to perform distinctly Jewish acts on your own and in the company of other Jews. I am talking about mitzvot.

There, I finally said it. It’s been more than a decade, and I am saying the very thing a rabbi is supposed to say: I am asking you to do mitzvot. . . .

[M]itzvot are the gestures that we make, the rituals we do to express our vertical relationship to the divine. . . . It was Louis Finkelstein, the late chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who reflected: “When I pray, I speak to God; when I study Torah, God speaks to me.” When I light Shabbat candles, when I put on t’filin every day, when I refrain from eating from one side of the menu in favor of the other, I am—to use Abraham Joshua Heschel’s language—taking a leap of action. I am giving expression to a vertical relationship to a God in heaven who exists well beyond the limitations of speech. Mitzvot are the sacred vocabulary that a Jew draws upon to express his or her relationship with the divine. . . .

Our lives are filled with rituals: timebound, dietary, and seasonal. We go to Soul Cycle; we go to yoga. . . . We carve out time for marathons, we shlep to the new workout in SoHo, and we freeze on the sidelines of our children’s club sports in God knows where. We can prioritize just fine—when we deem something to be a priority! American Jews are full of mitzvot, just not the Jewish ones. I want you to take on the Jewish ones!

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Read more at Park Avenue Synagogue

More about: Chabad, Conservative Judaism, Judaism, Mitzvot

The Arab Press Blames Iran Rather Than Israel for Gaza’s Woes

Following the fighting between Israel and Islamic Jihad over the weekend, many journalists and commentators in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia didn’t rush to condemn the Jewish state. Instead, as the translators at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) note, they criticized the terrorist group for “operating in service of Iranian interests and thus inflicting suffering on the Gaza Strip’s residents.” One Saudi intellectual, Turki al-Hamad, wrote the following on Twitter:

It is apparent that, if at one time any confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian organizations would attract world and Arab attention and provoke a wave of anger [against Israel], today it does not shock most Arabs and most of the world’s [countries]. Furthermore, even a sense of human solidarity [with the Palestinians] has become rare and embarrassing, raising the question, “Why [is this happening] and who is to blame?”

I believe that the main reason is the lack of confidence in all the Palestinian leaders. . . . From the Arabs’ and the world’s perspective, it is already clear that these leaders are manipulating the [Palestinian] cause out of self-interest and diplomatic, economic, or even personal motives, and that the Palestinian issue is completely unconnected to this. The Palestinian cause has become a bargaining chip in the hands of these and other organizations and states headed by the [Iranian] ayatollah regime.

A, article in a major Arabic-language newspaper took a similar approach:

In a lengthy front-page report on August 7, the London-based UAE daily Al-Arab criticized Islamic Jihad, writing that “Gaza again became an arena for the settling of accounts between Iran and Israel, while the Palestinian citizens are the ones paying the price.” It added that Iran does not want to confront Israel directly for its bombings in Syria and its attacks on Iranian scientists and nuclear facilities.

“The war in Gaza is not the first, nor will it be the last. But it proves . . . that Iran is exploiting Gaza as it exploits Lebanon, in order to strengthen its hand in negotiations with the West. We all know that Iran hasn’t fired a single bullet at Israel, and it also will not do this to defend Gaza or Lebanon.”

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Read more at MEMRI

More about: Gaza Strip, Iran, Islamic Jihad, Israel-Arab relations, Persian Gulf