About Abigail Hirsch

I am a film producer and CEO of AskAbigail Productions. Currently working on a documentary film/musical theatre production about the life and times of Moshe Kraus, a musical child prodigy and a legendary cantor/hazzan/Jewish prayer leader whose life spans the history of Jews in the twentieth century.

Yom Kippur: The Day of At-One-Ment

This evening will mark the beginning of Yom Kippur.

Yom Kippur or Yom Hakipurrim translates as The Day of Atonement.  But “atonement” is one concept that nobody understands, least of all me. We talk about reviewing our behaviour, acknowledging our sins, and being judged by the Holy One, the One and only G-d of Abraham. He or She Who has many names and many attributes but is invisible to human sight.

How does this work?

There are five behaviours that one should refrain from on this day.

  • No eating and drinking
  • No wearing of leather shoes
  • No bathing or washing
  • No anointing oneself with perfumes or lotions
  • No marital relations

How do we understand these avoidances?

Withdrawal from our usual human pursuits of eating and drinking and relating to others encourages our sincerity to G-d – naked and alone.

But how does not wearing leather shoe fit-in?

According to the Talmudic sources, the creation of leather shoes signifies man’s dominion over the animals. On this day, we want to acknowledge G-d’s sovereignty over all, including ourselves.

And what are we asked to do?

To go to the synagogue and commune with G-d and the community through our prayers alone. Our prayers are formulated in the plural “we.” We confess our sins as a collective, but G-d forgives us individually. And that forgiveness is precious and joyful.

And in this way, a fearful and solemn day becomes a festive day, because He/She is a forgiving G-d – a compassionate G-d, slow to anger, and quick to forgive. This is the  “forgiveness” that creates the “at-one-ment” between man and G-d towards the end of the day. “Teshuva” is Hebrew for return – the return to G-d is our yearly birthright following the sincere acknowledgement of our sins and request for forgiveness. This is how “atonementt/at-one-ment” occurs.

Yom Kippur follows the template of the First Day of G-d’s forgiveness. The Day the Israelites in the desert received forgiveness from G-d for the sin of having created the golden calf and worshiping it during the period when Moses had gone up the mountain to bring down the Heavenly Torah.

“The Lord said to Moses: I have seen these people, and they are indeed a stiff-necked people. Now leave Me alone, so that My anger may burn against them and consume them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

So Moses returned to the LORD and said:

“Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made gods of gold for themselves. Yet now, if You would only forgive their sin. But if not, please blot me out of the book that You have written.” (Souce: biblehub.com)

And so began the first real-life process of sin and reconciliation between G-d and the Children of Israel. Yes, they had sinned, but they would ultimately be reconciled and forgiven. That day of forgiveness is the day, forty days later, when Moses came down the mountain for the second time when G-d accepted the People’s contrition and Moses presented the second set of Tablets, the Jewish contract with G-d. That is the template for the Day of Yom Kippur.

It is the template of forgiveness and reconciliation with G-d after serious misbehaviour. Although it is a day of fasting, it is also a day of joy and reconciliation, and going into the future renewed and refreshed.

How does this happen?

This morning I discovered a fantastic video that explains the psychological dynamics of “forgiveness” and how it is the ultimate tool in reconciliation.

Rabbi Manis Friedman explains that there are two kinds of forgiveness. When someone has hurt you by their behaviour, you want to forgive them because you don’t want to carry around the hurt and the pain, but you are not the same as before, and you don’t want to have anything to do with the person who hurt you. This is the first kind of “natural forgiveness,” which most people profess to.

But if the person who hurt you acknowledges his wrongdoing and beseeches your forgiveness and reconciliation, your heart may melt, and you may realize that the person is essential to you, and you do want them in your life. That is the second type of forgiveness, the forgiveness of reconciliation. Begin at 9:12 min – 20:28 min.

 

I found this very apropos to the current struggles of aboriginal communities and black communities wrestling with the history and ongoing presence of racism in our society, and how to deal with the “apologies.”

Are they apologies?

This second kind of apology, the sincere acknowledgement of past sin and vow to be different in the future, this is the path to justice, reconciliation, and a relationship of mutual acceptance that is stronger than before.

 

RBG: How Jewish Was She

Today is Friday before Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat that arrives during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is the Shabbat that Rabbis traditionally give a sermon to their community. Since many will not be in synagogue this year, Rabbi Whitman, Rabbi Freundlich and Rabbi Poupko gave the sermons last night on zoom.

Following the sermon, I tuned in a live interview by Hilary Helstein of filmmaker Julie Cohen, producer of the documentary RBG, about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Judge Ginsburg was appointed to the US Supreme Court by Clinton with a 97% approval rating by both house and senate. If you are interested in learning more about Ginsburg’s extraordinary career, you can rent or buy the full documentary on Youtube. A second film, “On the Basis of Sex” is a 2018 American biographical drama based on Ginsburg’s early life and cases.

The following morning, I read Melanie Philips’s recent post, RBG: An American Jewish justice warrior highlighting Ginsburg’s Jewish identity and how intertwined that is with her life. Melanie points out that the Guardian did mention her Jewish identity; however, the paper got it all wrong.

In the [ Guardian], Godfrey Hodgson wrote:

“Ruth was brought up in a Conservative Jewish tradition and learned Hebrew as a child, but abandoned her religion because she was not allowed to join a minyan (a group of men) to mourn her mother’s death when she was 17.” He also wrote: “[In 1993, President Bill] Clinton was anxious to make the supreme court more diverse, so Ginsburg’s Jewish religion, which she had given up 46 years earlier, may have counted for more than a lifetime of commitment.”

These statements produced astonishment among people who knew that Ginsburg’s Jewish identity was threaded through her life and work.

Phillips further explains why non-Jews get so much about Jews and Israel wrong.

“This failure to understand the complexities of Judaism and Jewish identity also fuels hostility to Israel. Many non-Jews, assuming that Judaism is merely a religion, cannot understand why a faith group should be entitled to a state.

They have absolutely no awareness that the Jews are, in fact, a historical nation, bound by their own system of law and a common language, history, institutions and culture, and that they are the only people for whom the land of Israel was ever their national kingdom.”

After complaints, the Guardian changed the text to say that Ginsburg “moved away from strict religious observance after she was not allowed to join a minyan (a group of men) to mourn her mother’s death when she was 17. Indignant at that exclusion, she nevertheless remained deeply committed to her Jewish identity.”

The Clinton passage was also changed to say, “Ginsburg’s Jewish identity may have counted for more than a lifetime of commitment to women’s equality before the law.”

What was that quintessential Jewish characteristic that any Jewish person could recognize in RBG?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg embodied that unique Jewish characteristic that began with Abraham, sparring, even with G-d, when justice was the issue. 

“Shall the G-d of all the world not practice justice!”

(Genesis 18:25)

This is how Abraham confronts G-d when he learns that G-d is planning to wipe out all the people of Sodom and Gomorrah because the city is corrupt.

Justice and mercy are central to Jewish faith and central to the principal idea of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when all the world, every individual and every community, comes before the Supreme Judge – G-ds Gaze – to be judged with justice and mercy.

It was also this central awareness of seeking justice for all that characterized Justice Ginsburg’s life from the beginning of her career to the very end, both when she won and lost her cases. By expressing her mordant dissenting opinions, which then reverberated for relief and action in the wider society.

She presents a shining example of what it means to be a Supreme Court Justice in the United States – the final arbiter of justice according to the USA’s constitution and warns of how and why those who are elected to that position must be of the highest moral character.

Watching these movies would be excellent preparation for carrying out our responsibilities as citizens in the coming challenging months of electing a new Supreme Court Justice and making thoughtful choices as we elect our important democratic leaders.

This Yom Kippur may we all go on to glorious heights of justice and mercy together.

 

The Joyful Experience of Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is customarily a 4-hour service in the synagogue, punctuated by the shofar’s blowing. Followed by a festive meal and evening services, and a repeat the following day. If you are not Jewish, it’s difficult to explain why this is a joyful experience.

The prayers have been prescribed and ritualized for three thousand years, and yet each year, they are fresh and beautiful because they address the human condition – birth, death, and our process in this world. It’s a time to reflect, individually and communally, and pray for a sweet year to come without denying any of the trials we all experience.

It is this holiday that Leonard Cohen memorialized in his “Who by fire” song.

 

We all know we will die, but none of us knows how or when. This is how we read it in the synagogue prayerbook every year.

On Rosh Hashanah, it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed – how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who by strangulation and who by lapidation, who shall have rest and who wander, who shall be at peace and who pursued, who shall be serene and who tormented, who shall become impoverished and who wealthy, who shall be debased, and who exalted.

Even as a child, one confronts the abyss. And this prayer ends with:

“teshuva, tefillah and tzedaka maavirin et roah hagzera” – only  teshuva – repentance or self-correction,  tefillah -prayer, and tzedaka – deeds of justice and charity, have the potential to avert the severity of G-d’s decree.

Rabbi Lew, in his book One God Clapping (p110), explains it this way:

The essential act of the High Holidays is teshuva, a turning toward mindfulness, and the first step in this process is a kind of tuning in to examine our perceptive mechanisms. When the shofar blows, it reminds us to turn our gaze inward, to shift our focus from the outside world to the window through which we view this world. Teshuva, at this time of the year, is the opportunity to assess privately our own behaviour before G-d. The expression is that at this time, especially “G-d is in the field,” i.e. accessible to us human beings.

We are fortunate to be able to access communal services in person this year in Montreal, although with special reservations. Due to the pandemic, the service will be shortened to two hours instead of four. Masks are mandatory, along with proper distancing. It’s a particularly holy time, and I am grateful we will be able to participate in person even if it is truncated and in a tent. The tradition has been carried out this way from generation to generation, by example, custom, and joy.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks noted in his message regarding our current time.

The various questionnaires and research exercises that have been done recently on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on people’s lives came up with an unusual finding. Yes, of course, people missed the company. They felt cut off. They felt isolated. They felt deprived sometimes of work and sometimes of travel. All of that made an impact. But the single most significant impact of the pandemic and its consequences has been insecurity.

People have felt that they don’t really know what is going to happen – to their health, to their work, to their business, to society, to everyone and everything around them. They don’t know how long a lockdown will last or when new quarantine restrictions will be put in place or when masks will be required and when not required, and what is going to happen with testing regimes. People can’t plan for the future. They can’t know what tomorrow is going to bring.

And that is undermining their sense of security.

And he goes on to explain:

So, the question I simply want to ask these Yamim Noraim, on these Days of Awe, is, “how do we deal with insecurity?”. And the answer is contained, or at least the Jewish answer is contained, in that one word “bitachon” – the word that means security on the one hand and faith on the other.

How do you cope with insecurity? By faith. That has been the Jewish experience for almost 4,000 years. Judaism is about insecurity in a way perhaps that no other religion is, and Jews have experienced insecurity in a way no other people have. The Jewish story begins with Abraham and Sarah just hearing a voice, calling them away from their family and their birthplace to a land that they did not know, el ha’aretz asher areka, God doesn’t even tell them where they are going to. They are travelling to an unknown destination; they are travelling blind.

As I’ve argued many times, in Judaism, faith is not certainty. Faith is the courage to live with uncertainty.

And that’s what the Days of Awe are all about.

Rabbi Sacks explains it all here:

 

I wish you a  coming year as sweet as the honey on your table, a year of hope and good health and good tidings.

 

Golda’s Balcony: The Film, 2019

“I begin with the redemption of the human race, and I end up in the munitions business… We intend to live. Our neighbours intend us to die.” Quotes from Golda’s Balcony

Yesterday, LAJ film festival screened, on line, Golda’s Balcony, the one-woman play, which has now become a film. There was also a 90-minute interview by Hilary Helstein with Tovah Feldshuh, the actress who plays Golda.

The play is a tour-de-force exposing Golda Meir’s character as a mother, a wife, and a passionate Zionist, who also happened to be the Prime Minister of Israel during the devastating Yom Kippur war (1973). The crux of the play is the Yom Kippur War and the choices that Golda herself, had to make.

The play exposes the travails of leadership and brings history to life. Will she or won’t she use the secret weapon? What goes through her mind as she faces these agonizing moments? In the interview, Tovah shares her personal history, research, and active participation in the creation of this work of art – the tweaking of the play and the development of the character. Tovah brings it off brilliantly.

This film deserves all of the many awards it has recently garnered. It shares history, not from a linear and intellectual standpoint but as if from the visceral connection of personal memory – the first person singular – memory itself.

Although the film referred to events up to Golda’ Meir’s death in 1973, it is sadly relevant today as it reveals both the birth of the state of Israel and the constant agonizing struggle for its survival, which continues to the present day.

Check out Tovah’s website for purchases, such as a study guide to Golda’s balcony or a DVD The Journey to Golda’s Balcony.

Korach’s Rebellion and the BLM Movement

Featured

A couple of days ago in synagogues, Jews studied the Torah portion on Korach’s rebellion  (Numbers 16:1 – 18:32) about Korach who led 250 of the Israelites’ leaders against the authority of Moses and Aaron in the desert.

In this Torah portion, 250 influential leaders confront  Moses and Aaron, regarding Moses’ leadership. Korach and his followers accuse Moses and Aaron of assuming power at the community’s expense. The commentaries point out that Korach’s challenge to Moses is rooted in personal ambition, rather than legitimate complaints.  (Source: The Power Struggle Moses vs. Korach by Rabbi Rachel Cowan)

Torah Scholars worldwide have reflected on the parallels between Korach’s rebellion and the demonstrations and riots led by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) organization happening worldwide.

Lord Rabbi Jonathon Sacks has spelled it out very clearly in his recent publication: How Not to Argue (Korach 5780). He refers to the lies that the BLM organization continues to propagate about Israel and how they continuously cancel any opinions that do not agree with theirs. Below are black scholars who have also spoken up to object to BLM claims and their methods. Candice OwensColeman HughesJohn Mcwhorter, and a video interview with Glenn Loury.

 

The death of George Floyd has flooded the airwaves – the internet, radio, and television. Racism, systemic racism, and police brutality are without doubt of great concern to all of us. However, after studying these issues over the last couple of days, I began to understand how the BLM’s argument against racism is more like the rebellion of Korach, a grab for fame and power – rather than an argument for truth and justice.

The antisemitic bias of BLM, which was exposed by the violent antisemitic riots in Los Angeles and elsewhere, is especially painful to me as a Jew. The Nazi ideology is the idea of the superiority of the Aryan (German) race as opposed to all other groups – Jews, blacks, LGBT, gypsies, Slavs, and it would have moved to Americans if it had been allowed to flourish. That was systemic racism – racism that was legitimized by governmental power and could only be opposed by the destruction of the leaders and their organized followers, the army, and administrations.

The United States, a democracy where free speech enshrined in the law, has made great strides in repudiating slavery and espousing freedom of opportunity for its citizens. Not to deny that prejudice, whether conscious or unconscious, does not exist.

And here is a Canadian Muslim woman expressing her views about systemic racism in Canada.

 

Yes, there are problems, but the way to address them is not through violence, but through listening to each other and looking clearly at what can be done by people of goodwill working together.