Friday, September 26, 2008

Eulogy for Hazzan Rebibo Z"L

This week, the highly esteemed and beloved Hazzan Emeritus of Magen David Sephardic Congregation, Mr. David Rebibo, passed away at the age of 95. His funeral was held on Wednesday at noon. I cannot claim that the eulogy I delivered was a sufficient tribute to his illustrious memory. However, I present it here to offer at least a glimpse of the character of this great man to the readership.

As you know, I never write out my speeches, not even my High Holiday sermons. But I feel genuinely inadequate and humbled by the prospect of delivering a eulogy for Hazzan David Rebibo , someone whom I regarded as a grandfather, a teacher and a personal mentor. It seems at best futile and at worst an injustice on my part to attempt to capture the greatness of such a remarkable man in a single address. Not to mention that the loss of Hazzan Rebibo is a powerful blow to me personally and a tragedy that impacts our entire community, leaving us at a loss for words. Nevertheless, we have an obligation to recognize and discuss the sublime qualities of Hazzan Rebibo so as to pay tribute to him and to remind ourselves of the massive responsibility that his legacy places on our shoulders.

The Bible describes the illustrious King David as the “sweet singer of Israel ”. Our David, Hazzan David Rebibo , certainly lived up to the example of his namesake in this regard. His leadership of the prayers in our congregation was and always will be legendary. Hazzan Rebibo was the consummately skillful Hazzan – he had the uncanny ability to look at any passage in the siddur, mahazor or book of Kinnot at any time of the year and to begin chanting it instantly, without even a moment's hesitation. He established the liturgical traditions of Magen David Sephardic Congregation including introducing the melodies we utilize for Shabbat, Festivals, Tisha B’av Kinnot and the High Holidays. He taught us how to pray with solemnity and with soulfulness. He was capable of maintaining and insisting upon proper decorum during services, while simultaneously bringing heartfelt emotion and palpable intensity to our experience of tefillah.

Many Hazzanim are “divas” who behave in an elitist manner and think quite highly of themselves. Not so Hazzan Rebibo. His sterling character was untarnished by the slightest trace of egotistical interest. His first priority was to ensure that peace, tranquility and unity reigned in our Bet Kenesset. With his musical gifts he uplifted and unified us in prayer, and with his insight into human beings he helped foster harmony and cooperation in our community. He was keenly socially aware till his final day on Earth and consistently avoided confrontation, preferring instead to engage in his own quiet brand of synagogue diplomacy.

I will never forget last Sunday when I spent approximately an hour and a half sitting with Hazzan Rebibo and his family in the Rebibo’s living room. Inevitably, the hot issue of the current presidential election came up in our conversation. When asked whom he planned to vote for, Hazzan Rebibo tactfully responded “both of them”. He realized that mixed company was present and he couldn’t bear to make anyone who might disagree with his political views feel uncomfortable, so he took the high road, as usual.

Hazzan Rebibo was a living example of the classic words of Tehillim, “Hashem, who can dwell in your tent, who can reside on Your holy mountain? One who walks perfectly and acts justly and speaks truth in his heart. Who has no slander on his tongue, nor has he done harm to a fellow, nor casts disgrace on a neighbor. In whose eyes a contemptible person is repulsive, but who honors those who fear the Lord…One who does these things shall never falter.”

We tend to idealize our loved ones who have passed on, and there are many people to whom these words have been applied after their deaths, as a sort of exaggeration or embellishment of their piety. I can tell you honestly that even while he still dwelt among us, and even while he was still enjoying relatively good health and this day seemed like it was far off in the distant future, whenever I read this passage of Tehillim the image of Hazzan Rebibo appeared before me. I am confident that it will continue to do so for the rest of my life. There is no better concrete example of the lessons contained in that paragraph than the one offered to us by Hazzan Rebibo.

Never did he speak a negative word about another human being, even if it might seem justified. Never did he engage in idle talk around the table – it was beneath his dignity and a violation of his principles. He gave everyone the benefit of the doubt and treated everyone with the same humanity and respect that he expected from them. Hazzan Rebibo’s eyes sparkled with warmth, insight and wit, and he had an outstanding sense of humor, but he never enjoyed a laugh at someone else’s expense. And when I say never I mean never – I am not exaggerating. Being in his presence and observing such righteous conduct on a daily basis was a truly humbling and inspiring experience for all of us.

Hazzan Rebibo was one of those individuals of tremendous stature who we begin to think have outsmarted the Malach Hamavet, the Angel of Death. He survived so many threats to his health and underwent so many medical interventions, yet he would invariably bounce back, resume daily synagogue attendance, observe the major and minor fasts and even lead the prayers on occasion. It seemed as if he had found the secret to eternity in this world and that he would be here with us forever.

Indeed, we all hoped and prayed that this would be the case. After all, how can there be Selihot without Hazzan R ebibo, Adon Haselihot – the Master of Selihot himself who taught us how to chant them? How can there be Sukkot or Pesah without Hazzan Rebibo there to remind us when and with what solemn melody to recite the prayers for rain and dew? How will we survive another Tisha B’av kinnot service without Hazzan Rebibo to whisper the tune for each section in our ears so that we know how to start it properly? How will we enter into Yom Kippur this year without Hazzan R ebibo’s unforgettable and haunting rendition of the Kal Nidre prayer?

The circumstances in which we find ourselves are reflected beautifully in a moving passage in the Talmud in Masechet Berachot. When the great Sage Rav passed away his students escorted him to burial. Upon their return from the funeral, they sat down to have a meal together by the River Danak. A t the conclusion of their repast they prepared to recite the Birkat Hamazon, or Grace after Meals. A question emerged regarding its proper recitation and they were unable to resolve it satisfactorily. One of the most illustrious students, Rav Adda bar Ahava, stood up and tore his garment a second time (after already having torn it once at the funeral). “Our teacher has died,” he exclaimed, “and we have not even learned how to recite the Grace after Meals properly!”

We too have lost a spiritual giant, a paragon of righteousness, a beloved teacher – but we have not yet internalized the lessons he struggled to teach us. We do not yet know what it means to lead the prayers with a deep and abiding sense of standing in the presence of the Almighty. We are not yet sure how to strike that perfect balance between humility and elegance, between dignity and good humor that he exhibited so effortlessly. Our teacher is gone but we had not yet completed the course. What we would give for another few moments with him, to review some of the prayers and their melodies, or to request his sagacious advice or guidance.

Each day in Selihot we read, “ Anshe Emunah Avadu Baim B’choach Maasehem”, men of faith, of principle, men who strengthened and protected us with their meritorious deeds have disappeared. We are a generation of lost souls that needs people like Hazzan Rebibo more than ever before, and now he too has left us to find eternal rest in a better place. The more time passes, the less opportunities we have to observe and to interact with human beings of the caliber of Hazzan Rebibo. What a blessing, how fortunate we were to know him, and alas, what a tragedy, what a heart-wrenching misfortune it is to be compelled to bid him farewell for the last time.

Our Rabbis teach us that the death of pious individuals is a source of atonement for the Jewish people. When we find ourselves bereft of those who inspired us, we are moved to find sources of inspiration from within. When we realize that the pillars of the community are no longer present, we are beckoned to assume responsibility for the continuity of our heritage and traditions. When the leaders upon whom we relied to study, practice and teach Torah and Sephardic customs are called to the Heavenly Academy , we feel a sense of obligation to take up the mantle of Torah study and observance, to continue the legacy of our ancestors and teachers and to ensure that the flame of Jewish life is never extinguished. This reawakening of connection to Judaism and to community is a source of atonement for us all if we use it to draw ourselves closer to our synagogue and to our God.

As we approach the High Holidays and the New Year, we pray that the merit of Hazzan Rebibo should inspire us all to increase our involvement in what he cherished more than anything else in this world – the Torah, the mitsvot, and Magen David Sephardic Congregation. Striving to live up to his awesome example as best we can is the ultimate tribute we can render to him.

May the soul of Hazzan David ben HaRav Yosef veHanna Rebibo find its eternal rest in the presence of the Almighty, and may his memory be a source of blessing for us always. Amen.

Invocation for Senator McCain

As reported in the current edition of the Washington Jewish Week, I was invited to deliver an invocation in support of Senator John McCain at a Jewish fundraiser for his presidential campaign last Sunday.

The full text of the invocation I composed and delivered can be found here. Obviously, it represents my personal views and you are free to disagree with my conclusions.

It was subsequently brought to my attention that my actions were criticized here.

I responded here and here, and wound up involved in a bit of a theological discussion about the nature of prayer and "Divine callings" here and here.

Although the initial reactions of other contributors to the site were mixed, I was honored to receive positive feedback on my comments from several of the participants as the exchange progressed.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Politics and Propaganda

I recently received an article by Cathryn Michon entitled "Beyond the Palin" as an email forward. Apparently, the piece has been circulated widely on the Internet, and held up as a very persuasive critique of the McCain-Palin ticket.

As a registered independent with a record of voting for both Democratic and Republican candidates in the past, I am always open to considering the arguments and policy positions of both parties objectively before reaching any particular decision. My political views are not neatly aligned with the platform of either party. I do my best to evaluate the issues at hand and the qualifications of the candidates running for office, without focusing on party affiliations per se.

This being said, I found the Michon article to be filled with hyperbolic rhetoric, logical errors and gross misrepresentations of fact.

As someone who reads both sides of the political story and explores the ideas and opinions of the 'left' and the 'right', I know that this kind of hyped up, factually inaccurate partisan propaganda is generated by both Democrats and Republicans.

You can find plenty of such material directed against McCain, Obama and Biden in cyberspace as well, all of it presented in the same sweeping, self-assured tone and incorporating the same sort of "data" to substantiate its claims. This literature serves the purpose of "firing up" party members in anticipation of a major election. But interpreting "Beyond the Palin" - or any other kind of propaganda - as a weighty piece of journalistic research, rather than a biased (albeit entertaining) diatribe, would be a serious mistake on our part.

I have no intention of endorsing or rejecting any particular political candidate here. I respect every American's right to choose the leader he or she deems most fit for the office of the presidency, and there are reasonable and compelling arguments to be offered on behalf of the policy positions of both contenders.

However, precisely because it is being touted as such a persuasive piece of writing, I would like to take the time to hold "Beyond the Palin" up to the light of critical scrutiny by evaluating its claims and arguments honestly. This, I believe, will demonstrate conclusively that, regardless of your party affiliation or political views, the arguments presented by Michon should not exert any influence on your vote in the 2008 Election.

First, let's look at what Michon says about McCain himself:

"This is a presidential election, the GOP has a disastrous administration and a horrible candidate whose big idea is more of the same. This woman threatens to suck all the oxygen out of the room. She's [Palin's] distracting everyone from the fact that McCain is a terrible candidate and will make a horrible president."

Is it really a "fact" that McCain is a terrible candidate and will make a horrible president? It is certainly the opinion shared by most Democrats, but it is a far cry from a fact. Indeed, according to the most recent polls, more than 50 percent of Americans believe quite the opposite - that McCain is the superior candidate and that the election of Obama would be disastrous. While the fact that the majority appear to favor McCain does not necessarily mean that he is the better man for the job, it certainly should give us pause before we declare that it is a "fact" that he would be a horrible president.

And is it really true that a McCain administration would be "more of the same"? The reality is that McCain has long been known as an independent thinker and a strong-willed leader who never felt the need to mindlessly toe the party line. This is one of the reasons he has never received the presidential nomination in the past, despite a distinguished career in the military and the Senate - he was too controversial, not enough of a "company man" to win over die-hard conservatives.

Remember that 2004 Democratic Presidential Candidate John Kerry was urged by several of his aides to select John McCain as his running mate. Kerry's willingness to even consider McCain is truly astonishing. What better endorsement could there be of McCain's bipartisan attitudes and commitment to serving his country rather than the dictates of his party?

McCain is truly the Lieberman of the Republican Party, someone who has a record of putting conscience and principle before political expediency. The Democrats realized that in 2004, which is why they considered him as a possible VP. The Republicans realized it too, which is why they rejected him as their nominee.

Michon also writes:

"John McCain would make a terrible president. This is a presidential election, not a vice presidential election. The job only becomes relevant if the President dies, and if you've seen John McCain's 2,000 year old mom, I think you'll agree he'll last 8 years."

This is more of the same. Dogmatic pronouncements as to McCain's unfitness for office, plus a gratuitous, irrelevant and frankly offensive reference to his mother.

Let us now examine what Michon claims about Obama, the candidate whom she endorses:

"We should ignore her [Palin]. We should focus on the positives of Barack Obama, his concrete detailed plans for change...his amazing ability to manage people, time and resources. We should focus on his ability to inspire, command respect, and build actual working coalition bridges between entrenched parties. We should focus on his determination to run a respectful, diplomatic campaign about the issues, focused on the difficult task of turning our country around and regaining our reputation abroad....If you believe Obama should be the leader, then follow his lead. Ignore her. Be uninterested in her. Stop letting her turn the election into a combination of Desperate Housewives and American Idol."

I am not sure what the basis is for the claims here concerning Obama's ability to manage people, time and resources. When has he forged any "actual working coalition bridges between entrenched parties"? As a first-term Senator he has had very little experience in Washington, and has very few, if any, accomplishments to his credit. Polls have shown, time and time again, that the average Obama supporter cannot adduce any concrete evidence of his qualification for the position of Commander-In-Chief.

Aside from his very inspiring and uplifting rhetoric - which is a pleasure to listen to - he has not really demonstrated any executive skills in government, he has not effectuated any change or achieved any specific goals. I have heard people say that Obama is wonderful because he voted against the war in Iraq, but this is obviously untrue because he was not even a Senator when the war started! He may have opposed the war; however, despite the fact that his party has a majority in both Houses of Congress, his much-beloved eloquence has not had any impact on US foreign policy whatsoever. In fact, Obama has spent most of his term in the Senate running for President.
If you are interested in a more sobering look at Obama's record, this article is a must read.

Has Obama really run a "respectful" campaign? Has he really practiced anything other than the very "politics as usual" that he lambastes in his speeches? When it comes to attacks on McCain, Obama's campaign has taken to belittling his opponent's age and his inability to use email, which is actually the result of the injuries he sustained while serving our country in Vietnam. Obama's campaign managers refer to their candidates image of "transcending" politics as "the brand", an illusion that they maintain by having Obama make friendly and conciliatory comments to the press about his opponent, while sending other campaign representatives forward to do his dirty work.

Finally, is it true that Obama simply ignored the drama surrounding Sarah Palin's selection as the Republican VP candidate? According to this article from the Associated Press, Obama has responded to Palin's growing popularity and the bounce she has lent to the Republican ticket by criticizing her directly and harshly on several occasions. And he has done this over the objections of his own advisers, who are worried that the Obama Brand of "new politics" might be compromised by these attacks.

Now, let us consider what the author of "Beyond the Palin" has to say about Sarah Palin herself:

"If you think running Alaska 's budget is like running America 's budget, think again. Alaska is the Saudi Arabia of America. They're awash in the oil profits that are killing the rest of us. If you think Sarah Palin is not in the pockets of big oil, ask yourself why British Petroleum sponsored her inauguration party. Don't be fooled by the big brag, know that it's a con and move on to the real topic."

The irony of this comment is that while VP Candidate Sarah Palin has not been involved in managing the national budget and has only dealt with the Alaskan one, the Presidential Candidate on the Democratic ticket has not managed any budget since he is completely bereft of executive experience!

The bottom line is that it is good for a VP to possess some real executive experience, which Sarah Palin has. It is silly to downplay the difficulties involved in overseeing an entire city or state's budget. While Alaskan oil may help to prop up its economy, challenges and obstacles of one sort or another are ever-present in business and politics. Gas prices in Alaska, for example, are just as ridiculously inflated in Alaska as they are in the lower 48 states, if not more so. This is undoubtedly a source of economic strain that, among other things, weighs heavily upon the citizens and government of Alaska. Every state of the Union has its benefits, limitations, and hot-button issues, and no place on Earth is a utopia wherein providing governmental leadership and establishing fiscal policy is a piece of cake.

Obviously, we cannot reasonably expect that anyone who comes to assume the office of the Presidency or VP will have run this country (or some other country) in the past. But we should all agree that it is preferable for a person to have at least a solid background in management of a city or state before stepping into the White House. That is the best kind of executive experience we can hope for in a candidate given the circumstances.

Furthermore, a bit of honesty across the board is in order here. All campaigns are financed by big-money sponsors, whether they be corporations or individual donors. This is (regrettably) how our political system works, and all candidates (unfortunately, but perhaps inevitably) wind up feeling beholden to the power brokers who enabled them to reach their offices. There is no way around this reality at the present time - the main incentive for campaign contributors is the potential they are buying to exert influence on the political process should their candidate be elected.

But who is more likely to refuse to cave under political pressure from lobbyists and campaign contributors, and to adopt policy positions that are immoral, unethical or against the national interest? An elder statesman who has demonstrated independent-minded leadership in Washington for decades, weathered storms of partisan power plays, and maintained his integrity and sense of responsibility to his country even in the face of unthinkable pain and suffering in a POW camp? Or a relatively young and unseasoned candidate whose idealism and charisma can only carry him so far, and who, even in the course of a brief campaign, has already shifted his positions dramatically to appease the centrists in his party?

I am playing devil's advocate here, but I hope you see that the case is not all as clear as "Beyond the Palin" would have us believe.

The truth is that Michon's argument contains a fallacious element that it is easy to overlook. She mounts an attack against Palin on the basis of her lack of qualification for the position of VP. Then she moves on to dismiss the importance of a VP candidate altogether, stating that it would only be relevant in the unlikely event of McCain's death. So, should we be alarmed by the prospect of Palin being a heartbeat away from the presidency, or not?

If the possibility of her assuming executive leadership is real, then we should carefully evaluate her political record and competence. On the other hand, if the role of the VP is negligible - something that no one, including Obama, seems to truly believe - then why launch all of these sarcastic and mean-spirited attacks on Palin to begin with? Don't they simply add fuel to the fire that this author is supposedly trying to put out?

I will not move to address the remainder of the missive, which is full of nasty insults, personal attacks and belittling comments directed at Palin. The partisan motives underlying these statements are obvious and in no need of further examination.

As I stated from the outset, I am an independent and I do not intend to endorse any candidate with this message. However, I was deeply offended by the biased and aggressive tone of "Beyond the Palin", not to mention its presentation of false rumors and propaganda as fact. If anything, the methods of persuasion employed by Michon would serve to alienate me from the Obama campaign rather than convincing me to support it. I would have been equally put-off by any column penned by a right-wing loony who distorted the truth about Obama or Biden, and I would have been equally disappointed in those who tried to pass it along as a contribution to the political arena worthy of serious attention.

"Beyond the Palin" certainly does not represent the "New Politics" that Obama himself would advocate. One would think that an Obama supporter who was truly committed to his vision would avoid composing such biased and divisive articles and would instead focus on transcending the evils of self-interested partisanship and fostering unity and cooperation in government and society.