Friday, August 28, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Ki Tetzei 5769 The Choice of Memory

One of the most puzzling bits of text in the Torah comes at the very end of this week's parasha, Ki Tetzei:

(17) Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt--(18) how, undeterred by the fear of G"d, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. (19) Therefore, when the L"rd your G"d grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the L"rd your G"d is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

We all know Amalek. After all, how could we forget, for Amalek has appeared in many disguises, been known by many names throughout our history. He is our perpetual bogeyman, Therein lies the rub, as many before me have realized. The instructions here seem contradictory - "remember" what Amalek did, blot out Amalek's memory and "do not forget!" What precisely, are we being told to not forget?Is it the memory of what Amalek did to us? Or is it the instruction to blot out the memory of Amalek? Can we really have it both ways?

Some argue that painful memories are best forgotten. Others argue that repression of bad memories is damaging to the psyche. Some argue that holding a grudge is  pointless and counter-productive. Others argue that sometimes holding a grudge can keep one necessarily cautious and protect one from future abuses. Some hold that some bad things are more heinous than others. Others claim that circumstances can affect the heinousness of something bad-that it is a relative distinction.

Speaking of situational things, perhaps, to understand what is being said here, it is necessary to extend back to the beginning of verse 19. It is in the context of being in a time and place of safety from enemies that we are told to blot out Amalek's memory. So does this mean that at times when we are in danger, we should not blot out Amalek's memory? Then what about the words "Do not forget?" Are we to "not not" forget during times of danger (i.e., remember.) Is this a caution that when times are perilous, we should keep the memory of Amalek alive? That is to say, when we are threatened, we would be wise to remind ourselves (and the rest of the world, by extension?) of what Amalek did.

Perhaps, by extension,and recognition of the often circuitous syntax of ancient Hebrew, we can also include the "Remember what Amalek did..." as part of what we should do when we are in that safe time and place. Would this then mean that, when we are not in a safe place, we should not remember what Amalek did? That doesn't really make any sense, and that is perhaps why this thought is expressed separate and apart from the "blot out" and "do not forget" that we are instructed to do when we are in a safe time and place.

So let's sort this all out, what we have so far:

  • Remember what Amalek did -- is something we should do at all times
  • Blot out Amalek's memory is something we should do when we are in a  time and place of safety
  • Do not forget (but we're not sure exactly what we shouldn't forget) is something we should do when we are in a time and place of safety. (Is the "Do not forget" telling us not to forget to blot out Amalek's memory?)


  • Do not blot out Amalek's memory at times when we are threatened
  • Do forget (but we're not sure exactly what to forget) in times when we are threatened. (Of course, the instruction "do forget to blot out Amalek's memory" is the equivalent of the former statement above.

It's all to confusing for me, and too systematical. So much of our Judaism seems wrapped up in this conundrum. We are prisoners of our past (and present.) Much evil has befallen us.
Is it time to break out of this viscous cycle of memory? Our memories of what has happened to us can, and do, protect us from possible harm. At the same time, our constant use of those memories eats away at our ability to find new paths of peace, new ways of relating to the world. We have taught ourselves, and are teaching our children basic mistrust of the other. While it may be true that, even here in America, we Jews are but one "knock on the door" away from a new nightmare, how can we build positive Jewish identities on that?

We are in a time of relative peace and safety for our people (albeit many Israelis would disagree, and rightfully so, but that's a discussion for another time.) OK, so we diaspora Jews are in a time of relative safety. Maybe it is time to forget to blot out Amalek's memory? We are still going to "remember what Amalek did to us" so we can always have just that little bit of caution, yet we need not focus so much time and effort on blotting out the memory of Amalek.
Of course, this also leads to a built of a conundrum. It IS necessary to keep alive in the minds of the entire world what Amalek, in his disguise as the Nazis, did to us. Places like the USHMM and the Southern Poverty Law Center serve a vital purpose. So how can we "remember what Amalek did" without having to blot out Amalek's memory?

Remembering is, essentially, a passive activity. Blotting out is not passive. Perhaps this holds a clue to solving the riddle of - remember-blot out, don't forget. Blotting out could mean destroying the physical traces of Amalek (in all his iterations.) It's the modern equivalent of how Pharaoh's ordered previous Pharaoh's to be forgotten and all traces of them erased. Even they learned that so doing would not erase the memory of these previous Pharaohs. Perhaps the Torah is telling us that, in our times of relative safety, we will certainly remember Amalek, but we don't need to put physical effort into erasing his traces. Makes some sense, but begs the question of why it makes sense, during times when we are in danger, to do the physical blotting out of memory. Is it to prevent these physical memories from opening and keeping open wounds? Is it a caution against allowing these physical memories to fire up our anger and cause us to do heinous things in response to heinous things? Time of war and trouble are dangerous times, and once riled up, it doesn't take much to push people over the edge of civilized behavior. We see that time and again.

How we use memory is a choice. We can use memory for good, and we can use memory for evil. I;d like to believe that Torah is teaching us to use memory for good, but at this point, I'm not entirely certain that it's message in these verses. I'm certainly going to try and find a way to read these verses so they can be read as instructions to choose to use memory for good.

When to remember, when to blot out, when to not forget. It's an exhausting enterprise. Yet a worthy one. I encourage the effort, for myself, and for you.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Friday, August 7, 2009

Random Musing Before Shabbat-Ekev 5769-Not Like Egypt

Today's musing is going to be somewhat tangential to our parsha, Ekev. I am going to take a piece of text from it, perhaps out of context, and muse upon what thoughts it triggers in me. I guess, in the parlance of of biblical hermeneutics, you might call it "reader response."

The context is an assurance to the people.

11:10 For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come. There the grain you sowed had to be watered by your own labors, like a vegetable garden.
11:11 but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven.
11:12 It is a land on which the L"rd your G"d always keep His (sic) eye, from year's beginning to year's end.

So here I go, taking part of a pasuk out of context. It is this:

For the land that you are about to enter and possess is not like the land of Egypt from which you have come.

OK. A fair statement in its time. Now for a modern context.

We Jews stand on a threshold. A rather uncomfortable one for some, a rather exciting one for others. I tend to be in the "excited" camp.

Of late I have been engaged in some interesting discussions and debate about the future of Jewish Education. I have come to the sad conclusion that the future of Jewish Education  is not to be found in our extant institutions, especially synagogue supplemental schools. Though I am reminded time and again that most Jewish children receive their Jewish education in such a setting, I am no longer certain that this setting is the one in which we should invest our time and efforts. To paraphrase the holy text:

For the world and culture that you are about to enter and possess is not like the world and culture from which you are coming.

I understand inertia. I understand the instinct for self-preservation. Yet these are no longer good enough reasons (for me) to work for the continuance of the system of Jewish Education as we know it today-and in particular, the synagogue supplemental school.

In fact, as pointed out by my dear friend Peter Eckstein, why do we even use the term supplemental, when in fact, in many if not most cases, we aren't actually supplementing anything-there's little support at home for what we are trying to teach. It's more like proxy education.

Enough diversion. I've been taken to task by some younger folks involved in Jewish Education, ones who still believe that the synagogue supplemental school is the model to keep pursuing. I've been told that us older folks should stop telling them younger ones what is needed. Oddly, I'm the older one here who pushing a  more online, Internet, social-media, non-synagogue style of Jewish Education. I was told "we spend enough time on our computers."

Now that's an interesting point, and I'll grant it has merit. However, that's not a message I get consistently from younger Jews. Many of them yearn to do what Judaism intends to do - be part and parcel of one's life at all times. Since they spend a lot of their time online, seems to me we need to be there-to meet them where they are.

Another argument is that virtual community isn't community. There's some truth in that, but not entirely. I belong to some incredible electronically-connected communities, and have seen some very powerful things happen within them. Nevertheless, I agree that there are times when face-to-face is necessary. I am not as convinced as others that this is most of the time. Prayer, learning, etc. can be done in other modes beside face-to-face and still be effective, meaningful and efficacious. Check out

I suspect that a lot of people are afraid of what a world without synagogue supplemental schools (and synagogues themselves) would be like.  The place we are going is a place beyond walls, beyond edifices, beyond the Jewish communal structure as we know it. We have survived some many culture shifts in our long history. Each time that happened, there were those who bravely forged ahead, and others who feared for the loss of what is and was. To them I would say, as in our parasha, that now is a time to have faith that what is needed will be found in the place we are going.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2009 by Adrian A. Durlester

Monday, August 3, 2009

Synagogues, Labor Law, Unemployment-Where Are Our Values?

Did you know that synagogues, churches, and certain other religious entities are exempt from participating in Federal Unemployment Insurance, and are also exempt in most (but not all) states, as well?

Did you know that synagogues and churches could voluntarily opt-in to unemployment insurance programs in most states, and can also participate in private unemployment insurance plans?

The current economic and employment crisis has hit the religious sector as hard as any other. Staff are being laid off left and right in an attempt to economize.

I would venture that a large percentage of those laid off had no idea they were ineligible for unemployment benefits. I'd venture that many synagogue members and Board members were unaware of this.

Sadly, however, I'd venture that there are people in positions of responsibility at most synagogues who are fully aware of the facts, and choose to say/do nothing. I'd also venture that many synagogues, even aware they could voluntarily participate in unemployment plans for their staff, deliberately choose to not do so, in order to save the expense.

I offer support for that assumption on the basis of my experience with synagogues and other issues of labor law, most especially the definition of employee vs. independent contractor in the IRS regulations. Subjected to the test criteria, most synagogue religious school teachers, specialists, songleaders, etc.  are clearly employees, and not independent contractors. However, by pretending they are contractors, the synagogues save the additional expense of paying their share of matching FICA (social Security) contributions.

How many times have we heard the tired, old "we just can't afford it" excuse? That excuse doesn't put food on the table of laid-off synagogue employees, and it prevent synagogue employees from having enough in social security to depend upon when they retire.

Guess what folks-the  maximum FUTA tax per employee per year is generally $56. To save a lousy $56 per staff member, synagogues will allow their staff to go without unemployment compensation. Where's the Jewish value in that?

While I was aware of the unemployment insurance situation myself,  I cannot once recall in my career being informed by any synagogue at the time I was hired that I would not be eligible for any unemployment benefits. I suspect this may be the experience for most who work in synagogues.

What all this adds up to is a shanda.  The very institutions that promote Jewish values are themselves ignoring a whole host of Jewish values, and, in regard to employee vs. independent contractor matters, conveniently side-stepping that most important of Jewish values: dina d'malkhuta dina - "the law of the land is the law," i.e. we must follow the laws of the lands in which we live. The issue of unemployment insurance is perhaps not a matter of not following the law of the land, but it is certainly a moral and ethical issue, and a failure on the part of synagogues to do what the law permits them to do (opt-in to unemployment insurance plans) rather than take advantage of what the law exempts them from doing to save a few bucks.

How can we allow this? Why do we allow this? Why is there no outrage or outcry at this unfair treatment of those who labor in service to Judaism (or Xtianity, or any other religion?)

Here's a sobering fact:

Workers in religious organizations number more than 1,647,219 ...of America’s workforce and earned $28,307,395, 2006. Only 11 percent...are entitled to unemployment benefits -- many of these work in the few states that require religious organizations to pay state unemployment tax. (cf:

And here are two articles on the subject: (from the Vozisneais blog) (Washington Jewish Week)

Some (but not all) churches have stepped up to the plate to right this wrong, but it appears very few synagogues have done the same so far.

Take Action

If you agree that synagogues (or churches, mosques, etc.) should uphold the core values they hold equally when it comes to how they treat their employees, then contact your local synagogue (or church, mosque, etc.) JCC, Y, et al and urge them to

  • Opt-in to their state's unemployment insurance system , if possible or, if not, to participate in a  private unemployment insurance plan, for their staff.
  • Follow the IRS code and treat employees as employees, subject to withholding, and the synagogue paying matching FICA (Social Security) payments. (Any employee or employer has the right to ask for a judgment from the IRS on the status of any worker to determine if they are employee or independent contractor.)

For more info on employee vs. independent contractor, see,,id=99921,00.html

It's generally clear, and, in most cases, you'll find that most people who work in a synagogue are employees and not independent contractors. Also, there is no legal minimum number of employees that somehow exempts an organization from these regulations. See:

There is also a great deal of confusion between the terms "Independent Contractor" and "Self-Employed." The fact is, most rabbis or hazzanim who work for one congregation are employees, but their salary CAN BE treated as self-employment income if they so choose. Rabbis/Hazzanim are considered self-employed for Social Security and Medicare taxes, so the synagogue does not have to withhold or report these taxes even if the rabbi is an employee and the synagogue withholds income taxes. A rabbi/Hazzan does have to pay self-employment taxes, (i.e. for Social Security and Medicare.) (A rabbi/hazzan can also choose voluntary tax withholding as an option.)

Though published in 1993, the book "Ministry and the American Legal System" by Richard B. Couser his good information on religious organizations and labor law. Here's a link to a relevant chapter in the book courtesy of Google Books:

Sorry for the long link, but the URL-shrinkers can't seem to handle this one.