Sunday, September 19, 2010

Kol Nidre Sermon 5771

Reacting to Islamophobia in America:
An Open Letter to Imam Sofian Abdelaziz Zakkout

Dear Imam Sofian Abdelaziz Zakkout:

You and I have spoken a few times recently, and I want to first express my gratitude to you. You have many times offered to dialogue with the community at large. Your organization, AMANA, the American Muslim Association of North America, does some incredible work with the Greater Miami Community. I know you work very hard to build understanding and respect between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities, so again, thank you.

When my family and I lived in Plantation, our house was in a cul-de-sac with eight or nine other houses. We lived in between two homes whose inhabitants both drove big white vans. One our left was a Pakistani family with children a little older than ours. They were very friendly, and enjoyed spending time outside watching their children play. From their home wafted the sweet and pungent smells of Middle Eastern spices that the wife used in cooking. They moved to America about ten years ago and started a small business that had just begun to be successful. On their white van was their business logo in large red letters.
On our right was an American-born family. The husband and wife were born in Miami and lived in Plantation since they were married. They had teenage kids who spent most of their time shut in their garage practicing with their band. From their home wafted the smell of cigarette smoke. I do not know what they did for a living. On their white van was a large bumper sticker that read, in large red letters, “Islamophobe and Proud of it.”

We were the Jews in the middle.

Since building understanding is part of your mission at AMANA, I would like to open up a dialogue between your community and mine. Right now, a plague of Islamophobia is growing in our country. The Jewish people are commanded to be Or Lagoyim, a Light to the Nations. So I feel it is my responsibility as a rabbi to help fight this plague and work toward ending its run in America. The Jews in the middle are commanded do not stand idly by, and instead work toward the day when all people will be one and acknowledge that God is one.

Brother Sofian, I know you just finished the holy month of your calendar, and I hope you and your community had a Ramadan Mubarak, a blessed Ramadan. As you probably know, we are now in our holiest time of the calendar year as well. We call them aseret yamei teshuvah, the ten days of repentance. We started last week on Rosh Hashanah, celebrating the Jewish New Year. Like the secular New Year, Rosh Hashanah symbolizes a new beginning for the Jewish people. We eat apples dipped in honey to symbolize the circular nature of the year, and our hope that it be a sweet one. We blow a shofar, a ram’s horn, to bring in the New Year with a loud noise that wakes us up and reminds us that it is time to start ourselves fresh, too.

Ten days after Rosh Hashanah we gather again for Yom Kippur, our Day of Atonement—which begins tonight. As I understand it, the fourth pillar of Islam is the belief in a final Day of Judgment, yawm al-din. Yom Kippur is referred to in our liturgy as yom hadin, our day of judgment. On Yom Kippur we spend the day in prayer and study to repent for our sins. We actually have an opportunity to do this every day during the prayer service, but if a Jew is going to go to synagogue only one day in the year, this would be the day. It is known as the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the holiest day of the Jewish year. We fast for 24 hours to help us focus on our spiritual needs instead of our bodies. Our goal for this day is to do what we call tshuvah. I think that by explaining tshuvah to you it might illuminate some of my hopes for the coming year between our two communities.

The word tshuvah has three basic meanings. It means “returning,” “response,” or “repentance.” Of course these three meanings are all related, yet each adds a significant emphasis to what we are doing on Yom Kippur when we make tshuvah.

Tshuvah shares its root with the word lashuv, to turn. The prophet Jeremiah uses this word to describe the best possible relationship between God and the people of Israel:
Im tashuv Yisrael, If you return, O Israel–declares Adonai—Im tashuv eilai, If you return to Me, If you remove your abominations from My presence And do not waver, and swear, "As Adonai lives," In sincerity, justice, and righteousness -- Nations shall bless themselves by you And praise themselves by you.[1]

Jeremiah describes returning, or repenting, as the tool by which we will merit the respect and admiration of other nations. Other people will look to our example and live by it.

Tshuvah as returning means we return to God and faith, to the best version of ourselves we can be, before we were corrupted by prejudice and negativity. It can also mean returning to our roots.

I think about our shared Biblical ancestor Abraham, the first person to embrace monotheism, acknowledging that there is only one God. According to the book of Genesis, after Abraham’s wife Sarah dies, he marries a woman named Keturah. Her name is related to the word ketoret, or incense. In the book of Exodus, Moses marries Tziporah, whose name in Hebrew we translate as “bird,” but it was also a type of incense in Biblical Hebrew. Incense was the import that we got from Ishmaelites, the Arab tribes that were the progenitors of modern Islam. All the more so Tziporah was a Medianite, daughter of the priest Jethro. Both of these women, therefore, represent the lively trade relationship the Israelites shared with the Ancient Arabs, the people who would become Mulsims.[2]

I think about Abraham’s first two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. A Midrash, a rabbinic teaching about the biblical text, suggests that Isaac and Abraham would take trips away from Sarah to visit Ishmael. This suggestion teaches us that both Abraham and Isaac had a loving relationship with Ishmael, and thereby his descendants.

I think about the Talmud, the magnum opus of generations of rabbis. The Talmud refers to some Arab clans as Tayaye. Tayaye were “seminomadic traders living in the vicinity of the Babylonian Jewish community of Pumbedita,” according to Rabbi Reuven Firestone.[3] They were a people who had a great deal of respect and understanding of Judaism and Jewish culture. A Tayaye is credited with showing Rabbah bar Hanah the spot where Korach’s rebels were buried, and shows him the spot “where heaven and earth kiss.”[4] The Talmud illustrates a positive relationship between Jews and monotheistic Arabs, again the people who would become Muslims.

Tshuvah as returning proposes that we go back to our ancient ways. We must heed the words of Jeremiah and return to God and our faith, which will allow other people to live by our example. Both Jews and Muslims must look to the examples set by those who came before us. We must return to the behavior of our ancestors, emphasizing the positive relationships between our two cultures, and cultivating loving relationships between our peoples.

You recently sent me a video of Muslims sharing worship space with Jews in Washington, DC. They celebrated the end of Ramadan by worshipping in an historic Jewish synagogue, donating canned goods to the Christian-run Salvation Army, and participating in an interfaith feast with Christians and Jews. They were invited in response to President Obama’s suggestion that we open dialogue between Jews and Muslims. The video suggests that interfaith events like these are becoming more frequent in Washington. It is my hope that they become frequent here in Miami, too, as well as here at Temple Sinai.

Through tshuvah we can return to the relationships we had in the Bible, in the Talmud, and in our nation’s capital. We can return to become communities that care for one another and understand one another.

In order to understand one another, we can look at the second meaning of tshuvah.

Tshuvah also means “response.” It is a response to questions we struggle with, questions of ideas we have difficulty grasping, and a response to help alleviate some of our own ignorance.

The question that keeps coming up lately is about Park51, the proposed Islamic Cultural Center in Lower Manhattan, has proven to be the catalyst for an intense period of questioning in our lives. It is perhaps the single most divisive issue being discussed today. Should we “allow” a building with an Islamic prayer space inside to be built two blocks away from the most horrific attack ever perpetrated on America?

It is incredibly difficult to get a response to this question when we are inundated with rhetoric from all sides. It has been called the “Ground Zero Mosque,” even though it is not a mosque, nor is it at Ground Zero. Park51 is a cultural center, exactly to you what a Jewish Community Center is to us. JCC’s are so important to us that Temple Sinai has just built a bridge to get closer to ours. We of all people should understand how important the Islamic Cultural Center is to you.

We have been told it will be thirteen stories high, which admittedly sounds huge to a Miamian. Here in North Miami Beach the apartment buildings stick out as they stretch above the other buildings around them. We have to realize that in New York City a thirteen story structure is nothing, blending in with the scenery and getting lost among much taller edifices. We have heard that two blocks away is much too close to World Trade Center Plaza. This leads to another question. How close is too close? Where do we draw the line? Will we force the building to be farther than a block? A mile? A city? A state? A country?

The tshuvah, the response to this question can only come from a place of understanding. We know we cannot tell a religion where they may or may not build their places of gathering and worship. If anyone tried to prevent the building of a JCC because of the actions of a fringe group of Jewish Fundamentalists, my people would raise a litigious firestorm. We know that Islam itself is not to blame for the attacks of 9/11, and we do not hold all Muslims accountable for the atrocities of that day.

I pray that our response to Park51 is one of acceptance and understanding. That it must be built where it is planned. At the same time, Park51 must respond with the pursuit of peace and positive interfaith relations. Imam Rauf, a liberal Muslim who works with the Reform Movement’s Commission on Interreligious Affairs, has already condemned the actions of Islamic Fundamentalists who would do harm to any people. I ask that all Muslim leaders do the same, publically and in a loud voice. To do tshuvah, to respond, with more than religious tolerance, but with mutual respect and appreciation is the best way to honor the fallen of 9/11.

Tshuvah can also mean repentance.

Judaism acknowledges that human beings are not perfect. God created imperfect beings that do good and bad. We try to do good. We try to react positively and work toward the best things in the world. It doesn’t always work that way. We make mistakes. We sin. We miss the mark. Tshuvah is the device God gives us to fix our mistakes and make good on the times we have missed the mark.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, in his book The Thirteen Petaled Rose, writes, “Repentance is not just a psychological phenomenon…it is a process that can effect real change in the world, in all worlds.” My hope is that we can, together, change the world through the power of tshuvah. Repentance is the device by which we end the cycle of “an eye for an eye,” and begin the process of healing our nation and our world.

Brother Sofian, I am writing to admit to you that we American Jews have sinned. We have not fought to guarantee the rights for Muslims that we would demand for ourselves. We should remember how it feels to be denied religious freedom. When we hear the rhetoric of Islamophobia we should be reminded of the ranting of those like Father Coughlin in the 1930’s. It was unacceptable to speak like that then, and it is unacceptable now. We have sinned by not speaking out against those who spread hatred by their words or their fingers. I myself sat silently and deleted anti-Islamic emails sent to groups of people. I watched as I learned from a colleague that it is important to tell our friends and family members not to send us these messages of intolerance. We must not let the voice of hate set the tone for our discourse. We have sinned with our silence and our inaction, and we need to make tshuvah.

I am also writing to ask that the Muslim community make efforts toward repentance. On AMANA’s web site there is a link to a Jewish Fundamentalist organization called Netorei Karta. Perhaps some of their goals match some of the goals of the Muslim community, but their motives are misguided. They are an anti-Zionist fringe group that misrepresents our sacred texts for their own political purposes. I am sure this link is not on your web site to intentionally insult or harm mainstream, Jewish moderates. Please make tshuvah and remove this link. Every step you make towards us makes it easier for us to step toward you.

Through tshuvah, through repentance, we can repair damages done by those who spread hatred and fear. Both the Jewish and Muslim communities have made mistakes. We say things that our counterparts do not understand. Imam Rauf has said things in the past that I find offensive, and I am sure there are Reform rabbis who have upset you and other Muslims. I hope to be a part of the process that brings our communities together through tshuvah. We can only do that by keeping open the lines of communication, even when we hear something that we might not agree with.

Let us be judged favorably on this Day of Judgment, whether we call it yawm al-din or yom hadin.

Brother Sofian, we must teach our two communities to learn about each other, to work with one another, and to care for one another. We can only do this by speaking in peace with one another. We must build a lasting relationship between the Muslim and Jewish communities that will serve as an example to all peoples, that will be a light to the nations; a light that will eventually lead us to mutual admiration, kindness, and peace.

I want to thank you by helping me make the first step toward peaceful dialogue. I am thrilled that you are able to be here tonight to hear me read this letter to you, and I hope it is the beginning of a strong relationship built on respect and understanding.

In Peace, Salaam, Shalom,

Rabbi David Nathan Young

(*Side note to anyone reading this letter--at this point I walked off the bimah and handed a copy of this letter to Br. Sofian. He promised me that he would remove the link to Netorei Karta from his web site. By Sunday morning, my first opportunity to go on line after Yom Kippur, he had already fulfilled his promise and removed the link from his web site.)

[1] Jeremiah 4:1-2
[2] Rabbi Reuven Firestone, An Introduction to Islam for Jews
[3] Ibid.
[4] B. Talmud, Baba Metzia 86b

Friday, September 10, 2010

RH Day II 5771

“God is a Woman and She is Growing Older”
by Rabbi Maggie Wenig
God is a woman and she is growing older. She moves more slowly now. She cannot stand erect. Her face is lined. Her voice is scratchy. Sometimes she has to strain to hear. God is a woman and she is growing older; yet, she remembers everything.
On Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the day on which she gave us birth, God sits down at her kitchen table, opens the Book of Memories, and begins turning the pages; and God remembers.
“There, there is the world when it was new and my children when they were young.” As she turns each page she smiles, seeing before her, like so many dolls in a department store window, all the beautiful colors of our skin, all the varied shapes and sizes of our bodies. She marvels at our accomplishments: the music we have written, the gardens we have planted, the stories we have told, the ideas we have spun.
“They now can fly faster than the winds I send,” she says to herself, “and they sail across the waters which I gathered into seas. They even visit the moon which I set in the sky. But they rarely visit me.” There pasted into the pages of her book are all the cards we have ever sent to her when we did not bother to visit. She notices our signatures scrawled beneath the printed words someone else has composed.
Then there are the pages she would rather skip. Things she wishes she could forget. But they stare her in the face and she cannot help but remember: her children spoiling the home she created for us, brothers putting each other in chains. She remembers seeing us racing down dangerous roads—herself unable to stop us. She remembers the dreams she had for us—dreams we never fulfilled. And she remembers the names, so many names, inscribed in the book, names of all the children she has lost through war and famine, earthquake and accident, disease and suicide. And God remembers the many times she sat by a bedside weeping that she could not halt the process she herself set into motion. On Yom Kippur, God lights candles, one for each of her children, millions of candles lighting up the night making it bright as day. God stays awake all night turning the pages of her book.
God is lonely, longing for her children, her playful ones. All that dwells on earth does perish. But God endures, so she suffers the sadness of losing all that she holds dear.
God is home, turning the pages of her book. “Come home,” she wants to say to us, “Come home.” But she won’t call. For she is afraid that we will say, “No.” She can anticipate the conversation: “We are so busy. We’d love to see you but we just can’t come. Too much to do.”
Even if we don’t realize it, God knows that our business is just an excuse. She knows that we avoid returning to her because we don’t want to look into her age-worn face. It is hard for us to face a god who disappointed our childhood expectations: She did not give us everything we wanted. She did not make us triumphant in battle, successful in business and invincible to pain. We avoid going home to protect ourselves from our disappointment and to protect her. We don’t want her to see the disappointment in our eyes. Yet, God knows that it is there and she would have us come home anyway.
What if we did? What if we did go home and visit God? What might it be like?
God would usher us into her kitchen, seat us at her table and pour two cups of tea. She has been alone so long that there is much she wants to say. But we barely allow her to get a word in edgewise, for we are afraid of what she might say and we are afraid of silence. So we fill an hour with our chatter, words, words, so many words. Until, finally, she touches her finger to her lips and says, “Shh. Sha. Be still.”
Then she pushes back her chair and says, “Let me have a good look at you.” And she looks. And in a single glance, God sees us as both newly born and dying: coughing and crying and laughing and dancing, as a young child afraid of the road ahead and as an old person looking back wondering where the years went.
In a single glance she sees our birth and our death and all the years in between. She sees us as we were when we were young: when we idolized her and trustingly followed her anywhere; when our scrapes and bruises healed quickly, when we were filled with wonder at all things new. She sees us when we were young, when we thought that there was nothing we could not do.
She sees our middle years too: when our energy was unlimited. When we kept house, cooked and cleaned, cared for children, worked, and volunteered—when everyone needed us and we had no time for sleep.
And God sees us in our later years: when we no longer felt so needed; when chaos disrupted the bodily rhythms we had learned to rely upon. She sees us sleeping alone in a room which once slept two.
God sees things about us we have forgotten and things we do not yet know. For nothing is hidden from God’s sight.
When she is finished looking at us, God might say, “So tell me, how are you?” Now we are afraid to open our mouths and tell her everything she already knows: whom we love; where we hurt; what we have broken or lost; what we wanted to be when we grew up.
So we change the subject. “Remember the time when… “
“Yes, I remember,” she says. Suddenly we are both talking at the same time; saying all the things the greeting cards never said:
“I’m sorry that I…”
“That’s alright, I forgive you.”
“I didn’t mean to…”
“I know that. I do.”
We look away. “I never felt I could live up to your expectations.”
“I always believed you could do anything,” she answers.
“What about your future?” she asks us. We do not want to face our future. God hears our reluctance, and she understands.
We are growing older as God is growing older. How much like her we have become.
God holds our face in her two hands and whispers, “Do not be afraid, I will be faithful to the promise I made to you when you were young. I will be with you. Even to your old age I will be with you. When you are grey headed still I will hold you. I gave birth to you, I carried you. I will hold you still. Grow old along with me….”
Our fear of the future is tempered now by curiosity. The universe is infinite. Unlimited possibilities are arrayed before us still. We can awaken each morning to wonder: What shall I learn today? What can I create today? What will I notice that I have never seen before?
It has been a good visit. Before we leave, it is our turn to take a good look at God. The face which time has marked looks not frail to us now—but wise. For we understand that God knows those things only the passage of time can teach: that one can survive the loss of a love; that one can feel secure even in the midst of an ever changing world; that there is dignity in being alive even when every bone aches. God’s movements seem not slow to us—but strong and intent, unlike our own. For we are too busy to see beneath the surface. We speak too rapidly to truly listen, and we move too quickly to feel what we touch. We form opinions too fast to judge honestly. While God, God moves slowly and with intention. God sees everything there is to see, understands everything she hears, and touches all that lives.
Ahh, that is why we were created to grow older: each added day of life, each new year make us more like God who is ever growing older.
How often do we sit in the house of prayer holding in our hands pages of greeting cards bound together into a prayer book, hundreds of words we ourselves have not written. Will we merely place our signatures at the bottom and drop the cards in the mail?
God would prefer that we come home. She is waiting for us, ever patiently until we are ready. God will not sleep. She will leave the door open and the candles burning waiting patiently for us to come home.
Perhaps one day…perhaps one day we will be able to look into God’s aging face and say, “Avinu Malkeinu, our Parent, our Ruler, we have come home.”

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5771: 400 Years of Reform Judaism

A man goes to an Orthodox rabbi and asks if there is a bracha for a brand new BMW. He is very excited to have it, and would like to have it blessed. Does such a bracha exist?

“Of course,” responds the rabbi. “There is a bracha for everything! But first, please tell me, what exactly is a BMW?”

Well, the indignant new car-owner refuses to have his new Beamer blessed by someone who doesn’t appreciate a fine automobile. So he goes to a Conservative rabbi.

“Rabbi,” he asks, “will you please offer a bracha to my new BMW?”

“I’d be honored,” says the Conservative rabbi as he adjusts his yarmulke. “But first, please tell me…what’s a BMW?”

Frustrated, the man storms into a Reform rabbi’s study. He asks the rabbi, “Excuse me, but do you know what a BMW is?”

“Of course!” says the Reform rabbi. “It’s a fine luxury automobile. Boy would I love to drive such a precision instrument of beauty, speed, and agility.”

Thrilled, the man hugs the rabbi and says, “Yes, and I just bought one. Will you please offer a bracha to my new BMW?”

“Of course!” the Reform rabbi replies. “But first, please tell me…what’s a bracha?”

I learned that joke in Israel, working as a bartender for a small café close to HUC in Jerusalem. The owner, Gilad, was a loud, brash Israeli with a penchant for making fun of anything American, and his favorite targets were the Reform rabbis in training who frequented his café, since it was located across the street from Hebrew Union College. Typically Israelis don’t understand Reform Judaism. Really most of the world doesn’t understand it. In the Holy Land, as with most of the world, there are two types of Jewish practice. There’s dati, the religious, Ultra-Orthodox, black-hat-or-sheitle-wearing Jews who keep to their secluded neighborhoods. Then there’s the chiloni, the secular, non-practicing Jewish Israelis who look like a typical American or European. The dati go to synagogue three times a day, celebrate Shabbat and chagim with passionate ferocity, and spend their time in study whenever possible. The chiloni go to synagogue once or twice a year, if at all. They typically celebrate Passover Seder and they might light a menorah on Chanukah, but that’s about as “Jewish” as they get.
In fact, for about 1800 years, those were the only two ways to be Jewish. We either went all in or went for nothing at all. Segregated communities prevented intermingling with gentiles for all but merchants, and most Jews were content with that type of lifestyle. This year marks the 200th anniversary of when that all changed.

In July, 1810, a wealthy Jewish scholar named Israel Jacobson built a synagogue in Seesen, a town in Central Germany. Jacobson had, nine years earlier, established a school for interfaith families, 40 Jewish and 20 Christian. Though Jacobson was passionate about interfaith relations, he also saw the need to educate the young in religious values as soon as possible. So he built his synagogue on school grounds, and called it Jakobstemple. Jakobstemple was the first synagogue to have an organ installed for worship services. Jacobson also distinguished his worship style by praying in both Hebrew and German, allowing women and men to sit together, and not requiring the men to wear head coverings. He also performed the first Jewish Confirmation service, confirming five young Jewish boys in the first year of Jakobstemple’s operation. Many leaders of the Reform movement refer to the founding of Jakobstemple as the beginning of Reform Judaism, and to this year, 2010, as our bicentennial.

1810 was also the birth-year of Abraham Geiger, one of the most influential early reformers of Jewish practice. Geiger was a brilliant scholar and an observant Jew, but he believed that Judaism developed through history from Temple Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism, from Rabbinic to Medieval, from Medieval to modern, and so on. He saw this change not as a problem to be dealt with, but a strength that allows Judaism to thrive throughout the ages while remaining relevant to the Jewish people. Each new change was moral progress that reflected the ideals of Jewish life.

In 1825 Temple Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina brought other liberal synagogues to form the “Reformed Society of Israelites.” These reformers were influenced heavily by the Haskalah—the Jewish Enlightenment movement in Europe—and their practices combined the aesthetics of the Seesen Jakobstemple with some of Abraham Geiger’s liberal theology. Add to that the idea of religious freedom in America and you get what we today refer to as “Classical Reform.” Men and women sat together and listened to the organ play hymns as they admired the church-like architecture painted with frescoes and adorned with stained glass and intricate chandeliers. They did not participate as much in worship as they did attend worship, like going to a concert. The cantors chanted beautiful melodies and the rabbis preached from on high. This kind of worship was inspiring to American Jews, especially the German immigrants who were looking for a universalistic approach to religion. They wanted Jewish practice that consisted of prayers almost entirely in the English language, and sermons — generally half an hour or more every week — intended to teach and edify. They were cultural rather than “religious” Jews.

In 1846 a rabbi named Isaac Mayer Wise came to the United States to work in Albany at Temple Beth Emet, where his radical ideas were not as welcomed as he had hoped. He was dismissed after four years, and made his way to the Holy City—Cincinnati, OH. There he became the rabbi for Kehilah Kedoshah B’nai Yeshurun, which would become known as Wise Temple. Throughout his tenure in Cincinnati, he established three major institutions that have since become the pillars of the Reform movement. In 1873, 34 Reform congregations formed the Union of American Hebrew Congregations under Rabbi Wise’s leadership. (This became the Union for Reform Judaism in 2003.) Two years later they established a seminary for Reform rabbis called Hebrew Union College, and in 1889 he helped found the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional union of the Reform rabbinate.

With these pillars in place the Reform movement over the last 200 years has become the most popular and powerful movement in North America, with over 900 congregations representing over 1.5 million Jews. We have declared our beliefs through four Platforms—four declarations of the principals of Reform Judaism. In 1885 the first platform declared the Mosaic laws that “regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress…entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state,” meaning Jewish people could look like, eat like, and live with other people, Jew or Gentile. It also rejected the concept of a return to Zion and especially that of a Messianic return to “Palestine.” It acknowledged the validity of its “sister faiths,” Christianity and Islam, and elevated social action over Rabbinic Law.

Throughout the years the platforms changed, and by 1999 the movement divided its platform into three core values: God, Torah, and Israel. These three headings became and remain the themes of Reform Jewish practice, and the three things on which it stands. We also believe in the importance of Educated Choice, learning Jewish custom, law, and tradition so well that we are able to make choices about how to incorporate Judaism into our lives. We might choose to keep kosher or not, to wear a kippah or not, to celebrate Shabbat in a myriad of different ways…or not. Once an Educated Choice has been made, Personal Autonomy is respected.

In the Forward, Michael A. Meyer recently looked into the development of Reform Judaism over the past 200 years. He writes:
For the most part, Reform Judaism, 200 years after its symbolic origins, is a
quite different entity. In some respects it has become more radical than its
earlier historical manifestations, with its complete religious equality for
women and GLBT—Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender—Jews; its embrace of
patrilineal descent; and its greater willingness to include within the Reform
community non-Jews who are committed to raising their children as Jews. Yet in
most respects it is far more traditional than in its Classical days. We
use more Hebrew in our worship services, we have re-instated B’nai Mitzvah and
sometimes even Pidyon Haben, and we embrace Israel as our homeland, even if we
have never been there.

Reform Judaism demands connecting with Halacha, Jewish law, but it does not demand its authority. As Mordecai Kaplan put it, Halacha has a vote but not a veto. What makes Reform Judaism applicable and connected to Jewish life is its insistence that we look at Jewish practice in light of modernity—that we harmonize the dati with the chiloni that is within each of us.
One of the challenges to creating this harmony is that we have learned to demand logic in our daily practices. Logic and religion do not always jive, and it is up to our teachers—rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators, and lay leaders, to explain rite and ritual. We need these explanations to be logical, without the hocus-pocus that satisfied the religiosity of our ancestors.

When I was a teenager I went to services at an Orthodox shul with my uncle. He wanted to show me what “real Judaism” looked like, and encouraged me to ask questions throughout the service. I didn’t have too many questions. Except for being entirely in Hebrew, it was pretty much the same as the services I went to throughout my years at Jewish summer camp. They did all the same prayers, just fast and garbled. Then they got to the point where an elderly gentleman walked up to the bimah, stretched out his arms, spread his fingers like Mr. Spock, and began chanting, “YivarechechAW Adonoy viyish’merechAW….” He was reciting the three-fold benediction, the same blessing we offer to B’nai Mitzvah in our ark. Before he began to speak, my uncle told me to cover my eyes, as did every other person in the room.
This was new to me. “Why do we close our eyes?” I asked my uncle.

“Because,” he explained, “that man is a Cohen, and when a Cohen does this prayer, the Shechina—God’s presence—comes down to that very spot. If you look once, you’ll go blind, and if you look a second time, you’ll die.”

“Ok,” I said, “but how can you look twice if you’re already blind?”

He looked at me and exclaimed, “Oy are you a Reform Jew!”

His statement was an expression of his exasperation. It was also right on the money. As a Reform Jew I question, and I need solid answers to my questions, or at least an honest “I don’t know.” Reform Jews need meaningful rituals, created jointly by our clergy and members of our community—people who are educated in the worship experience and who understand its spiritual value. We need harmony between our Jewish practice and our modern lives. One cannot conflict with the other, and hopefully one can even enhance the other.

I believe that over the next 200 years we will continue to hold to these values.

Chances are in 200 years there will once again be two movements of Judaism, each of them split into grades of expression and intensity. There will be Orthodoxy, the branches of Judaism that continue to adhere to the words of Torah and Talmud, seldom veering to the right or the left. Like today, they will wear similar clothing, have similar views, and apply no thought to the practice of their religion, even the aspects that do not make sense. They will simply follow the rules, and do as their rabbis tell them.

The other movement will be Liberalism. Its main branch will probably be what was the Reform movement, which will maintain its strength as a movement because of our union. But there will be other, smaller branches like Humanists and the Chavurah movement. Liberal Judaism will encompass the branches of Judaism that require its congregants to think, to determine what aspects of Judaism are meaningful to them and make educated choices about their practices.

People often express their worry about the shrinking of synagogue partnership, the lack of people’s need to belong to a community. I believe this need will ebb and flow over the next two centuries. As our community’s needs change, the role of the synagogue will have to change with it. Our synagogues will move, grow, and shrink, and our buildings will be expanded or become obsolete. Jewish Community Centers will likely grow as places where Jewish people gather to pray, study, and celebrate. We will also use our homes to invite Jewish gatherings, as well as mountain tops, ocean cruises, desert treks, and forest hikes.

Over the next 50 to 100 years I imagine a steady decline of Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, with their congregations shifting either to Modern Orthodoxy or joining the Reform movement. It will get to the point where the Conservative leadership will approach the Union for Reform Judaism and ask for a merge. The resources of the Reform movement will be combined with Conservative membership—actually, by then they’ll probably call it partnership. New platforms will be produced by the dual leadership of the movements. The 8th Platform of the Reform Movement will be the 1st Platform of the new movement, and the conference will be held in Jerusalem, to emphasize the holiness of the undertaking. We will change the name of the Union for Reform Judaism, calling it the Liberal Jewish Union, a name inclusive enough for the Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews to feel comfortable and similar enough for Reform Jews to still feel at home.

The Jerusalem Platform will be published in Hebrew, English, Arabic, Russian, Farsi, Amharic, Spanish, and French, but every version will have Hebrew text to emphasize the importance of the Holy Language. It will be simultaneously edited by the rabbis in attendance, thanks to the holographic text-editing functions on their cell phones. Meanwhile, the platform will be viewed via live-Tweet on gigantic screens in the conference center at the King David Hotel. It will still lay out the importance of God, Torah, and Israel.

We will still believe in one God, but there will be no common definition as to what God is. We will acknowledge that 2 Jews can have more than 3 opinions on any topic, including God. “Ethical Monotheism” will be liberal Judaism’s two-word theology. We will hold morality above ritual, and social action over the supernatural.

We will continue to respect Torah as a divinely inspired but not divinely authored literary work. It will continue to reflect our desire to reach for God and holiness. We will not consider its laws binding, but we will consider its laws. We will understand that it is a document intended to teach us about ourselves and the best version of ourselves we can be.

Israel as a nation will always be a special place to liberal Jews. They will even have a party in the Knesset, the State of Israel’s Parliament, and this party will be as influential as the Shas and other Orthodox parties are today. This influence will create significant changes in Jewish practice in Israel as well. For example, the Kotel, the Western Wall, will have a section for men and women to pray together, and a place where they can remain separate if they so desire.
But Israel can also refer to the Jewish community, and Israel as kehilah kedosha, a holy community, will be heralded as the true expression of liberal Judaism, and we will understand that if any people is oppressed, no people can be chosen.

Educated choice will remain one of the principals of Liberal Judaism, and Liberal Jews will engage in deep, serious discussion with their rabbis before making decisions that affect their lives. Religious schools and day schools will require a parent track where children are granted huge scholarships when their parents engage in parallel learning. All people will be allowed to enter the doors of Liberal synagogues, and partnership will be granted to anyone who wishes to practice Judaism with a liberal bent. GLBT Jews, Interfaith families, and Jews of every color and walk of life will be welcome within the liberal synagogues’ walls. Nobody will care if the person next to them believes differently than they do. In fact, they would think it strange if they did. People’s differences would be lauded, and their uniqueness would be a source of learning for the whole community.

Perhaps this seems like a strange, fantastic, impossible view of the world in 200 years. Maybe none of this vision will come true, but I would guess that at least some of it will come to fruition. The future is mysterious, and none of us will be here to determine if anything I have said this evening will come to pass. Many challenges await the Jewish people. The strong pull of our jobs and non-religious commitments provide us with many “reasons” to simply step away from Judaism and live only in the secular world. If we give in to this pull, there will be no Judaism in 200 years. If we resist it by clinging to the Jewish values we hold dear, our community will maintain its spiritual connection to each other and to God.

Judaism for our grandchildren’s grandchildren will only survive the complexities of the future if our community moves with them, accepting their differences of opinion and belief as expressions of the divine within them—a reflection of the divine within each of us.

In order to make our synagogue a place that will provide for various loyalties, we must begin to prepare right now. We must maintain a serious, engaged commitment to this amazing Jewish community in 5771, so that it will last to 5971 and beyond. We must open our minds to Jewish learning, open our arms toward people who are different from us, and open our homes to our Jewish neighbors, whether or not they believe or behave like we do.

May we, as a community, not only survive but thrive for the next 200 years and beyond. May we create Jewish practice in our homes and here at Sinai that reflect our Reform values and keep our children connected to the Jewish community.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Elul Thoughts 5770, part 2

Elul 2 (August 12): by Rabbi Alan E. Litwak
The High Holy Day period is about both getting inside and outside of yourself. We need to get inside ourselves and be willing to see who we truly are – our faults and failures, as well as our strengths and successes. Only then, can we properly focus our attentions and energies on the wider community. There is a wonderful Hasidic lesson that juxtaposes these focuses and suggests a reason for the separation.

A rich miser once complained to the Rabbi about the many demands that were made upon him. The Rabbi led him to the window and said: “Look out and tell me what you see.” “I see people,” said the man. Then the Rabbi led him to the mirror on the wall and said, “Now look and tell me what you see.” The man answered, “Now I see myself.” “The difference between the glass in the window and the glass in the mirror is only a layer of silver,” said the Rabbi. “As soon as a bit of silver is added, you cease to see others and see only yourself.”

Over the next few weeks, I challenge you to find those things that focus you solely on yourself and clear them away so that you can see the needs and concerns of others.

Elul Thoughts 5770, part 1

ELUL 1 (August 11): Joining in the Great Return, by Rabbi Alan E. Litwak
My teacher, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, taught:
“Teshuvah is the ever present possibility, urge, and gesture of returning to our Source, the Holy One of All Being. Through teshuvah all life is returned to its source. As Rav Kook teaches, it flows unnoticed throughout creation. Teshuvah is not simply apologizing or making right the damage we have done, though these are prerequisites. It is only this: The Return. Teshuvah is the hardest thing in the world . . . but it is also the easiest thing, since the process of teshuvah begins with the simple thought of wanting to begin.
More than just an individual gesture, teshuvah is a great world yearning that flows through and animates all creation. Through attempting to repair and heal what we have done in the past, we set it within a larger context of meaning and effectively rewrite the past. What was once only some thoughtless or even wicked act, now – when viewed from the perspective of our present teshuvah – becomes only the embarrassing commencement of this greater healing now realized.”

Saturday, July 17, 2010

V’zot haTorah

V’zot haTorah asher sar Moshe lifnei b’nei Yisrael al pi Adonai b’yad Moshe.
This is the Torah that Moses placed before the Israelites—the mouth of Adonai at the hand of Moses.

I often tell my 6th grade Bible students that just as their English teachers won’t let them use a word in its own definition, they may not use the Torah as proof that the Torah was written by God. I believe it is a Divinely inspired work, I just don’t necessarily believe in the literal meaning of al pi Adonai b’yad Moshe, from the mouth of God at the hand of Moses.
This morning we begin reading the book of Deuteronomy. It is the last book of the Torah, the fifth of the “Five Books of Moses.” It is mostly a review of the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the bank of the Jordan River on which they stand, poised and ready to go into the Promised Land.

The book of Deuteronomy begins, “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.…” Twelfth Century Spanish Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra comments on the words “on the other side of the Jordan,” expounding on twelve secret verses from the Torah. Like Deuteronomy is a review, he sees it as an opportunity to review what we have learned from the remez, the hints of the hidden meaning of the text.

His comment is incredibly cryptic, so stay with me:

If you will understand the mystery of the twelve [final] verses, “And also Moses
wrote…” (Deut. 31:22), “and the Canaanites were then in the Land” (Gen. 12:6),
“and on the mountain Adonai is seen...” (Gen. 22:14), “and his bedstead of iron
is now in Rabbat Amon” (Deut. 3:11), then you will comprehend the truth.

In his introduction to the Torah, ibn Ezra writes:

The words of the Torah are never less than straightforward... therefore, if
there appears something in the Torah which seems to contradict reason or to
refute the evidence of our senses then here one should seek for the solution in
a figurative interpretation. For reason is the foundation of everything. The
Torah was not given to men who cannot reason and man's reason is the angel which mediates between him and his God.
This means we have to use his method of understanding the Torah to interpret his commentaries.

Ibn Ezra writes of understanding certain verses to comprehend the truth. He points to other verses in the Torah. In looking to these verses alone, no connection is clear. But in looking at ibn Ezra’s commentaries on these verses, he writes about a secret or refers the reader to his comment here. He also writes in his commentaries that “the wise man will be silent,” in reference to the secret he is trying to reveal. The twelve final verses are the end of Deuteronomy. They describe Moses going up from the Steppes of Moab to Mount Nebo. Ibn Ezra comments here, pointing out that the directions Moses takes from Moab to Nebo is not from the Jordan River, but from Jerusalem. Therefore the other textual references he gives, from as early as Genesis 12, are also from the perspective of coming from Jerusalem. This means the Torah at these points must have been written after the Jewish people were already in Jerusalem, already across the Jordan. This gives us internal textual evidence that the Torah was written at a later time than the happenings in the Torah.

This contradicts the belief that Torah was given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. We would think that the rabbis who come after him would have hidden away this revelation, but they don’t! We can read it in all of his biblical commentaries. So it seems that not until modern times do we get the insistence that Torah comes directly from God, unchanged through Moses’ hands to Joshua, the elders, the prophets, the rabbis, and to us today. Who would have thought that the concept of Torah MiSinai was a modern construct—a reaction to modernity? It seems that up to the 12th Century and beyond, a faithful Jew did not need to believe that this document was actually handed to us by God. So literary criticism—the view that Torah comes from at least four different redacted sources penned by many authors—has always been a perfectly acceptable, and a completely Jewish principle.

And yet even with our critique, we still sing V’zot HaTorah at the end of our Torah service. We will declare that this scroll is our sacred work that was given to God by Moses.

Not because we literally believe it to be, but because it is the heart of our religion while we provide the head. As ibn Ezra explains, reason is a gift that allows us to understand Torah at a higher level. An angel that mediates between us and God.

So perhaps when we hold the Torah aloft and sing we are not thanking God for literally giving us the Torah. Instead we are thanking God for the angel of reason that helps us understand the words of our sacred text.

Thanks to Rabbi Stephen Wylen for inspiring this post with his article in the CCAR's "Voices of Torah."

Friday, June 25, 2010

Four is Greater Than One

It’s hard to believe it has only been a year. One year ago today I was standing in the bedroom screaming for Natalie to come and check out the television. The news program was announcing that the King was dead. The King of Pop, that is. For weeks Michael Jackson was all we heard about. It was as if every newscast had become an episode of Behind the Music. The world seemed to mourn for their king with nearly as much—if not more—reverence than for a relative. Street dancers mounted guerilla renditions of the Thriller dance or choreographed new moves to Beat It in subway stations. Suddenly people wanted to hear from the other four Jacksons again.

Today he is all over the news again. Tribute concerts are happening all over the world this weekend. Rebroadcasts of interviews with his family and people who knew him are airing. I learned yesterday that Jackson's estate was $500 million in debt when he died, but since his passing it has made over a billion dollars. Plus we can expect to see 10 posthumous albums between now and 2017. All this in just one year.

Admittedly, I was not a huge fan. I liked his music—Thriller was the first album I ever bought—but I did not mourn his passing. Nevertheless, the news of his first Yahrtzeit, so to speak, saddens me to no end. The reason I am sad, though, has absolutely nothing to do with Michael Jackson.

I am sad because today is another anniversary. An anniversary that we are all but ignoring. Four years ago today, 19-year-old Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Palestinian militants, and he has been in Gaza ever since. As far as we know, he is still alive. The last proof of life was in September 2009, when he held a newspaper for a video camera as he read a statement declaring him “in good health and well-treated.” But his gaunt stature does not look as if he is in good health. And as far as being well-treated, he is denied the ability to communicate with his family, and the International Red Cross has been denied access to him. In fact, due to lack of access, the IDF is not 100% sure he is still in Gaza.

I am sad because we are not remembering Gilad Shalit here in America. This is not because of Michael Jackson, though Americans prefer pop culture to foreign politics. It is not even because America is not a Jewish country. Even American Jews are largely ignoring this important day. As I scrolled down my list of tweets this morning—the list of comments by those I follow on Twitter—I looked for the #Gilad that would signify people tweeting about the 23-year-old solider still in captivity after four years. I could not find it. I looked at the URJ’s tweets about child obesity, gay pride, and interfaith families. I looked at NFTY and read about local events. I looked at the RAC’s tweets about Greening Reform Judaism, Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Iran sanctions and Darfur. There is a fringe group of activists in New York City taking a flotilla around the Statue of Liberty and passed the UN building, but other than that very little about Shalit is mentioned by American Jews.

They are remembering Gilad in Israel. On Sunday morning his family—his mother Aviva, father Noam, and brother and sister will march from Mitzpe Hila in the Galil to Jerusalem to camp in front of the Prime Minister’s Residence. Thousands of people are expected to join them as they walk from northern Israel to its heart, and thousands more are donning yellow ribbons in support. Aviva and Noam Shalit say they will remain camped across the street from the PM’s residence until they receive word that Gilad is coming home.

In Judaism we focus on life. The Talmud teaches that whoever saves one life, it is as if the entire world had been saved. We are also taught that we should pay an exorbitant amount for the freedom of captives if we are asked. Every life is created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and anyone who would intentionally do harm to another human being attempts to destroy the image of God. Gilad Shalit is a young man who, if allowed to live free, has his whole life ahead of him. The very notion that Gilad Shalit might still have a chance to live his life is cause for all Jews to do whatever we can to support his family on their march and to call for Israel to do what it can to bring him home safe.

In a few moments we will rise and chant the ancient words of our Aleinu prayer, expressing our hope that the day will come when all people, all over the world, will behave as one. Bayom hahu yihyeh Adonai echad ush’mo echad, “On that day Adonai will be one and God’s name will be one.” That can only happen when we treat every life as valuable, precious, expressions of godliness. I pray that the world would value the life of one young soldier as much as it does the death of the King of Pop. Until that day, we need to raise our voices in prayer and song. We need to let it be known to our friends, our families, our congress and senators, that we do not want to wait anymore. Free Gilad Shalit.

Meanwhile, we offer our prayers for Gilad and all Israeli soldiers who risk their lives every day to make our Holy Land a safer, better place.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Preparing for Shavuot

Natalie has a lot of shoes. This is by no means a disparaging statement. She’s no Imelda Marcos. Nevertheless, when Natalie and I discuss her legions of shoes lined up on the closet floor, I often suggest giving some away to make room for new ones. I have even suggested that if she gets rid of enough, I would buy her new ones myself. But for some reason she just cannot let go of a pair of shoes. At first I just didn’t get it. I threw my hands up in despair, not wanting to fight over shoes. But recently I realized that I do the same thing.

I have a lot of T-shirts. I wear at least one every day, usually two if I go to the gym. Yet I own way more than I need. As a youth worker, I acquire a lot of T-shirts at conventions and trips. People like to give me superhero T-shirts, which I love, and sometimes I will even go on line and buy a shirt that makes me laugh to read it, like “I’m with stupid” with an arrow pointing up.

Last week I had trouble shutting the T-shirt drawer after doing laundry, and I hadn’t even put them all away! So I dug around a little bit. I realized I never get to the T-shirts on the bottom of the drawer between laundry cycles. So I took them out. I made a little pile of T-shirts I haven’t worn in at least a year, and soon enough the drawer was only half-full. And I still have all I need and more. I have no plans to go out and buy more T-shirts, but at least now I have space, and Goodwill has “I’m with stupid.”

Tonight is Shavuot. The Torah tells us very little about what to do for Chag Shavuot, or the “Feast of Weeks.” We are commanded to count off seven weeks from Pesach, and to rejoice with an offering to God at the Temple. We know that the three chagim, the three sacred festivals, are all agricultural celebrations. Shavuot is when the first stalks of wheat ripen and can be brought to the Temple for an offering. We know everyone is supposed to celebrate, as we are told in Deuteronomy, “You shall rejoice…with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst” (16:11). The whole community is a part of this sacred celebration.

That’s all we know!

Some time during the Tannaitic period, the time leading up to the 2nd Century CE, the Rabbis made the connection between the holiday Shavuot and the Biblical account of Moses ascending Mount Sinai. Exod. 19 says that the Israelites came to Sinai on the third new moon after the exodus, which is the month of Sivan. Then there is a period of getting ready. Moses goes up the mountain, talks to God, who tells him to remind the Israelites that they must obey God’s commandments. They agree, and Moses tells them not to even come close enough to touch the mountain, and to get ready to meet God in three days. These three days pass immediately, and boom! We are at Sinai amid peals of thunder, ready for Kabbalat haTorah, the accepting of Torah.

Tomorrow morning we will be here in the sanctuary, reenacting Kabbalat haTorah as a community as we take the Torah in our arms for our personal blessings. Tonight I want us to think about those three days that pass in as many words. Three days of purification and preparation for revelation that get absolutely no mention in the Torah as far as what happens during those three days. What were the Israelites doing those three days? Probably getting rid of their shoes and T-shirts.

Receiving Torah is a really big deal. In addition to preparing to receive the guide book for how to live as a people, they are preparing to meet God. The One who brought them out of Egypt is freed them from slavery is giving them the greatest gift in the world—the Torah. To do this they need to get rid of any preconceived notions they have. They cannot be thinking of God as an Egyptian deity or as a statue or stone. They must throw away these pre-monotheistic ideas and make room for God. Because just like in our closets and drawers, there is no way we can receive anything if we are full to capacity.

Just like the Israelites at Mount Sinai, we know there are great things ahead of us. We are building great things for our community, our families, and ourselves. If we do not properly prepare for what we receive, we just won’t have room for it. We need to get rid of the old to accept the new. Let go of our preconceived notions of what clothing and stuff we need, how much money we need, and how we should think and behave. Empty our drawers, our minds, and our hearts. Then we will truly be able to accept the very best that God has to offer us. We will have room in our lives for new things. We will have room in our minds for new ideas, and we will have space in our hearts for a renewed relationship with God.

As we prepare to accept Torah tomorrow morning, may we be blessed with space. May we maintain an openness that will allow us to accept the gifts that are available to us. May this Shavuot bring us closer to one another, to the Torah, and to God.

Chag Sameach.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The National Day of Prayer

Today is May 6, 2010.
As the first Thursday in May, it also happens to be the National Day of Prayer.
Following the lead of Presidents Adams, Lincoln, and others, President Harry S. Truman signed a bill into law that required every president to declare a day of his choosing as National Prayer Day. In 1982, President Reagan made that day the first Thursday in May for him and all subsequent presidents.
All morning while driving the boys to school and back I listened to what seemed like an endless stream of pro- and anti- National Day of Prayer commentary. Frankly, I can understand the opinions expressed on both sides. Our National Day of Prayer poses quite a conflict between my religious sensibilities and my liberal mindset.
As a rabbi it should be obvious that I pray. I pray all the time. During services that I lead or help lead, I find it completely necessary to seek out prayerful moments, such as during silent meditation or when the cantor is singing. I pray when I exercise, in the car, and when I change my kids’ diapers (“Please, God—let it not be messy!”) I pray out loud and to myself, in groups and alone, at mandated and random times. Sometimes I use liturgy, sometimes I make things up as I go. Because of the myriad of moments of prayerfulness that I seek out, I can appreciate the need for a National Day of Prayer. I find it comforting to know that when I lift my eyes and call out to what I call “God,” I am not the only one who believes. Maybe I am crazy to believe in a deity whose existence defies all logic, but I’m in a company of some 95% of the country whose beliefs are similar.
As a liberal, however, I am acutely aware of the perils of the other 5% and our requirement as a nation to stand up for them, too. No matter how many religions a generic day of prayer touches, even if every synagogue, church, and mosque were to log in 100% participation, we would leave out some of our country who feel uncomfortable with prayer. This is unacceptable to me. No matter how many times I defend my beliefs to my non-believing brother-in-law, I would not want to insult him by requiring he participate in prayer at the same level as we do. On the other hand, we do pressure him into joining us when we recite Hamotzi—grace before meals.
Still, there is a difference between family pressure and federal law.
Our constitution, in the very first amendment, states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” This is a slippery slope when arguing the establishment of a day of prayer. When I think about the 5% or more who either do not believe in God or are uncomfortable expressing said belief, the National Day of Prayer makes me cringe. Maybe it’s just the language. If we called it a day of meditation or reflection, it could hardly be construed as offensive to those who do not meditate or reflect. But the word “pray” raises the hackles of our brothers and sisters who choose not to partake in it. These same people are not bothered that it is currently Jewish History Month even though they are not Jewish, but for some reason prayer is bothersome.
Being a person of faith allows me to comfortably believe in God as I imagine God, and that faith gives me great comfort—no matter what other believe or do not believe. Therefore, I hesitate to support a law that asks people to pray. I do not want to participate in a government sponsored program that excludes some of our citizens.
The solution remains a mystery to me, and perhaps on May 5, 2011 I will have an answer.
For now, I will just have to pray on it.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

From Freedom to Redemption: Our Journey Towards Shavuot

There are many suggestions as to why we might count every day from Passover to Shavuot. Historical critics suggest that during the period of the Omer, our ancestors were completely focused on their agricultural endeavors. Offerings given during these weeks expressed hope for an abundant harvest, while simultaneously thanked God for the bounty of the land.
Shavuot, throughout the ages, has come to be associated with the revelation of Torah on Mount Sinai. When we left Egypt we were slaves, still clinging to our slave mentality. We were not a people until we received Torah and in unison proclaimed that we will hear and obey. The Medieval mystics see the Omer as a time for intense spiritual preparation. The 49 days of counting equal seven times seven. There happen to be seven lower sefirot, the emanations of God in Kabalistic thought. The ultimate goal in mystical practice is to elevate oneself through the seven sefirot until one has, in essence, become one with God’s fundamental nature. Each sefirah, in turn, has seven within itself. So the mystic wishing to attain spiritual enlightenment over this period would elevate one level within an emanation each day, and one full emanation each week, allowing for complete connectedness with God at the moment of revelation. Please don’t try this at home.
Today we mark the counting with blessing. After our blessing over counting the Omer, we declare which day of the Omer it is, and we mark how many weeks and days. For example, next Friday night after our blessing we will say, “Today is the 11th day of the Omer, which equals one week and 4 days.” Some Jews will even recite Psalm 67 after the counting every night--not because it is relevant to the Omer, but because it has 7 verses, and a total of 49 words.
However we mark the counting, we all count in our own way, and our counting prepares us for that pivotal moment at Mount Sinai. Some study Torah every day to prime their minds for the receiving of Torah. Some meditate every day to imagine what it will be like to have God revealed to us. Some of us technophiles are blogging or tweeting every day to share our counting with the electronic world.
Yesterday while listening to the radio I heard a story about a different kind of counting. The story was about the oldest daughter of one of our Temple Sinai families. She is not counting specifically for the Omer, but her counting started as the Omer was beginning. She will be counting to almost 500 over the next 3 weeks, not in sheaves of grain, but in miles. Lauren Book-Lim started walking yesterday. She started her walk at the Aventura Mall, and she will end on April 20th in Tallahassee. These two locations are of particular significance to Laruen. She was sexually abused at the Aventura Mall, and on April 20th she plans to lobby for legislation to help protect children from sexual abuse at a rally at our state’s capital. Her walk coincides with April’s designation as Sexual Abuse Awareness Month. Her journey will take her from the enslavement of abuse—the fear and confusion that comes from an authority figure so horribly breeching trust—to the freedom of having her voice heard.
Lauren was sexually abused by her live-in nanny for seven years, beginning when she was ten years old. Today she is studying for her Masters in Elementary Education and she runs an organization called Lauren’s Kids, a non-profit organization that strives to educate survivors about how to heal, and encourages victims of abuse that “it’s OK to tell.”
According to Lauren, her journey from Aventura to Tallahassee “is a physical manifestation of your spiritual and healing journey.” Lauren’s freedom from the chains of her abuse stems from her willingness to tell her parents what was happening to her at the hands of her nanny. She was able to free herself with help from friends and loved ones, and now seeks to do the same for others.
As we go on our symbolic journey from Passover to Shavuot, we pray that Lauren’s journey will meet all of its goals and more. Our redemption at Mount Sinai came in the form of our written Torah. We hope that her redemption for Lauren’s Kids and all victims of sexual abuse will come in the form of stronger victim care legislation and stricter laws to deal with abusers. We know that even though we were granted freedom for our oppressors, no Jewish person can feel truly free until all people are free. May our counting throughout our journey this Omer season bring us and all people to true freedom and redemption.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Shabbat Shekalim

Today we are celebrating a special Shabbat. It goes by three different names. It is Shabbat Mishpatim, pointing to the Parashah, which is composed of a myriad of laws Moses lists for the Israelites after receiving the Ten Commandments. It is also called Shabbat Mevarchim Rosh Chodesh, which is the name for any Shabbat preceding a new month. Tonight as the sun sets the month of Adar begins, bringing with it the joy of Purim, as it says in the Talmud, Mishenichnas Adar marbim b’simchah, “Whoever enters Adar, their joy is increased.”
Today is also Shabbat Shekalim. This is the extra-special name given to Shabbat Mevrachim Rosh Chodesh Adar. It is the first of four special Shabbatot leading up to Pesach—(Shekalim, Zachor, Parah, Hachodesh).

Named after the special verse that is sometimes added to the end of the regular Torah reading. It comes from Exod. 30:11, which discusses the census of the Israelites, measured by each person giving a half-Shekel for their counting (Plaut 632).

11 God spoke to Moses, saying: 12 When you take a census of the Israelite
people according to their enrollment, each shall pay Adonai a ransom for himself
on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being
enrolled. 13 This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall
pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight -- twenty gerahs to the shekel -- a
half-shekel as an offering to the LORD. 14 Everyone who is entered in the
records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give Adonai’s offering: 15
the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel
when giving Adonai’s offering as expiation for your persons. 16 You shall
take the expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the service of the
Tent of Meeting; it shall serve the Israelites as a reminder before Adonai, as
expiation for your persons.

At its simplest level, this is a census with taxes. The taxes go to support the governing body, which in the case of the Torah is the Mishkan. Later, this would be given to the Temple. So right around this time of year, Shabbat Shekalim, the census takers would go around from tent to tent or house to house and collect a half-shekel from each person. By the time the month was over they would be finished, and taxes could be paid. The significance of it taking a month is that next month’s Rosh Chodesh—the first of Nissan—is described in the Talmud as the New Year for Kings and the calendar. This was the day when taxes were due. Not too far off from April 15th even today—especially next year on a Hebrew leap year.

In the Middle Ages, the Jewish Community was granted a certain amount of autonomy as long as it paid its taxes. They would conduct a census and collect taxes from everyone in the community throughout the month of Adar. This was especially easy because nobody would want to miss Purim. Once the taxes were collected, a representative from the Jewish Community would take the money to the king. As a community, we regularly paid on time. Any Jewish family who could not afford or was lax in paying taxes was dealt with within the community. If a poor family was missing a few ocins, a rich family would kick n a few extra. The king’s tax collectors never knew anything except the Jews pay on time. This is actually a double savings because it means the kingdom gets its taxes in full from a whole city, and no money needed to be spent on tax collection and enforcement for that city. This practice is one of the major contributing factors to Jewish survival for two thousand years. We were a financial boon for any kingdom, so we were left alone.

Looking a little closer at the text, we can find a little more than just instructions on how to pay taxes. Take a look at verse 15: The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving Adonai’s offering as expiation for your persons. A half shekel was practically nothing to the rich and not too bad for the poor. Everyone could find a half-shekel to pay. Even those in the community who panhandled for a living could find a half-shekel to give to the Tabernacle. So no-one was allowed to give more or less than the prescribed amount.

This is one of the stranger dictates of the Torah. It would seem better to practice the way we did in the Middle Ages, and allow the poor to get by while the rich cover for them. That is because the purpose is of collecting a half-Shekel is not monetary. Collecting exactly the same amount from every Israelite served the purpose of counting. As it says in the beginning of the pericope, “when you take a census.” So the reason a rich person does not pay more and a poor person does not pay less is twofold.

First, it could mess up the census! If some people were paying more or less it makes it way harder to count the number of Israelites. Each half-Shekel was one person. It keeps things simple.

The 19th Century scholar Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sees another side of the half-Shekel. According to him, “The equal participation of all the Israelites symbolizes that all Jews must share in achieving national goals. One who does so gains infinite benefit, because the mission of Israel is dependent upon the unity of the whole.”

In our community, no person’s work is more significant than another. No person is any more or less important than another. When we all put the same effort toward the goals of our community, we naturally become stronger and more likely to achieve our goals. The best part about this is that it doesn’t take much. As I mentioned before, a half-Shekel was something the poorest in the community was able to pay. We only need a little effort, but if everyone participates, we will be the strongest community the world has ever known.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Happy New Year!

I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions.

My friends used to hear that from me just about every year around this time: “I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions.” The reasoning behind it has changed over the years, but the result is the same, and I still don’t do New Year’s Resolutions.

When I was in high school I would say it simply to be rebellious. I thought I was cool if I didn’t do what everyone else was doing. Like any rebellion for the sake of rebellion, I had no good reason for it. I just liked to say it.

In college I said it with the qualifier, “Jews make resolutions in September.” True as that may be, the deeper meanings of repentance and self-improvement that surround the High Holy Days was not my intent. I was still just being rebellious, but I was adding Jewish pride to my yearly uprising.

New Year’s Resolutions do have a knack for getting broken. On the news today the anchors were joking about breaking them. Has anyone here already broken their New Year’s Resolution? I checked Facebook earlier today, and at 9AM a friend of mine posted that he broke his resolution. 9AM! How resolved could he have been? So perhaps it is better simply not to make a promise than to plant false hopes.

Really it is just the phrase I have issue with. It is a little silly to make a resolution only one day a year when we don’t really intend to keep it. I mentioned a minute ago that I used to say, “Jews make resolutions in September.” Perhaps that is a bit of an understatement. Over the High Holy Days we make t’shuvah, which is more than a resolution. A resolution is an attempt to fix an aspect of our self that we want to improve, like to lose weight, leave less of a carbon footprint, or fix something in the house. T’shuvah is more complete. We translate it as “repentance,” but it is literally a “turning.” When done right, t’shuvah is a complete re-inventing of the self. When we make t’shuvah there is no need to make a promise to change because the change becomes a part of us.

To say that we only do it over the High Holy Days is misleading on another level, too. In the daily Amidah, the blessings we recite during every prayer service on the week, we recite a series of four blessings that that form a step-by-step guide to t’shuvah if we pay attention to their intent.

Quick review: the weekday Amidah is composed of 19 blessings. The first three are blessings of praise to God. The last three are blessings that give thanks to God. In the middle are 13 blessings that ask for things, which are called bakashot. There are blessings for healing and world peace, and blessings for the vanquishing of our enemies and material abundance. Anything that could be requested is asked for in those 13 blessings.

The first four bakashot are called Binah, T’shuvah, Selichah, and Ge’ulah, or Understanding, Returning, Forgiveness, and Redemption. As the name for the second of these blessings tells us, this is the guide to t’shuvah. In order to truly make t’shuvah we must first understand ourselves. The Binah blessing asks God to share Divine insight with us. We ask to get in touch with true understanding of ourselves we see with great clarity what is required of us. We call it an epiphany or an Ah-Hah moment. This self-awareness is only possible when we completely understand our imperfections and are ready to change. Clearly this does not happen often, which is why we pray for it every day, and why it is the first thing we request. If and when we do get these moments of clarity about ourselves we are ready to move to the next step.

T’shuvah is the blessing that asks God to return us to God’s teaching, God’s guidance, and God’s presence. T’shuvah helps us know how to make the change. Making t’shuvah cannot be done alone. We need God’s guidance to return to a better version of ourselves, whatever that may be. We turn inward with our new-found understanding so that we might be able to return to the best self we can be.

The next blessing is Selichah, or forgiveness. Now this seems a little backwards from how we usually talk about t’shuvah. Usually we ask forgiveness first, then we try to figure out how not to repeat our sins. That is t’shuvah as repentance, but as far as resolving to better ourselves, we cannot ask forgiveness until we have a real understanding of what we have done wrong and God’s guidance to be able to fix it. A friend of mine once taught me that “I’m sorry,” isn’t an apology, it’s a line. A real apology is the ability to point out exactly what we have done wrong and how we plan to fix it. But this forgiveness is not from one person to another. This is the ability to forgive ourselves. To do that we first need understanding and returning.

Self-forgiveness is a truly remarkable thing, and once that has been accomplished we can be redeemed, which is the meaning of Ge’ulah. The fourth blessing asks that God redeem us swiftly. Redemption is a higher state of being, the betterment of self that leads to the betterment of all. It is the result of truly transforming, making t’shuvah in a real, lasting, and meaningful way.

We strive daily to make ourselves better. Every time we participate in a weekday prayer service we ask God’s help to make ourselves better. That’s the key to understanding the difference between t’shuvah and a resolution. When we make a resolution we are promising to do something on our own. When we do t’shuvah we know that we can only change with God’s help, and that if we strive to reach for it, God is with us to be our guide and to help us turn.

May we strive every day to improve ourselves. May we understand and build on that understanding not only today but every day, so that 2010 will be a year of blessing, a year of happiness and health, and a year of daily improvement and t’shuvah.