Wednesday, September 30, 2009

“To Give or Not to Give: The Legacy of Elijah,” delivered by Rabbi/Cantor Rhoda JH Silverman, Erev Yom Kippur 5770

I love stories. And while I spoke about the mandate of giving, of Tzedakah last year, the continued economic crisis compels me to return to the theme of giving again on this eve of Yom Kippur.

So, to the story: this story is about a young couple: Chayim Yonah and Rivkah Baylah who lived in a far away town many, many years ago.
Chayim worked in timber. He bought a stand of forest for a good price, but then the area was closed to further cutting, and he lost everything but the shirt on his back in the deal. He was one of the lucky ones - he found work in the office of another man in the same business. But this was a time of economic recession – not too unlike ours - and he lost that job too. For months now, he and Rivka had no income at all. They managed to survive the winter - but what a struggle it was to do so.
Now Rivka and Chayim’s story picks up in spring, during the season of Passover preparations.

Everything Chayim and Rivkah had, had already been pawned - from the hanging candle sticks to the very last pillow. They had nothing left and no money to spend on the necessary items for the Passover holiday.
Rivka begged her husband, “Go to the Community Fund for the Poor (their local Jewish Community Services), maybe they’ll give you enough money so that we could at least buy flour for baking our matzahs.” But Chayim Yonah refused – you see, Chayim had faith, “If God wishes for us to have a seder, Rivka, God will provide for it. There is no reason for us to lose face,” he insisted.
So, Rivkah searched the house one last time for something to pawn. In a dark corner, she found a worn, silver spoon – it was truly a miracle, really, she thought – it had been ages since that spoon had been mislaid. At last, she’d be able to bake her matzah.

Rivka took that spoon, gave it to her husband, and asked him to sell it in the market place. He does so, but he then takes the few coins he gets from the spoon and donates them to the Community Fund for the Poor saying the poor has more need for the money than he does.

Meanwhile Passover is coming quickly, there is little time left to prepare. Chayim Yonah remains confident, “God will not desert us.” Rivkah Bayla, however, remains silent – despite her anger and sadness. She tries to remain strong in front of her neighbors, but their pitying looks stab like needles. Her friends ask, “Rivkah, when are you baking your Matzahs? How are you coming with your preparations?” She makes excuses, but those who know her better urge, “Tell us what’s the matter, Rivkah. If there is anything you need – just ask, we will be happy to help you in any way that we can!”

But Chayim Yonah would not accept charity from any mortal being and Rivkah Baylah would not publically counter husband’s wishes. Remember this was a time long before that modern wave of feminism that I discussed on Rosh Hashanah morning.
The neighbors, though, saw that something was not as it should be, and they go to the Rabbi of the town, as was customary in those days, to ask for advice. The rabbi listens to their story, and shaking his head sadly, responds, “Chayim Yonah is a pious and learned man, stubborn too. If he has faith, then that is how we must leave it.”

Finally, it is Passover. Rivkah does not even have candles over which to make a bracha. Chayim goes to the synagogue for prayers. Walking home he sees the festive joy shining from his neighbors’ houses. Only the windows of his own house are dark, like the eyes of the mourner at a wedding feast. Arriving home, he opens the door and calls out, chag sameach, Rivkah – happy holiday. In the darkness, Rivkah Baylah answers sadly, “chag sameach.”

“Rivkah, what is wrong?” Chayim asks. “This is Passover - a time of rejoicing! Look, if God didn’t wish for us to have a seder here at our home, we’ll gladly be welcome at someone else’s. Even now, they are all opening their doors inviting all who are hungry to come in and eat. If God didn’t wish us to have our own seder, we’ll join someone else’s – let’s go, get your coat.”

But before she could put on her coat, there is a knock on the door. The door opens and a voice calls out, “chag sameach!” In the darkness, they cannot see who it is, but they answer nonetheless, “chag sameach.” The visitor says, “I’d like to be a guest at your seder.”

“We’d love to have you,” Chayim Yonah explains, “but, you see, we don’t even have a seder for ourselves.”

“No worries,” the visitor responds, “I’ve brought everything we need. And then with a wave of a hand through the air – magically, silver candlesticks appear in the air holding burning tallow candles; in their light, Chayim Yonah and Rivkah Baylah can see that their visitor is none other than a poor and haggard magician who was known to entertain in the center of the town.

They gasp and clutch one another in fear as much as in surprise.

With another wave of his hand, the man calls, “table, come here and cover up “ and the table did just that - sliding from its place in the corner, a white cloth dropping from the ceiling to cover it. Then the table slides across the floor underneath the candle sticks which center themselves onto the table gracefully and perfectly. With another wave of his hand, he calls, “benches over here” – and the benches slide from their places along the wall to each side of the table. He frowns at them for a moment and then calls – ‘get wider and softer’ and those benches, if you can imagine, transform into regal arm chairs. White pillows fall from the sky and settle themselves perfectly into the arm chairs. With a wave of his hand again, he brings a round seder plate with all of the necessary items, he brings decanters full of the best red wine, he brings wine glasses, and even haggadot with gilt edged pages.

It is only when he turns to them and says, “Do you need water for washing? I can bring that too,” that they rouse from their astonishment. Rivkah leans over and whispers in her husband’s ear, “Is this okay? Is this permitted?”

“I don’t know” says Chayim.

So, Rivkah advises her husband, saying, “Go to the Rabbi’s house, ask him what we should do.”

But Chayim Yonah says, “I don’t really want to leave you here alone with this strange man.”

And so they go together, hand in hand, they run quickly to the Rabbi’s house and tell him all that has happened.

The Rabbi listens, ponders, and then explains, “There are 2 kinds of magic in the world, good magic and evil magic. Evil magic has no substance,” he tells them, “you cannot touch the things it creates.” So the rabbi advises them, “Go home. If you can touch the pillows, if you can pour the wine, if you can break the matzahs, it should be considered a gift from God and something to be enjoyed.”

Hearts pounding, Chayim and Rivkah walk home hand in hand.

When they arrive at their house, the poor magician is gone, but the seder is still there.

Slowly, they walk into the house. They reach out. Timidly, they touch the pillows. They pour the wine. They break the matzahs. And only then did they realize, that their guest must have been the prophet Elijah himself.
Elijah the Prophet. A legendary figure who goes around rewarding the charitable and deserving, of whom many fantastical stories, such as this, are handed down in our tradition, l’dor va-dor, from one generation to the next. These stories are heart warming, charming even. Intended to help us remain confident during times of challenge, they encourages us to have perfect faith in that perfect world where God reigns supreme and the good are duly and justly rewarded. Problem is, our world isn’t quite so perfect.

Like Rivka Baylah and Chayim Yonah, the couple in our story, many of us are facing incredibly difficult economic challenges. Some are struggling to maintain previous lifestyles that were easily attained a couple of years ago, while others including many sitting here amongst us are struggling just to meet basic day to day needs. Certainly faith and optimism, such as Chaim Yonah’s are important, perhaps even vital, states of mind as we face such challenges, but please don’t model Chayim Yonah. Don’t let faith in God interfere with the ability of reaching out and asking for help when in need. God just may not answer. The prophetic Elijah may not show his mystical face.

Oaths of poverty and ascetism are not mainstream values in Jewish life. We don’t score cash back points by suffering. Despite the historical mandate of our legendary Elijah and the imagery of a Divinely kept ledger of deeds in our tradition, there are no seraphim on high keeping track of our self-less acts. Central, however, to our mandate as Jews, as I spoke of on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, is the minyan – the creation of community – a caring and supportive community - through which we bring Torah to life. And, one of the most significant ways we can bring Torah to life is through Tzedekah - the acts of kindness, the acts of righteousness, we do for others and we allow others to do for us. [let me repeat that – ‘and we allow others to do for us!’]

We have all just been asked to give to our beloved congregation in order to help it sustain itself as a vibrant and nurturing center of Jewish life. Our lay leaders ask every year at this time because frankly there is a need. You have also been asked to give this year in particular in order to help ensure that others who can’t sustain their financial obligations can remain connected and a part of our Temple family. If you are in a position to give, like Elijah, – please do; our Temple leadership will be ever grateful for whatever support you can offer – whether expressed through volunteerism, financial contribution, or both. At the same time, if you are in need, don’t wait for magical intervention; instead, be proactive, ask for help, and allow others the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of giving. Too often we refrain from reaching out and letting others know our needs due to our own sense of shame, our own fears of weakness; but as President Obama reminded our nation 2 ½ weeks ago in his address to a group of High School students in Virginia, asking for help is far from an act weakness but rather comes out of a sense of self-awareness and of strength.

Moses Maimonides, better known in Rabbinic circles as The Rambam, advised in his Mishneh Torah that man should always exert himself, even work on the Sabbath if necessary, and should sooner endure hardship than make himself dependent on the community. Yet, in almost the next breath as if fully understanding that there are times when disciplined effort no matter how well enacted is simply not enough and intervention is required, he writes, “One however, who does stand in need…who cannot live without help but who, in his pride [shall we call it piety?], declines to accept help is a shedder of blood, guilty of attempts on his own life.” (MT Book 7, chapter 10:19)

Our economy has been in crisis. Some say it is slowly healing; only time will let us know if that is the case. Yet, in the meantime, one of the best ways that we can ride out the harsh challenges of fiscal uncertainty in this economic climate is to connect to the community and support one another. We must do this without judgment. Waiting passively for intervention while we continue to starve will only keep us hungry and in grave need. So, I repeat, those who can give, please do so. Those only able to receive, please allow yourself to do so; and let us know what you need and how we can help. Only in this way will the redemptive hope of Elijah ever have a chance of coming to fruition. Only in this way can we ensure that Temple Emanuel will succeed at being a shelter from life’s storms.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Human Rights & the Progeny of Sarah, delivered Rosh Hashanah morning 5770

If you are a parent of a teen or, if like me, the parent of, as the newest demographic moniker identifies them, a “tween,” then you have probably heard of the popular R&B singer Rihanna. This past winter, Rihanna, an incredibly talented, seemingly independent and vibrant young woman with a successful career underway, was the victim of what is categorized in our country as “domestic violence.” I prefer to name it for what it is: unjustified violence. The descriptive adjective ‘domestic’ somehow pardons the offense when it should instead draw attention to the devastating consequences that arise when violence is from the hands of those trusted most. More disturbing than the violence itself, if we can even imagine, was the reaction of many of Rihanna’s fans, America’s youth. As New York Times’ reporter Jan Hoffman shared in March of this year, many teenage girls instead of condemning Rihanna’s attacker, Chris Brown, a well-know pop star himself, instead questioned the veracity of her story and even went as far as to blame her for the attack. Even after seeing photos of her bruised and bloodied face, many still were quick to lay blame on her for inciting the violence while excusing her attacker from any serious consequences. According to a survey of 200 teens, 46% - almost half - said Rihanna herself was responsible; another 52% said both bore responsibility for these injuries - injuries that landed Rihanna in a hospital bed.

I don’t know about you – but as a parent, as a teacher of young people, as a human being, such responses scare the hell out of me. It is incomprehensible how any violence can be dismissed as being somehow deserved, and yet the violence perpetrated against women is a constant reality in our world, and it apparently serves as a stronger teacher to our youth than we’d like to admit.

For all the work of the feminist movement – a movement that has roots in the early decades of the 20th century but which came to full blossom in the years of my own childhood, it wasn’t until 1993 (not 1963, not 1973 – 1993) that this so-called “domestic” form of violence was officially acknowledged to be a human rights concern. To put this into context, this is the year that I finished graduate school (the first time round, of course) and went on to serve my first pulpit as a congregational cantor - close to 2 decades after women were granted cantorial and rabbinic degrees and ordination in America. By this time women had been breaking all sorts of academic, social, and professional barriers for decades and at the same time were so often not considered worthy of the basic human right of feeling safe in their own homes and in their most intimate relationships. It took another year until legislation in America, in the form of the Violence Against Women Act, an act whose funding by the way will be up for re-authorization again in 2011, was passed to formally uphold the right of women to be protected from unwarranted violence. An international version of this bill was introduced last year by then Senator Biden. It failed to pass.

Now I admit despite my having been raised in that social and cultural mileau of the mid- to late 20th century, that I am a bit of a late-comer to the public expression of feminism. I, like so many in my generation who understand how much we have gained by the work of the feminist movement, have avoided speaking out on women’s issues understanding that there will be an automatic tendency to dismiss the remarks as feminist ranting. We hesitate to make waves, davka, because we know the advantages we have, because others before us – perhaps some or many of you - have already made those waves, and we also understand the flack you received for doing so. I even hesitated before deciding to speak on this tender subject on this sacred occasion – there are so many pressing topics on our minds (health care, the economy, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, the precarious situation in Israel...); yet, the very fact that I continue to feel this nagging sense that I must offer some form of apologetic for speaking on this humanitarian issue in and of itself speaks volumes about the work still required of all of us – each and every one of us.

It isn’t surprising that women have been viewed as peripheral to main events; such marginalization has been part and parcel of our historical legacy and our most sacred traditions – a history that often ignores the herstory in the narrative.

Our Torah for example. We just read the well-known and awfully troubling passage referred to as ‘The Akeidah’. Certainly one of the more disturbing narratives of biblical text. And, if I ask you what is most disturbing, I’d bet most of us would answer: either’s God’s request or Abraham’s willingness. That Abraham seems, without any apparent doubt, quick to listen to this Elohim he hears as God even when the instruction involves such a violent and unspeakable act towards his own son unsettles us (as it should). This is considered the central story, and it serves as the basis for the bulk of Rabbinic and theological debate that arises out of the text. But, where is Sarah in all of this? If Abraham consults his wife, her input was not deemed important enough to make it into the sacred canon. Sarah – Abe’s partner in parenting, the woman who bore and at the very least co-raised this child – is completely missing from the traditional telling of the Akeidah.

What disturbs me at least as much as the theological questions raised by God’s and Abraham’s actions, is that we take Sarah’s silence for granted; we expect it. We are comfortable challenging Abraham – what was he thinking? We wonder. How could he even consider such a task? We are comfortable challenging God – we liberal Jews eagerly grapple with the theological questions raised in this text: how God could ask such a thing and how we can have confidence in or even believe in such a God. We struggle with these questions readily; but, never do we challenge our ready acceptance of Sarah’s absence. Rarely do we challenge the circumstances that allowed for her voice to be completely excised from the story. And when we do question her absence, we take pity on her as a victim in a male dominated culture rather than choosing to empower her – re-writing the story imagining her in an active role. Moreover, on those rare occasions when we do empower Sarah, such exploration, such midrash is all too often relegated to the field of ‘women’s studies.” Our ‘women’s commentaries’ are vital to modern Jewish life; they have brought new ideas to the forefront begging us to delve into the question of Sarah. But, the stark reality remains that despite the passionate and successful efforts made on behalf of women by the modern wave of feminism that blew through our country in the 1960’s and 70’s, we still expect a significant degree of silence from Sarah’s progeny. We expect a feminist voice to discuss Sarah, but she has yet to fully enter the mainstream conversation. There she still remains all too often a silent, victimized character.

Even in the modern era, women have historically been celebrated in their silence. Case in point Anna O.

Perhaps the name is familiar. Anyone who has taken an introductory psychology class - Psych 101 - has read of Anna O., one of, if not the most famous, case studies in Joseph Breuer and Sigmund Freud’s seminal book Studies on Hysteria. We know Anna O. – her story is well documented and easily accessed. A young woman who at 21 developed signs of mental illness, what were then labeled as ‘hysterical’ symptoms that left her often bedridden, paralyzed, silent, and suffering from hallucinations. Together with her therapist, Joseph Breuer (an early mentor of Freud’s), they discovered ‘the talking cure’ a cure that became the foundation of psychoanalytic theory. In 1909, Freud himself acknowledged “Breuer and Anna O’s joint creation of the ‘talking cure’ as the germ and source of psychoanalysis” (though he later would recant after a bitter split with his mentor).

What is far less documented is the story of what happened to Anna O once cured. To learn this story, one has to make a concerted effort; it isn't taught in that Psych 101 class.

In the late 19th century, a young Viennese Jewish women named Bertha Pappenheim, after having recovered from her “hysterical illness” moved from Vienna to Frankfurt and established herself as an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, human rights. Traveling alone throughout Eastern Europe (in and of itself a bit radical for a single woman in her day), she raised funds, conducted detailed research, challenged philanthropic organizations and the male leadership thereof; and most importantly, she rescued many young women – immigrants, abandoned wives, unwed mothers - many of whom were forced and sold into prostitution, what was known as ‘white slavery.’ An unsung hero, she fought vehemently for the political, educational, and economic equality of Jewish women in an era of heightened misogynistic as well as anti-semititic sentiment. At the turn of the 20th century, after unsuccessfully increasing the presence of women in leadership roles within the Jewish philanthropic establishment, she envisioned and co-founded the first national organization of Jewish women, the Jüdischer Frauenbund (The JFB). Through this organization, Pappenheim succeeded in establishing a national network of social workers whose primary concern was the caring for, protecting of, and the emancipation of women.

Ironic, isn’t it? Yet not surprising that our historical record has virtually silenced the outspoken Bertha Pappenheim – an activist, an author too, who worked tirelessly on behalf of women -- while it firmly and prolifically documents her alter-ego: the scared silent, needy and hysterical Anna O of her youth.

Hilary Rodham Clinton may just be a modern day Bertha Pappenheim renewing and continuing her work on the international scene in today’s globally connected world. One of Clinton’s stated goals as Secretary of State is to erase the silence that plagues us when it comes to women in our society. Reminding us again that women’s issues are part and parcel of the broader issue of human rights, our Secretary of State is working to bring women’s issues to the center of attention in our U. S. foreign policy. Not only is she fighting to empower women to stand up for the most simple and basic right to be taken seriously, but she is hoping to raise awareness and tackle the harsh realities, such as maternal mortality, sex trafficking, abuse, malnourishment, limited access to education, lack of basic medical care – issues women continue to face in our modern world that are ultimately an outgrowth of the fact that women’s issues are still considered tangential and less important than other human rights. According to the Family Violence and Prevention Fund (telling that we even need such an fund, isn’t it?), one out of every 3 women worldwide will be physically, sexually, or otherwise abused in her lifetime with rates reaching as high as 70 % in some countries. The type of violence routinely acted out against women is horrific ranging from rape and beatings (often at the hands of known assailants), bodily mutilation, acid burnings, dowry deaths, so-called honor killings, the list goes on... We may think we are immune in our modern, westernized America, but we are not. There is a good chance that victims of abuse are sitting in this sanctuary today. And the attitudes of teens in response to Rihanna’s attack should remind us that there is an unconscious message even here in America that women don’t matter. There is sadly still in our 21st century a strong tendency to devalue and trivialize all that is female in our world both within our country as well as abroad – a tendency that we have to work to recognize and counter.

This past summer, while working towards her goal of bringing women’s issues into mainstream foreign policy, Secretary of State Clinton traveled to the eastern Congo, one of those places in our world where tragically unimaginable brutality against women is commonplace. While there she committed $17 million U.S. dollars to help fight the violence perpetrated daily against women and children and encouraged college aged youth to demand justice for women who are violently attacked in that country. Our nation’s Secretary of State spent 11 days touring and lecturing on this critical issue; and yet, did we know about it? Far more attention was paid in our American media to her understandably curt remark to the Congolese student who asked about her husband’s views than to the substance of her own work. Back home, while her husband, former President Bill, was broadly praised for his successful trip to North Korea, Secretary of State Hilary was mocked in the press for her impatience at a lack of attention to work she views, and rightly so, as vital to the well-being of our world.

Yes, even here in America, where we pride ourselves on the advances that women have made in our society: where we’ve passed legislation such as the 19th Amendment to our Constitution which ensures a woman’s right to vote in this country, Title VII – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which was consciously amended to include women, the Women’s Education Act of 1975 which ensures access to educational opportunities, Title IX which extended that equal opportunity in the arena of sports; here in America where we take enormous pride in the advances women have made in the corporate world – yet, here in America, we still routinely dismiss what we consider ‘women’s issues’ rather than human issues. Even subtle cues in our world, such as the mass-marketing of cosmetic surgery, undermine women. Why slicing a woman for no other reason than to have her fit or molded into a certain perceived image is an acceptable form of violence escapes me! (but that’s the subject of another sermon)

Perhaps, journalists Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s prediction that women’s rights will come to be known as the paramount moral challenge of the 21st century will come to fruition. I hope it does; it’s time it does. But it cannot do so if we continue to blind ourselves from theses harsh realities that still exist – that we allow to exist even here in our own country.

Our Reform mandate places the ethical pursuit of justice as a top priority in Jewish life. As Reform Jews it is incumbent upon us to open our eyes, pay attention, and act. We cannot assume that others will do it for us. Our unetane tokef prayer, recited this morning and again on Yom Kippur, reminds us that b’Rosh Hashanah yikatevun, on Rosh Hashanah, it is written who will suffer violence. Our theological struggle with this prayer stems in part from our assumption that the author of this poem meant God will write – God will determine who perishes and who not based on some Divinely kept ledger of deeds, as if we have little say in the matter. Considering the historical context of the prayer, God was likely intended, an attempt to enforce diligence through fear; but we can take advantage of the writer’s poetic style, his ambiguity, and re-interpret it from our Reform perspective. We know that we do have the power to make an impact – we can work to stop suffering in this world so that it doesn’t’ have to be written that such violence continues to be perpetrated.

It is far too easy to view the public and tangible advances women have made in our country and in other parts of the world as evidence that the work of the feminist movement is done. Far from it. Let us not get so complacent in our achievements that we stop ourselves from forging ahead. The 1968 marketers of Virginia Slims may have been correct, “We have come a long away, baby”; but boy, do we have a long way to go. Our Reform siddur encourages us to fervently pray for that time when violence, corruption, and evil give way to the forces of integrity and goodness, ”May the time not be distant, O God.” Be clear, though, we have to do a hell of lot more than pray for such change. We must act in order to make change, and the first step in acting is recognizing that all of our rights, even Sarah’s and her progeny’s, are fully and deservingly human.

Al Shelosha Devarim: Humanity in the Digital Age, delivered Erev Rosh Hashanah 5770

Silent movies - a thing of the past, or an entertainment trend of the future. This summer, while watching the movie “Frost/Nixon,” (part of my and Chuck’s attempt to catch up on grown up movies while the girls were at overnight camp) this perplexing image of the future of silent movies ran through my mind. It came during the scene where that life altering telephone call made by an apparently inebriated Richard Nixon to media personality David Frost on the eve of his final day of interviewing was played out for the movie goer. I couldn’t help but question and imagine how that critical scene would play out today.

This pivotal telephone scene had little if any action - it relied almost exclusively on spoken dialogue for its drama. The verbal interaction coupled with expressive body language and facial expressions made this scene effective. Like this scene, “Talkies”, as modern sound movies were originally called, are, in general, dependent on just that - talk! In the absence of talk, of dialogue, we are left with action, but no speech. Action accompanied by music and text messaging, well they weren’t called that in their day but in essence that is what those snipets of framed text were: abbreviated dialogue - just enough to get the basic plot across to the viewer. The Silent Movie.

Parents, particularly of teens, among us know that our youth are talking far less than in previous generations; instead, they’re busy exercising their thumbs in that newest form of non-verbal communication called ‘texting’. And let us be honest with ourselves, it is not just our youth who are joining the thumb aerobics craze. We can try to dismiss the replacement of voice communication with text as part of the recurrent generation gap between parents and their children, yet I sense a far larger revolution taking place in how we speak to and how we interact with one another. One with profound implications yet to be fully understood: sound is no longer the primary vehicle for human speech and dialogue.

Humans have always had the capacity to communicate without sound; and thankfully when our ears our incapacitated, our brains can adapt fairly easily enabling us to rely solely on visual as opposed to auditory cues for communication. But, given a choice, scientists remind us that the human brain reflexively counts on hearing, on sound, for the development and expression of language. Language experts go as far as to tribute the origin of language to physiological developments in the early human ear. Our distinctly human capacity to organize noise into meaningful acoustical patterns apparently gives us an edge over the rest of the animal kingdom in the capacity to develop language.

Yet, imagine our lives without sound - some of us have to live without sound, few of us would choose to do so entirely. Silent movies became obsolete because of the very richness and depth of human characterization that ‘talkies’ - that spoken language - gave to creative hands of the movie industry.

Today we are more often than not choosing to give up sound/spoken language as our primary means of talking: instead of voice to voice phone calls, let alone face to face conversation, text-ing, Facebook statuses, and Tweets have become normative vehicles for communication. And, again - not only among our youth. Many of us, of all ages, perhaps due in large part to the influence of the young people in our lives, are relying increasingly on these non-verbal methods of speaking, even when within ear shot of each other, even in the privacy of our own homes [perhaps I should be texting this sermon – I think I spotted a few Blackberries and Iphones on the way in].

We can only imagine the ultimate impact of these new faceless, voiceless, and public forms of communication on our society. While I imagine silent movies, columnist and Public Radio personality Garrison Keillor is convinced there wouldn’t even have been a Watergate to dramatize in film in this new media age where virtually all communication is written, digitized, and made publicly accessible.

Like these Yamim No’raim, technology is awesome: both in terms of what it can do for us as well as the responsibility it demands of us. Indeed, our increasing dependance on written dialogue as a replacement for human interaction can be greatly attributed to the prevalence of the Internet and the advances of the digital age. The Internet has the potential to transform our lives exponentially, and for many it has already done so. It has redefined the ‘convenience store.’ Not only in terms of shopping - for sure, at the stroke of a cursor (perhaps too easy a stroke), we have a virtual shopping mall of options far more expansive than a trip to our local mall centers, -- but more importantly, in terms of information: the Internet has the capacity to put incredible amounts of information into our hands at incredible speed. Imagine back to the days when bound, now seemingly cumbersome encyclopedia volumes were our primary resources for information. Perhaps as cumbersome to us now as scrolls became to those in the Middle Ages. When Encyclopedia Brittanica lined our bookshelves and even the coveted Jr. version was a valued possession. When research on any topic beyond that encyclopedic entry actually required a trip to the library and a conversation with a librarian. Today a Google, or if Microsoft has their way a Bing, search puts a vast, often overwhelming, amount of information in our hands in a virtual instant, and it is our responsibility to discern what is useful and useless without the help of a trained expert at our side. Google books, a highly accessible and vast digital library puts resources from collections around the world onto each of our individual desk and laptops within seconds, and despite what Google says - with no human intermediary. Email, though increasingly archaic now that texting is so prevelant, enables us to communicate with colleagues, friends, and family located throughout the world easily and inexpensively. The Internet enables us to reach and communicate with those who in previous generations may have been unreachable, left out on the margins of society. The Internet has given voice to those unable to speak or at the very least those in the past who were unable to be heard. Remarkably, earlier this year, for instance, we watched, we read - as the Internet give voice to those underlying democratic tendencies in Iran following their controversial election, tendencies that in the past would have been left buried and largely unnoticed.

At the same time as the Internet and the capacity for non-verbal written communication has opened up the world and provided an enormous freedom of expression, it has as equal if not greater capacity to shut us in. We could in the foreseeable future have no pressing reason to leave the comfort of our homes. We can work, shop, interact socially, find entertainment, keep up with the news, all from in front of a small screen. [Anyone see the movie “Wall-e”?]

As early as 1998, sociological studies reported on the detrimental effect of Internet usage on society. Despite the incredible advances and the enrichment the Internet can bring into our lives, the reality remains that the more time one spends in front of this interactive screen the less time one is engaged with real live human beings: our friends, our neighbors, even our family members. Norman Nie, a Stanford researcher, argued close to a decade ago (long before any of us were ‘Linked In’), that “the Internet could be the ultimate isolating technology” further distancing us from participation in our communities. The Internet, Professor Nie presciently claimed would make a far greater impact on society than the television or the automobile ever did. I wonder - it may compete or even surpass the revolutionary impact of the printing press.

The Internet gives us a certain degree of independence in its ability to put everything in our hands without intermediaries. And we like that as Americans, don’t we - we value independence and the ability to accomplish tasks without help. Yet, independence at the expense of social interconnectedness not only impedes our ability to succeed but dehumanizes us and is ultimately detrimental to our over all well-being. We humans are social creatures; we thrive on relationships, yes on being dependent on one another. Ben Sherwood, the author of The Survivor’s Club, a book on the personality characteristics of those able to survive challenge and trauma, notes that social connections between humans are vital to our survival. Sherwood argues that isolation not only leads to the emotional strains of loneliness, but can more often than not lead to physiological distress. Quoting various scientific studies, he draws attention to data that indicate that social isolation - such an extreme independence where one has no support - is as great a risk factor, if not greater, for physical illness and death than smoking or high cholesterol.

Our American media does well at highlighting - glorifying - the success of the individual, but more often than not those individuals in our society who are most successful are those who allow themselves to be connected with and dependent on others for support. David Frost may have succeeded in capturing that critical and memorable moment of regret and defeat in the life of Richard Nixon, yet Frost’s ability to succeed at his task was fully dependent on the lesser known work of his researchers, financial backers, and producer not to mention, as the movie tells it, Nixon’s own foibles.

Don’t get me wrong, I am, frankly, in awe of the advances of the Internet and the new forms of digitized communication it provides. Perhaps in my role as a student I feel its impact the greatest. That I can easily access academic articles published in Israel or communicate with students and scholars around the world instantly from the comfort of my home office in Pikesville astounds me and makes my task easier. I certainly couldn’t do that the first time I was a graduate student. As a parent, that I can order my kids’ piano books, school supplies, and even their school uniforms (let alone my own clothes, and shoes!) all quickly and easily from home is an enormous time, gas, and hassle saver. As responsible adults, that Chuck and I can track and pay all of our bills (okay, its primarily Chuck, he is the accountant) without ever having to stamp an envelope or wait in line at the bank. And like so many, I admit to enjoying and perhaps sharing too much information keeping in touch with new friends while getting reacquainted with old through e-based social networks. Yet as much as I gladly depend on the Internet, its convenience, and its vast offerings, I remain acutely aware of what is missing.

Face to face human interaction.
And despite my frequent visits and activity, or its deceiving name, I don’t mean the Facebook variety.

So how do we overcome this incredible challenge? We need technology. We want our technology. Facebook, Twitter, instant text messaging - for all the challenges they raise, they have transformed our lives in positive ways; and few if any of us really want to turn the clock back. Let not our hindsight be clouded by those all too easy to wear rose colored glasses. Sure, we may grow misty eyed at the end of face-face personal service, yet be clear that what makes us misty eyed has nothing to do with the practical commercial aspects of this change (the Internet can often do that better in many cases), rather it is the human aspects that we mourn. The recollection, for instance in my case, of walking into Padelson’s that glorious, full service music store in Manhattan (one that my own internet shopping habits helped to close) and being waited on by a human being as equally interested in music as I; being greeted with a friendly and sincere shanah tovah while picking up a deli order at Edmart in Pikesville -- that is at the heart of what we glamorize about the past. Face to face human interaction and dialogue! We miss the people, not the product.

We must work to nurture our capacity for dialogue and human relationship in this Internet age in order to balance the potentially isolating effects of living in a society where everything and everyone is conveniently reachable through a square box that sits either on a desk or more likely these days in the palm of one’s hand. This requires a concerted effort. An effort that previous generations could not even have imagined, and one that perhaps we have yet to fully imagine ourselves. We just may have to figure it out as we go along.

One thing is for sure, the synagogue can and must be a haven for human dialogue and social support. I admit, a shameless plug - one, though, you must have seen coming. Even in our attempts to keep Temple Emanuel current by having an interactive website, e-newsletters, and a tech committee that explores other ways in which we can use technology to make our congregation not only greener, but more vibrant, educationally relevant, and user-friendly, we must at the same time remain committed to being a Beit Keneset - a place, a home where people gather face to face, not just on line, not just through Facebook, but in person.

Perhaps the dilemma is not new. In the later half of the 18th century, Enlightened German philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn cautioned against giving too much weight to the written word. Recalling the ancient prohibition of fixing the oral law into writing, Mendelssohn argured that Jewish life - as he conceived of it through law and action - thrived in human debate. In his treastise, Jerusalem (published in 1783), Mendelssohn wrote, commenting specifically on the impact of printing,
“The diffusion of writings and books...has entirely transformed man. [causing a] great upheaval in the whole system of human knowledge and convictions ...” (p. 103, Jerusalem).” “Everything is dead letter; the spirit of living conversation has vanished.”

Though admitting that the “bygone days of ancient times” were not necessarily better than his own era, recall Mendelssohn was a passionate advocate of modernity, he did argue that in the era where oral transmission was primary, “Man was more necessary to man; teaching was more closely connected with life, contemplation more intimately bound up with action.”

Judaism has historically looked almost exclusively to the past in its effort to carry its values and wisdom forward as it faced the future, notes Rabbi Harold Schulweiss, the editor of the book, Jews and Judaism in the 21st Century. A model that Mendelssohn too seemed to understand may be untenable in our modern world. His 18th century remarks compel us not to look solely to the past - to what is fixed in writing - for truth, put instead to reaffirm the centrality of human responsibility and human debate in the continual flourishing of Jewish life. He saw books as inadequate replacements for Jewish life and learning, so too the computer, the internet, are inadequate replacements today. Necessary and vital tools - yes, no question. Replacements - absolutely not.

Our movement’s magazine, Reform Judaism’s summer issue, entitled, “CyberSanctuary” explored and documented the myriad of ways in which congregations throughout the country are taking advantage of technology in order to enrich worship and enhance education. It had great and exciting ideas from which we can learn: Internet based Hebrew and B’nai Mitzvah tutoring, on-line streaming of worship services, sermon podcasts instead of written posts, projected visual worship.... At the same time, while not considered the lead story, this issue also had a substantial section on “Hardship and Hope” where human relationships were featured as the antidote to despair. A paradox? Certainly not.

Maybe not conscious on the agenda of the editors, but a clear message that the heart of a synagogue remains always the people - it is the human relationships that are central: not the space, not the classroom, not the technology, no matter how necessary that technology is to the functioning of a 21st century synagogue, but the ‘minyan.’

The synagogue must continue to remain viable places for face-to-face dialogue through the pursuit of Torah, study in the form of chevruta, partnered, respectful dialogue and debate; the pursuit of Avodah, worship that requires a communal gathering to engage in responsive prayer; and the pursuit of g’milut chasadim, just acts that we do along with and for others. All of this must continue to happen here, and all of this requires a human presence.

Perhaps our earliest sages understood that it is the human need for community and interconnectedness that makes these tasks, Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chasadim, “Al Shelosha d’varim ha-olam omeid” the 3 pillars upon which our world stands. More than anything else, it is the minyan that defines the synagogue - that gathering of people who come together to bring Torah to life: to worship, to study, to support one another through the mess of life.

Our involvement in Jewish life, in the life of our Temple Emanuel community, this offers the vital foundation of social support in our modern, text based world. Let us all work together to make it so - to continue to make Temple Emanuel such a gathering place, a Beit Knesset in this upcoming year of 5770. Ken y’hi ratzon.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Last year's Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon:" I am a Reform Jew"

I am a Reform Jew – Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5769
I am a Reform Jew. No surprise there – having arrived in Baltimore over a decade and a ½ ago after graduating HUC-JIR, the Reform Rabbinical and Cantorial seminary in New York, to serve our Reform community here in Baltimore, I have publically as well as personally been associated with the Reform movement throughout my adulthood. The majority of my Jewish connections growing up were also with the Reform movement. From the 3rd grade on, I was educated in a Reform congregation. I participated in NFTY events, put in a few years at a Union summer camp even attended the Reform movement’s leadership academy, Camp Kutz, for one summer. No question, I was inspired by many of these experiences, yet are these public alliances, my connections to certain organizations, what makes me a Reform Jew? A question that I don’t think we ask ourselves often enough: why are we Reform Jews? We may be quick to identify ourselves as Reform by virtue of our membership here at Temple Emanuel, a congregation affiliated with the URJ – the Union of Reform Judaism, the umbrella organization for all North American Reform synagogues, or by the various Reform organizations in which we may have participated in at various times in our life –but is that it – is that what makes each of us Reform Jews? I certainly hope not.
According to the Central Conference of American Rabbi’s 1976 Centenary Perspective, a document inspired by the centennial celebrations of both the aforementioned organizations, the URJ, then known as the UAHC, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Hebrew Union College, Reform Judaism is characterized by seven specific points:
• It should interact with modern culture
• Its forms and expressions should reflect a contemporary aesthetic
• Its scholarship should be conducted by modern and critical methodology
• It recognizes change as a fundamental reality – not just for the future, but of both past and present as well.
• It recognizes the ethics of universalism as an explicit part of our Jewish duty
• It demands gender equality with regard to the study and practice of Judaism
And perhaps most significantly,
• Reform Judaism demands that Jewish obligation begin with the informed will of the individual.

The informed will of the individual. This seventh point is the most challenging element of Reform Judaism. The first 6 certainly require effort, but can easily be delegated to others – to the leaders in the movement, Rabbis, Cantors, scholars, musicians, administrators. But point 7 is aimed directly at the individual. I would argue that it is this point with which we as Reform Jews most struggle and which leads to the gross misunderstanding of Reform Judaism in the larger community. It is also a point on which we have the utmost control to fulfill and in turn has the power to enrich us as individuals and as Jews.

“The informed will of the individual.” This critical point is at the root of Reform Judaism’s principle of autonomy. We are not a movement that looks to the Halacha, the traditional Jewish law, for final arbitration on our daily choices. Rather we are movement that certainly includes Halacha, but among other resources, both historical and modern, to inform our decision making; decision making that is ultimately left to the individual. This process demands a high degree of responsibility and effort; a degree to which, frankly, most of us fall short.
We take for granted even become lazy in our autonomy – as Americans raised on the values of democracy coupled with the freedom of religion, we simply can’t imagine our daily religious choices being anything but based on our own autonomous decision making. And the truth is, as much as others might argue otherwise, in a country such as ours which values (and hopefully will continue to maintain), the separation of Church and State, all religious choices are ultimately grounded in personal autonomy. No one ‘has’ to keep any form of religious observance. All Jews – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist -- all of us have the power to choose for ourselves how to express our Judaism. Some may choose to follow a path in line with communal Halachik standards – such as Orthodoxy, but that is at its core a personal choice.

We Reform Jews celebrate autonomy by generally rejecting such rigid communal standards, but by doing so, we have a tendency to become complacent in this autonomy forgetting the Jewish value of placing community on equal footing, if not over and above the individual. A well-known mishnah recorded in tractate Avot reminds us of this tension between community and self:
הוא היה אומר: אם אין אני לי מי לי וכשאני לעצמי מה אני (ואם לא אכשיו אימתי:)
He was known to say: if I am not for myself, who will be for me? But, if I am only for myself, what am I?( And if not now, when?)
Written in the first centuries of the first millennium, this text not only highlights that this tension between individualism and communalism is ancient and is not solely a result of American ideology, but it also underscores that autonomy – the self-- is at the root of any commitment we make to the larger community.
19th century commentator Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes in his discussion of this very mishnah that while one can only attain “spiritual fitness” and moral worth by virtue of his own efforts, it is only by actively working to create, to establish and to increase the happiness and prosperity of his fellow man that one can begin to become truly human, b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. It is through community by which we find divinity.

Are we Reform Jews fully grounded in our identity, or has lack of observance replaced active and creative idealistic efforts, such as Hirsch describes, as the bond among Reform Jews? How I cringe when I hear a fellow Jew use the word “Reform” as a reason not to do. “I don’t go to services very often; I’m Reform.” “I eat bread on Pesach, it’s okay, I’m Reform.” “I eat shrimp because I’m Reform.” The Reform label seems to have become an excuse for lack of intention, connection, and involvement in the larger community. Not that I am advocating for a particular level of ritual observance, far from it! BUT, I fear we forget about the “informed” part of being a Reform Jew. We use that value of autonomy to support all of our decisions with regard to personal practice and often communal obligation as well, without taking the time and effort to “become informed” as Reform Judaism mandates.

Recall point 7:
• Reform Judaism demands that Jewish obligation start with the informed will of the individual. Sorry folks, Reform Judaism was never intended to be the easy way out. On the contrary, it requires us to explore, to think for ourselves, and make decisions accordingly. A mistake we often make is to view those who choose a more stringent level of observance as somehow more valid, even more pious, than ourselves. Reform viewed as the least committed on the continuum and the orthodox the most. Sadly, this continuum is often reinforced by our own reticence to speak out and our own lack of involvement in the larger Jewish community.

A bit of history is noteworthy. The Reform movement grew out of the late 18th century European enlightenment. Ironically, so did Orthodoxy. In a very real sense, they are parallel movements. The word “orthodox” a term used by the Lutheran Church to refer to dogmatic Biblicism, wasn’t used by a Jew in 1755. It was in that year, that the great Enlightenment figure, Moses Mendelsohn used this term in a letter to another such thinker asking if a contemporary of theirs, a modern scientist, was really “orthodox“ or just pretending to be so. Orthodox at this time was a referent only to the unwillingness of allowing modern ideology into religious thought. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century when a group of Jews successfully advocated for change in ritual expression that allowed for enlightenment values to impact Jewish practice that orthodoxy as a self-defined movement developed. Indeed, it grew out of opposition to become the self-avowed standard bearer of Judaism. 19th century Europe was not the first playground for change, Judaism has constantly evolved over time – but it was a period that marked the coming together of the social, cultural, and philosophical forces of modernity in a manner which forever changed the face of Jewry.

While the image of Orthodoxy as a standard bearer of Judaism in our community persists, Reform Judaism has been far more influential in its impact on modern Jewry. The issues which others debate today are generally issues which the Reform movement placed in the forefront and with which Reform Judaism has already come to terms. Social justice and the ethical impulse as a paramount virtue has its roots in Classical Reform ideology; Gender equality was a stated value in the earliest platforms of Reform Judaism, and HUC was the first American Jewish seminary to admit and later ordain women; the Reform movement has actively welcomed interfaith families into our congregations; HUC has welcomed gay and lesbian candidates for ordination without reservation, and Reform congregations across North America openly welcome gays, lesbians, and their families as fully participating members in our midst.

Even our style of worship and our music has made its impact. Praying in the vernacular is a Reform innovation as is the inclusion of our matriarchs and gender sensitive language into the liturgy. So many of the tunes that are simply labeled as “traditional” are products of Germany’s 19th century early Reform synagogues – gems like Shema, Hodo Al Eretz, Adon Olam. These early Reform synagogues hired musical directors and cantors that, simply put, revolutionized synagogue song and made an impact far beyond the bemas of their then nascent Reform synagogues.

So if the Reform movement has been such an avant garde movement, setting the standards for others to follow, why is it that it is viewed in the community as the “least” on that continuum of commitment and activity?
Informed will of the individual. How we define ourselves as Reform Jews is at the crux of the matter. We must reframe our definitions of ourselves. Instead of defining ourselves by what we choose not to do, we must begin to define ourselves by what we do. We are a movement of action, and thus need to market ourselves as such – as individuals and as a movement.
As we begin this new year, 5769, I challenge all of us to grapple with our Reform identities – let us challenge ourselves to be actively Reform rather than by default. Certainly, no easy task. Striving to define Reform Judaism based on tangible practice has been divisive to say the least among Reform leaders since the days of the Pittsburgh Platform. The cherished value of autonomy holds up any standardized vision of Reform practice. Indeed, individual autonomy makes that challenge of informing oneself on the one hand, more compelling, but also all the more difficult. It requires self-imposed motivation and discipline. Doing simply because communal guidelines exist telling you so isn’t an option here.
So what is it that makes us Reform Jews?

My parents made a conscious decision when I was young to affiliate with a Reform congregation after belonging to a liberal, albeit modern Orthodox synagogue. I can’t speak to their motivations as I was just a kid (you can ask them for yourselves), but their decision, whether they were or are aware or not, left a decisive mark on me. After getting over the disappointment that I would not be attending that extra day of Hebrew school that I had been eagerly awaiting (clearly synagogue life was meant to be my destiny), I discovered that the beauty of Reform Judaism isn’t about the amount of practice but rather the journey one takes towards or away from that practice. Being a Reform Jew is about the values and the manner in which the choice to or not to practice is made. I could define myself by the many things I don’t do: I haven’t walked to synagogue save for the periods of time I’ve spent in Israel since childhood. I don’t keep a kosher home per standardized heksher standards. I have no interest frankly in laying Tefillin. I could go on in this list, but rather and more importantly I chose to define myself as a Jew by what I do, by the actions I take, such as: studying Torah regularly – struggling with, striving (even if not with success) to find meaning even in its most challenging sections; observing Shabbat in a meaningful way that connects me and my family to family, synagogue life and klal Yisrael; consciously and carefully giving tzedakah; taking pride in the our movement’s Religious Action Center and striving personally to champion the ethical values of social justice voiced by our prophetic tradition; remaining connected even if at times remotely to Israel and the values for which she stands; raising, together with Chuck, our children in a home filled with Jewish values and learning and within a caring synagogue community; striving towards the engagement of g’milut chasadim, acts of love and kindness.
Indeed: I am a Reform Jew.
What about you?

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Freedom to Choose, delivered Erev Shabbat Nitzavim

The Freedom to Choose: Nitzavim
אתם נצבים היום כלבם!, our parashah, Nitzvam, opens with this powerful and well-known statement of inclusion: “You stand this day all of you - your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water-drawer, .......[moreover] I make this covenant with all of its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day ...and with those who are not with us here this day.”

It doesn’t sound like we have much of a choice, does it? The traditional understanding of this text assumes, sets up the expectation that we too - each and everyone one of us by virtue of being born to Jewish parents - are included in that covenant. No if, ands, or buts. And if, as the text describes, anyone among us who wants out, who is even thinking of opting out of the responsibilities of this brit, better expect not only to suffer the harsh consequence of God’s wrath but to be eternally blotted out from the historical record. ouch. Perhaps our text is the urtext, the original source, for Jewish guilt. Even think of veering off the path of Jewish continuity and boy do we bring doom upon not only ourselves but future generations. Heavy responsibility.

Do we have a choice? Does birth ensure our place in the covenant despite our actions? Those of us born Jewish far too often take for granted this assumption of automatic inclusion in the covenant. We don’t have to do anything - our Jewish identity a result of our biological heritage. ze-hu. Judaism has always had a mechanism for outsiders to opt in to this covenant, to become what we label a ‘Jew by choice’ rather than by birth. And as those who have gone through this process can attest, demands are made of those who choose in, in the form of study, dialogue, counseling, and ritual in order to ensure a candidate’s choice is well-thought out and of substance. What is remarkable and always inspiring to me is to hear and witness, as we will tomorrow morning when one of our new members is called to Torah for the first time as a Jew, a recent convert to Judaism, stand up proudly while publicly declaring their commitment to the Jewish community. Few of us who are born Jewish, who according to the mandate of this week’s Torah portion, are automatically included in this covenant of responsibility, are able to do so with such passion, confidence, and commitment.

Our hesitancy may stem in large part from our historical legacy. Jews have throughout history been labelled the outsider by others and have been routinely the victims of both subtle forms of anti-semitism as well as overt violence. The weighty burden of threats such as found in our Torah portion, or those heaped upon us by well intended family members concerned about Jewish continuity, fail to inspire a positive or uplifting reason for public identification. The Rabbinic literature’s struggle with how to deal with the apostate - one who openly rejects their Jewish identity - reflects the complexity of the issue. Strikingly different from our Biblical text, the Talmud, for instance, openly and rationally discusses the status of such an individual. The discussion is in one sense practical determining the extent to which a Jew who rejects Jewish life can be accepted in the community and trying to establish a clear line between the apostate, one who rejects Jewish life, and one who goes as far as to practice idolatry. These are very real concerns of Rabbinic law which highlight the reality that there have always been those who choose to opt out. The heart of the question they struggle with, however, evidenced clearly by the aggadic tales of the apostate Elisha found in the Talmud and Midrash, is whether one born in can ever truly opt out. As much as we may try, ‘someone somewhere is going to identify us as a Jew’ seems to be the unspoken backdrop to the Rabbinic conversation.

Today, thankfully, at least here in America, our government doesn’t brand us by religion. Our religious choices are protected by the legislated value of separation of Church and State. It is far easier to be an apostate in 21st century America than probably in any other period of history. Most, if not all of us are probably guilty of, at some point in our lives “ "לבבו פנה, of turning our hearts and minds away from Jewish life. The model of the Jew by Choice, the label we use for those who not born Jewish but rather make a conscious choice to opt in serves as a compelling model for the entire Jewish community in this 21st century. The Jew by Choice should challenge us to demand of ourselves a conscious and public choosing of our Judaism. The traditional mandate of אתם נצבים היום כלכם, of everyone being included in the covenant, stam, by virtue of connection with the previous generation is no longer enough to get people in the door - well, it may get some in the door, but it isn’t enough to inspire most to get involved and remain committed.

We do have choices, and we need to proactively make them. Those of us born Jewish perhaps have an automatic in to this covenant known as Judaism, but that privilege of automatic membership should not stop us from challenging ourselves with the important question of whether we would choose it for ourselves and our family even if we didn’t.

Despite the threatening and forceful language used in its attempt to enforce opting in, there is clear evidence that the writer understood that free will is part and parcel of the human condition. The choice of the word Nitzavim. The verb Nitzavim has far more force than simply to stand. In its reflexive hitpalel form, התיצב means to take a stand, to voice a position. The nifal form used in our parasha, conveys the idea of stepping up or standing firm.

There is an implication here that the Israelites made the first move by stepping up to the plate and standing nitzavim firmly in place - en masse. God, recognizing this choice: אתם נצבים היום כלכם , “you,” by choosing to stand firm, by choosing to accept Torah and live by its guidelines, by being proactive and committed in your choice of acceptance of this covenant, you ensure that it will be passed on to future generations.

It doesn’t just happen by itself. Judaism thrives because we choose to bring it to life. It is no accident that on Yom Kippur morning we Reform Jews recite, chanting in the plaintive High Holiday trope, the opening and concluding verses of the this portion. Our ancestors chose to stand firm and accept this covenant. We are the fortunate recipients of this legacy. Let us not be passive in our inclusion in the covenant. Rather, let us also נתיצב - take a stand to ensure vibrant Jewish life today and for the future. Those who come after us can not be expected to hold up the mantle if we don’t consciously and actively take a stand ourselves by being Jews by Choice.

The final paragraph of parashat Nitzavim, the concluding verses of our portion, makes it clear that even the Biblical author understood this bottom line - that each and everyone of us is blessed with free will. God re-iterates: העדתי בכם היום את השמים ואת הארץ - I call heaven and earth to witness this day,נתתי לפניך, I have given you options.

We have been given options, it is now our responsibility to נצבים, to stand up and choose to opt in.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Avinu Malkenu - delivered Shabbat Ki Tavo 5769, 9/5/2009

Avinu Malkenu
The origins of this prayer are assumed to be old, so old that the only history we have about this prayer is that of legend:

In the century following the fall of Jerusalem, there was a terrible and life threatening drought in the land. Rabbi Eliezer, a pious scholar known for his miracles was sought out by the community to intervene. Through prayer he once made a carob tree move. On another occasion he succeeded in making a river to flow upstream. Indeed, he had confidence that he could bring about the much needed rain. So, he meditated, prayed, fasted - went as far as to ordain a number of fast days upon the whole of the community - but to no avail. No rain fell.

But then, Rabbi Akiba stepped up and exclaimed, “ אבינו מלכינו, אין לנו מלך אלה אתה, אבינו מלכינו עשה עמנו למען שמך" (Our Father our King, we have no King but you; our Father our King, do for us for the sake of your name) whereupon, it immediately rained!

A wonderful counter to the Deuteronomic tradition: bring rain, God, bring reward - blessing, simply for the sake of your name. Not because of our deeds, simply because of who you are, and because we are in need. The Talmudic version underscores this important idea behind the midrash by emphasizing Akiba’s forbearance and his willingness to forgive as the reason behind his prayers being answered as opposed to his deeds or even greatness. (Tan 25b)

Over time different communities have added verses - thus explaining the modern litany of Avinu Malkenu that in some rites extends to 50 sentences, yet at the heart of this prayer is that repetitive opening motif: Avinu Malkenu.

אבינו מלכינו, a Divine paradox, or better yet as a colleague of mine, Rabbi Barry Block, in a High Holiday sermon delivered 2 years ago reflected, a “Divine Oxymoron.” This phrase incorporates two very different images of God. Avinu, literally our Father, our parent, who compassionately gives us life, nurtures us, protects us, and stays with us through thick and thin. Malkenu, literally our King, a sovereign ruler who establishes rules and metes out justice sternly and objectively. The God of Deuteronomy, who lays out the blessings and curses of this week’s parashat Ki Tavo is indeed that melech, but as we know from reading our entire cycle of Torah, God, Avinu, our parent, is just as present in Jewish tradition. Sir Jonathan Sacks, the head Rabbi and leader of Great Britain’s mainstream Orthodox United Synagogue, views the placement of these words together as a reminder of God’s role in history - God created the world and humankind as God’s children before becoming Israel’s King - as well as a reminder of the placement of our trust in a God whom we expect to draw on that parental love to temper the severity of the divine decree.

We need, we expect, God to be both, but more importantly, we need God to model a balance between these attributes. We want our world to be ruled justly. We want those who act badly to be punished appropriately, but we also want to live in a world where that justice is tempered with compassion and understanding. Where mistakes are not unforgivable, and where we have a chance to repair what is broken. Notice: Avinu malkenu. Avinu comes first. The strict retributive language of Deuteronomy troubles us not only because we know life doesn’t work that way, but it bothers us also because of its apparent lack of Avinu, of human compassion.
It is incumbent upon us to continually strike that precarious balance between Avinu and Malkenu. If we demand that God respond to us both as Avinu and Malkenu, then we must demand such balance of ourselves, not only in our dealings with others but also in dealing with our own self. Not so easy a task combining judgement and compassion (and maybe something at which the biblical editor could have worked harder at expressing). If we judge too harshly, set too many fixed boundaries, there is no room to grow. At the same time, if we are so compassionately forgiving that we allow chaos to replace rule and structure, then we also stagnate growth.

We must work to balance Avinu and Malkenu in our lives not just because it will make us better individuals but also because of the impact such work will make on our world. אבינו מלכינו, our father, our king. Throughout our entire confessional of Yom Kippur, we pray in the plural: אשמנו, בגדנו/, not “I have transgressed...” rather “we have transgressed....” על חטא שחאטנו not על חטא שחאטתי, ‘for the sins, we have committed’. Our mistakes have repercussions that extend beyond ourselves onto the community. No, we may not each as individuals commit all of the specific sins listed in our liturgical litany (or at least I certainly hope not); however, by confessing, for instance, to “keeping the poor in chains” even when as individuals we haven’t taken a key to lock those chains, we admit our complicity in the failure to put an end to such intransigent poverty in our world. By praying together as one community, we remind ourselves that we are in this together, and that none of us can escape responsibility for the betterment of our world.

Avinu Malkenu - originally the final sentence of our prayer, which incorporates the verses attributed to Rabbi Akiba in our Rabbinic folklore, were said silently as a private supplication. This custom was explained midrashic-ly by The Maggid of Dubno, Rabbi Jacob ben Wolf Kranz, a chasid who lived at the end of the 18th century. He compared the recitation of the many petitions of Avinu Malkenu to a retailer placing an order with a wholesaler for a large quantity of merchandise. When given the bill, the retailer realizes that he is unable to pay, and thus proceeds to quietly and humbly to petition to have the goods on credit - l’ma-an sh’mecha – no tangible collateral, rather l’ma-an sh’mecha. It is the ultimate petition, solely for the sake of your name, solely because of your utmost compassion and thoughtfulness, “be gracious and answer us...treat us generously and with kindness, and be our help.”

Today, this utmost petition is the most well-known sentence of the entire Avinu Malkenu prayer. No longer a silent recitation, the popular chassidic melody of unknown origin has made this one of the most universally sung refrains of our High Holiday liturgy. Perhaps God isn’t the only one who needs the reminder, perhaps we too need this public petitionary reminder to act compassionately and generously in the world for no other reason than, l’ma-an sh’mecha, for the sake of our names.