Friday, April 22, 2011

April 22, 1861: The Legacy of Rabbi David Einhorn, delivered Erev Chol ha-Moed Pesach, 4/22/2011

Rabbi David Einhorn. Perhaps he is best remembered, if remembered at all, by the Baltimore Jewish community as our neighboring Har Sinai Congregation’s first Rabbi. A German born and educated Rabbi, Einhorn came to American shores in 1855, at the behest of Har Sinai’s leadership, just six years before the outbreak of the Civil War and the events that would send him fleeing from Baltimore on this very day, April 22, 150 year ago.

David Einhorn is generally labeled as “a radical reformer.” Now, I generally resist the temptation to assign such simplistic labels to historical figures. Such labels so often fail to relay the historical context in which they developed. What does it mean to be ‘a radical reformer’ without an understanding of what was being reformed and what communal structures were working for or against such reforms? David Einhorn, a student of Rabbi Abraham Geiger, a prominent 19th century German reformer, advocated for worshipping in the vernacular. Recall that until Geiger, the vernacular was only offered as reduced translations not as texts to be used for worship themselves. He advocated also for the cutting out of all references to a restoration of the sacrifices and to a Jewish state. Recall that the restoration of the Temple and its cultic observances had been a central thematic fixture of the liturgy since the destruction of the Temple (it remains so in many non-Reform prayerbooks). Einhorn also argued, along with Geiger, that Talmudic law had no Divine authority. They were the first to do so publically. Considering the social and religious milieu of his time, radical is a fitting descriptive.

Einhorn is also celebrated within the Reform movement as the author of the prayer book Olat Tamid. Einhorn’s book, written for Har Sinai’s predominately German speaking congregation, along with a lesser known prayer book published just prior to Einhorn’s by Rabbi Leo Merzbacher, provided virtually all of the source material for a working draft of a prayer book submitted to the then nascent Central Conference of American Rabbis by Isaac Moses. Upon completion, this draft would become the beloved Union Prayer Book that served (albeit with a couple of significant revisions over time) as the Reform movement’s official prayer book from 1895 until the publication of Gates of Prayer in 1975. And though not well-accepted to date, UPB continues to find a small audience with its 21st century revision known as the Sinai Edition of the UPB.

During this season of Pesach, and particularly on this Shabbat chol ha-moed Pesach that falls on the heels of the anniversary of his being forced out of Baltimore, Einhorn should be celebrated also – perhaps even more so - for his willingness to take a public stand on important social issues that in his day where highly controversial to say the least.

On April 12 of this year, our country struggled with how to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War at Fort Sumter. While we can objectively understand that the Civil War was over far more than slavery, slavery was one of the most tangible issues and one that remains a highly sensitive sore spot in our attempts at commemoration, particularly here -- south of the Mason-Dixon Line. How do we mark such an event without condoning secessionist thinking or the mentality, shared by so many in the south at that time, that viewed the ownership of other human beings as an acceptable institution? Slavery was a sensitive issue in its day as well, and David Einhorn was one of the few rabbis (perhaps only rabbi) in Baltimore willing to denounce it publically and vehemently despite the fact that doing so put him and his family in physical peril.

A striking and often overlooked footnote to Einhorn’s history in Baltimore is that his stay in Philadelphia, to where he fled, was initially meant to be temporary. His plan was to take his family to Philly and then return to Baltimore alone in order to fulfill his professional duties. Indeed, on May 12th, just a few weeks after his departure, Einhorn received a letter from the lay leadership of Har Sinai stating that the city had settled and that they eagerly looked forward to his return of their rabbi. However, the letter continued,
We have been commissioned by the Congregation to represent to you most respectfully…that it would be most desirable – for the sake of your own safety as well as out of consideration for that of your congregational members – for you to avoid, from the pulpit, in the future everything touching on the exciting questions of the day, and we beg you to please regard this observation as due only to our sad circumstances.”

We all know what “the exciting questions of the day” were, don’t we? Again, it bears repeating, Einhorn was the only pulpit rabbi in the area speaking out against slavery at this time. Har Sinai was becoming known as the ‘one led by the abolitionist rabbi;’ and it was a qualification that clearly made its members uncomfortable. Einhorn responded with his resignation and served Philadelphia's Keneseth Israel, better known as KI, until his death in 1879.

Now Einhorn often found himself embroiled in controversy, his personality and manner seemed to draw him into conflict; but, in this case, his stubborn stance and unwillingness to bend were commendable. Einhorn’s demand for the freedom to speak openly from the bema drawing on biblical teachings while addressing timely problems of social order set a standard to be modeled by liberal rabbis throughout America. It is customary today for rabbis to demand freedom of the pulpit. Our role is to challenge, even if at times, it makes you uncomfortable.

Einhorn was a tough character, for sure. But that tough character enabled him to remain true to his values despite the professional and physical risks he took in voicing his opinions Olat Tamid¸ Einhorn’s title for his prayer book, reminiscent of the biblical burnt offering from which he takes its names, reminds us of the Union Prayer Book’s recognition that we can only know God:

When Justice burns within us like a flaming fire,
When love evokes willing sacrifice from us
When, to the last full measure of selfless devotion,
We demonstrate our belief in the ultimate triumph
Of truth and righteousness.
(UPB, p. 39)

On this festival of Pesach, and on this 150th anniversary of Einhorn’s forced evacuation from Baltimore, let us ask ourselves – on what values are we willing to take a stand? On what values are we willing to speak even if doing so brings about controversy? Answering those questions requires us to feel that burning sense of justice, even if just a taste of it. There are plenty of social ills facing our world today. Where is our passion to conquer them?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Pre-Pesach thought...

I have a book on my shelf entitled, 300 Ways to ask the Four Questions. It’s a book that was lent to me by a friend, I'm embarrassed to admit, a couple of years ago -- I’ve been far too lax in returning it (BTW, if it’s owner is reading this public confession – my apologies, I haven’t forgotten that it’s yours. It’s sitting quietly in my office ready to be returned).

When the book was first offered to me, I was so excited -- 300 variations on the Four Questions! Wow. My excitement was palpable...yet that palpable excitement was quickly replaced with disappointment. It is a fascinating book, mind you. It presents the Four Questions in, literally, 300 different languages along with nuggets of information about the languages, each community represented, and the translators; and, the book is accompanied by two educational DVDs. What more could one expect? But, I thought it was going to be a book that offered 300 textual variations, not just translations, on the standard Four Questions that have been recited by the youngest Jews present at our seder tables at least the since the Middle ages.

The Four Questions are intended to draw out the telling of our story of redemption, so that the story and its lessons can be taught to the next generation. My daughter was recently asked by one of her Judaic Studies teachers, “If the Rabbinic sages were given the opportunity to add a ritual or object to our contemporary Passover seder that would further its meaning, what would you suggest?” My daughter's response, "a dictionary!" "Why?" I asked her. "To represent constant learning." (yes, I'm a proud mama!) The first thought that came to my mind: "have the adults ask the questions!"

What would you ask? The task of formulating questions requires a certain degree of curiosity and learning in and of itself. So, what questions would you ask in order to better understand our ancient and modern history? And, what lessons do you want your kids to learn from this history and from you? I look forward to the variations that arise during your seders!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Parashat Shemini & the Centennial Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, delivered 3/26/11

Perhaps there is simply too much trauma in the world taking up our collective consciousness to allow for any significant attention paid in the print media to recollecting a tragedy from a century ago. Japan, Egypt, Libya, Israel – the devastation, turmoil and violence in the mid and far East and North Africa are all vying for our attention. We must be on tragedy overload. What else could explain why in yesterday’s New York Times, Liz Taylor and Madonna took up more print space than any significant mention of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire that took place on that very day, in that very city, exactly 100 years ago. Thank goodness for NPR! Certainly, there has been some attention paid throughout the week leading up to the anniversary, such as an article on the history of the ‘shirt waist’ and how this fashion innovation liberated women and an article highlighting the efforts of labor activist Clara Lemlich who spoke up for herself and fellow co-workers. But little attention has been paid to recalling the event itself and more importantly remembering its victims – primarily young (ages 14-23) Jewish and Italian immigrant women who worked long hours in unsafe, sweatshop conditions, six days a week in order to support their families.

A tragedy. One that far too easily could go (and has gone) largely unnoticed in modern day history books. It is hopefully mentioned in textbook discussions of the unionization of industrial America that took place at the turn of the 20th century; and, it should be mentioned in any decent survey of immigrant Jewish history in America. But, based on the blank stares I received from so many to whom I mentioned this planned sermon topic, and the growing effort in our country to limit, if not remove entirely, the ability of workers (particularly those in the public sector) to bargain collectively, I’d say we need to do a better job at remembering! There is far more to learn from the Triangle Factory tragedy than the change in hem lines that the “shirt waist” engendered!

The Triangle Shirt Waist factory was located on the upper three floors of a building in Greenwich Village just off Manhattan’s Washington Square that in its day, like the Titanic that sailed a year later, was a ‘state-of-the-art,’ safer than ever before, and ironically fire-proof building that still stands today. The innards of those top floors that housed the factory, however, went suddenly, quickly and violently up in flames late in the work day on Saturday, March 25/1911. Within a half an hour, the media reported, it was over. One hundred and forty six garment workers perished. Compounding the tragedy was the horrific fact that perhaps not all, but many of the fatalities were preventable. The fire was deemed an awful accident, the result of a not fully extinguished match or cigarette accidently tossed into a waste basket full of fabric scraps. The inability of fire fighters to reach workers (ladders were simply not high enough in those days to reach the upper floors) was a tragic, apparently unforeseeable, contributing factor to the disaster. But the entrapment, yes physical entrapment of so many workers on these high floors which lead to horrid human incineration as well as many fleeing out the windows to their death on the pavement below, was in large part a consequence of unacceptable and unregulated working conditions.

It makes us uncomfortable to remember tragedy, but we must remember this incident that still 100 years later is considered “the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City [and which] resulted in the fourth highest loss of life from an industrial accident in all of US history.” To do anything else is to do a disservice to those young women and men who lost their lives trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. The owners of this shirt waist factory were themselves immigrants who had, at first glance,achieved success. But at what cost. Fully understanding the immigrants’ desperation to find jobs, they took advantage, employing newcomers at low wages, and literally locking them in during their long shifts at one of the largest shirtwaist factories in the city. Two years earlier, in 1909, these owners had managed to withstand a 13-week industry-wide strike aimed at achieving better conditions and union representation. Sadly, it took this terrible fire and the resulting deaths to galvanize the needed support for organized labor and mandated humane working conditions.

There are those who argue that the need for collective bargaining, for unionization, has passed: we’ve learned the lesson and unions are by nature corrupt. I’m sure the system needs to adapt to the changing needs of both employers and employees of the 21st century; and I’d bet there are enormous inequities within the system that must be addressed; but, to argue that the need for a voice that speaks up and on behalf for the worker has become irrelevant is short-sighted. There are some of us who may feel we don’t need such representation but there are members of our society who do. And,those who do often fall into the most economically needy strata of our society.

Contrary to what has been voiced on the congressional floor in Wisconsin and elsewhere, our economic woes are not due to the pension plans and various protections our public sector employees generally receive. Our economic woes are due to far more complex issues including financial mis-management coupled with the abuses – or perhaps woefully idealistic wishful thinking - within the banking and lending sector of a few years back. Stripping workers of the ability to bargain collectively – particularly those workers who are taking care of educating our children, for example, or making sure our public facilities work - will not balance any state’s budget in the long run. It may just strip individuals of the basic right to work effectively in a safe environment for a decent and sustainable wage.

Parashat Shemini contains the troubling story of Nadav and Abihu, the 2 sons of Aaron who perish in fire due to their rogue efforts at worship. Could that disaster been prevented if communal and collective concerns were taken into consideration? Perhaps. Certainly there is an abundance of Rabbinic debate regarding how to understand Nadav and Abihu’s failure, debate that Mathew, in honor of his being called to Torah as a Bar Mitzvah, will now take a moment to discuss.