Friday, December 13, 2013

How Dare We Turn Away! Delivered Shabbat Vayigash, 12/7/2013

            There is great irony in the fact that during a week when American Jews across the country were feasting on Turkey, latkes, and sufganiyot, we were also reading of famine.  Last week, we were reminded by our weekly Torah reading of this famine, a famine that struck our ancestors who at least for the moment had made it to Canaan, the land of promise.  This week, Shabbat Vayigash reminds us of the choices that Jacob must make to ensure the survival of his family and the continuation of God’s promised covenant.  
            We forget that Jacob and his sons (well, all but Joe) are in Canaan when famine strikes, that piece of geography that God has promised Abraham and Isaac before him.  In order to save his family from starvation, he must leave.  He must take his family down into Egypt, a place of servitude, in order for them to survive.   Jacob must have known that the protection Joseph could offer would be fleeting, this was Egypt. But what choice did he have? 
How many in our community must face similar difficult choices?  I read recently that 30% of senior citizens in our county must choose between paying for food or health care.  Thirty-five percent are faced with the dilemma of choosing between buying groceries and paying for utilities.   In 2012, 46.5 million people, 15% of our country, lived in poverty.  Forty-nine million people live in conditions labeled as “food insecure.”
 In a country that prides itself on being a global leader, too many American citizens suffer from hunger due to substandard wages, high prices, and in some cases, a sheer lack of accessibility to nutritious food.  The difference between today and Jacob’s time?  We are not living in a time of famine here in America.  We have no shortage of food.   We just haven’t figured out how to distribute the abundance of resources in an equitable fashion so that no one goes hungry.  It is our human fallibility, and arguably greed, not lack of resources, that has left us with a troubling reality of haves and have nots. 
            We can learn a great deal from Joseph.  On the one hand, his treatment of his own family reveals a system of favoritism.  There is an implication in the procedure his brothers must go through in order to get food that others in need must have been turned away.  Joe’s graciousness and generosity appear to be driven by familial bonds.  At the same time, in making rations available to his brothers, this band of men who were strangers in this land and were more than estranged from him, Joseph models the value of helping others, even those who appear foreign to our own environment.  He could have turned a blind eye, but he chose not to.  He chose to help.
            How do we respond to those in need in our communities?   We too often argue that resources are so limited that we couldn’t possibly demand employers to offer a livable wage to workers.  And then we are shocked when black Friday deep-discount shopping causes a mania that leads to bodily harm.   We blame our President and his Affordable Health Care Act for the lack of accessibility to quality health care when we should be pointing our fingers directly at the Health Insurance industry who refuses to put access to affordable healthcare ahead of large capital gain.   Should our health care really be determined by the CEOs of for-profit corporations?   We have allowed standing on argumentative opinion to shut down our government leaving the most vulnerable of our society gravely underserved.  We don’t want to elevate the lowest wages of our society, but then we cut the programs that help those left treading on the lowest economic rungs to make ends meet.
            As Jews, we have experienced famine.  Jacob’s decision to leave Canaan and enter Egypt reminds us that there were times in our history when our survival depended on tough choices AND the graciousness and generosity of others.    With such a history, how dare we turn away from those in need?  We cannot relish in our own surplus without considering those who live in conditions that mimick famine.  Everyone matters.  The Mishnah reminds us that “whoever sustains and saves a single soul, it is as if that person sustained a whole world.”  Joseph sustained his family during famine and in doing so saved the Israelite nation.  Who will each of us save?
In the words of the life-long activist and former, and first democratically elected, president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela,
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

Ken y’hi ratzon – Indeed, may Mandela's vision come to be!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving, Chanukah, and the Mandate of Memory, delivered Shabbat 11/23/2013

This past Tuesday marked the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg address.   It was a well-crafted speech written as a dedication of what became the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Despite the Emancipation Proclamation at the start of that year and the success of the Union soldiers at Gettysburg just months prior, the war would rage for another year to year and a half before a Confederate surrender.   There would continue to be too much blood shed and too many lives lost before the Civil War would come to its conclusion.
I was reminded of this milestone anniversary of the Gettysburg Address listening to NPR on Tuesday.  I might have paid little notice to it, though, if it hadn’t been for experiencing Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem just days prior.
Last Saturday evening, I was nothing short of blown away by a superb production of Britten’s War Requiem.  Now full disclosure, I’m sure part of what contributed to my being “blown away” was the fact that my daughter was among those selected to sing in a teen choir that sang the Boys Chorus parts.  That was awesome! But, proud parent moment aside, this was the first time that I experienced the entire composition live, and I was deeply moved by the work.    Though not a Jewish work by any means, it served as a poignant reminder that we – Jews too – often have our priorities mixed up in terms of what and how we remember and how we mark communal loss.
Britten takes the traditional Latin funeral Mass, a deeply religious, specifically Catholic memorial text and combines it with the English poetry of Wilfred Owen, an officer in the British Army during World War I who wrote expressively and honestly about the human experience of war before being shot himself just days before Armistice Day.  He was 25.  The juxtaposition of the religious Mass text and Owen’s insightful and graphic poetry provide Britten a canvas on which to convey the reality of war: its horror, brutality, and ultimate futility.   He, of course, was speaking of World War II.  He could have just as easily been speaking of our nation’s Civil War, a war that despite the ideals Lincoln insisted upon, still on the ground ravaged our country and caused too many individuals and families to become intimately acquainted with violence.
Hearing Britten’s War Requiem just days before the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address underscored a sad irony. 
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation.” How many of us memorized these words.   In speaking about the blood shed, the horror, that took place on the very land he was called forth to dedicate, Lincoln said, “…The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.  The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here….”
I dare say that the power of Britten’s work lies in the very fact that we too well can forget.  Lincoln was mistaken.  We have preserved the words of his dedicatory address well.  I’m not so sure we have done as good a job in remembering what he believed we could never forget, namely the humanity behind the battles of war.
Next week, we have the remarkable opportunity to simultaneously celebrate both our Jewish and our American identity.   We value – we cherish -- both.  Neither has come without cost, without a cost born mostly by others who came before us.   As we prepare to light the candles in our Chanukiah and gather for our Thanksgiving feasts, let us take a moment to reflect on the sacrifices so many have made in an effort to forward their and our ideals.  May we never become blind to the efforts and even the blood-shed that allowed for this country to be a safe place for us, the Jewish community.  May we never become blind to the efforts of those who fought and continue to work for racial and gender equality in this country and abroad.   
Moreover, as we reflect, may we remember the mandate of Lincoln’s address, “It is for us, the living… to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion….”   Almost a century after Lincoln’s address, and not longer after the horror of World War II and the Korean War, John F. Kennedy challenged us again to step forward, “let’s begin,” he exclaimed, “let’s begin” to tackle the unfinished work of accepting responsibility for the problems that humanity has created and that ail us – all of us.   
 To paraphrase Peter Yarrow’s popular Chanukah song, we must not let the light of Lincoln's or Kennedy's ideals diminish.   As we conclude this week of remembering speeches, may we remember the actions that inspired them.  We do grave dis-service to their memory and the memory of those whose lives were lost in war if we be anything but motivated to continue to work towards equal opportunity in our country for all peoples.   We must work to ensure that religious freedom extends to all, and that no one remains enslaved and shackled.  This is our duty – as Americans.  This is our duty as Jews.

Friday, November 15, 2013

WOW: How Awesome it Would be! Delivered Shabbat Vayetzi, 11/9/2013

Allow me to share a personal story.  Just over 24 years ago, I moved to Israel.  I hadn’t planned to move to Israel.  A music conservatory drop out, I was finishing a degree in Psychology and was all set to move back to Philly in order to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology at what was then Hahnemann University.  It was only after those plans were set that I felt free to explore a nagging call to consider the cantorate.   Mind you, I grew up singing regularly at Temple – I was that kid that got all of the solos in choir, who demanded to chant, not read, Torah, but this was the 70’s: there were no adult female role models on the bema.  It wasn’t until my college years that I slowly became aware of women pursuing the cantorate and rabbinate.  So, with nothing to lose (the seat at Hahnemann wasn’t going anywhere), I inquired and applied, unknowingly after the deadline, to the Hebrew Union College’s cantorial program.  Despite being late, I was accepted and literally with a few weeks notice was on a plane to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport.   In many respects, I had no idea what I was getting into.  But, WOW, mah nora hamakom hazeh, how awesome was that place.
Outside of Canada, I had never been out of the country, and here I arrived to stay the year.  There are no dorms at the Hebrew Union College.  Upon arrival, students must find their own lodging.  I found a cozy 1 bedroom in the heart of Rehavia, mastered the art of cooking with a wonder pot, and made for myself a home.   I knew no one in Israel.  I was 23.  It was the first time I lived entirely on my own.  It is only in hindsight that I recognize the awesomeness of that period in my life.  But, WOW, mah nora hamakom hazeh.  How wondrous it was.  Only looking back do I recognize the courage and tenacity I exhibited and the willingness I had to dive into a new venture.  WOW.  
At the same time as I reflect with a sense of awe over that moment in my life, I also experience a tinge of regret over missing what in hindsight was indeed a Godly moment.   Some fellow students had invited me to join them at the Kotel, the Western Wall, for Rosh Chodesh worship.  I had better things to do.   I didn’t think these gatherings were all that important.   At that time, I wasn’t all that familiar with Rosh Chodesh practices (I hadn’t observed it growing up, and I hadn’t yet studied it.  Remember: It was my first year at HUC); and though perhaps hard to imagine, I was far less a feminist in those days.   I viewed most “women’s” worship experiences – which is how I understood Rosh Chodesh gatherings -- as a reinforcement of the segregation I witnessed in the orthodoxy of my early youth.  That wasn’t for me.   I didn’t need a women’s group.   Put simply, I didn’t get it.  What I missed entirely was the broader issue of seeking validation for non-Orthodox worship in the public square – at the Kotel, no less, a universal historic symbol of Jewish life.  Little did I know what I was missing!  Yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh, v’ani lo yadati, God was in that place, and I didn’t know it.
This group was the then nascent Women of the Wall that just this past week, on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, marked their 25th anniversary.  WOW: Women of the Wall, their acronym WOW is fitting.  Mah nora hamakom hazeh – how wondrous their journey has been.   They have come a long way, as has, over the last quarter century, my and I bet many of your attitudes towards womens’ roles in the synagogue and beyond.  It took years before I woke up and realized how important that grass roots effort was.  It took years before I woke up and realized that the opportunity to be on the ground floor of a vibrant and vital movement working towards the acceptance of Progressive Judaism in Israel had been right in front of me, and I missed it.
Of course, in 1989, none of us, even those who courageously prayed and read Torah in the women’s section of the Wall month after month, could have imagined the impact this group would have.    No one then could have imagined the initiative this group has since taken.  No one could imagine how many women would be inspired by their efforts to wear their tallisim proudly while singing out boldly.  No one could have imagined 1000 men and women gathering in solidarity supporting equal access to and the expression of non-orthodox worship at the wall.  None of us would have imagined a proposal for egalitarian worship at the wall such as the Women of the Wall have proposed to the Israeli agency that oversees religious affairs at The Wall just weeks ago.  WOW: mah nora hamakom hazeh, how awesome has their work been.
What would be even more awesome? If by the time my children are grown, if by the time Lily (the baby we just named this morning) is grown, we could look back with wonder that the Women of the Wall were ever anything but successful.  What if in hindsight we could reflect back on history with disbelief that non-Orthodox worship was ever controversial or less than acceptable at the Wall in Jerusalem.  What if we could look back with disbelief that a woman was ever forbidden to wear a tallis, or forbidden to sing out in public.  WOW:  mah nora hamakom yihiye --  how awesome the place would be!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Chaye Sarah & The Pew, Shabbat Chaye Sarah 5774 October 26, 2013

Parashat Chaye Sarah reminds us of two primary Jewish concerns: land and continuity.   Land: It isn’t enough for Abraham to have access to land for burying his beloved Sara, he must own the land, a piece of real estate to which his sons and generations following can return.  Indeed, the sons do return before the end of this parashah.  They return to this spot to bury their father.   
  Continuity: After Sarah’s burial, Abraham’s prime concern before he dies becomes finding a suitable wife for Isaac so that God’s promise of progeny can be fulfilled.  And the blessing her family offers as a send off:  May you grow into thousands of myriads; may your offspring seize the gates of their foes.”
אין חדש תחת השמים
There is nothing new under the heavens.   Land and continuity consumed the biblical consciousness.  They remain chief concerns among Jews today; hence, the heated fervor over media reports of the latest Pew Forum on Jewish life in America.   Our continuity, we are told, is at stake:
"… Outside of the Orthodox, Jewish life is vanishing, one in five Jews says he or she has 'no religion,' nearly three in five are now marrying outside the group, and [these] non-religious are more distanced from Israel.  Only a portion of the intermarried are raising their children Jewish."  Couple this with decreased interest and attendance at what were, at one time, very well-attended worship services and synagogue programs, and we have reason to feel dismayed. 
            Despite all of the media attention, the results of this recent survey should not surprise us.  Like Americans generally, Jews are showing weaker ties to faith and community than they did in the past.  Recall that the Pew Forum put out results of a survey on Americans and religion in July (the one to which I referred on Rosh Hashanah) that reported the same result for all Americans that is now being documented specifically for American Jews.  Did we think we were exempt?
            What isn’t being reported, or perhaps even gleaned from the raw data, is that there is something to be celebrated in this most recent report.  We are fully, for better and worse, Americans.  The challenges reported highlight that we have, indeed, fully integrated into American society.  We have opportunities that generations past could not even have imagined: citizenship rights, separation of church and state which guarantee religious freedom, social acceptance, opportunity for and access to economic success.  The liberties we experience today, and expect today, here and abroad, however, have consequences, namely the freedom to opt in or out of involvement with the Jewish community.
            We must face this challenge, yes; but we also must recognize the success behind it.  In my opinion, the best way for the American Jewish community to face today’s challenges is to focus, not on what appears to be going wrong based on past expectations of what it means to be a Jew, but on positive outcomes that are present in this survey.
            The Pew Forum report opens by stating that,
American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.   94% of respondents said they were proud to be Jewish!  Extraordinary!  In my young adulthood, being Jewish elicited feelings of burden, sometimes embarrassment.  Being Jewish could be a cause of problems.  Pride?  Not so much.
 Seventy-five percent reported to have a strong sense of “belonging” to the Jewish people.  Yes, Jews today – particularly young ones - are saying they have “no religion,” but they still say they are Jewish.  They are still seeking to connect to something they understand as Judaism.  Clearly, we’ve done something right as a Jewish community.
            The other vital piece of information this survey provides is that the manner in which Jews are expressing this pride in their Jewish identity is changing, not necessarily disappearing -- changing.   We are quick to assume that this change is inherently bad because “their” expression of Jewish may not look like what we know to be Jewish.    More and more Jews today aren’t interested in expressing their Judaism the way ‘we’ did or ‘we’ want them to; but, is that necessarily a bad thing worthy of piling on the possibility of the dissolution of the Jewish people on their backs?  I don’t think so.
            According to J.J. Goldberg of The Forward, the Pew Forum made some critical errors in their interpretation of the data.  He argues that while we shouldn’t bury our heads in the sand and ignore trends, the statistics are far less threatening than Pew's researchers claim.  For example, he points to studies that show intermarriage rates leveling off in the 1990’s and remaining stable over the last 15 years.   He also notes that while in 1990, the National Jewish Population Study predicted only 28% of children raised in interfaith homes would remain Jewish into adulthood, this 2013 Pew Study indicates that 43% actually did. 
            Who are we to believe?  Is the end of liberal Judaism as we know it upon us, or is there hope and possibility for a vibrant progressive, non-Orthodox Judaism in the future?  The bottom line is that the results point to a complicated picture of Jewish life in America.  Our affiliation rates and levels of observance fall victim to the same trends that every organized religious group faces in America.   In that regard, we are not at all unique among the nations.  However, at the same time, Jews still want to identify and be Jewish.   What the Pew Forum has successfully proven is that being “religious” has never been the sole criteria, or perhaps even a primary criteria, of Jewish identity. 
Instead of our harping on dire predictions regarding the fall of religion in America (including our beloved Reform Judaism), it seems to me that we should be focusing on how the synagogue can meet that remaining and passionate desire to be proudly Jewish that according to the Pew, still exists.   How do we do so?  I don’t have any fast or easy answers, but our energy should be poured into looking at how we connect with that Jewish pride, bring it in to our community, and welcome it.  Those of us who still find fulfillment in what the synagogue has traditionally offered and want it to remain a central Jewish institution second only to the family, have a vital role.  We have to take the first steps in envisioning the future by being open to change and the possibility that the synagogue can continue to thrive even if it looks different than it did in the past or looks different than it does now.

Our Torah portion recounts the years of Sara and Abraham.  It ends with the generations of Ishmael and leaves us ready to review the generations of Isaac.   Sara and Abraham were, by virtue of that covenant of promised land, blessing, and progeny, the first Jews.  Generations later, we sit here in a synagogue experiencing worship in a very different manner than they could have ever imagined; and yet we do so as an expression of that same Jewish connection and identity, viewing ourselves in the line of their progeny.   Imagine -- what if they weren’t open to change?

Bereshit: Myth or Truth

           A myth is defined by Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary as a traditional story or parable of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world-view of a people or explain a practice, a belief, or natural phenomenon.  We assume myths are false, untrue.  Indeed, an abbreviated definition of the word myth offered by this same on-line resource identifies a myth as “a story that is believed by many people but that isn’t true.”
            I believe Merriam-Webster has mixed up “truth” with “factual.” 
            This same dictionary restrains from this mix-up in at least one of its suggested offerings for the word true.  There “true” is defined as “something that is conformable to an essential reality.”  “Something that is conformable to an essential reality.”  Not necessarily a factual reality, but an essential reality.  Isn’t that ultimately what we believe is true?  What we believe is true more often than not is something which conforms to a reality we have already accepted as essential – whether based on fact, supposition, assumption, fear, or just plain laziness. 
Bershit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz, At the start, God created the heavens and the earth.  Our parasha opens with a familiar and orderly creation myth.  Creation stories are foundational to human existence.  Virtually every culture has one or more - a narrative, or narratives, that work to explain how the world, and how humanity, came into existence. Despite differences in when and where these various stories arise, remarkably, they have a number of commonalities. 
One of the most common similarities among these creation “myths” is that a supreme being is almost always central to the story. Another is that order is often imposed or grows out of a primordial undifferentiated muck, in our Hebrew story what is labeled to’hu va’vo-hu.  As a species, we humans find comfort in the thought that there is a divine motivation and structure to existence.   The presence of human life is also almost always accounted for in these stories of creation, and not surprisingly – we wrote them, humans are generally introduced into the story in a manner which places them on the hierarchy below Divine beings but above the rest of the animal kingdom. 
Our sacred biblical story of creation: myth? Or, truth?
            Let’s first remind ourselves that we have two pretty well fleshed out and contradictory tales offered within the first three chapters of Torah – the opening story which gives us the neatly packaged 7-day plan of creation and the less orderly but far more dramatic (and probably older) tale of Adam and Eve.  Are these stories factual? Not necessarily.  In my opinion, not at all.  Do they offer important and lasting truths.  Certainly.   The creation of Adam from adamah, from the earth, for instance, reminds us that we are but dust; it serves to instill us and ground us with humility and respect for the world around us.  The assertion that we are made b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image, demands from us that we act responsibly not only towards each other but for the other forms of life over which we are told we have dominion.  Adam and Eve’s partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and subsequent expulsion from Eden reminds us that intellectual curiosity may complicate our lives but also has the power to expand our world exponentially. 
Myth and truth: must they always be viewed as exclusively independent categories.  Regardless of whether our biblical creation myths are factual, they have inherent value and truth to them.
            At the same, our biblical tradition, our religious canon, cannot replace scientific exploration.  Religion is not science.  It was never intended as such.  Appreciation of these ancient stories born between the 10th and 6th centuries BCE, before the Common Era, should never be allowed to squash modern critical thinking and further exploration into scientific inquiry.   Appreciating the value of these stories must never cause us to turn a blind eye to learning more about the science of our world so that we can commit ourselves to the continued ‘creation,’ the continued existence of this world.  If we truly understand ourselves as made in God’s image, than it is our responsibility to be fully open to understanding the science of creation.
Conversely, acknowledging the veracity of evolutionary theories of creation, of scientific explanations of how our world has come to be, where the world is going, and how the earth needs to be protected and cared for as it continues, need not cancel out the truths we gain from our religious narrative.
            There is room for both.  We must make room for both. 

Rosh Hoshanah 5774: Will the "nones" have it?

            It has been six years.  Six years since our congregation was faced with a critical decision: merge with another congregation in order to become part of a larger institution with a bigger staff and a grander building, or re-envision our focus and recommit to being a small and intimate congregation where, to quote a pop-relic,  “everybody knows your name.”  Meetings were held, and the decision was clear.  There was an outpouring of passion for Temple Emanuel and a desire to remain independent in order to serve the needs of Jews living in Northern Baltimore and Carroll Counties and to preserve the congregation’s legacy of social action, modern and uplifting worship, and intellectual integrity.  It was a bold decision especially when viewed in hindsight considering the economic crash that soon followed and impacted so many of our families.
            Six years have passed.  Each year since that decision, I have taken the opportunity at the High Holidays to speak about the importance of re-engaging with the synagogue – our synagogue.  I have spoken about our need, as Reform Jews, to be dedicated to the universal values of social justice that impact far beyond our own personal walls.  I have addressed the need to support the State of Israel even when her internal politics challenge us.  I have stressed the necessity of remaining committed to personal autonomy in matters of ritual observance.  I have emphasized the need for our synagogue to be a place of personal, face-to-face and direct human connection all the more so in this digital, social media age.  Most recently, a year ago today, I invited you to engage by telling me what it is that you want from your synagogue -- how we could meet your needs and engage you better.
            Perhaps I have been less than clear.   Let me try to be more so this year.   All of these issues become irrelevant without the synagogue; and, the synagogue – this synagogue -- will not survive without you.  Based on the responses we received from that survey distributed a year ago, those who come are generally quite pleased with Temple Emanuel, its offerings, and its warm, engaging manner; and, yet our congregation remains on the precipice of survival.   Being “pleased” isn’t enough to ensure our survival!
Similar to congregations throughout our country, Jewish and Christian, , our congregation is feeling the stark decrease in religious affiliation that is ubiquitous today.  The religiously unaffiliated, the “nones,” as they are commonly known, are on the rise.  As a 2012 Pew Forum investigation uncovered, it isn’t God that is losing out: strikingly – and frankly, surprisingly, 90% of Americans report to believe in God.  Impressive.  The institutions, such as our very synagogue, however, and the people served by such institutions are losing out.  
That same Pew Forum investigation reveals, not surprisingly, that there is a decrease in trust in religious organizations that is coupled with both a decreased interest in attending worship services and a decrease in societal pressure to do so.    A longitudinal study conducted by researchers at U of C, Berkeley and Duke University found that “one in five, or 20% of, Americans claimed they had no religious preference, more than double the number reported in 1990.”   To place that in context, in 1972, only 5% of those surveyed admitted to “no religious preference.”
I certainly speak to the national trends of decreased affiliation rates, but I can address you. Is this congregation – is Temple Emanuel – an institution about which you care?  Perhaps I have been less than clear.  I can continue to stand on this bema and argue that we must re-invigorate our synagogue with a re-affirmation of Reform, of a Progressive Judaism, as Reform Judaism is labeled internationally, that responds to modernity in a thoughtful and honest way, that offers worship and study opportunities that inspire and challenge, that provides a central place and opportunity for the pursuit of social justice and social support; but, if religious apathy reigns – if you have no paramount interest in supporting and preserving our community, than my arguments are in vain.  They become nothing more than an idealized vision for a world in which no one, save for but a committed few are interested.   I cannot ensure the survival of this synagogue – or any synagogue  -- on my own.   Neither can our Temple President and his Board.  Only you can do that.
            There was a brief moment in modern history, immediately following World War II, when Reform Judaism could boast as the largest and continually growing American Jewish denomination.  My generation was raised in that era of religious institutional expansion that America, generally, was experiencing.   In the decades following WWII, American religion was, in the words of the historian Michael Meyer, “liberated…from apathy,” an apathy that was constant in the decades (not years, mind you, but) decades leading up to that period.  God entered our American pledge of allegiance to our flag during this period following WWII.  This was the time during which “In God we trust” became our motto in this country.  “Belonging to a church and believing in God,” Meyer reminds us, “[were] hallmarks of Americanism.”  (Meyer, 353, ff).
That moment has passed, my friends.  Belonging to a religious community is no longer a priority for most.   Godlessness isn’t the issue, recall: 90% of Americans are apparently believers.  Perhaps we are simply on the other side of the wave of religious institutional devotion that was spurred by the horror of war.  Few are willing to look at the reality of history and demographics for insight.
It is easier to point fingers, and there are plenty of places to which we point:  at the political arena, for instance, for equating being religious with the political far-right , a movement that has sadly succeeded at enmeshing religion and politics in a manner that makes most of us squeamish and then uninterested at ‘being religiously affiliated.’   We could point to our overall comfort and sense of American belonging – our complacency replacing a need for religious affiliation and activity.      
Others, particularly day school advocates, point to a weak religious school system that forces adults to make choices with regard to religious engagement based on a religious education that ended during adolescence.  Still others blame religious apathy on the rise of intermarriage; though, those who do clearly haven’t met the number of non-Jewish spouses who make Jewish life a priority and help to re-engage their entire family into the synagogue.  Talk about commitment.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the soon to be former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, blames the break down of the traditional family structure for decreased synagogue affiliation and goes as far as to state that encouraging women to be “stay-at-home” mothers would go a long way to solving the problem of increased secularism in his country.  
Clearly, we should stop pointing fingers!  The blame game just furthers our denial of the problem and leads to irrational deductions.
 The most insightful, and at same time challenging, explanation of religious apathy may come down to that theological emphasis on individual autonomy that is central to being a modern Jew.   Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, who explores the challenges of modern Jewish affiliation has stated, that  “As the Reform movement has increasingly emphasized religious autonomy and the importance of choosing what each person finds spiritually meaningful, it has become impossible to compel members,” to compel you, to come to “and contribute to the vibrant well-being of [the] congregation.”  (Forward article, 2011) 
Kaplan has a valid point.   Put simply, religious obligation is no longer a motivating factor in affiliating with or getting involved in synagogue life.  Guilt perhaps, but even that is fading among my generation, and with regard to synagogue affiliation, is virtually non-existent in the generations coming up after mine.
            What are we to do then?  There is no other choice than religious autonomy for Reform Judaism, or as I have stated on previously, modern Judaism generally.  Our history underscores this.   Our modern and progressive theology demands this.  Religious commitments whether to ideology or to practice, even those commitments that are made within the context of community, ultimately stem from the free will of each individual.   One may choose to accept the yoke of traditional Jewish law, of halacha, as a mandate, but in order to be theologically valid, that decision must be viewed as just that, a conscious and individual choice.
            What we seem to have forgotten in this quest for religious autonomy is that religious free-will need not equate with a religious free-for-all expressed by doing only what feels good and is comfortable.  Making a choice to opt-in to the demands our religious community, namely the synagogue, makes on us, is not a denial or repression of our autonomy; it is, davka, an expression of it.
            Shai Held, co-founder, dean, and chair of Jewish thought at Mechon Hadar, a modern Orthodox yeshiva in Israel, labels our liberal conceptions of autonomy as “impoverished.”  While I rarely agree with “Modern Orthodoxy,” Held has a keen grasp on the essence of our dilemma.  As he explains,

“Freedom, as imagined by the book of Exodus, is decidedly not about casting off the burdens of service altogether. …while we often cite the demand that Pharaoh “let my people go!” we omit the telos of that call, “that they may serve Me.”   The Torah is … concerned with a journey from slavery to freedom, but it imagines freedom in ways that are … antithetical to) the way freedom is commonly spoken of in contemporary…America.  Doing whatever I want, whenever I want, is arguably not freedom at all, but en-slavement to impulse. …. Authentic freedom, Jewish theology insists, is found in service to something …” (Shema, High Holiday 5774 edition)

Which leaves me with questions and challenges that only you can, and frankly, you must, address: what is your commitment to the synagogue?  Should we still strive to support and grow our Jewish communal institutions, specifically the Reform synagogue, this synagogue, Temple Emanuel?  Is it important to you to identify strongly and clearly as Jewish not only by filling your JNF boxes and providing your child a place to mark Bar or Bat Mitzvah, but by committing yourself to the continuity of Progressive – of Reform Jewish communal life, inclusive of worship and Torah, not just those loving acts of kindness  -- Mitzvah Day alone cannot sustain our congregation!   
In ten days, on Yom Kippur, we will be reminded that there are consequences to our choices.   Uvacharta bachayim – choose life!  We can choose a path of sustainability and vitality by stepping up our involvement in and our commitment to the synagogue; or, we can choose not.  We can choose to remain ambivalent and apathetic.  Which will it be: survival of our beloved synagogue or joining the growing sea of the unaffiliated.


Nitzavim: Today! Shabbat Nitzavim, 5773

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem – this well-known textual nugget, according to Rabbi Bradley Shavit-Artson, can be read, perhaps must be read, as an admonition against venerating the past: כלכם היום נצבים אתם, You – all of you - stand here TODAY!  This day you enter into God’s covenant.  Not yesterday.  Not back at Sinai, but now – this very day.  The beauty of the grammar is that every time we read this text, it reads in the present.   Each year, as we will in just 12 days, we recite these words from the bema to perhaps the largest kahal, the largest congregational gathering, of the year.  This day you stand here, the text describes – it demands of us that we remain present, open, and willing to hear and do God’s covenant. 
 The past is a vital component to our relationship with this covenant, and as such, it is ever present in the words of our Torah, the texts of our liturgy, and in the rituals in which we engage; but, each time we come to this parasha, we are reminded, that the present and the future are equally – if not more – important to Jewish continuity. Moreover, the present and future are fully dependent not only on continuity flowing out of the past, but on our very willingness to stand up and be present and open to accepting the mandate of being Jewish and Jewishly engaged in our own day.  Nitzavim assumes our rapt attention to the here and now.
Our tendency is to look towards the past.  There is certainly a lot of it, and much of it is rich and worthy of our attention.  If we solely venerate the past, however, then we have lost complete sight of the Jewish concept of ongoing revelation.  The author of Parashat Nitzavim makes it clear that God’s covenant was never intended to be a relic, it was intended to be renewed in each and every generation.

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem – I challenge all of us to be fully present as we enter the yamim noraim together.  The call of the shofar is ancient, our response to it must be fully present.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Words - Yes, we need them! Delivered Shabbat Devarim, July 13, 2013

Devarim, words.  Elu devarim asher dibeir Moshe, These are the words that Moses offered….  Up until now, the words Moses recites are almost always preceded by Vayomer Adonai el Moshe, God spoke to Moses.  Only after God advises does Moses then speak to the people.  Now, Moses is ready to speak on his own, and as we will be reminded towards the end of this book of Devarim, Moses does so best through song.   Just as he did at the moment of redemption from Egypt, Moses expresses himself at the end of his life through poetic song.  His final words, his final sermon, if you will ,is not understood as Divrei Moshe, the Words of Moses, but rather Shirat Moshe, The Song of Moses.   Tradition offers Moses the honorific: Moshe Rabbeinu to highlight his role as our first teacher; but, he can certainly be considered just as well as Moshe Chazaneinu.  Moses is the first communal leader, our first Jewish historical figure, to use song as a vehicle for teaching and worship.
Last Shabbat, I was en route home from the annual gathering of the American Conference of Cantors, the umbrella organization of Reform cantors.  The ACC, as it is known (not to be confused with an apparently better known athletic conference referred to by the same acronym), includes graduates and ordinees of the Hebrew Union College’s School of Sacred Music and graduates of other cantorial seminaries who choose to affiliate with and serve Reform congregations.  Each year, the ACC is joined by members of the GTM.  The GTM, The Guild of Temple Musicians, is an organization whose members serve Reform congregations in other non-clergy musical roles – as accompanists, soloists, music directors, choir directors, and composers.  Each year, the ACC and the GTM gather together for a week of worship and concentrated study. 
Back in the youth of my career (as opposed to what I consider the mid-life of my synagogue service), I attended these ACC Conventions regularly, annually.  They provided an opportunity not only to stay tuned to what was current, but also offered the chance to reconnect with former classmates and colleagues.  Due to various life happenings, such as finishing a dissertation and taking congregants to Israel, I have not attended an ACC gathering in 3-4 years.  It was nice to see my colleagues and to learn some new music; but more importantly, attending this year reminded me of the divine pleasures of Torah lishmah, study for study’s own sake, and of sitting back and being an anonymous member of a kahal, a community.
The impact of the text study sessions will appear in sermons or teaching during the upcoming year, I look forward to sharing what I studied with you; but, most immediately, I’d like to share the experience of worship.
We gather for prayer twice daily at ACC Conferences, every morning before study and each evening before dinner.  If only I could bottle the sound.  Imagine: 150 voices, voices of people who are not only confident and competent musicians, but who are passionate about Jewish worship.  Imagine them all coming together in prayer.  The resulting worship trascends the cantorial ego and bravado creating beautiful prayer and spontaneous harmonies in a way that only a group of cantors can acheive.  The simplest nigun becomes sublime in its harmonic complexity.
At the same time as there are moments and melodies that inspire me as a worshipper, a religious leader, and as a teacher of prayer, there are also moments of experimental worship, some of which fall short of what I expect was the intended result.  Conferences are, remember, first and foremost a place to learn and experience the new and cutting edge.   This year, one of these moments occurred during what was billed as “hands-free worship.”  Hands-free worship is a trend that is beginning to find its way from the mega-church movement into many Reform and some Conservative synagogues.  I purposely attended this service, an evening service, in order to experience it first-hand, or shall I say hands free.  Is this something that would enhance our worship offerings at Temple Emanuel?  Could this be a tool for re-invigorating our poorly attended Erev Shabbat services, in particular?
Before I share my ultimate ‘come away’ from the experience, allow me to first describe the setting.  Generally, hands-free worship involves replacing a prayer book with projected images (imagine a large power-point screen at the front of the sanctuary) with text, music, and perhaps graphics.  At the ACC convention’s Hand’s Free Worship, there was no projected text.  I am unclear if this was a conscious decision, such a group as ours really didn’t need the words or music in front of us, we know it by rote.  There was a big screen at the front of the room, just nothing projected on it (the screen was in the room for the entire conference).   At the front of the room was a worship leader seated and leading from a piano and two additional musical leaders seated next to the piano.   I believe the intention of the service was to remove any distractions and maximize what we label “participation.”  The leaders, all cantors, lead beautifully and with great competence.  Indeed, we stood, sat, and sang along on cue.  But, the entire experience felt lacking.  It is not a style of worship that I will be introducing to Temple Emanuel any time soon save perhaps in a religious school classroom or a First Friday Shabbat as a supplement to (not replacement of) the siddur.  My reasons are two-fold.
The first can perhaps best be expressed by my response to a colleague who was lamenting one morning over breakfast how she just couldn’t seem to increase participation in her congregation.  No matter how much she tried, she said, she just couldn’t get them to “participate” more.  She continued to describe how she walks up and down the isles of her sanctuary clapping and encouraging singing.   My, perhaps less than welcome, response: maybe she was limiting her definition of what it means to “participate” in worship.   I could begin a rant here, actually.  I believe one of our biggest failures in the Reform movement is that not only have leaders limited the definition of participation to far too narrow a window, but that limited definition has then been imposed as the best - the only - goal across the board for successful worship. 
Participation does not equal singing along, foot stomping, or clapping.  These are valid ways of participation, no argument there; but, so are sitting back and listening, being engaged and inspired by the texts before us, meditating on prayer and Torah perhaps while others around us are singing (one of my favorite ways of participating at ACC worship by the way, not one I can do here in my role as service leader) – these are all also valid ways of participating even if they can’t be measured by an enthusiastic response.   Participating often means closing our mouths, opening our ears, and taking in the fullness of a worship experience.  As a dear teacher and cantorial colleague, Dr. Eliyahu Schleifer, once reminded me, though there are no congregational refrains in sermons or drashot, your attention, your involvement, is expected.  Why do we expect any less for our liturgy?
Even though the “Hands-Free worship” was participatory in the sense that everyone was singing along, it felt performative instead of engaging.   We were a front focused audience – a sing a-long one for sure – but not so much a congregation. 
My guess as to what made it feel so performative was the lack of a hands on text.   I do believe that there is something binding about us being literally on the same page whether we are singing aloud together or not.    I don’t care if the text in my hand is paper bound or digital (btw, Mishkan Tefilah is available as a very usable ipad app), but I believe there is value in having a shared text.  I didn’t realize how visceral that attachment to text was until it was removed from my hands.  On the one hand, this attachment could be attributed to my academic and bookish interests, but it seems to me that Judaism becomes vacuous without text.  Why would we want to remove the text or place it further away from us? It is our textual traditions – biblical, rabbinic, and liturgical – that ground us, and these texts belong firmly in our hands.
Devarim – words.  On parchment, on paper, on a digital screen -- our liturgy, our poetry is just that, words.  It is only one aspect, but an important, aspect of prayer.  It is the very combination of our written texts and the oral renderings and interpretations that we bring to the words the make them sing.  It is this combination of what is in our hands and what is beyond our hands that give Jewish worship the potential of being a rich and meaningful experience.   So, let's keep the words in our hands.





Wednesday, June 5, 2013

My Remarks at the 2013 Annual Meeting of Temple Emanuel of Baltimore

This past week’s Torah portion, Shelach l’cha reminds us that we all have our own perceptions about what is a reasonable challenge.    We can imagine ourselves like grasshoppers in the face of nephilim, or we can remain focused on our skills, strengths, and the vision that has been set forth before us.   Choosing the latter does not mean that we ignore real obstacles.  It doesn’t mean we proceed with overly-confident, rose colored visions of the future.  No, it means we engage in the work, often time consuming work, required to meet challenge and overcome obstacle as best as we are able.

This annual meeting provides the opportunity to thank our lay leaders for doing just that – our executive committee (members of which are seated here and from whom you will hear), our Board of Trustees, and our Visioning for the Future committee.  These are the leaders in our midst, who like Caleb and Joshua are willing to proceed forward with great effort and expenditure of time and creativity in order to help Temple Emanuel have a promising future.  Please don’t take \their efforts for granted!   Their work is for all of our benefit.

The end of a fiscal year is also an appropriate time to reflect on the successes and challenges of our congregation.  Let me first enumerate just a few of the successes:

Shabbat morning worship: unlike many Reform congregations around the country, we have a regular gathering every Saturday morning, and we pray as one community celebrating milestones together and enjoying each other’s company.  We create Shabbat community, week after week.
TESCA: Our Temple Emanuel Studio of Cooperative Artists not only bring a beautiful aesthetic to our midst, but more importantly TESCA is a modern and creative extension of Torah and gemilut chasadim.  And, I’m proud to say that it is uniquely ours.
We have drastically reduced our operating budget, and we have done a remarkable job of reigning in deficit. When I first attended Board meetings in 2000, budget deficits were pushing into the 6-figure range.  There is still work to do in order to get us to a predictably fully balanced budget, but the effort to get us this far in just a few years must be recognized as a success!
Our Religious school is vibrant and compelling.  Our building is at our liveliest when school is in session.  Our teachers are sincerely interested in raising up a new generation of Jews, our students are interested and engaged, and our program is continuing to be current, educational, and creative.
We have shared in each other’s joys celebrating weddings, Bar/t Mitzvahs, and baby naming.  And, I’ve watched our members comfort and support each during times of challenge and loss, both communal and individual loss.  
I feel great pride in serving this congregation, and the source of that pride is you: the members and the programs you support and prioritize.  The vision of Torah coupled with social justice, and interest in worship that expresses our liturgy with integrity -  this is what gives me immense pride as this congregation’s rabbi and cantor.
Are challenges still present – no question.   There are nephillim that at times feel insurmountable and make us feel reduced to grasshopper size.  From my perspective, I see two:
Friday night worship.  As our Shabbat morning gathering has grown and become a stable fixture in our congregation (something that was not so 20-25 years ago), regular Friday night attendance has dwindled.   
And 2: We face the continuing challenge of fostering Jewish engagement and making synagogue affiliation and involvement – involvement that translates into financial and volunteer support -- a priority.
We are not unique in facing these two challenges; they reflect national trends in suburban communities; and, I don’t have an magical or easy solutions to these two challenges.  But, I don’t believe they are obstacles that should make us turn away or give up hope on synagogue life.  It is clear to me that our successes far, far outweigh these challenges.  I hope that it is clear to you as well.
As we continue our meeting, let us remain mindful of our leadership’s need of our support.   Can we remain committed to the expression of Jewish values through the synagogue?  As we offer our respect to the presentations our lay leadership has for us, may each of us be further inspired to continue our journey towards future promise, as a cohesive progressive congregation! 
Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek – may we be strengthened as we proceed into a new fiscal year in our congregation.