Monday, December 28, 2009

Delivered Erev Shabbat Vayigash, 12/25/2009 by Rabbi/Cantor Rhoda JH Silverman

It is easy as a Jew, especially at this time of year when the Christian calendar so thoroughly consumes American culture (so much so that a Christian holiday is marked by an American national holiday), to wax poetic about living in Israel. As we’ve been reminded in past weeks, there are those who believe that Israel is the only homeland for the Jewish people. If you have had the opportunity to spend some time in Israel, you know the incredible feeling of living in a country that marks Jewish time. When main street is as quiet as today’s American streets, if not more so, but on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, the major Chaggim, and even Shabbat. There is no question that there is an incredible sense of validation and comfort that comes from living in an environment that fully responds to Jewish time, when society and the culture generally moves according to our rhythm.

Yet, despite my love of Israel and my firm commitment to supporting Israel and demanding that her voice be present and heard in International dialogue and debate, and despite the challenges I sometimes face as a Jew living in a predominately Christian country, I would take up permanent residence nowhere else other than here, in America. That is not to say that I don’t hope to have many chances to visit Israel and to again perhaps have the opportunity to have an extended stay in the Jewish State, but I choose to remain solely an American citizen. I do not believe that Israel is the only home for Jews. As long as America remains fully committed to pursuing values of democracy, equal rights, and the separation of church and state, than as a Jew, this is my country; and I feel proud and fortunate to have the opportunity to hold citizenship here.

It is not easy to publically criticize Israel these days. Israel needs our support during this critical period of uncertainty. With Hamas becoming slowly but surely legitimized while Israel is increasingly vilified in the public eye, we must stand by her side even if at those times when we disagree with her. This is imperative. However that being said, while standing by her side, we can ask that Israel continue to work towards being the best expression of democratic and Jewish values in our world.

Last Friday, a group of close to 200 women gathered for prayer at the Kotel, The Western Wall, as part of their observance of Rosh Chodesh, the 1st of the Jewish month. This gathering has become somewhat of a ritual - the group having become known by the acronym ”W.O.W” - “The Women of the Wall.” This month’s gathering, however, was larger than usual due to events that transpired last month.
At their last gathering, a 25 year old medical student, and regular participant in these gatherings for 4 years, was arrested for wearing a tallis (a Jewish prayer shawl), an act that at The Western Wall is illegal for a woman. Nofrat Frenkel was among 16 women donning tallitot that early morning as is fairly typical at these regular gatherings. This month, however, she was the one carrying the Torah. At this particular gathering last month, upon concluding their public recitation of Hallel without, unusually enough, any disturbance, the group made the bold mistake of taking their Torah out of its carry-all-bag before heading out from The Wall to their sanctioned area at the nearby Robinson’s Arch. As the women were moving to The Robinson’s Arch, a nearby archeological site deemed ‘non-sacred’ and thus a place where they have been granted permission by the Israeli Supreme Court to read from Torah, the police chose to make an example of Ms. Frenkel. If found guilty, not only will Ms. Frenkel face up to 6 months in prison or a 10,000 shekel fine, but more significantly and far more lasting, she will be barred from the medical profession due to having been convicted of a felony. Ironic, isn’t it? Nofrat Frenkel may be restricted from being a doctor in Israel, the Jewish State, due to her commitment to Jewish life and its public expression.

Fast forward to this past Friday. In addition to having to endure the standard attacks, including verbal epitaphs, spitting, and often physical assault that often occurs at these gatherings, it happened to be raining, hard. When it was time to read Torah, the group began to make their way away from The Wall to the area where permission has been granted for them to read. Their procession drew in a couple dozen men who joined in solidarity. Upon arrival at The Robinson’s Arch, the men who wanted to read Torah were granted access and protection from the rain. The women carrying their Torah were left standing in the rain. Later that morning, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the Rabbi of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the governmental agency which has been given full and sole authority over the Kotel, stated, “It’s not for nothing that the rain raged at that time, because the heavens are crying over women who try to harm the Western Wall and the feelings of those who pray there.”

In Israel, where separate of church and state is far from reality, Rabbi Rabinovitch’s words are upheld by the government. He is a government appointed official. While he has been quoted saying, “[the Western Wall] is run with gentle arrangement and great sensitivity to any world view” and that attendance at the wall reveals that “everyone feels connected to it,” be clear that Rabbi Rabinovitch is an Orthodox Rabbi who does not recognize any other branch of Judaism. He would not recognize any of the Reform, Conservative, or Reconstructionist Rabbis within or without his own country – certainly not us female ones! And, he is wrong in his view that every Jew feels comfortable at The Wall. Under current circumstances, I sure don’t!

Relative to all of the countries which surround this small nation in the mid-East, Israel is progressive in its expression of democracy and in its treatment of women, and for that we should be proud as we continue to demand change. However, and some may view this as a cop out, I will continue to hope and demand for change from here, as I prefer to live in a country which allows me, as a Jew and as a woman, the right to the full and public expression of my religion.

Living in America during the Christmas season can be unsettling for Jews. Either we can jump right into the festivities of the season feeling not only inauthentic as non-Christians piggy backing onto someone else’s holiday or worse yet perhaps insulting those Christians for whom this holiday still retains even a modicum of religious significance; or, we can choose to stand on the sidelines – as a guest at the party, enjoying the mandated day off without the enormous pressure that a grand holiday usually creates (I choose the latter myself). Yet until Israel validates all expressions of Judaism – until it becomes a nation that welcomes me – a proudly observant Progressive Jew – as eagerly and as openly as my Orthodox colleagues and neighbors, until then, I’ll stay put.

By the way, while staying put, I look forward to planning and leading the next Temple Emanuel trip & mission to Israel in the summer of 2012. I hope you will consider joining in on the excursion!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Shabbat Chanukah II, delivered by Rabbi/Cantor Rhoda JH Silverman, Erev Shabbat Miketz 5770, 12/18/2009

Joseph has become an astute self-marketer, hasn’t he.

Last week’s portion paints him as a bit naive. It is one things to have dreams of grandeur where one’s elders are symbolically represented as bowing at your presence, it is quite another to share them with those very elders - Joseph’s brother’s and father - without any thought to the consequences. What was he thinking?

The story requires him to be thoughtless at that juncture. Being the subject of his brothers’ violent anger as well as a prisoner in a foreign land has apparently allowed him to mature. The interpreter of dreams who emerges in parshat Miketz is not the same idealistic dreamer of last Shabbat.

Last Shabbat, in parashat Yayeshev, Joseph announces his dreams boldly without thinking them through:
‘Joseph said to his brothers, שמעו נ֕א החלו֥ם הז֖ה אש֣ר חל֑מתי... – “Listen up! This is the dream that I have dreamed.” The Masoretic pointing - the use of the independent and forceful zakef gadol - underscores Joseph’s confidence, שמעו נ֕א! His brothers proceed to question him, ‘are you so sure of yourself? Do you really expect to rule over us?’ You’d think Joseph would have recognized the need for a more nuanced, less confrontation approach. But no, after his second dream, he again emphatically - hiney - pronounces it in the face of his family, “ה֙נה חל֤מתי חלום֙ עו֔ד והנ֧ה הש֣מש והיר֗ח ואח֤ד עשר֙ כוכב֔ים משתחו֖ים ליֽ:",” ‘hiney, I have dreamed another dream, and hiney the sun, the moon, and 11 stars are bowing to me!’

Hiney is one of those fabulous Hebrew words that put a wrench into translation. Frankly, there is no adequate translation. My most recent Biblical grammar teacher, Dr. Susanna Garfein, argues that hiney is often best left untranslated but rather is a dramatic marker than can be best reflected in the voice. Many translations use the unsatisfactory, ‘behold’ to emphasize its dramatic function: behold, I dreamed a dream... (sounds a bit too Man of the Mancha-esque, for me). The point is, Joseph’s use of hiney is significant. The sentence would make perfect sense without it. By using it, twice no less -- hiney, I dreamed, and hiney, here it is -- Joseph is clearly pushing the envelope, drawing added attention to himself and to what must have appeared to his brothers as a thoroughly self centered and delusional dream.

By this week’s portion, Joseph has developed a different approach, and one that serves him far better. He has learned to recognize and place God, a force beyond himself, at the center of the action. It isn’t all about him. Perhaps Joseph is finally getting an inkling of the reality that he is just one piece of the bigger narrative - the development of the Israelite nation.

In this week’s parashat Mikketz, Joseph recognizes immediately when called by Pharoah that בִלְעָדָי not me, but אלהים will answer regarding Pharoah’s well-being (Gen 41:16). Now Pharoah is no push-over. Our midrashic tradition, Genesis Rabbah to be precise, understands Pharoah’s statement, “I dreamt a dream and there is no one to interpret it” (Gen 41:15) as meaning not that there hasn’t been any attempts at interpretation but that there has been no interpretation yet to his liking!

So let’s see what was so compelling about Joe’s analysis (p. 237-8). Joseph frames his entire explanation as God, specifically Elohim, telling Pharoah what is going to happen. Moreover, before finishing, he adds: :כי־נכ֤ון הדבר֙ מֵ֣עִם האלה֔ים וממה֥ר האלה֖ים לעשתֽו, ‘this matter has been decided (in other words, its a done deal) by Elohim and Elohim is quickly making it happen. (Gen 41:32)’ Taking the traditional approach to text study that no word is superfluous, it is striking that Elohim is repeated here. If we look at the verses that lead up to it, the proper pronoun for God is not repeated but rather understood. Verse 28, for example, “this is the thing that I told Pharoah, that which God is doing,הֶראָה את פרעה ‘he’ has shown to Pharoah.” Verse 25 too, “היגיד לפרעה” ‘he’ has made known; but in verse 32, Joseph uses what 20th century biblical commentator Nahama Leibowitz calls the rhetorical device of repetition: כי נכון הדבר מעם האלהים וממהר האלהים לעשתו. Like the previous sentences, this sentence is fully understandable without the 2nd Elohim: it could just as easily read: כי נכון הדבר מעם האלהים וממהר לעשתו - This matter has been decided by God and he is quickly making it happen.

This ‘rhetorical repetition’ works! Joseph succeeds at convincing Pharoah that his interpretation is correct, and that God is in charge. Pharoah’s first words after Joseph’s recommendations to ‘find a man with the spirit of Elohim in him,’ is indeed, ‘since Elohim has made all of this known to you, (Gen 41:39)’ I pick you.

Joseph has brilliantly marketed himself on the shoulders of God.

Perhaps Joseph instinctively understood Dr. Rashkover’s remarks last week regarding how religious communities must be able to come to interfaith dialogue with far more than secular interests at hand. We must be willing to confront God and theology in our discussions. Notice that Joseph is able to foster relations between him, an Israelite, and Pharoah, an Egyptian, by plainly and boldly recognizing God. At this time of year, when we feel the greatest challenges of assimilation, when it is easy to feel pulled by outside cultural influences - namely the Christmas season, the retention of Elohim here in the text instead of that יהוה we identify as Adonai is worthy of exploration. Was reference to the uniquely Israelite יהוה too particularistic for this story to work?

A Biblical-Critical approach to the text, the study of how the text arises out of various textual traditions, reveals both, what we call, the J (yawist) and E (Elohist) strands throughout the Joseph story. One of the biggest (though not indisputable) cues of these strands is the use of יהוה (Adonai) vs. Elohim in referring to God. However, the text went through various redactions before final canonization. Many opportunities arose for editing, yet throughout Joseph’s interpretation and advice to Pharoah, Elohim is retained - the Adonai of the Jawist strand is never allowed into Joseph’s dialogue with Pharoah.

Joseph’s use of Elohim can be viewed as highly calculating. Perhaps he is striking a balance between what he must reveal about himself and what will be acceptable by the outsider. As Jews living in an America that is frankly saturated with Christmas, we too have to figure out how to respond.

Our individual responses will differ - perhaps even greatly - depending on the make up of our families, how we were raised, and on what values we choose to hold onto and pass forward into the future. The challenge, and not necessarily an easy one, is to be conscious about how we are responding. Turning Chanukah into a ‘Jewish Christmas’ as retail marketing forces would like us to do is an inadequate response. Displaying our chanukiyot in the windows of our home during these 8 days as a proud expression of our Jewish identity is however our mandate.

We are no longer in Egypt. Thankfully, we don’t live in the time of Pharoah. It behooves us to maintain our particularity and to resist any fear of expressing it, in how Dr. Rashkover framed it, the public square. This square is equally ours even if we are present in fewer numbers and even if it is covered with tinsel and jingle bells through all of December.

The greatest challenge of being a Jew in the modern world is finding that balance between particularism - asserting our unique identity, and assimilation - striving to fit in. In facing this challenge, we will be confronted with many attempts at blurring the boundaries, Christmas-kah cards and Chanukah bushes, for instance. Where and when do make sure that Adonai - our specifically Jewish culture and values - is not absorbed by Elohim requires tough and confident choices. Choices, though, that are worthy of the effort.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

In Memory of Jennifer Lynn Harris: b. 4/23/66 d. 5/23/1981

Among my most vivid childhood memories are the day Jenni Harris died and the following Monday when while sitting in the chair just behind her empty chair (Harrison always followed Harris in the seating chart), her death was announced over the PA system to the entire school. Losing a dear friend at such a young age leaves its mark. It was certainly my first close hand experience with death. I would venture to guess that Jenni’s death likewise left a mark on many of us, her Lower Moreland classmates.

Luckily I have many memories of Jenni’s life to offset the ones of her death. Her beaming smile and her incredible sense of humor are foremost. Cystic Fibrosis may have ravaged her body, but Jenni rarely if ever let it consume her incredible spirit. Even when the illness would flare up and hospitalization was required – as it too often was – she made the best of it with wheel chair and IV pole races up and down the halls of the peds unit at Holy Redeemer between therapies. That’s how Jenni approached life. With zest, eagerness, and a desire, like most kids, to have fun! Of course, as any kid would, Jenni hated the CF – she couldn’t stand being sick; she couldn’t stand being so skinny when all of her friends around her were growing up (and she certainly couldn’t understand when one of her friends was doing anything to fight the normal processes of puberty); and yet, despite the CF, Jenni was able to laugh through her struggles and engage fully with her life, family, and friends, for as short as it was, remaining active in all of the activities – which were many - that gave her joy really until the very end of her life.

Memory is an interesting phenomenon – two people can experience the same exact events and yet their memories of these shared events can be diametrically opposed. I could continue to share all of my personal memories of Jenni: such as playing the flute in band together or being picked on by her older brother, but each of us has memories of our classmate, Jennifer Lynn Harris, differing and varied memories for sure. Some crystal clear and others faded with the passage of time - yet, all of us who had the opportunity to know Jenni can share an important lesson from her life.

Jenni had 15 years in this world. That’s it. She lived them fully and made the very best of those few years she had facing each day with courage and all the joy she could muster. My fellow Lower Moreland classmates: we have all lived well more than twice the number of years that Jenni had -- we are nearing three times her lifetime. Let’s not take that for granted! Let’s be grateful for each and every day we have to share with our family and our friends and to be grateful for all that is good. In that way, perhaps, we can allow Jenni’s legacy to persist in this world.

In Judaism we offer the words: זכרונה לברכה (may she be remembered for a blessing) after the name of one who has deceased. Jennifer Lynn Harris, זכרונה לברכה –may Jenni’s memory survive in each of us and may she be remembered always as a blessing.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Toldot: The Chain of History, delivered Erev Shabbat Toldot

As some of you know, this past Shabbat I had the joy of celebrating with my family as the son of one of my many cousins was called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah. I descend from a fairly sizable family. Growing up, it was a tight nit family: cousins from both sides would gather with grandparents regularly. Seders and Chanukah parties would draw 50 some odd relatives. My family got to host one night of seder each year and the large summer swim parties (‘cause we had the big, old sunken pool in the back yard). There are stark differences between the sides of my family - my mother’s side having roots in this country that extend back at least to the Civil War and possibly to the American Revolution, while my father’s parents each immigrated here separately and by themselves from Russia and Poland between the World Wars. My mother’s parents’ home depicted the traditional set up – my grandfather a business owner, my grandmother a school teacher who ‘retired’ in order to raise kids and volunteer in her synagogue and numerous other organizations such as NOW and Hadassah. My dad’s mom, on the other hand was a career woman, a partner in hers and my grandfather’s men’s suit business. And when left suddenly a widow in mid-life, she applied that tough immigrant work ethic and ran the family business single handedly. She was the rare business woman of her generation working hard to provide for her children and put them through college (Ivy League no less – which gave her immense pride). She was a tough woman. Those pool parties were the rare occasion I saw my Grandmom Irene in something other than a business suit. My mom’s mom was a fabulous cook who nurtured us with food and my grandfather a prolific gardener. My Dad’s mom, well her cookies were as hard as golf balls, and Shake n’Bake was gourmet at her place (though it was she who taught me how to make Kasha). Yet despite all the differences, everyone in the family came together often and en mass. Now, spread out occasions such as Bar Mitzvahs, 50th wedding anniversaries, significant birthdays, and the rare Rabbinical ordination, serve as our family gatherings. Each time we gather, I am struck by the aging of my parents generation…is that my aunt who is so bent over, when did my Dad start walking so slowly…as well as the aging of my generation’s kids: how is that little Julie is already in college! The one who celebrated his Bar Mitzvah this past Shabbat - I’m sure we just celebrate his 1st birthday.

While Torah portions take their name simply from their opening words, this week’s portion’s appellation, Toldot, generations, is fitting in that it underscores the power of family and specifically the patriarchal lineage that is presented in these early stories of Bereshit.

Parashat Toldot can serve to remind us each of our place in the historical chain of Jewish history. We’ve read a lot about Abraham in the past couple of weeks. From his willingness to follow the call of lech l’cha of going forth to settle a new land and seed a new nation, to his challenging God in the story of Soddom and Gomorrah, to his purchase of that first plot of land on the soil which God has promised to his progeny, the appointment of Abraham as a patriarch of the Israelite nation is obvious. We celebrate him as the father of the Jewish people - it all starts with him.

This week’s Torah portions jumps quite quickly to Abe’s grandchildren. And, the narrative throughout the next few portions inclusive of that famous wrestling match from which Jacob will emerge a physically and emotionally changed man will make Jacob’s place among the patriarchs clear. He emerges as none other than Israel.

But what about Isaac? We read of his birth, of his travels with his father to Mount Moriah where he finds himself bound for slaughter. We read of his servant’s travels to find him a wife, but what does he do? What actions does he take? The pshat doesn’t offer much; there simply isn’t much in the narrative to go on. Isaac doesn’t appear to do anything particularly astounding. In fact on the contrary, most view Isaac as a helpless character – unable to find his own wife, unable to even give the right blessing to the right son. Maybe his political negotiations with Avimelech, the king of the Philistines, are the source of his claim to patriarchal fame? Doubtful. Rather, I’d argue that it is his sheer presence and willingness to stay connected to the family that makes him an important link in our Jewish history.

We are wonderful at celebrating the success of the individual. We tend to celebrate achievements and accomplishments as if these are the key to our legacy in the world. Isaac’s presence in the chain of our patriarchs reminds us otherwise. He didn’t have to wrestle with God to get there. BUT, he does have to bear the responsibility of passing on the values that were central to his parents to his own children.

The Midrash, drawing on a text in Leviticus where our Patriarchs are listed in reverse order: Jacob, Isaac, then Abraham, teaches that all three were on par with each other. Their individual accomplishments are worthy and important, but they do not serve to elevate one individual over another in terms of their individual status within their family and by extension among the Israelites. Their yichus, as my immigrant grandmother would have called it, comes from being committed to the chain. If Isaac opted out there would have been no Jacob to wrestle with God and become Israel.

Each and every one of us is a vital link in the chain of history. Regardless of our accomplishments or lack thereof, our presence and involvement is essential – each of us matters. And the significant role each of us has to play is to make sure this chain of Jewish history doesn’t end with us. We should all strive to be like Isaac –a critical link through which Judaism lives and is passed to the next generation.

My cousin and her husband have done and continue to do their job. Witnessing the next generation of Harrisons/Cohens/Wolfes (and soon Silvermans!) step up to the responsibility of Torah, I am confident that like Isaac my cousins and I are doing our best to be a vital link in Toldot - in Jewish history – the link between our parents and our children. How about you?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"Where is God?" delivered Shabbat Vayera 11/7/09 by Rabbi/Cantor Rhoda JH Silverman

I admit it.  Those of you who know me well may not be too surprised, but those of you who don’t, well - hold on to your seats for a confession:  I am not too sure I believe in God.  Whew!  There.  I said it.  I struggle with the concept of, the belief in God, particularly a personal God.  And some days, I’m far less sure than others.  I doubt I am alone in this.  I know that I am not alone in this, but somehow to admit this as a Rabbi, a Cantor - a Jewish leader, feels heretical.  “What do you mean YOU don’t believe in God?”  You might be thinking.  “If you, someone who has devoted her life to Jewish study, synagogue life, and the perpetuation of Judaism, who stands on this bema and offers prayers on behalf of the kahal; if you don’t have faith, then why should I?” A valid point. 

However, it should be fully noted that while I struggle with the existence of a personal God, I firmly believe in Godliness! This week’s Torah portion Vayera certainly challenges us to delve into the question of God.  And a close look at the text propels me to imagine that our Biblical ancestors also struggled with the nature of God.  Immediately in our portion, the line between God and humanity is blurred:וירא אליו יהוה באלני ממרא God appeared to Abraham as he was resting outside his tent under the shady oaks of Mamre in the heat of the day, then immediately וישא עיניו וירא, Abe looked up and saw שלש אנשים נצבים עליו, 3 men standing there upon him.  We are informed that God makes Godself known to Abraham, but when Abraham looks up, he sees men, human beings. Three humans that tradition views, not as ordinary mortals, but as מלאכים, divine messengers.  It is unclear when Abraham comes to recognize their Godliness: is part of his eagerness to serve them a recognition of their divine status?  One thing is clear, the Biblical author uses these אנשים almost interchangeably with God. 

The division between man and God is no less clear in the fiery story of Sodom and Gommorah.  The men ַאנשים)) went up from there and gazed down upon Sodom, Abraham going along with them to send them off. The Eternal [“Adonai”] then thought “Should I hide from Abraham what I am doing?...vs. 20) The Eternal One [“Adonai”] said, ‘The outcry in Sodom and Gomorrah - how great it is, and their crime - how grave it is! Let me go down and determine whether they are wreaking havoc in equal measure to the shrieking that is coming to Me. If not, I will know. vs22) The men now turned away and went toward Sodom...

It’s as if these human men are far more than messengers, but rather agents - the eyes and ears of God - as if they and God were instant messaging information back and forth [maybe the traditionalists are right that everything of import is indeed found in Torah - look a biblical precedent for IMing]!  This encounter between Abraham, these אנשים and יהוה raises a key question: is there a line between divinity and humanity? And, if so, where is it?   Clearly the Biblical text regards humankind as a vehicle of divinity.  Regardless of our personal faith, or lack of faith in God, this is a lesson, a model from which all of us can and should learn. Furthermore, this text challenges us to ask who is truly offering the best representation of Godliness.  Are these anashim, whom we readily recognize and understand as representations of God the best exemplars of Godliness.  They appear to be the vehicle by which this Adonai sees and hears what’s happening; yet, it seems to me that Abraham’s behavior is far more worthy of emulation.  

Our opening verses (which our Bat Mitzvah will discuss) of course remind us of Abe’s hospitality, literally we are told that he וירץ לקראתם, eagerly runs out to greet and attend to the needs of the stranger.  But even more compelling is his behavior with regard to God’s announcement regarding the destruction Sodom and Gomorrah.  While the men that tradition recognizes as agents of God stand and witness the wickedness of Sodom apparently accepting their boss’ (i.e., God’s) harsh judgement as deserved without question, it is the fully mortal Abraham who is willing to speak out, to argue on behalf of the innocent, working against what is understood as the most all-powerful force - namely GOD - in order to save life.   He doesn’t succeed, and we are lead to believe that there was no innocent life worth saving; regardless of his failure, his efforts are valiant and by definition, godly.   

The other difficult story in Parashat Vayera - the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac - a tale that is held up in much of Rabbinic folklore as a testament to the extent and extraordinary nature of Abraham’s faith in God.    A midrash preserved in Sefer Aggadah, a wonderful collection of Rabbinic legends, however, could help us understand it differently.  According to this legend, Abraham had repeated opportunities presented by the advisary to change paths, yet he determinedly (stubbornly?) continues on this terrible journey to sacrifice his son.  In the moment that he raises the knife, however, Abraham demands of the messengers who call to him a conversation directly with God, calling out, “I...swear that I will not go down from this altar until I say all that I need to say!”  The midrash imagines Abraham continuing with a confession; and it is this confession that is open to comment: “When You - God - commanded me to sacrifice my son Isaac... I restrained my impulse and did not reply as I should have.”  Historically, this confession is understood as Abraham admitting to a moment of crisis in faith (a failure of faith), before saying yes to God’s awful demand; yet, his confession could just as easily be understood as a recognition, an admittance, that he was wrong to blindly trust this absurd request. 

Perhaps we are to understand that God’s reward of a blessed and numerous progeny stems from Abraham admitting that he should have said no from the start. Let us not be so quick to demand of ourselves so consistent and unwavering faith in God that we then find fault in our doubt or worse in ourselves.  If Abraham, a regular joe, just like any of us, has the capacity to question what he perceives as God, and in doing so is able to act Godly in this world, than certainly can we.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Lech L’cha: Go Forth, delivered Shabbat morning 10/31/2009, Rabbi/Cantor Rhoda JH Silverman

לך לך֛ These opening words of our parsha flow off the tongue beautifully in Hebrew. Any attempt at a literal translation, though, stumbles clumsily past our lips. Lech, that’s easy - “Go!”, but the l’cha raises a bit of difficulty. A word which, as is common in Hebrew, incorporates both preposition and pronoun together, it could be “to you” or “for you.” No combination of these words translated separately quite captures the essence of Lech l’cha. Rather, לך לך֛ is most accurately understand as a phrase evoking motion; the best definition, “Go forth!” implies an imperative 2nd person singular, with the ‘you’ understood rather than stated. Ah - the challenge and fun of translation, and from a Jewish approach to text, a source for rich comment.

Much of the commentary on this parasha focuses on the subject of Lech l’cha, the ‘you’ – which is, of course, Avram, who we will soon know as Abraham. The midrashim, the legends, explaining why Avram is the focus of this imperative lech l’cha are endless. The most famous, the one we learn so well as children in religious school that as adults many of us are surprised to find that it is nowhere in the Biblical text itself, may be the story about a young Abraham smashing his father’s idols and thus bravely and boldly displaying faith in a singular and invisible God. Another lovely midrash which seeks to explain why Abram is chosen to be the subject of the biblical ‘Go Forth’ imperative imagines God finding Avram from among the rest of humanity in the same way that a king finds his precious pearl buried in the dust of the earth. Still another has the Mesopotamian ruler Nimrod seeing Abraham’s rise as the father of numerous and blessed progeny predicted in the stars of the sky.

The focus of these legends are firmly on the ‘l’cha’ – an attempt to understand the choice of who. Why Abe? And, more honestly, as Jews who trace our lineage back to Abraham, what we are ultimately striving to understand is, “why us?” The tendency towards creating this apologetic explanation of why Abraham was chosen, and by extension the Israelites, for covenant in our biblical text - why us and not someone else or some other people - is rife with theological difficulty; and, Reform Judaism has openly struggled with this difficult concept of chosen-ness since its inception. I’d argue we are still struggling with finding that balance between particular- and universal - isms. By focusing on the l’cha of our command lech l’cha, however, we remain focused on this challenging question of chosenness which is frankly, in my opinion, ultimately unanswerable without a critical understanding of the historical context.

Instead, let us focus on the Lech, the verb instead of the subject. This instruction can give us clear direction, and here that English understanding “Go forth!” is extremely useful.

The opening lines of our text are filled with the promise of blessing. At first glance, it appears that we will be the passive recipients of blessing. ונברכו בך כל משפחות האדמה, “then they, all the communities of the earth, will be blessed through you” as if Avram’s actions will lead to all of us receiving blessing. This promise of future blessing appears in two other places in Genesis but with a slight emendation. In each place it reads, והתברכו בזרעך כל גוי הארץ, “then all the nations of the earth will make themselves blessed through your seed.”

The primary difference has to do with the verbal form of the word for “bless.” A brief grammar lesson. Hebrew verbs have roots that change meaning depending on their form, what we call in hebrew their binyan. In this week’s verse, the binyan is nifal, נברכו, which is generally translated as passive; hence, the translation ‘that the families/communities of the earth will be blessed through you.’ The later verses contain the hitpael verb form, התברכו, which is an active, reflexive form, ‘they shall bless themselves.’ So which is it? Do we receive blessing because Abraham was chosen; OR, do we create our own blessing because of actions we take?

Biblical scholar, E.A. Speiser argues drawing on those parallel verses that come later that even in our opening passage of Lech L’cha, the phrase should be translated in the active, reflexive form teaching us that in order to gain blessing, we each have to Lech l’cha, we have to ‘go forth.’ Ultimately this is a choice, but it isn’t God’s choice, or our ancestor’s choice. This is a choice that each and every one of us has to make.

A word to our Bat Mitzvah
Sfat Emet, a late 19th century chasidic commentator viewed the command lech l’cha to be less about geographic movement than about being willing to carve out a new path separate from the past, being able to continually move forward, in his mind, to ‘keep walking.’ In modern psychological speak, we might call this ‘individuation’ - where an individual is able to take what she needs from what has been given her and is able to formulate her own path, make her own healthy decisions, and formulate her own opinions and unique ideas. May you, lech l’cha, go forth!, from today using all of the ideas and tools for life that you have been given so far, to hitbarech, to create your own blessing while remaining an active and full participant in our congregation and the extended Jewish community.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

D’var Shabbat Noach, 10/24/09 Global Climate Healing Shabbat: Why bother?

Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream….merrily, merrily…life is but a dream. This ditty comes to mind whenever I see pictorial representations of the story of Noah. It’s a cute children’s song. The story of Noah is all too often presented as a cute tale for children. It adorns books, nurseries, blankets, our Temple Emanuel Learning Center walls and as well as walls in many other Jewish institutions that cater to children: schools, pediatric hospital wings, daycare centers; even the Union of Reform Judaism’s child naming certificates are beautifully adorned with Noah’s ark. Noah depicted as the nurturing caretaker, the zoo-keeper, providing for all the animals during the flood as if his ark flows ‘gently down the stream’ through the storm. I would dare to say that this is the most frequently drawn upon Torah story for children’s stuff. We don’t depict the Temple or the sacrificial cult detailed in Leviticus for our kids, though according to Rabbinic tradition Leviticus is the first book of Torah we are to teach our children; nor do we depict the Exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Reed Sea – a defining moment in Jewish peoplehood, on the walls of our nursery schools. No, we pick this sweet story of Noah caring for the animals during the flood.
But is it really? Is it such a sweet story? God is fed up with all that that has been created – particularly humankind and decides to “לשחת כל בשר אשר בו רוח חיים” destroy every thing that breathes. All living creatures save for a number of selected representatives only 2 of whom are human are doomed to destruction. Anyone who has witnessed the devastation brought on by massive flooding knows this is at heart a violent story. Our country and particularly the regions most affected are still recovering from the catastrophic floods of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. And our biblical narrative describes flood waters far more expansive, so high that the tallest mountains on earth were completely submerged bringing destruction and death to any and all life on earth. Carefully, painfully, the text explains: וימ֜ח את כל היק֣וּם אש֣ר על פנ֣י האדמ֗ה מאד֤ם עד בהמה֙ עד ר֙מש֙ ועד או֣ף השמ֔ים וימָ֖חוּ מן הא֑רץ ויִשָ֧אֶר אך נ֛ח ואש֥ר אִת֖ו בתבֽה, "God wiped out all that was on the face of the earth, from man to beast, from all that crawls to the birds in the sky, they were all wiped out from the earth. Only Noah and that which was with him in the ark remained." Bringing some goats and doves up as sacrificial offerings to God seems to me like light reading in comparison.

Perhaps we lighten it into a children’s story because we fear facing the horror of it. Denial is a very real psychological phenomenon! And it works.
Today has been labeled International Day of Climate Action. Jews have joined the hundreds of thousands of people in 158 countries who will be participating in this call to action by identifying this Shabbat, Shabbat Noah, as Global Climate Healing Shabbat. Today is expected to be the most widespread day of environmental action in our planet’s history. Extraordinary, really.

But why bother? There are many who argue that we are dealing with improbable, unpredictable, even uncontrollable phenomena; and, some of their arguments seem awfully compelling. Denial is easier, isn’t it. Sun columnist Mike Tidwell reminded us this past week that we “…comfortable Americans tend to view really big catastrophes such as tsunamis and famines as far away matters involving people usually too poor or undereducated to plan better.” But this does impact us, and this isn’t some children’s story, or even a tale we can dismiss as Mesopotamian myth like we can with our biblical text. This is our 21st century reality, and we’ve had our heads buried in the sand (whatever’s left of it) for far too long.
Twenty-one years ago, I was finishing up college, considering grad schools, diligently working at various jobs between classes while trying to maintain some assemblance of a social life. Twenty-one years ago, I blissfully knew nothing of the first congressional testimony regarding Global warming. I admit, I was a late bloomer when it came to interest in current events, but environmental and climate issues were far from most of society’s mainstream consciousness; this was a time when even recycling was limited to special event organizational drives. As early as 1988, though, Dr. James Hansen, of NASA, a scientist who perhaps has been studying climate trends for longer than anyone else, testified before our United States Congress that Global warming is real and has serious consequences if left unchecked.
Two decades later, we are finally beginning to pay serious attention., the sponsor of today’s International Climate Day and the motivator behind our Global Climate Healing Shabbat, views an international treaty as paramount to combating global warming and its consequences. Few remain confident that one will pass this December in Copenhagen as was hoped when leaders from the international community first began meeting, but at least the issue is being recognized and efforts are being made to further the environmentalist agenda. The momentum must continue, and we can do our part by encouraging our political leaders to stay the course and remain proactive on environmental issues. did not consult the Jewish calendar when selecting this date. Its confluence with parashat Noach – and this story of rising flood waters, is pure accident, yet it is fitting. It reminds us of our dependence on the earth’s resources for our survival and the extraordinary power of nature.

Our Torah portion tells the story of what happens when society is left unchecked. There are a variety of ways to understand the text. A fundamentalist reading strives to blame such natural climate phenomena on behavior that doesn’t fit into the overly rigid moral agenda of the religious right. The historical Rabbinic reading, our midrashic sages blamed such phenomena on the yetzer ha-ra, the human inclination towards lawlessness that was said to run rampant in Noah’s day. Today we recognize the science behind the pattern of global warming, a trend that if left unchecked could lead to continual glacial melting and subsequent flooding. Our behavior is critical – but the behavior that we now know is critical has all to do with our environmental choices. These must begin take on a moral imperative. takes its name from the upper limit (350 ppm) of carbon dioxide that is viewed by scientists across the board as the safe limit for the continued healthy functioning of our planet. America, while certainly not the largest producer of CO2 in gross output (I believe China and India can battle for that honor), yet we produce more CO2 per person than virtually every other country in the world.

It may not seem it, but there is much we can do to make a difference, and even small choices make an impact. The Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network (BJEN) has many suggestions which are listed on our website and on a poster in our lobby that range from planting trees, reducing our dependence on the automobile, changing what kind of light bulb we choose to use in our homes and offices, to simply unplugging unused electrical appliances and chargers. But we do have to make the choice to respond and act.

Our Torah portion makes it clear that humans continued to make poor choices even after the apparent lesson of the flood – we are far from perfect, we are inherently flawed. Yet we also have the capacity for incredible goodness. The text also makes clear that God recognizes this inherent goodness, for God decides never again to destroy humanity despite the fact that we will make mistakes. The symbol of this promise is of course the rainbow. The Hebrew is clear that this bow is far more than picturesque symbol; it is a tangible sign of, brit, of covenant. Covenant demands a partnership, an agreement between two parties by which both parties have responsibility. The text never outlines the human part of the deal that is left for our imagination. So, let us imagine that our responsibility is to wake up to the reality of what we can do to take care of this planet and do it, one small step at a time.

Noah according to the Biblical accounting lived interestingly enough 350 years after the flood. Let that span of his life, after the covenant of God’s rainbow, be a reminder of our part in reaching the communal goal of keeping our carbon dioxide emissions below that 350 ppm upper limit. If we don’t do our part to heal our planet earth, if warming trends and the melting of our earth’s glaciers continues, only we will be to be blame. And I guarantee we and our progeny won’t be rowing so merrily down the stream.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Bereshit: A Model of Tolerance, delivered 10/16/2009 Rabbi Rhoda JH Silverman

We live, it seems, in a world of increasing divisiveness and intolerance of the other – perhaps this is a function of the economic stresses of the world that will fade once stability is restored. I am too young to know from actual experience if our nation faced such divisiveness in the last period of great economic depression to which this one is so often compared, and I am far from an expert on this relatively recent historical period; yet my sense from my limited reading is that our social and cultural response today is different. Perhaps time has softened the historical memory, but it appears to me that whereas in the past great stress brought our country together creating bonds among citizens, today it seems to be feeding a growing disparity between the right and the left and an increasing lack of tolerance for each other’s point of view.

Parashat Bereshit offers us a model of tolerance for differing views. Two creation stories are contained this week’s portion – two very different creation stories that despite the traditionalist and theological attempts to reconcile them into one story reflect drastically opposing world views.

The first, a story that like much of the biblical text – particularly the material attributed to the Priestly hand (as is this) - is difficult to date. There are a couple of differing and compelling scholarly theories, yet clearly it reveals an awareness of Mesopotamian mythology and thus may have roots in that culture. This presentation of creation is an orderly and systematic accounting of the world’s creation out, תהו ובהו, of utter chaos. It is memorable – “בראשית ברא אלהים” – at the start, or as popularly translated, ‘in the beginning,’ God created…” as God proceeds carefully through each day commanding ‘ויאמר אלהים’, through speech, the creation of light, land & water, vegetation, the lights in the sky including the sun, moon, and starts, the animals that fill our earth, and of course humankind.

It’s a lovely story in its order and simplicity: God is all-powerful and systematic; and humans are simply one element among a grand litany of God’s creations. Certainly we humans are differentiated from the rest of God’s creation, not only by the use of the Hebrew word ויברא in place of the word ויעש– the verb used for the rest of creation, but also by the statement that we are בצלם אלהים, made in God’s image. Like God, we are given power over other creations, yet despite humans being given special consideration (and the midrashist’s interpretation that the world was created entirely for our sake), the creation of man is not the central facet of this story of creation. Creating divine order out of disorder is.

Story two, most probably an older textual tradition (attributed to the J strand), offers a different opinion. Here, despite the passage creating an expectation that we will now hear אלה תולדות השמים והארץ בהבראם, a chronicled history of the making of heaven and earth, man takes center stage in no less than 3 verses and remains central throughout the rest of the story, the raison d’etre for the creation of all other animals. Unlike the first story presented, this rendition is far from orderly – on the contrary, the author is far less concerned with outlining an ordered and detailed litany of creation than with explaining the human condition. If anything, creation goes from order, gan eden, to chaos in this version. Moreover, there is no b’tzelem Elohim. On the contrary, there is the implication that God doesn’t want humans to be God-like, at least if we are to believe the serpant: “כי וֹדֵעַ אלהים כי ביום אכָלכם ממנו ונפקחו עיניכם והייתם כּאלהים...,” “God knows that on the day that you eat from that tree, the tree of knowledge, your eyes will be opened and v’hyitem k’Elohim, you will be like God.” God is not all-powerful in this story, rather the free will of human beings interferes with God’s control of order shatters the orderliness, the paradise, of Eden.

So which is it? The former offers a version where order is paramount and a Divinely dictated hierarchy is implicit. All creation comes from the word of God. The latter offers a version where earth is not only primary but serves as literally the source material for mankind who then becomes the center of all attention and all further creative activity, some good and some not so good. Theologians throughout history have worked to reconcile these two stories into a seamless whole, and some have striven to use their theology in order to scientifically explain creation; yet, be clear that regardless of any creationist attempt at creating science out of theology, the biblical text was never intended to serve as scientific truth. Rather the intent of the biblical author (whether God or human hand – that of course is another question entirely, and most everyone here should know where I stand on that issue), was to introduce ideology, a moral code – a way of understanding the universe, not necessarily knowing the universe. Science, as a discipline, comes much later.

The goal of Torah is to explain the selection of the Israelites, to couple them with this God known as י-ה-ו-ה and to the Land of Canaan, and to follow their journey to this place. Parashat Bereshit really does nothing to further this specific agenda; but, it does provide important background, a preface, if you will, to the story of our national development. It provides a universal setting and primeval history to the birth of a specific people. At the same time, these stories present different philosophies on the nature of human kind – they prioritize different ideas; and, and here’s the point: from the Torah’s perspective, it doesn’t matter! What is important to the wholeness of Torah is that these stories share the then innovative idea of an ever-present and singular God.

Perhaps the inclusion of these two diametrically opposed stories by the final biblical redactor was purposeful as a reminder to all future generations – including us - that Judaism has never been monolithic; there is, and always has been, room for difference of opinion and for debate. It is that very fluidity and open mindedness that keeps Jewish life growing and thoroughly enriching.

Liberals and Conservatives have similar ultimate goals – we all want peace, here and abroad; we all want affordable health care, and we expect those most in need to be cared for properly; we all want jobs – and the opportunity to feel productive while experiencing the joy of our world; we all want a stable economy and affordable housing. We all care about life, protecting it and ensuring the mental and physical health of all humankind. There are different opinions as to how to accomplish all of these goals; and mostly like there is more than one right way of how to get there, but we won’t get there if we remain divided, unwilling to fully listen and hear, to work with and ultimately compromise with each other.

The Biblical text is clear, whether made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, or from the very dust of the earth – or somehow both – we humans all share our humanity in common however that humanity has come to be. Let the difference of opinion, the diversity inherent and retained in our biblical text help us counter fundamentalist and rigid ideology. Let it serve as a model of tolerance for us in this challenging economic and political climate. Let it remind us that it is through the diversity of opinion and open minded compromise that the solutions to our most difficult challenges will be found.
Ken y’hi ratzon!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Be Happy! Delivered Shabbat/Sukkot morning, October 3, 2009/15 Tishre 5770

Shabbat/Sukkot 1, 15 Tishrei 5770
This special portion for the holiday of Sukkot, a passage from parashat Emor, details what we are supposed to do. The requirements are outlined clearly:

• On the first day and the last day, don’t go to work; it is a sacred day that demands complete rest. That’s clear, no? Whether we choose to honor that commandment, well that’s another story, but the expectation is clearly stated for us to understand: these days are to be set aside as distinct and deserving of שבתון.

• For 7 days, bring offerings: meal offerings, burnt offerings, sacrifices, etc. to God. Okay - an instruction that at first glance seems no longer relevant -- we worship, thankfully, in an entirely different manner today; but, in the context of the biblical period, it is clear what was expected: a public expression of worship and appreciation for this specific holiday, separate from anything else.

• We are commanded to gather together the 4 species: פרי עץ הדר, כפת תמרים, ענף עץ עבת, & ערבי נחל, together known as the lulav and etrog. No explanation is given here in this particular passage, but it is a tangible and clear instruction nonetheless.

• We are commanded to live in booths, in sukkot during the holiday - not only a tangible task, but one with a reason offered namely to remind us that the Israelites lived in temporary dwellings after they were redeemed from Egypt.

There is one last commandment offered in this festival passage that our Bar Mitzvah will recite in just a few moments:
ושמחתם לפני יהוה ואלהיכם שבעת ימים.- “You shall rejoice before Adonai your God seven days.”

Many of us, particularly the adults in the kahal (Oliver & his friends perhaps may be to young) may be familiar with the Bobby McFerrin song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” This now old song pops into my head every time I read this passage. ושמחתם - it’s not a suggestion rather our text is clear: וחגתם אתו חג ליהוה שבעת ימים בשנה חקת עולם לדרתיכם....(ויקרא כג) - “you shall make it a festival to Adonai - to God for 7 days a year; it is a chok, a law for all time throughout your generations”, in other words, forever. Again, this isn’t a recommendation or a suggestion, this is a command: “You, be happy! And be so for 7 days”. Moreover - and here’s the catch- rejoice while outside in the sukkah, that fragile incomplete shelter that is susceptible to wind and rain and that has little room for any material belongings.

On Thursday of this week, China celebrated the milestone of their nation’s 60th anniversary, a celebration that stands in stark contrast to the expectation of this command. Based on reports in the paper, this anniversary was marked with the kind of pomp, materialistic display, military bravado, and rejoicing that one might expect at such a celebration - especially for this country which is proud of and eager to revel in its growing position as a world power. It is easy to rejoice and celebrate in our material achievements. The timing of this nationalistic display, though, can serve to remind us of the very different intent of our biblical command, ושמחתם, to rejoice.

Sukkot requires that we rejoice despite our being out in the most simple and fragile of settings separated from those very material things that we think give us security or power. We are expected - we again are commanded - to rejoice in the simplest of pleasures: inviting guests and sharing a meal not in our elaborate redesigned 21st century kitchens with its granite counter tops and stainless appliances, but in our fragile and often less than comfortable sukkahs accessorized with perhaps a picnic table and folding chairs, but hopefully filled with people.

It is nice to have things. It is nice to surround ourselves with all of the comforts of modernity and the excesses of American consumerism; yet it is all too easy to allow ourselves to mistakenly equate these material and tangible things and structures in our lives with security and protection from our own human frailties and the reality of our mortality.

Sukkot with its seemingly paradoxical focus on the temporary and shaky sukkah and the simultaneous commandment of s’machtem, of rejoicing, reminds us that not only can we not escape insecurity of the human condition, but that we must find a way to celebrate and rejoice in our lives, in our humanity, despite it.

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.