Thursday, December 1, 2011

Shabbat Toldot: Legacy - Opportunity and Burden, delivered Shabbat morning, 11/26/2011

It is difficult for me to find much redeeming in the narrative that makes up the bulk of our Parashat Toldot. I can’t help but read the portion as an example of dysfunctional family dynamics. Parashat Toldot is filled with sibling rivalry run amuck and parents contributing to the drama through their own actions of deceit and denial. It seems that the best we can do with it is accept it as a painfully true depiction of humanity; and as such, recognize that even our beloved patriarchs and matriarchs (or at least the authors of these stories) were entirely human and subject to the same emotions and insecurities that we are. The story of Isaac imitating his father by passing his wife off as his sister to Abimelech and the Philistines, for instance, challenges us to consider the natural tendency towards following in our parents’ footsteps, even if when it means unintentionally repeating their mistakes. Legacy can be both an insightful teacher and a burdensome yoke. The story of Rebecca’s manipulation of events at the end of her husband’s life unsettles us and challenges us to consider how we treat our own loved ones, perhaps especially our children who rely on us as role models. Do we respond appropriately to the differences in our children? Do we help them overcome, or do we encourage their rivalries? Do we help them forge their own paths, or do we burden them and use them for our own gain or for the fulfillment of our own goals? Rebecca is a curious figure to be held up as a matriarch. Yet, she is. Despite all of the challenges of the story, it is part of our Biblical canon. We accept it as part of our sacred historical narrative.

One significant lesson that can be drawn from this portion is that, despite dysfunction, all can come out okay. We aren’t doomed by our human failings. Our destiny isn’t necessarily plagued by the mistakes of our parents or ourselves. At the end of our Biblical narrative, the Israelites will still receive the benefits of the covenant made originally with Abraham. Their descendants will still get to stand at Sinai and ultimately enter the promised land of milk and honey. Unfortunately, though -- and perhaps my frustration in the portion lies right here: implicit in this lesson is the deeply troubling message that deception, Divinely mandated deception no less, is necessary for the covenant between God and Israel to be brought to fruition.

This dilemma is not a new one, and our generation is not the first to recognize it. The traditional Rabbinic exegesis offered on Parashat Toldot redeems the deception by expanding on the limited characterizations of Jacob and Esau provided in the Biblical text. Accordingly, as typical in Jewish commentary, the peshat, the simple rendering of the text, must be coupled with the later layers of oral tradition in order for the reader to understand why the deception is acceptable, indeed necessary. In the Rabbinic mind, Jacob doesn’t just yoshev ohalim, sit in his tent, but rather is portrayed as a pious and devoted student of Torah while Esau’s outdoorsman character is painted as a wild fan of idolatry. Jacob is compared to a rose’s sweet fragrance while Esau to its thorns. Rebecca’s behavior is thus forgiven, even celebrated, because she was ultimately forwarding Torah, and God’s agenda, in her actions. Rebecca apparently needed to resort to deception in order to assure God’s plan.

Unfortunately, outside of the most traditional circles, the midrashic apologetic no longer fully satisfies. I doubt that I am alone in not being so easily placated by the traditional rabbinic explanation, an explanation that raises a difficult theological dilemma: what are the ramifications of a theology that grounds the continuation and longevity of the covenant between Israel and God on deception?

I don’t have many useful answers this morning. I, like you, have been busy digesting turkey and caring for my children who were off from school the latter half of the week. However, I mused on these questions as I sat with my family – between my aging parents on the one side and my teen and almost teenager on the other -- and celebrated Thanksgiving. In musing upon them, it dawned on me that perhaps answering the question is far less important than being aware of it. We needn’t reject the text or God simply because the text unnerves us. As liberal Jews, we believe that the Torah and the additional layers of Oral Law, were written by the human hand. As such, the story reflects the entire gamut of human strengths and weaknesses. Our sacred narrative reflects the experiences of its authors; and, we have the ability, perhaps responsibility, to add to the layers of Oral Law by engaging with the dilemmas raised in the text and creating our own generation’s commentary.

We elevate the story to canonical status, and in doing so create very high expectations for the text and the early commentary that is coupled with it. Expecting unrealistic perfection from humanity only prevents us from taking away valuable lessons from the text and adding new ones to it. It also prevents us from seeing ourselves in the characters. Isaac and Rebecca are held up in our tradition as our parents. We will make some of the same mistakes they did. Hopefully their example will also lead us to some better choices as well.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

We Did it Right! Shabbat Noach & the Dedication of our Outdoor Chapel In the Woods

God may very well be smiling today!

I don’t use anthropomorphic language to imagine God very often. I’m too much of a rationalist, and I doubt too much. But indeed, if this week’s Torah portion parashat Noah is meant as lesson – a guide- for how the human race is supposed to build and sustain our world, then we at Temple Emanuel got it right. We got it right with the building of our outdoor sacred space, a sacred space we dedicate this morning in honor of Nathan Lawless and his parents, who brought us together in this wonderful project, and in memory of Joseph K. Rosenblatt, Jr. whose family has ensured that this space will be maintained in a beautiful and accessible fashion well into the future.

Too often we read parashat Noach with children’s eyes; it’s easier that way. The animals gently herded into the ark by Noah becomes a charming story of seemingly patient salvation as opposed to the devastating narrative it was meant to be. Excuse my blunt language, but the essence of the story can be summarized succinctly, and in a manner I believe Joe would have appreciated: we screwed up, God is pissed, and God’s starting over! We know the destructive power of endless and constant rain. I can’t imagine this story was ever intended to be as cute as we’ve made it out to me.

The stories that follow the flood narrative, the first we hear of the generations that follow Noah, indicate that destructive punishment doesn’t lead to learning or positive change. Take the Babel story, a story that has become a charming midrash for the myriad of human languages that exist in our world.  It is a story that on the surface reads as a productive and communal building project, כל הארץ שפה אחד the entire nation was speaking the same language; they were on the same page. Unfortunately, the page they were on was the wrong one. Their singular, and thoroughly misguided passion, according to Rabbinic tradition, was building something tall and grand, a skyscraper, that would in the Torah’s words, נעשה [להם] שם, establish for them a name. The failure of this early building project? It was celebrated for its grandeur and its size, not for what it could provide for the community.

God is smiling today. We got it right with the building of our outdoor chapel!

The seeds of this project were planted many years ago by AJ Benjamin. These early plans were put aside for various reasons, but when Nathan expressed interest in furthering this project, those plans were generously shared by the Benjamins so that he could build upon their early vision and work. Nathan, with some gentle assistance of his parents, motivated our entire congregation to build and create this chapel for our congregational community; and in doing so, he earned the well deserved rank of Eagle Scout. Yasher Ko-ach to him! Though the project and effort involved was certainly grand -- it was a tall order: it involved all of us participating: from the challenges of fund raising and physical planning (not so easy on our grounds) to the last layer of mulch being spread across the chapel floor; yet, the goal of the building project was never about size or establishing “a name” for those involved, it was all about working together in order to provide a sacred gathering space for learning and worship.

Nathan’s work did more than to inspire the creation of the chapel. His efforts inspired Doris and her family to continue the work of creating and building upon this space into the future. Working with TESCA and the Lawless family, Doris has ensured that we can continue Nathan’s efforts; and in doing so, has reminded us all of Joe’s legacy. An life-long participant and leader within the Boy Scouts of America, Joe would be proud to be remembered and honored by the continuation of such a grand and special project.

Yup – God is smiling today, despite the rain and snow (maybe God is simply overcome with emotion …how’s that for anthropomorphic imagery), we got it right! In appreciation of their efforts, we invite Nathan and his parents and Doris and her children up for the aliyot to Torah.  And, though we formally dedicate the chapel this morning, we look forward to following up in the spring when the weather will allow us to carry out the Torah for study and worship in this wonderful outdoor space!

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Limits of Perfection, Delivered Rosh Hashanah morning, 5772

What if we suddenly found out that we could do anything? It is certainly a compelling plot for both book and movie: what if there was a pill that could give us the ability to maximize our brain’s productivity so that we could accomplish anything, literally anything towards which we directed our mind and attention. Limitless, a movie released this past year based on the sci-fi thriller, The Dark Fields by Irish novelist, Alan Glynn, raises and strives to answer this very question. Now, in order to make it a compelling thriller, the story line of both book and movie portrays this magical drug as being inherently and extremely dangerous, emotionally and physically dangerous; so much so that the characters who take it ultimately suffer greatly and die. The danger is perfect for the movie. It adds tragic conflict and offers a powerful lesson about unmonitored drug use: the attainment of cognitive perfection at an enormous price -- one’s own very well-being and the security and well being of anyone connected with them. The story raises the challenging, yet important, question of what we are willing to sacrifice in order to feel a sense of productivity and perfection. Remove the element of danger, and, though we lose some of the thrill and drama and that all- important lesson regarding the dangers of drugs, a potent question still remains: what if we could always be super-productive? What if we could consistently and constantly work at our absolute fullest potential 100% of the time? What would you choose to accomplish with such increased intellect and energy? (Go ahead…think about it for a minute…we have time; this isn’t a long sermon.)

We who live in our modern achievement-driven world, I fear, too often equate one’s individual productivity with success and perfection. We hail those who seem to get everything done efficiently. Has anyone else been called a “super-mom” or “super-dad?” These common monikers, still used more often for moms, evoke super-hero status for the parents who juggle professional careers with all of the primary tasks of parenting. I get called that, not because I’m necessarily exceptional at anything, but because I am able to balance (more often juggle) many tasks and appear incredibly productive. It is assumed that I’m “super” at it all. Far from it. America is a very achievement-oriented culture. We don’t just equate success with achievement, we demand it. We want, we expect, to succeed, to be the best at everything; and, we are often willing to do or pay, almost anything to get a taste of that sense of success for ourselves and our children. Rarely do we consider the cost of these attempts, and rarely do we consider if the constant striving for success and achievement is anywhere near perfection at all.

Our modern English word perfection comes from the Latin terms, perfectio and perfectus, which refer to concepts associated with “finishing” and “bringing to a conclusion” respectively. These Latin roots to our English word did not have the superlative connotations we commonly associate with perfection today; rather, “perfectus” was all about bringing something to fruition. According to an article about perfection in the journal Dialectics and Humanism, the concept of "perfection" as we understand it today reaches back, beyond its Latin origins, to Aristotle and the Greek term “teleos.” Teleos, like the Latin “perfectus,” indicates a sense of finality and purposeful conclusion. Though human flourishing was indicated by entirely different Greek word, Aristotle, in his work Delta of the Metaphysics, added the abstract and superlative connotations to this Greek concept of teleos, connotations that have become associated with our modern sense of “perfection” but connotations that remained a secondary definition of the Greek “teleos” in Aristotle’s own time.

While I have never formally studied Latin or Greek, it seems to me that the implications of these early concepts of perfection have more to do with the natural journey towards completion of any action than any singular moment of perceived success or accomplishment along the way. Nor is it about being The Best once completion is reached. There is no inherent competition in the origins of perfection. Rather, perfection was about seeing something through to its logical conclusion or helping an action become complete. Sadly, I don’t think we have a decent English equivalent for conveying this original idea of perfection.

The Hebrew concept, however, of Shleimut, which shares the same root as the commonly known word shalom, seems a very useful synonym to these original concepts of perfection. Shleimut: wholeness or completeness. The word engenders a sense of satisfaction, not necessarily one of betterment or superiority, a sense of satisfaction that has become lost in our modern pursuits of perfection. Take for example, the Hebrew phrase refuah sh’leimah, which is used to wish someone well when they are sick. Refuah sh’leimah can literally be translated in English as “a complete healing,” but “a complete healing” isn’t really a satisfactory translation. To say, “a complete healing” in English simply doesn’t convey the phrase’s intent. Unlike our English ‘complete,’ the Hebrew sh’leimah doesn’t mean that the illness will necessarily be fixed or that there will be physical healing, a full recovery. Shleimah, instead, implies a sense of wholeness and coming to terms with the entire journey of healing, even if that healing entails acceptance, emotional healing, in the face of not being able to be physically healed. Perfection isn’t about being the best, it is about being whole even when what we may view as the “best” outcome is impossible.

Aristotle provided three definitions to the concept of “teleos:” that which is complete thus containing all of its requisite parts; that which has attained its purpose; and finally, that which is so good that nothing of the kind could be better. There it is, the definition that has, for better or for worse, struck our fancy and endured as our modern definition of “perfection”: that which is so good that nothing of the kind could be better.

Ironic, isn’t it? That our modern conceptions of “perfection,” a word whose linguistic roots convey a sense of finitude, now implies an endless, limitless, seeking of that which is ultimately un-definable. How can we ever know if something is so good that nothing else could be better? They keeping coming out with the perfect computer and the best phone with the most convenient apps…how could we ever know when nothing else could be better? If the Iphone 4 was ‘perfect’ why do we need the Iphone 4S? We’ve lost five pounds, how do we know that 10 won’t be better? The movie title, Limitless, is apt! The striving becomes constant, and perfection becomes an elusive and unrecognizable endeavor all to its own. There is no completion. We’ve lost the capacity to simply feel “perfectus,” complete.

So back to the original question that initiated this whole, possibly mundane, even boring for many, foray into language: what would we choose to accomplish if indeed our capacity to accomplish was limitless? How many of us thought first of the myriad of items on our “to do” list? Or, in our desire to accomplish and achieve anything or everything, did we think in today’s parlance, of our dream filled “bucket list,” of all of those things we want to do and accomplish in our life times? New York Times contributor, Carina Chocano, noted in her assessment of the movie Limitless that, “in all its pulpy glory, [the movie] represents the logical terminus of a certain pattern of modern thought, endlessly fueled by our culture [namely] if you can theoretically become perfect, then it follows you should at least try.”   The assumption: that perfection comes from limitless strivings.

Indeed, our goals for perfection today tend to be consumed with the ongoing process of self-actualization. We start our new year with resolutions; and, as Jews we take advantage of January 1st to re-set and re-formulate those resolutions. Goals are extremely useful. And, Rosh Hashanah and the entire season ahead of us, all the way through Simchat Torah, is about repentance and renewal, a process which must start with the self, and -- committing, to be and do better. It is not enough to beat our chests and say Al chet shechatanu l'fanecha!  At the same time, The High Holiday season, as it is known in English, is not about actualization solely for the self. It is not about putting ourselves on some higher plane above others. On the contrary, these days of Awe are about strengthening our connection with God and community and about striving for a sense of shleimut, of wholeness, in those relationships.

אם אין אני לי מי לי וכשאני לאצמי מה אני?, Hillel reminds us: If I am not for myself, who am I? The importance of self is evident in Jewish tradition. As Rabbi Reuven Balka, a contemporary commentator on Pirkei Avot, from which Hillel’s lesson is drawn, astutely argues, “No individual can step out into the world with a poor self-image and expect to make important contributions to human betterment. The neglect of self makes the neglectful person a poor choice for helping others.” But, Hillel doesn’t stop there, if I am only for myself, what am I? It is clear that we risk losing our very humanity - מה--What am I? - if all our goals are focused inward on our own potential.

What if we suddenly found out that we could do anything? As Jews, such a question must be followed by: what would we contribute to our world? How would we nurture our relationships and function in such a way as to help make this world a better place for all? Of course, such a question is fodder for the imagination; the reality is we are limited. We are limited by the extraordinary condition of our humanity. Moreover, as my cursory digging into the origins of the word reveals, the very essence of perfection has limits. Too often we seem consumed by the limits of our humanity while forgetting about the limits of perfection. Our brains, generally speaking, function just fine. It is our expectations that could use some tweaking. There is much we have to offer, as individuals and as a community, to our world even without the fantasy of being limitless.

The protagonist in Flynn’s fantasy of limitless potential states at one point, long after discovering his magic elixer, “I finally had my shot!” His failure is that he never quite answers that question, ‘shot to do what?’ Instead, the character is consumed with self-preservation, self preservation that backfires. The pursuit of perfection becomes dangerous when we remain consumed by the betterment of the self while forgetting about taking care of the world around us and the people with whom we share this world. Truth is, we don’t need to be limitless for that. We have our shot to perfect the world and make it a place of Sh’leimut, so let’s get to it!

Atem Nitzavim: Why Bother! Delivered Erev Yom Kippur 5772

Atem Nitzavim ha-yom kul’chem! “Today, you stand here – all of you”, our Yom Kippur morning Torah portion reminds us, to accept the covenant given by God. It is an ancient scene, yet one which our Rabbinic sages understood to be eternal. The Covenant made there that day between God and the people on the border of Canaan was made not only with those who stood there in that moment, our sages teach, but with all of their descendents, and the descendents of their descendents, and the descendants of their descendents – indeed, to every generation yet to follow. This agreement, this brit, was, accordingly, made for us as well.

According to traditional exegesis, the commentary, on this text, we are to abide by Torah’s commandments because of this very deal made generations ago; and the kicker, it ain’t optional. In the simplest sense, our observance is payback. As the Spanish Medieval commentator Abravanel describes, we are obligated to re-pay a debt that was owed by our ancestors for the act of redemption, namely the Exodus from Egypt, that God enacted on their behalf. It is, in his view, no different than making good on an outstanding financial obligation, except in this case, the principle is never entirely fulfilled. God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan, and now we, in each subsequent generation, must pay God back by abiding by God’s law, Torah. So much for the personal autonomy that I discussed a few years ago.

We are constantly reminded of God’s enacting redemption, and by extension this debt. The first words at Sinai aren’t “I am God who created heaven and earth.” No. God introduces Godself and the laws that follow by reminding us, “I am [the One] who brought you out of Egypt!” Our liturgy, too, repeatedly reminds us of this outstanding obligation. Morning and night, we sing, Mi Chamocha, an excerpt from the very song apparently sung by the Israelites upon their first taste of freedom. We refer to this act of redemption when we bless the wine on the eve of the Sabbath and festivals. Redemption is considered a cornerstone of Jewish history and theology. Without it, our story would have ended in Egypt.

Talk about one hefty and enduring obligation. No wonder so many of us are compelled to opt out. The guilt that arises with not fulfilling the expectations of this inherited covenant can often feel like it is simply too big a burden to bear. Isn’t religion supposed to be a construct that enriches and helps us navigate our lives, as opposed to a burden to shoulder?

I’d argue that the traditional understanding of אתם נצבים היום כלכם as an imposed, eternally binding and non-negotiable covenant may no longer be useful in our modern American culture. I stand by my words of a few years back: personally autonomy is a must. And, I’ll say it again, we all must be Jews-by-choice in order to make the most of our engagement with Jewish life and the world. At the same time, reconnecting to that sense of obligation may not be entirely such a bad idea.

Horace Kallen, in a 1915 study of American Nationalism, wrote, “Men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies, to a greater or lesser extent; they cannot change their grandfathers….” Now, Kallen was discussing the challenges of assimilation at a time when large waves of immigrants were coming to join the melting pot of American life as it was understood at the turn of the twentieth century; but, his observation can be instructive for those of us striving to identify fully as Jews in the modern world. What was understood as a challenge at a time when assimilation was a priority can, and perhaps should, be understood as a goal at a time when assimilation has been so fully achieved that too many of us have forgotten, or consciously set aside, the values of our grandparents. When we may have achieved exactly what the Jews of Kaifeng, China, about whom I spoke on the Eve of Rosh Hashanah, achieved. We are so well acculturated as Americans that our Jewish identity is barely recognizable.

In past generations, part of what made it so difficult to ‘forget our grandparents’ was, frankly, anti-Semitism. Yes, for all of its horrors, the upshot of anti-Semitism was that it worked to prevent Jews from shaking off the inherited obligations of Torah, of being a Jew. Our distinctiveness was imposed on us by others. The covenant, the responsibility associated with being a Jew, however, is no longer imposed upon us by State or society. Thank God for that. However, one of the ramifications of our full acceptance into society is that it is left up to us to decide. We have to make a conscious decision as to whether we are going to bother opting into the covenant or not.

The successes of assimilation and acceptance into American culture have made it fairly easy for any of us to slip on and off the cloak of our Jewish identity. One Shabbat on, one Shabbat off. Synagogue affiliation for a few years, unaffiliated for too many others. Jewish education a priority until age 13, everything else a priority after. Commitment to Jewish causes, well only if nothing else is more compelling. Brisket and latkes on Chanukah, ham on Christmas. Be clear, Jewish identity isn’t a sweater. It may seem easy to slip in and out of our Jewishness, but that doesn’t mean we should.

So why bother at all? I left the question unanswered a week ago: Is the model offered by the ancient Jews of Kaifeng a success or failure? Is complete assimilation to the point of disappearance a failure worth lamenting? It isn’t an easy question to answer, for any of us including me; and, ultimately while I can stand here and tell you why I think you should bother with Jewish life and observance, the answer for each individual must come from within oneself. The motivation must ultimately come from you, not me. But, since my sermon would be far too short for such an occasion as Erev Yom Kippur if I end here, and since I promised I would ten days ago, I’ll go ahead and preach anyway. Here’s why I think we all should bother!

1) It’s relevent. Despite its ancient history, Judaism remains relevant. Yes, our primary text, the Torah, is old – very old, and one can argue (as so many have) that its language and context are dated – they are; but, contemporary lessons can continually be drawn from it. There is a timeless aspect to Torah and all of Jewish literature. However, that being said, it won’t remain relevant without us. It is up to us to make it timeless. The text requires our engagement. Rituals require our engagement. If we stop studying and interacting with our history, then indeed, Judaism becomes static and archaic, as do all of the traditions that come out of it. But, if we continue to interact with our unique history, then the traditions and rituals can remain beautiful, compelling, and relevant to contemporary life. They can serve to elevate our lives and give our lives meaning.

2) We have a responsibility to Torah. It is our responsibility to keep the text vibrant. As liberal Jews, we have an extra mandate. We must continue to engage with Torah in order to keep it from becoming monopolized by the Orthodox. Torah is ours as much as it is theirs. From the earliest public readings of Torah, the text was open to translation, commentary, and interpretation. Certain opinions, in the form of commentaries and pointings, endured more than others, but there was, and still is, room for a diversity of opinion. This diversity is, however, dependent on us bothering. Once we give it up, it fails to reflect diversity. Torah becomes a monolithic and closed document. Judaism becomes rigid and inflexible.

3) We have a responsibility to God. We may view the obligation of אתם נצבים הוים כלכם as a burdensome obligation, but according to the French Medieval commentator, Rashi, it was no picnic for God either. The Covenant is a contractual agreement between two parties. The redemption of our ancestors from bondage may have put us in a position of eternal debt, but this everlasting burden of the Covenant is placed equally on God. It really isn’t all about us! According to Rashi, the implication of the verse, והוא יהיה לך לאלהים כאשר דבר לך , “that God will be a God to you, as promised,” included just before the extension of the covenant to all forthcoming generations, is that God cannot abandon or disassociate Godself from any of us. Arguably God’s very existence is dependent upon our bothering.

4) We have a responsibility to our world. Simply put, Jewish living makes the world a better place. The mandate of living our lives with an eye towards doing mitzvot and treating our neighbor with derech eretz makes all of our lives sweeter. שמצוה גוררת מצוה.. הוי רץ למצוה , Run to do a Mitzvah, Ben Azzai is recorded as saying in the Mishnah, for one mitzvah leads to another. We often translate mitzvah too simply as “a good deed.” The Hebrew root of the world mitzvah,צוה , is much stronger; it is a command. Doing mitzvot, are not be left to whim or chance. Mitzvot, the righteous deeds that are the cornerstone of Jewish tradition, are mandated and are the responsibility of every Jew. If we don’t bother, mitzvot don’t get done.

In 1492, when the only world this generation of Spanish Jews knew literally kicked them out of their homes, the community developed a theology that mandates all of us to fix the world and make it better. This Lurianic concept of tikkun olam, of fixing the world, that developed in the Northern Israeli town of Sefad in the decades following the 15th century expulsion from Spain compels us to bother - to focus at least part of our energy on working to making the world a better place for us and all peoples.

5) We have a responsibility to each other. Judaism has the remarkable potential for enriching our relationships with each other. Jews worship within the context of a minyan, a community. Jews study in chevruta, in partnership and friendly debate with others. Jews work together and with others in order to do gemilut chasadim, acts of love and kindness. Simply put, Judaism requires community to thrive. Even our most personal confessions, recited together as part of worship on Yom Kippur, are done within the protective embrace of the community. Historically, during periods of persecution, Jews looked out for other Jews. Today, thankfully, there is less need for such hands on protection from outside forces – but the help and support is still present in many forms. Many of the organizations that were set up to step in to help when others turned away still remain and still serve our community. We are a community that takes care of itself and others – that is, if we decide to bother.

6) We do have a responsibility to our ancestors. We may not like Abravanel’s metaphor of eternal debt, but anyone who was in this building on the second session of Sunday school when our students were making their ushpizin/ancestor strips for our “Most Beautiful Sukkah in the World” witnessed first-hand the power of history and the remarkable sense of legacy that comes from remembering those who came before us.

Our history is vital. Atem Nitzvaim hayom kulchem. Our ancestors stood at the foot of Canaan and made a decision to enter into an agreement that would impact us immensely. Of course we have a choice as to whether to accept the mantle of this agreement or not. Our Yom Kippur morning Torah portion makes the choice clear, choose life or curse. We’ve learned that despite the fears of the Deuteronomic writer, complete assimilation is no curse. However, it is no blessing either. To quote my dear friend and local journalist, Dr. Neil Rubin, “Jews have always brought goodness into the world. Jews will continue to do so. We will continue to succeed at doing so without you; but, we need you and want you involved.” I, frankly, am not as confident as Dr. Rubin. There is no question that Jews have brought goodness into the world and can continue to do so, but I don’t believe that we can continue to do it without you. We need you to bother!

The mandate of atem nitzavim, of accepting and forwarding Torah meaningfully in the world in a manner with which all of ancestors would be proud, from which we will be nourished and engaged, and from which our children can learn is vital to our modern expression of Judaism. Atem Nitzavim ha-yom kulchem -- I hope you will all choose to stand with me, as an actively engaged Jew, today and everyday in the year to come.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Assimilation: Success or Failure? The Example of Kaifeng Jewry

[MP3: Aaron Avshalomav: Rebecca at the Well]

An example of assimilation and acculturation at its best, this piece, entitled “Rebecca at the Well” by Aaron Avshalomov, is a remarkable synthesis of Chinese, Jewish, and Russian cultural elements.

A number of years ago, I took a class that explored the broad span of Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Specifically, we studied the history of Jewish settlement and life beyond Israel and America, the two geographic areas that serve as home to most of the world’s Jews. Each student in the class had the opportunity to direct their attention to a specific region; I chose China, and in doing so, I discovered an extremely rich yet complicated situation: a situation I discussed in a sermon-in-song presentation at the time I took the class; a situation which bears revisiting as we start this new year of 5772.

Aaron Avshalomov immigrated to China after Russia’s October Revolution in 1917 and remained there, save for a few years spent in America, until just before the founding of the People’s Republic and the rise of communism. Though he may seem an anomaly, Avshalomov was far from the first Jew to arrive in China. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when Jews first arrived into China, however, it is clear that there was an awareness of its prominent economic position in the ancient world among Jews. Lest we forget, China’s powerful position as a global force today is, in a very real sense, a re-emergence. Prior to a steady decline beginning in the 18th century, China was a leading economic force in its region and beyond. The literature of the Rabbinic period reveals knowledge of China and points to the popularity of its silk no later than the earliest years of the common era. By this time, trade contacts were firmly established between China and the Middle East, and Jews were active participants in that economy, travelling along the silk road and firmly settling themselves into China.

By the mid-10th century, a town now known as Kaifeng (then Bianliang) served as host to one of the first settled Jewish communities in China. Pockets of Jews were scattered throughout China, but Kaifeng appears to have been the strongest and most enduring of those communities. It was a booming urban capital city during the early medieval period, a commercial hub for trade that drew and welcomed Jewish traders. Known by their neighbors not as Jews but as the “scripture teaching” ones “who remove the sinews” from their meat, they were treated like any other Chinese sect and were made to feel fully welcome into Chinese society.
Perhaps too welcome.

By the 17th century, the Jewish presence in China had virtually vanished. Jews assimilated so well into Chinese society that they left little trace of their existence. Of course, the assimilation of the Jews of Kaifeng did not mark the end of Jewish life in China. Soon after this community faded, new groups of Jews entered, Sephardim from Baghdad in the mid-19th century, Ashkenazim, such as our composer Avshalomav, from Russia in the early 20th century, and during WWII, up to 25,000 European Jews found refuge in the then Japanese occupied sector of Shanghai. Most Jews left China soon after the rise of communism leaving behind only remnants in the neighboring Hong Kong.

Since the end of its Cultural Revolution and the re-opening of China’s borders to foreign influence, however, Jews have again sought out economic opportunity in China; and likewise, China has welcomed Jews, among many other foreign groups, into its borders. Modern China’s Jews, virtually all expatriates from N. America, England, Israel, Australia, and S. Africa, have built thriving Jewish communities within this Asian power house. In contrast to the early Jews of Kaifeng, today’s Jews in China are pointed to as foreigners, as Jews, residing in the land. Ironically, while these relatively new settlers are labeled clearly as Jews, a few hundred residents of modern Kaifeng who claim to be Jews, who trace their roots back to those earliest Jewish settlers in China, are not recognized as Jews. No one, particularly not their own government, recognizes them as Jewish. The official response of the Chinese government made in 1953, and reiterated in 1980, to representatives of this community lobbying for recognition states that the Jews of Kaifeng have completely assimilated into the majority Han Chinese culture and have disappeared. In large part, this lack of recognition exposes an internal political issue, for minority status in China entitles a group to valuable economic and social privileges; yet, and perhaps more revealing, is that this lack of recognition extends far beyond China. These residents of Kaifeng are ripe for Jewish outreach, and no one, not one single organization, is biting. Not even Chabad, an organization internationally known for their outreach efforts, has recognized or reached out to the Kaifeng community in order to foster Jewish life there. Chabad continues to grow in China; there are currently 8 Chabad houses in China, 5 in areas with negligible numbers of Jews, but none in Kaifeng. The Jews they serve are clearly identified as foreigners in China. Even with the heightened awareness in America in recent years due to research and publications that have appeared since my first discussion of this community, formal recognition has remained elusive.

Which begs the question: has this community crossed some boundary that exists between acculturation and assimilation – towards a point of no return? Certainly communism and global politics are at the root of the sorry neglect of this community, but this predicament within China was ultimately created by the forces of acculturation. Indeed, Kaifeng Jewry was a model of acculturation into a new society: they designed their synagogue according to Chinese standards; they drew on Confucian values and ideals and accepted Chinese lineage patterns; they even modeled their religious leaders, their rabbis, on the Chinese sect leader whose responsibilities were different and far wider than those traditionally associated with a rabbi’s. Moreover, scholar Irene Eber, an expert on the Jews of Kaifeng, argues that any remnants of Jewish identity that remain among these residents is actually a product of the process of acculturation itself. The emphasis on family and lineage in Chinese culture allowed for the retention of some level of Jewish identity to remain intact despite the disintegration of the Jewish community.

The Kaifeng dilemma should unsettle us. What differentiates us, the liberal American Jewish community, from them? We build our synagogues according to American building patterns. We have adopted the values and social mores of American culture – such as personal autonomy - and have allowed them to infuse our liturgy, rituals, and customs. We’ve modeled the religious leaders of our adopted country by expanding the role of Rabbi far beyond that of teacher and decisor of Jewish law. Could we be heading towards that same boundary which the Kaifeng Jews seem to have crossed, a boundary into complete assimilation?

Bernard Wasserstein in his study of post-World War II Europe, using Kaifeng Jewry as an example, proposes that peoples disappear in history more often by suicide than by murder. Harsh. But, implicit in his remark is that Jews cause their own demise by failing to hold onto whatever crucial elements of distinctiveness we have.

A tremendous paradox exists.
The ability to acculturate, to blend in, is viewed as a sign of success. Being able to adopt the values and symbols of the world in which we live implies that we are accepted – no small feat in the context of Jewish history. It means we’ve made it, and this is home. In America, in particular (as perhaps the Kaifeng Jews felt in their day), we are comforted by our ability to achieve economic prosperity (at least as best as any of us can in this challenging economy), and we cherish the protections afforded us by our country’s democratic values. Few Jews have any desire to live in even the most modern of ghettos, that is in areas populated only by Jews. We desire to be welcomed and to live out in the world; we expect to participate fully in society. Jewish survival, however, is dependent on a level of distinctiveness, and arguably, of remaining uncomfortable -- not so at home despite being at home. The situation of the Jews in China reminds us that the desire to acculturate fully can lead to a gradual disappearance within that same community that so welcomes us, a disappearance which most Jewish leaders would label a failure. I ask you, however, is it? Is our complete and thorough absorption into a culture, so much so that we vanish, a failure? I leave you to consider the question. I will return to it on the eve of Yom Kippur when perhaps I can convince you that indeed it is!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Shema: Listen up! Delivered Shabbat V'etchanan, 8/13/2011

Parashat V’etchanan is a literary masterpiece! We so often isolate the various passages, the Rabbinic method often encourages us to do so, analyzing the Ten Commandments, the Shema passage that has entered our liturgy, Moses' opening description of his ineffectual plea to God, the appointment of cities of refuge. The Rabbinic method so often demands that we seek what is hidden. In many of our Torah portions, such an analytical approach is required in order to make sense of the varied contents. Our Torah is far from an orderly document. The pre-canonized editing that took place often confounds contemporary comprehension, so we strive to read meaning into the minutia. Yet occasionally such a study method prevents us from seeing the bigger picture – when the peshat, the simple understanding of the narrative arc of the text can provide the most useful lessons.

In V’etchanan, Shema is key. Not simply the familiar passage to which we are so easily drawn due to its placement in the siddur, but the verb, Shema. We see it at the start of chapter 4, towards the beginning of the portion, after Moses retells of his attempt to change God’s mind about letting him enter the Land,
ועתה ישראל שמע אל החקים ואל המשפטים אשר אנכי מלמד אתכם (Dev. 4:1). Now, Israel….Listen! I almost hear Moses imploring the Israelites not to repeat mistakes, even his own, that were made in the past. The temporal “v”, so often translated as “and” indicates an attempt to move forward, onward to the next stage: Now it’s time to pay attention Israel to the rules that have been taught! The rules have been laid out, now it’s time to Shema! As contemporary commentator, Robert Alter, notes this letter “vuv” stands out to mark the start of a “grand sermon.”

At the start of Chapter 5, Moses again summons the entire Israelite community with Shema,
שמע ישראל את החקים ואת המשפטים אשר אנכי דבר באזנכם היום ולמדתם אתם ושמרתם לעשות (Dev. 5:1)
Listen up Israel – pay attention to the laws and precepts that I’ve proclaimed (literally) into your ears today - study and do them!

Shema has become a refrain to the narrative, a narrative which now proceeds to lay out the basic outline of the law again as Moses re-iterates those basic commandments revealed on Sinai and as we will read aloud in a few moments. This is the instruction, Moses reminds the masses. Then, again:
שמע ישראל יי אלהינו יי אחד ואהבת את יי אלהיך... (Dev. 6:4…)
"Listen up Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One; and You should love Adonai with all of your heart, soul, and being..."

In case you weren’t listening, Listen up! God is one, and you are supposed to honor God by doing all of these instructions AND -- here is what is new – you are to teach it to your children, so that they too can follow the rules that accordingly will assure prosperity and safety.

I’m always struck that it is this final Shema of our portion that gets held up as “the watchword of our faith.” Sure it makes a good poetic sound bite, and it reinforces the rabbinic idea that it is the first commandment – the "I am the Adonai You God… and there are no other Gods besides me" from which the rest flow forth. But, taken by itself, it has the least substance. This final Shema of V’etchanan never quite tells us to study or do the commandments. It says were are to hold onto them as symbols – literally לטטפת- and to teach them to our children, but how on earth can we, with any integrity that is, pass on an instruction without observing it ourselves? It isn’t enough to just hold onto symbols.

The last Shema of V’etchanan, the one that has been incorporated into our liturgy, is fully dependent on the first two Shemas of our parasha. ישראל שמע, we must first listen up to those who have come before us. We must hear what they have to say about the mistakes they have made and the lessons, the chukim u’mishpatim. Notice – these aren’t mitzvot, religious commandments, these are basic rules viewed as vital to the functioning of society. שמע ישראל , we must then pay attention to what has been place before our ears. We must study – learn - and take action in order for us to keep our community in shape. It takes a bit of attention and effort! Finally, שמע ישראל , only once we have absorbed it and made it a habit for ourselves, can we pass it on to those who will follow us. To do any less makes all of the symbols that we make – those on our doorposts, synagogues, and home, no matter how beautiful, thoroughly hollow.

Comment about Haftarah:
Nachamu, nachamu …. First of the seven Haftarot of consolation that lead us in our calendar cycle form Tisha b’Av to Rosh Hashanah. Historically, Reform Jews have had an ambivalent relationship with Tisha b’Av, a day of mourning over the destruction of the First, and later Second, Temple in Jerusalem, as we don’t even feign to seek a return to such a centralized notion of civil and religious power. At the same time, we must recognize the amount of devastation and trauma these events brought to the Jewish community and their neighbors during this time. Isaiah’s moving poetry compels us to remember these painful episodes in our history and mourn the losses that ensued. Our modern sensibilities require us to celebrate the strength of those who were able to continue building upon traditions that would serve as a foundation for modern Jewish life. The very fact that we are here to remember is a testament to those who survived and worked to restore that which was most important.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Reflections on my visit to TENYC - A lesson in investing in worship, Shabbat Hazon, 5771

I have been working full time during the last four weeks on this manuscript (hold up dissertation). As you, our regular Shabbat worshippers, have been perhaps most directly impacted by this change in my typical work habits, I thought I’d share …. (begin reading…The liturgical rubric known as the Seder Avodah recited on the Jewish Day of Atonement provides ...) No one has gotten up to leave? Well, no one can say Temple Emanuel members don’t have good manners. I’ll spare you the rest, at least for now.

This past month has been – thankfully – remarkably productive. A draft of my dissertation is done and ready for proof reading, revisions, and the tedious process of committee review. As my work time was productive, I celebrated with a trip to New York, my first trip to New York City in a number of years that did not involve any library visits or research. Generally, there is no dearth of shabbat worship opportunities in Manhattan, but like so many other communities (like our own), summer time is not typically the time to see a congregation at its best. Typically, attendance is low, clergy are away, services, if they are held at all (often synagogues implement a reduced schedule) are not held in the main worship space. I recall an eager summer visit to the beautiful Sephardic style sanctuary of Central Synagogue to hear the cantor and choir only to find myself in their basement being lead by a less than experienced song leader. That is the reality of summer in the American synagogue. Last Shabbat, I took my chances and chose to visit our sister congregation, the historic Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue. Services were held in their chapel – though, chapel is hardly an adequate description for this cathedral styled room that is fully fitted with bema, choir loft, and organ, that albeit smaller than their grand sanctuary, is still a stunning example of architecture; yet otherwise, the Shabbat service was a typical Temple Emanuel of New York City experience, and one from which there is much to learn.

Temple Emanuel New York City was founded in 1845 by a small group of German immigrants to America. By 1868, it had built, though not in its present location, the “largest synagogue structure in America.” Perhaps not a qualification towards which we at Temple Emanuel of Baltimore wish to strive, but a qualification that speaks to the grandeur and stature of the place in terms of the history of Reform Judaism in America. Temple Emanuel of New York City has historically been viewed as the bastion of Reform Judaism, and it remains, even if its worship no longer reflects mainstream Reform worship practice, and even if the Union of Reform Judaism was perfectly happy to make its move further, literally and metaphorically, to the right of this congregation – it remains a vibrant, and based on conversation with its clergy, fiscally sound, 21st century Reform congregation.

Since a 3+ hour field trip is not high on everyone’s Saturday morning to-do list, I thought I’d share my thoughts, my devarim, if you will, on my experience this past Shabbat.

First, their prayer book – The Union Prayer Book, not Gates of Prayer, blue or grey, certainly not Mishkan Tefillah, old UPB. Now, first a disclaimer: in large part due to my youth (yes, my youth – I love saying that), I have no emotional connection to The Union Prayer Book. By the time my family made the leap to a Reform synagogue, GOP was the gold standard. UPB is an historic, and as such fascinating, text for me, but it has never served as a worship text for me. The only time I have ever ‘prayed out of’ UPB, outside of TENYC, is during earnest, but frankly lacking, attempts at recreating the past. Just as NFTY services don’t translate well outside of camp and youth conventions, UPB services often don’t do well out of their original context either.

I am glad the Reform movement has moved away from UPB. The little, literally little, book was a nice change, but the language was difficult – I stumbled over the “Thee”s, “Thou”s, and “Thy”s which in turn interfered with my appreciating the prose. While the trend can certainly be taken too far, I’m glad we’ve injected a sense of informality into our worship. I don’t think God cares whether we use “Thee” or just “You.” To most of us born after WWII, “You” is plenty formal enough. While formality can create an atmosphere of worthy respect, it can also create distance, distance between worshiper and text and between us and God. I prefer language that balances the disparate images of God: that of God as a transcendent and distant force (the “Thou” image) against that of God as part of each and every one of us (perhaps the “hey you” image).

I am also grateful for the Reform movement’s success at adapting our traditionally male centric language to a more gender inclusive experience. Recall, it wasn’t until the publication of the 1994 ‘interim’ "Gates of Grey" that Gender inclusivity formally entered our worship. Gender neutral language has now become normative, and I want it to be for generations who follow. And, even though male centric language was the norm until I was close to 30 years old –the male language used last Shabbat was jarring and felt entirely dated.

While using UPB reinforced my appreciation of the positive changes in worship that have developed in the Reform movement, the worship service generally reminded me of what is perhaps our greatest failure. The Reform movement has a lot to learn from the sheer aesthetics of worship at TENYC. A professional choir of 17 voices regularly enhances their Shabbat worship. During the High Holidays, this group swells to 25 professionally trained singers. In addition to the choir, their worship staff includes an organist and choir director (who mans a newly restored 3000+ pipe organ), and an administrative assistant whose entire job is devoted to the maintenance of the choir. And, of course, TENYC employs a cantor who pulls all of these pieces together in exquisite form while sharing her own mastery of liturgy, Jewish music, and nusach.

Now please be clear, I am not arguing that TENYC’s style of worship should be replicated here or elsewhere. A 20-25 person choir and pipe organ is fitting for their cathedral like structure. Our sanctuary (let alone our budget) couldn’t possibly contain such sound, and we prefer a musical style that balances the performative with congregational singing (of which there isn’t much of going on at TENYC), but the ATTENTION PAID to the expression of worship is worth emulating.
Many Reform congregations across the country are facing budgetary challenges by eliminating those very professionals trained to deal with worship, namely cantors. Worship expression becomes the easy budget cut. Throw in a guitar player and few poems and presto – worship. Even our own Temple Emanuel has had to make choices – the cantor is often replaced by the rabbi. Luckily, we get along most of the time (and the ‘new’ rabbi gets to work with a cantor who has 20 some odd yrs of congregational experience). Indeed, it is a credit to our Temple Emanuel leadership that the cantorial, the chazzanut, the expression of worship and liturgy, was not disposable when tough choices had to be made; yet, there is no question that my attention to the rabbinic function has impacted the amount of attention I devote to the expression of the liturgy. And I certainly couldn’t do both tasks if I had been new to both at the same time. My experience as a congregational cantor was vital to my being able to do both roles seamlessly.

I don’t believe there is a “one-worship-model- fits-all” approach to successful worship. TENYC’s model works beautifully for them. Reform congregations need to invest in worship in order to figure out what works for their own communities. That doesn’t mean mimicking what may have been successful elsewhere, it means working to understand one’s own community. It means making an investment of time and resources into worship. We’ve begun a serious exploration into worship at Temple Emanuel, and I hope it continues. Worship must be a priority of Jewish life. In the Biblical period, the journey to Canaan was the glue that held the Israelites together (assuming the community was as cohesive as the Biblical text would like us to think. The scolding we are about to read throughout Devarim suggests otherwise.) Torah has become that glue in the post Biblical period. The observance of Torah, of law and ritual, works as a cohesive element among Orthodox Jews. The study of and continued interpretation of Torah as a mandate for social justice holds the liberal Jewish community together. Can Torah survive without worship? I doubt it. Al Shelosha D’varim ha-olam omeid: Upon three things does our world stand, Torah, WORSHIP, and acts of loving kindness – our early sages doubted it as well.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Message to our Temple Emanuel Confirmands: B'ha-a-lot-cha!

Though our festival cycle calls upon us to read the Ten Commandments on this holiday of Shavuot when we recall, Matan Torah, the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai, the opening verses of this upcoming Shabbat’s Torah portion remind us that being a Jew requires far more than a nodding approval, a confirmation, of a general, albeit important, list of commands.

בהעלתך את הנרות , “when you light the menorah... 7 candles will give light, will illuminate,” It is an odd instruction that God asks Moses to give to Aaron. What else would happen when you light the candles? Aaron is not told how to do it per se, but rather is told, when you do it, the Temple will be illuminated. As I shared with those who attended our congregational meeting this past Sunday morning, it is a ‘duh!’ moment in Torah – one that compels us to comment on it. Why do we have to be told that when we turn on the lights, there will be light?

The light that comes forth from those candles is certainly not for God’s benefit. ואין צריך לאורם, the Midrash reminds us,“[God] does not need [Israel]’s light.” “Nor, however, are the candles lit solely for the actual light they provide human beings. Rather, the lighting of the lamps is, according to Midrash, לזכותכם לכך, “so that the people will acquire merit.” Never is Aaron actually commanded to light the lamps, the text assumes it will be done, “When you light…" When you put forth the effort and do what needs to be done, light will illuminate from that work. Moreover, the verb used for the work of lighting has the very real connotation of lifting up (the same verbal root as in the familiar word – aliyah, a word we use to describe the ascent we make to the bema for Torah, or the ascent we make when traveling to Israel). The act of lighting, of making sure the task gets done, literally lifts us up and gives merit to those who do it.

Revelation at Sinai was a definitive moment in Israelite history. Torah continues to ground us as Jews. The 10 Commandments you read as a class continues to provide ethical and meaningful, arguably vital, guideposts, not just to Jews, but to those who adhere to all mainstream religious doctrine. But Torah is only one leg upon which the world stands according to Rabbinic tradition. Being a Jew requires more of you than observance of the 10 Commandments.

There is evidence that the 10 Commandments were recited as part of the blessings that surround the Shema in the ancient Temple. Notice, the 10 Commandments do not appear anywhere in the traditional liturgical order today. That exclusion of the 10 Commandments from our order of prayers is by design. Our early prayer book editors and Rabbinic sages wanted to be sure that the community understood that being a Jew extended far beyond a commitment to, as I like to call them, those “Big Ten."

בהעלתך, when we lift ourselves up and do the work, it will get done. Being a Jew demands not only a commitment to the basics of Torah, it demands a commitment to the people around you and to the institutions that support the Jewish community and the world beyond it. The benefit of the lighting our lamps isn’t for God, and it isn’t just for us as individuals. The only way in which we will create light in our building and beyond into our communities is the same way in which Aaron created light in the Temple. Someone must be present and willing to do the work, whether it’s making sure the hardware is functional, the light bulbs are replaced, and the on and off switch is used appropriately. It isn’t magic. It is about our accepting the aliyah, to make it happen. In the Biblical period, those who served the Temple and kept it functioning received their mandate by virtue of biology. Those who were born into the Levitical class were born into service. Today, we rely on a mix of professionals and volunteers. The professionals, like myself, all of your teachers over the years, and the office staff, many of who, have become your second family ("Mom" Abbe!) - we aim to provide all the tools you need for the substance of Jewish life – the Torah (we are here to help you see the difference between that resh and dalet); yet, if you don’t choose to be among those who Be’ha-a-lot’cha, whom we can assume will raise themselves up to being full and active participants in Jewish life, then the candles of our lampstand will fail to illuminate. I hope that we here at Temple Emanuel and the broader Jewish community can depend on each of you to be among those who step up, turn on the lights, and help illuminate our world.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Israel - Our Homeland?

Implicit in the laws regarding the Shemita and Yuval, contained in this week’s Torah portion Behar, is a reminder that even if we own the land, per economic standards, it is not ours to keep. Every seven year, the land must rest. Every 50 years, וקראתם דרור בארץ , the land must be ‘released.’ In actuality, these laws are virtually impossible to enact. While convoluted loop holes are built into the halachik system today in order to enable, at the least, a symbolic re-enactment of the shemita and yuval in modern day Israel, it remains unclear if (and most believe improbable that) these laws were ever fully applied in the land. Yet, this attempt at tempering our sense of sole proprietorship of the land serves as a lesson from which all those living in the region today – both Israeli and Palestinian should learn.

One of the greatest challenges with regard to Jewish religious identity vis a vis the state of Israel, in my opinion, has to do with the terminology we use with regard to Israel. The sacred attachment Jews feel with Israel is often described as one of returning home to the land of our ancestors (the land to which Avram was called, lech l’cha, "go forth!"). Israel is identified -- it is qualified -- as our homeland.

Permit me a personal anecdote. The first time I visited Israel was to live there for an extended period of time. All first year students of the Hebrew Union College were (and still are) required to study at the HUC campus in Jerusalem. My very first visit to Israel, thus, required my securing an apartment, making new friends and acquaintances, getting settled into a new neighborhood and learning where the post office, phone and utility companies (in those days, bills were paid in person), bank, shops, and bus stops were all while immersing myself in a new language and culture. It literally required my making a home for myself. I was not a tourist or religious pilgrim. This home in Israel, by the way, was the first that I had ever set up and lived in all by myself – no family, no roommates, just me, myself, and I. This adventurous experience of picking up and moving to Israel as a younger woman was extraordinary; but despite the wonder of it all, despite the very fact that I was creating a home in what I was raised to understand to be the Jewish homeland, I was still a foreigner: an American student living on a extended, but temporary, visa. I loved living in Israel. I long to do it again, perhaps as part of a study sabbatical; but, it isn’t my home. America is, currently, Pikesville.

This sacred concept of ‘homeland’ is underscored by our liturgy – the prayers we regularly recite, our festival cycle (specifically our pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, & Sukkot), and of course, all of Rabbinic literature. Our hearts and mind are constantly directed where towards Zion,המחזיר שכנתו לציון. The power of this sacred concept of “homeland” has its roots in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and the forced dispersion of our ancestors from what was literally their home. Recall that the Temple was not only a centralized place of worship. It had far more meaning than a local synagogue. The Temple was a symbol of independent sovereignty. Long before the separation of church and state, the Temple, in Hebrew literally, mikdash – holy thing/site, stood in Jerusalem as the seat of both religious and temporal power. The Temple, this holy site, represented Jews having full power over Jews. It wasn’t solely the religious component that made the Temple so enduring, rather, this coupling of religious and political sovereignty is at the heart of what makes its memory so compelling. The Babylonian and later Roman conquest of this seat of power had huge implications for the Jews of that period, implications which have extended to us, the inheritors of Rabbinic Judaism.

In lieu of this physical structure representing power and cohesion among the community, Rabbinic tradition fostered and nurtured the memory of it and the constant yearning, back (חדש ימנו כקדם, "renew our days as before") and yet at the same time forward, towards this sacred place. Moreover, though the Temple, the mikdash, no longer stands, sacred place is still attainable; it is within our reach. The Rabbinic sages specifically identify the home as the mikdash me’at. Each of us has the capacity to create a microcosm of the Temple in our own homes through the practice of ritual and mitzvot. It wasn’t until the 19th century when German Reformers dared to use the word Temple to refer to a Jewish institution outside of Jerusalem; and indeed, its pointed use brought with it controversy that remains, though far less so than in its day, today.

A challenge faced by the American Jewish community, particularly the liberal Jewish community, is how to maintain this sense of Israel as homeland when faced with the possibility of religious autocracy in place of democracy and pluralism. If we truly consider Israel ‘homeland,’ than we cannot continue to pray and yearn towards Jerusalem without a firm commitment to furthering democratic and pluralistic values within her borders. Vital to this commitment is that we – and by ‘we,’ I mean both Jews living within Israel and without her borders – must be cognizant of the ‘other’s’ narratives regarding the land. Though Israel may be the Jewish homeland, it isn’t solely ours. It is sacred space to others who have a stake in its history and a stake in its future. The only way it can remain a sacred, and even viable, space for us is if we, and more importantly those who live there both Jew and non-Jew, figure out how to respect the narrative of others who lay claim to it.

In honor of Yom ha-Atzma-ut (Israel's Independence Day) which was marked this past week in Israel, I share a few examples of Israeli poetry which I hope will serve to challenge us to reflect on Israel, not just as our homeland, but as a land that serves as home to many.

Each of us has a Name: written by the poet ‘Zelda.’ Zelda was born in the Ukraine in 1914, moved to Jerusalem with her parents at the age of 12 and died there at the age of 70. She had a traditional religious upbringing and did not devote herself fully to writing and teaching until after her husband’s death. Her work began to appear in 1968 and immediately became popular among religious and secular Israelis alike.
(Read Each of us has a Name)

After the fall of 1956 – written by Dvora Amir, a sabra, born in Jerusalem in 1948. Her parents were Polish immigrants who became very active in the agricultural workers’ movement. She began her study of Hebrew literature, Jewish philosophy, and kabbalah after the 6-day war. As her life, much of her poetry reflects the backdrop of war.

Two poems by Ayman Agbaria, a Palestinian-Israeli (his self-identification) poet and play write: Everyday and Debate.

I conclude with one of my favorite poems by Yehuda Amichai, one you’ve heard me recite before. Amichai, who lived and wrote throughout the latter half of the 20th century in Israel, is one of Israel’s most popular and well-known modern poets. His poem Jerusalem succeeds in relating a painful honesty in its utter simplicity.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Osama Bin Laden's Death & Justice: Really? Thoughts on Shabbat Emor, 5/7/2011

It’s unsettling. Osama bin Ladin’s death and the subsequent responses to it. Despite the initial expressions of unbridled joy, enthusiasm, and patriotism that erupted almost immediately early in the week, most of us are left feeling unsatisfied with bin Laden’s death - an event we long hoped would bring some element of closure to the tragic events of 9/11 and the incredible sense of loss and pain American citizens have felt since the fall of 2001.

Objectively, we can pin our uneasiness on the reality of the unknown. News analysis and after analysis reminds us that bin Ladin’s death may or, more likely, may not signal a decline in terrorism. It certainly won’t serve to change the anti-American sentiment that is promoted by many other Arab leaders as an excuse for inciting violence. But, subjectively, our unsettled-ness is far more difficult to compartmentalize and attribute to political uncertainty. Tom Pyszczynski, a social psychologist quoted in yesterday’s New York Times, in his description of the dramatic reactions to the news of bin Ladin’s death as “pure existential release,” touches on the reality that our celebratory response has less to do with bin Ladin and far more to do with our own feelings of insecurity. “Whether or not the killing makes any difference in the effectiveness of Al Qaeda hardly matters,” he explains. “…defeating an enemy who threatens [our] worldview and core values…is the quickest way to calm existential anxiety.” The problem is that quick is not necessarily lasting. When we respond in like manner to violence, our existential anxiety may in the long run be heightened. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in the middle of the last century in a book entitled, Where do we go From Here: From Chaos to Community,
"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence, you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder the hate. …" The copious postings of this quote this week on Facebook and the like reminds us of the thick layer of uneasiness that lays just below the surface of Sunday night’s celebration.

Now, I willingly leave the continued objective analysis of our national security to the various news media pundits, but I offer three examples from Jewish tradition that perhaps can help us formulate a way in which to navigate through the morass of emotional responses to Osama bin Laden’s death.

First, an analogy drawn from the holiday of Purim - yes, Purim. At first glance, the holiday appears to celebrate the downfall and murder of the Jewish community’s arch-enemy number #1 – Haman, the prime descendent of Amalek and the embodiment of all evil. But, looking past the children’s festivities of dress up and carnival that have risen up around this holiday, we find evidence of great discomfort in the hanging of Haman. Our noise making isn’t entirely celebratory, it is intended to erase our memory. We want to block out Haman’s name, and the very fact that he ever existed and harmed us. The Talmudic mandate (Meg 7b)to drink wine until any discernable difference between the names Mordecai and Haman disappears underscores our desire, perhaps our need, not to celebrate Haman’s death, but to forget the entire episode completely. Moreover, when we chant the passage from the story of Esther that lists the ten sons of Haman killed in battle, we do so, not in the festive melodic trope reserved for Purim, but in a mournful tone and in one singular breath that is held during recitation as if to subdue or prevent any feelings of joy from interrupting the moment.

Second, according to Rabbinic tradition, the moment of redemption from Israelite bondage was not entirely one of joy and celebration. Rabbinic tradition notes the narrative of the Israelite enemy, namely the Egyptians. The Midrashic imagination portrays God shedding tears as the waters of the Reed Sea close behind the newly redeemed Israelite nation. Additionally, the sages imagine the angels beginning to rejoice at the deliverance of the Israelites only to be scolded by God for celebrating so quickly. Even the death of an enemy constitutes loss.

Finally, we come to our Torah portion for this Shabbat, Parashat Emor. Continuing the Holiness Code begun in Kedoshim, the author strives to set clear boundaries with regard to manslaughter. The attempt is made to categorize crime and punishment into an equitable and orderly construct: שבר תחת שבר עין תחת עין שן תחת שן, "a fracture for a fracture, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." . The poetic symmetry of the biblical Hebrew forwards the neat package; but, the poetic symmetry also serves to confound the intent. As Emma will share in just a moment, Rabbinic commentators and sages from all ages have struggled with the language and its intended meaning. Perhaps, however, lack of clarity is just the point. The attempt to package justice so succinctly highlights the very challenge of implementing justice in such a simple and equitable, let alone, satisfying manner. It's as if the author understood the complexity of exacting justice and thus left us with this poetic gem, the seeming simplicity of which opens it up to a wide breath of interpretation. It can never be as simple as it sounds (chant: שבר תחת שבר עין תחת עין שן תחת שן)

Even though bin Laden’s death by American forces brings a modicum of comfort to some and a sense of American empowerment to others, his death can never serve as full retribution for all of the loss and pain suffered on 9/11 and thereafter.

I doubt anything can.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Shabbat Kedoshim – A celebration of Adult B’nai Mitzvah, TE 5771

דבר אל כל עדת בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם קדשים תהיו כי קדוש אני יי אלהיכם

What does it mean to ‘be holy’? In the Torah, being holy is connected with abiding by law and by extension living according to the covenant outlined, presumably, by God. The earliest reference to the people being qualified as holy appears in Exodus just before revelation of the ‘big 10’ at Sinai. Being holy is conditioned on action, "you’ve seen what I can do," God informs the masses (recall just a few chapters earlier God is credited with the other ‘big 10’ – those nasty plagues – and the subsequent splitting of the Reed Sea). "Now," God continues, “IF you truly listen to me and keep my covenant, THEN (implication being, 'only then') you will be my most treasured people, a גוי קדוש, a holy nation."

Fast forward to parashat Kedoshim. Presented here in the text is what is known as The Holiness Code, what most classical commentators view as a fleshed out reiteration of the 10 Commandments. Here too, the litany of laws and rules are prefaced by the qualification of the people as holy. This Levitical qualification, however, is strikingly different than its earlier iteration (clearly written by a different quill). .קדשים תהיו כי קדוש אני יי אליהכם – Holy you will be, because holy [am] I, Adonai, Your God. The conditional language is gone. Action is still a vital part of the equation - the covenant between God and the Israelites; but our holiness appears as a given. And perhaps even more significantly, rather than a consequence of, our holiness functions as the primary motivation for, proper action. As the laws unfold, we are constantly reminded: “Ani Adonai Elohechem.” It’s almost a refrain (chant:אני יי אלהיכם or later in even shorter form אני יי ). Now, I’m no creative writer (academic, yes…but artistic writing is left better to other hands, such as Jill’s), yet I can’t help but think the author is using this refrain as a poetic sound bite to remind us of the entire opening statement: קדשים תהיו כי קדוש אני יי אליהכם. Lest we forget why we are to do all these things, we are repeatedly reminded why we are holy, because: אני יי אליהכם. Proper action is incumbent upon us because our Godliness propels us to it.

Few of us feel “holy.” Well maybe Donald Trump does (oh, never mind…that’s full of himself, or full of something else altogether), but for most of us, the idea of kedoshim feels foreign or something set apart from us. Jewish tradition reinforces this concept of separateness in the marked division between the chol & kodesh, the ordinary & the sacred, with regard to time, space, and ritual. The Medieval Midrashist, however, in his elaboration as to why The Holiness Code appears where it does in Torah provides a different model of understanding ‘being holy’ that may be more useful. Kedoshim, and its Holiness Code, appears immediately after a section of text that discusses forbidden sexual relations. It’s placement here according to the Rabbinic imagination is to remind us that in every case where there could be a possibility of immorality, there is also the possibility of sanctity. Our choices and our behavior play a large part in whether something leans towards holiness. Moreover, despite the most stringent attempts at creating legal constructs, the boundaries between what is holy versus what is mundane, let alone profane, aren’t always so clearly delineated. Perhaps this is why the discussion of holiness often flounders into vague and subjective notions of spirituality, a term in and of itself difficult to define.

I can say with certainty, however, that I have experienced kedoshim in being able to share in the sacred journey of these four students sitting here on the bema. On the one hand, our time together could be viewed as quite mundane: informal lectures and discussions (me talking a lot – talk about mundane, hopefully it never crossed over into the profane), watching a movie; heck, one week we sat around wrapping string and tying knots. But, this journey of studying Jewish history, discussing the challenges of assimilation, immersing ourselves in Torah and liturgy, engaging in philosophical explorations of God and practice, and tying tzitzit together was sacred, kadosh, because of the very intention and sincerity brought by teacher and student to the journey.

Burt, Shelley, Jill, and Shanna – אתם קדושים, you are holy. You have created and modeled a sense of holiness throughout this year of study and personal reflection. And, אנחנו קדושים, we are holy, because you are have chosen to share this milestone with us in the context of our Shabbat worship. Our Torah’s sound bite, אני יי אלהיכם, reminds us of the Divine element in holiness and the fact that according to Torah, we are made b’tzelem Elohim, literally in the image of God and thus with the capacity to be holy. I believe, however, that we are truly holy, davka, because we are human. I thank each of you for sharing your humanity with us, and thus enabling us all to share in kedoshim this Shabbat!

Friday, April 22, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A Pre-Pesach thought...

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 1, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 20, 2011

To Change or not to Change: the Lesson from Verizon

By nature, we humans are not very adaptable. I was recently reminded of this reality of our general character last Shabbat when The Baltimore Sun announced, brace yourself, Verizon’s plan to discontinue their weather and time hotlines. Big news. These must have been national services provided under the grand ma-Bell system, for these services were a mainstay of daily life in Philadelphia, too, where I grew up. “Mom,” I remember shouting, “How cold is it outside?” “Pick up the phone and call the weather,” she’d respond with an irritation I didn’t fully understand until I myself was a parent. She was a mom, not a local meteorologist. And, the time hotline – how else would we know to what time to set our clocks after a power outage? How many of us called over and over again to make sure we had it just right? Well my detail oriented bordering on OCD Dad did; though, to his defense these were pre-digital age clocks. The very act of winding them to the proper time could shave seconds, maybe even a minute, off its exactitude. Having a the TI-4 hotline kept our clocks in line.

Like I’m sure many other kids of at least my generation, and perhaps beyond in both directions, my friends and I would pass time dialing these services. Was it really true that any four digits when coupled with “We-6“ or “Ti-4“ would bring up the weather or time? A silly occupation for sure, but recall dialing the phone – yes, the experience of dialing short versus long digits on the rotary wheel – and then waiting for the connection from that anonymous place on the other end was actually compelling. And the prospect of debunking this known truth? We may never have succeeded, but that wasn’t the point. The prospect of it held our attention.

Though I frankly had no idea these free services still existed (and apparently they haven’t in my hometown since 2008), my first reaction was of reminiscent disbelief. How could they disconnect these basic – even fundamental - community services? How comforting it was to know that the weather and time were just a phone call away! Common sense quickly replaced my nostalgia. The very fact that I still know these numbers by their archaic call letters, WE & TI, points to the last time I dialed them with any regularity. By High School, my home phone number, Wilson-7 – 5916, was so well replaced by 947-5916 that I barely thought about its regional predecessor. It took a few more years before I stopped having to think “Hi-6” in order to find the numerical equivalents for my cousins’ less often dialed numbers, but it happened eventually. I vaguely recalling having to learn the numerical equivalents of WE and TI, I must have had a phone without letters for a time, but beats me what they are. Those phones numbers are firmly and perhaps perpetually engraved in my memory with their historic alphabetical exchanges.

We no longer need these services anymore – that’s clear. When my daughter needs the weather, she pulls up an app. If she asks me, I pull up an app (sometimes more than one - don't ask me why, but I have three weather apps on my phone). We haven’t needed these services in decades. There are a myriad of ways in which to find out the time when our power goes out, from our battery operated digital alarm clocks to our highly sophisticated smart phones. There are, and have been for a long time, far more convenient, and at least as accurate, sources for this information. So what has taken the phone company so long?

We don’t like change. Our Torah holds out an extraordinary example. Truth be told, the sacrificial cult most likely lost meaning for most long before the destruction of the Temple, but it took the Roman conquest to substantiate change in the primary and preferred, methods of worship. One can imagine that without the events of 70 CE, the Temple and its rites may just have gradually fallen away, losing significance in people’s lives. Without something clearly formulated to replace it, Judaism may have disappeared. The brilliance of Rabbinic Judaism is that it innovatively packaged and delivered a compelling replacement for the Temple at just the right time. Certainly, crisis forced change – change that lead to renewed vibrancy in part because there was no choice. But, that change would not have happened or succeeded without an openness to new ideas and constructs that had to have long preceeded the fall of the Temple.

Are our synagogues any different today? I’d argue that (as I have often in our various working committees) one of our failures is that, in large measure, we function as we did in the middle decades of last century. Despite parents’ changing work patterns, we hold religious school at virtually the same hours, though fewer of them due to the competition with other activities. We make cosmetic changes to worship, moving the time, creating a kid friendly environment, trying new melodies and band arrangements, bringing in speakers; yet despite mediocre interest, as reflected in attendance, in these changes, we remain wedded to the Friday night worship model of the Reform movement. On the other hand, attendance on Shabbat morning, once an embarrassment to the Reform movement, at least at Temple Emanuel is remarkably healthy. Our auxillaries too struggle with lack of participation in activities that were extremely popular decades ago and with finding activities that will be compelling to today’s busy families.

We must be open to change. At the same time, the fact that we read about the sacrificial cult year after year in our Torah cycle even though we have no intention of recreating this system of worship should remind us that we must always remain cognizant of our history as we remain open to new ideas and visions. Indeed, many of our members and committees are doing just that. TESCA, for example, our Temple Emanuel Studio of Cooperative Artists is not only innovative but it creates excitement, interest, and energy while remaining fully grounded in Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim, the three tenets of Rabbinic Judaism. A few members of our board are beginning to look forward to the aging of the Jewish community (a phenomenon parallel to the aging of America thanks to the baby boomers) and how we as a synagogue must respond. This conversation is vital to our future.

Change need not, should not in most cases, be revolutionary, but let’s be sure that we don’t take as long as the phone company does to respond to change. Let’s be more like our ancient ancestors, the early rabbinic factions, in particular, who were willing to make change. That willingness – the ability to respond to modernity - ultimately served to preserve Jewish life through tremendous crisis. And it serves as a worthy model of emulation as we strive to make our congregation and Jewish institutions generally responsive to the 21st century.