Tuesday, November 26, 2013

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

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

Friday, November 15, 2013

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

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