Archive for the ‘Clergy’ category

Your Identity is Showing!

February 13, 2020

I was raised as a Reform Jew, or more precisely, as a classical Reform Jew. My mother was also raised as a Reform Jew, but I never knew that until I started doing some genealogical research and found an announcement of her Confirmation service at one of the major Reform synagogues New York City. I knew that she felt it was important for our family to connect to our Judaism but she never really spoke about it. I do know that my sister, who was 6-years older than me, went to religious school at a nearby synagogue, but we never went to services, and my father, to my knowledge, never entered that synagogue until the day of my sister’s Bat Mitzvah. It was an Orthodox synagogue, and her Bat Mitzvah service was a class presentation on a Sunday morning, without the Torah ever being taken from the ark. After the Bat Mitzvah, my family resigned from the synagogue.

About 2 years later, my parents were approached by neighbors who were recruiting for a newly formed Reform congregation. I was in first grade and my mother must have been feeling angst over providing me with a Jewish education. So, I imagine she pressured my father into checking it out. I say, “imagine” because none of this religious tension was ever really manifested to my young self.

The congregation was renting a loft on a Bronx business street, over a stationary store and a Chinese restaurant. One winter’s day, my father took me there. As we entered the building, facing a long set of stairs going up to the loft, I took off my hat, for that was the polite thing to do when they enter a building. My father turned to me and said, “No, Henry. In a synagogue you are supposed to wear your hat.” So began my introduction to Judaism. Actually, as time would tell, in that congregation, being a classical Reform congregation, it turned out that no one wore a hat – except the ladies, for it was the 1950’s!

My father fell in love with that congregation and its approach to Judaism. When it came to my Bar Mitzvah, and my mother took me to the Judaica store – yes, in the Bronx there were independent stores that actually sold only Jewish religious articles – I was immediately attracted to the Bar Mitzvah boy mannequin decked out in a talit and a kippah. I must admit that the attraction was not born of any religious fervor but rather because I always loved costumes, and it just made sense that for my Bar Mitzvah, I should wear a “Jewish” costume. Little did I expect the repercussions of that choice. For reasons I did not understand, my father was livid! He would have none of it! My mother finally got him to agree to a compromise. I could either wear the talit or the kippah for my Bar Mitzvah service, but not both. I chose the talit, because, of course, it was a more obvious costume than that little hat.

Only later in life would I come to understand my father’s actions and attitudes. He was born in 1903, one year after his family immigrated to America from Austria. He, his parents, and his siblings lived with his mother’s brother and her father. Her father, my great grandfather, had been a noted Jewish educator in Austria, and so the whole family lived by the letter of Jewish law as followed by the Orthodox. My father’s Bar Mitzvah was not the major event that Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations are today. He went with his father to the synagogue on either a Monday or a Thursday morning – when the Torah is read – was called up to bless the Torah, then after the service, they served honey cake and schnapps, and off he went to school. He was one of those young Jews, raised Orthodox, who despised the restrictions of that form of our faith. While never considering converting, still he fled from it. It was not until he was introduced to classical Reform Judaism that he found a comfortable home in Judaism, and he dived into it with both feet. My mother was thrilled, and I was raised to love the life of a Reform Jew.

With the passage of time, and my continued study of our faith, its teachings and practices, my attachment to and appreciation of many of our traditions and symbols have grown deeper and more profound than merely a desire for Jewish costuming, and they have done so within the framework of Reform Jewish ideology. Of course, the experiences of my first year of rabbinic studies, in Jerusalem back in 1970-71, had a significant impact on my approach to all things Jewish. Mine was the first class that the Hebrew Union College sent as an entire body to study in Israel. The talit I am wearing tonight, and whenever I conduct worship, was purchased then and there.

It was as early as in my second year of rabbinic studies that I was introduced to the teachings of many of the great Reform Jewish theologians of the early 20th century. Several of those teachings have done much to provide me with an all important framework to my approach to Judaism, linking my emotional attachments to an intellectual appreciation of why those attachments move me so.

As a Reform Jew, I was especially taken by the ideas concerning mitzvot formulated by the theologian Franz Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig’s approach to mitzvot was fluid and filled with personal power. He walked a middle line between classical Reform’s near total rejection of ritual mitzvot and Orthodoxy’s adoration of them. Rebuking his fellow Reform Jews for their setting them aside out of hand, he encouraged them to study the mitzvot seriously; not just the mechanics of how to observe them but even more importantly, why to observe them; what is their underlying meaning. Doing that, he called upon Reform Jews to take on an attitude toward the ritual mitzvot of assuming that while there are those that I do not observe today, I may, in the future, discover meaning within them and choose to start to observe them. And as for those I do observe today, there may come a time in the future when I, no longer finding them meaningful, may choose to set them aside. This approach became one of the hallmarks of Reform Jewish thinking; the autonomy of each individual Reform Jew to choose what aspects of the tradition speak to them and enrich their lives as Jews. For the blind, rote observance of rituals does little, if anything at all, to lend power and meaning to our Jewish lives. It is in embracing the meanings behind those rituals that grant them their power. My father, as he grew in his own sense of Reform Judaism, embraced that idea, though I doubt that he ever heard of Franz Rosenzweig.

Remember that kippah that I did not get to wear at my Bar Mitzvah? Well, my relationship to that kippah was a testimony to Franz Rosenzweig’s approach to mitzvot. It was during my year in Israel that I, and many of my formerly classically Reform classmates, came to a point in our lives when we found that the wearing of a kippah during worship did enhance our worship experience. It somehow brought us closer to God in our prayers. The next Fall, when we arrived on the various U.S. campuses of the Hebrew Union College, the faculty did not quite know what to do with us. They sent us to Israel to learn Hebrew and to grow our attachment to the State, but this traditional ritualistic behavior, they were not counting on. In the end, they could not avoid the fact that basic to Reform Judaism was its commitment to change. Though they had envisioned that change to be forward moving, moving backward was just as legitimate. Thank you, Franz Rosenzweig!

By the time I arrived in Davenport, in 1985, there were very few congregants who questioned my wearing of the kippah on the bimah, though when my predecessor, a few years earlier, had announced his intention to do so, in a High Holy Day sermon he entitled, “The Rabbi Wears a Hat,” he was roasted on an open spit.

But my kippah journey was far from over. In 1999, the Central Conference of American Rabbis issued its “Statement of the Principles of Reform Judaism.” Among other matters, this statement addressed the ongoing sticky issue of the observance of the mitzvot within our movement. It emphasize that each Reform Jew must decide for him or her self which mitzvot carry meaning for them and therefore they choose to embrace, while at the same time it affirmed that those who choose to adopt mitzvot that Reform Judaism previously rejected are well within the spirit of Reform Judaism in doing so. That Statement of Principles might very well be considered the official birthplace of what we today call Reform Judaism’s “Big Tent.”

The rabbinic discussions which were a part of the framing of that document inspired me to act upon something I had been giving thought to for maybe a year; expanding my wearing of the kippah beyond worship and into daily living. I announced that decision to my congregation in a High Holy Day sermon and received very little pushback. So that became my new practice. However, the sea of life was soon to turn turbulent. When the Statement of Principles was approved, I was interviewed by the local newspaper. In that interview, I explained that according to the statement, and Reform Jewish ideology, we are instructed to evaluate each individual mitzvah on its own merits. Therefore, within that system, we are free to adopt any particular mitzvah without accepting other of the mitzvot. The example I gave was one I gave in my earlier sermon. I had chosen to wear the kippah daily, but I had not chosen to maintain the dietary laws of kashrut outside of my home.

As a matter of full disclosure, I did say that I was perfectly comfortable about wearing my kippah and dining at Jim’s Rib Haven. Well, that did not sit well with the members of the Tri City Jewish Center, a more traditional synagogue on the other side of the Mississippi, in Rock Island. They rained their fury down upon me and the members of my congregation. So much so that, for the sake of community unity, my congregants placed enormous pressures upon me to recant the statement. The experience was so painful that rather than recant, I withdrew from my daily wearing of the kippah. The power of the way that daily wearing kept my consciousness closer to God was drowned out by the anguish that controversy brought me.

So, it was until recently. For many years now, I have been deeply concerned about the growing level of antisemitism around the world, and eventually here in our own country. I have been posting about it regularly on Facebook in a series I call “Antisemitism in Action.” The horrible attacks on Jews which took place in December just brought it to a head for me. More and more, I would be hearing of Jews who are now afraid to wear their kippot in public. What kind of world are we living in where people should fear displaying the symbols of their faith lest they suffer injury? As some of you may know, I am deeply involved in an anti-hate group in the Quad Cities called One Human Family QCA. I am one of its founders. A day or so after that brutal attack on the home of a rabbi in Monsey, New York, during a Hanukkah party, I received a call from Rev. Richard Hendricks, my co-founder of One Human Family. Rev. Richard Hendricks is the pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church, a predominantly gay congregation, and is himself gay. Rev. Hendricks proposed a program which would involve a community response to the epidemic of antisemitism. He called it Kippah Day. His plan was to hold a community event in which kippot were distributed to people of all faiths, who would be encouraged to wear their kippot on the next day – all day – to show their solidarity with their Jewish neighbors and their opposition to antisemitism, and hate in all its manifestations.

His proposal was very much in the spirit of One Human Family QCA, in that we believe that it is not enough for each identity group to stand up against the hate directed at their own group, but rather we must stand up for each other as well, regardless of which group is the target of the moment. For the disease that plagues us is hate itself. The various manifestations of hate – racism, antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia, Hispanophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, etc. – are but symptoms of the disease and not the total disease in and of themselves. The harsh truth is that those who hate are what we call “equal opportunity haters.” They have more that enough hate in their hearts to spread it around to many targeted groups at the same time. With that in mind, we need to act in the tradition of Hillel the Elder, the founder of modern Judaism, who said: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am ONLY for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

I have to admit, when Rev. Hendricks first proposed the Kippah Day idea, I was hesitant, and I told him, only if he can obtain buy-in from my successor, Rabbi Linda Bertenthal. She, who does wear a kippah on a daily basis, quickly agreed. The event was held. About 500 kippot were distributed on a Thursday night. They were worn by the participants all the next day. The Kippah Day culminated with the participants being invited to Temple Emanuel, for a Shabbat evening service. The sanctuary that night was filled; a sea of kippot worn by both Jews and friends of the Jewish Community.

It was during the planning of this event that I realized that the time had come. It was time for me to return to that earlier intention of wearing my kippah day in and day out instead of just when I worship. My wife soon was joking about how I was presenting the world with a kippah fashion show, as I started wearing kippot that matched to color scheme of my daily attire. In making this choice I was choosing to wear the kippah for all the spiritual reasons that led me to my earlier decision – helping to heighten my awareness on a daily basis, moment to moment, that I live my entire life in the presence of God – but I also for yet another reason; to demonstrate to the world that I am proud to be a Jew and that no thug is going to intimidate me into hiding from the public who I am and for what I stand.

My thoughts quickly returned to a day in 1993. The Quad Cities interfaith Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – Committee had arranged to host a premiere showing of the film “Schindler’s List” as a fundraiser for local Holocaust education. Then one Friday afternoon, as the mail was delivered to the Temple, a deep, dark cloud suddenly hung over this enterprise. As I was going through the mail, I came across a postcard which read: “A Neo-Nazi group is planning to set off bombs in the theater during the Holocaust movie. Attacks are also planned for the home of Rabbi Karp and the offices of the Jewish Federation.” I immediately picked up the phone and called my friend, the Chief of Police, Steve Lynn. At first, the operator at the police station said that he was in a meeting and could not be disturbed. So I started to leave a message. The minute I gave my name, I was told to hold. The next voice I heard was that of Chief Lynn. It turned out that the meeting he was in was with agents of the F.B.I., and the topic of discussion was this very same threat. I appeared that a copy of the postcard was sent to the police. So I jumped in my car and joined them. During that meeting, I asked Chief Lynn whether we should consider canceling the showing of the film. What he said to me that day has been emblazoned in my mind. He said: “Rabbi, you are going to have to make that choice for yourself. However, if I were you, I would never cancel that movie, for if you do, then they win!” The movie was not canceled. The police and the F.B.I. did everything possible to protect against the threat; bomb sniffing dogs inspecting the theater daily, heavy police patrols around my home and the offices of the Jewish Federation, a small army of officers present at the showing of the film, both uniformed and undercover, in and out of the theater. The showing went off without incident and neither my home nor the Jewish Federation offices were ever attacked. But from that day to this, Chief Lynn’s words still ring in my ears, “If you do, they win!” We can never let them – the purveyors of hate – win! Not then. Not now.

There is an old Yiddish expression: “Schwer zu zein ein Yid und Schoen zu zein ein Yid – It is difficult to be a Jew and it is beautiful to be a Jew.” We live in a time when it can be difficult to be a Jew. Still, we must never forget or neglect, or avoid, just how beautiful it is to be a Jew. Now, more than ever, with antisemitism on the rise, especially over the last 6 years, every Jew needs to find the courage to show the world just who we are, and that who we are – JEWS – is something for which we can be justifiably proud and unashamed. The haters should never be allowed to win! Judaism is to beautiful a gift to our lives and to the world to allow it to be squashed out by the agents of evil. If my wearing of my kippah can serve to both remind me of how I live my life, day after day, in the presence of God, and at the same time, inform those who hate me for being a Jew that they will never win, then I will wear my kippah in prayerful subservience to God, in my pride of my Jewish identity, and in resistance to all who choose hate over love.

Quad Cities Equality Rally Remarks

January 23, 2017

On Saturday afternoon, January 21st, as 100’s of 1,000’s of men, women, & children were gathering in Washington DC and in communities throughout the nation to protest the objectification of women and the growing dangers of bigotry and hate that have infected our land, in the Quad Cities, a rally was held to show our solidarity with all those throughout the country who were marching.  The rally, which was called an Equality Rally, focused both on the recent challenges to women’s rights and on how that challenge is inextricably connected to a complex of challenges to the rights of many targeted minorities in our society.  The rally was held in the meeting hall of the United Steelworkers Union, in Bettendorf.  The hall was filled beyond overflowing, as a mass of supporters were forced to stand out in front of the hall, due to lack of space inside.  Several inspiring individuals spoke, expressing the pain of women, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, African Americans, Hispanics, Indigenous Americans, and people with lifelong physical and mental disabilities.  I was among those honored with an invitation to speak from the perspective of our community’s newest human rights organization – One Human Family QCA (Quad Cities Area).  Below is a transcript of my remarks.

First off, thank you for the honor of allowing me to share these remarks with you today.

Before coming here today, my wife and I were attending a memorial service for Reverend Tom Kalshoven. Tom was the Executive Director of Churches United of the Quad Cities Area from 1973 to 1991. Those of you who knew Rev. Kalshoven know that he was a person profoundly committed to the causes of social justice. He marched with Dr. King. He served as the conscience of this community. I cannot help but think of how thrilled he would have been to see so many of you gathered here to affirm the cause of justice in our community.

We have come together because we are deeply concerned about what has been happening in our nation over the past year or so, and what might very well happen as we journey into the future. Let’s face it. Many of us are more than concerned. We are downright afraid, and with good cause.

This past Monday, I was similarly honored to offer a pastoral prayer at a local Martin Luther King Day celebration. There, too, those who were gathered shared our concerns and our fears. Being Martin Luther King Day, I built my prayer around one of the inspiring teachings of Dr. King. He said, “The arc of history is long, but bends towards justice.” Yet we seem to be living at a time when that arc has been diverted far off of its course, as it travels, not towards justice, but far away from it.

And that is what frightens us, for we have witnessed the forces of hate as they have freely crawled out from under the rocks which have hidden them for so long and have joyously reasserted their ideology of bigotry, and not without the encouragement of some of our nation’s most highly placed individuals. A dark and ominous cloud of prejudice is engulfing our nation. A virulent virus of discrimination is infecting it as the fever of intolerance burns hot in the minds and souls of far too many of our fellow Americans.

Part of what frightens us is that we see the profound dedication of people who hate to their hatred; people like Dylann Roof who is willingly ready to martyr himself in the cause of hate. Part of what frightens us that we have come to recognize that those who thrive on hate tend to be equal opportunity haters. They hate African Americans. They hate Muslims. They hate Jews. They hate Latinos. They hate those who do not share their sexual orientation. They hate those with lifelong mental and physical disabilities. They hate the defenders of the environment. They hate intellectuals. They may not hate women but they sure don’t look upon women as the equal of men. Rather, they prefer to look at women as mere objects placed on earth, primarily to fulfill the physical pleasure of men.

And now such people feel empowered. Now such people are empowered. And we are left with the question, “What are we going to do about that?” Of course, our natural instinct is to respond, “Protest!” but what does that really mean? We sign petitions. We post our feelings on Facebook. We gather for rallies, just like this one. But all these things; they are not really protest. They are but a prelude to protest. For true protest requires us to take action. Not for an hour. Not for a day. Not for a week. But ongoing action until we have achieved our goals. We need to work for change, with the emphasis on work; work until the job is done.

Nor can we stand alone. No one group of us can stand alone in our efforts to drive back the darkness. We need to stand together – men, women, young, old, laborers, professionals, people of every color, every race, regardless of sexual orientation, regardless of national origins, regardless of religious identity, regardless of political affiliations. We must cross lines and lock arms in common cause. On Monday, I shared with my fellow Martin Luther King Day celebrants, and I share with you now, the classic wisdom of Rev. Martin Niemoller, one of the founders of the Confessing Church in Germany, who bravely stood up against the Nazis. He said, “First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the incurably ill and I did not speak out because I was not incurably ill. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out.” We do not have the luxury to think of ourselves as separate from others; as our plight being separate from their plight. Once again, to quote Dr. King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we do not choose to stand together then we will not stand at all.

In our community, we have birthed a new organization. We call it One Human Family QCA. Some of you here today already have joined our ranks. Our stated mission is “to protect the life, dignity, and human rights of all people in all places in our community.” We are not looking to re-invent the wheel but to work cooperatively with many of the agencies and organizations that already exist to address issues of common concern. And when it comes to certain issues, for which no agencies or organizations exist, then we are ready to open new doors of dialogue and advocacy. Our organization provides but one opportunity to take your concerns and your values and put them into action in order to effect positive change and drive back the darkness that is engulfing us. There are many others dedicated to this cause; organizations like Quad Cities Interfaith and Progressive Action for the Common Good. The point is, when you leave here today, do not see this as an end to your protest but rather as a beginning of the very hard but important work of bringing the arc of history back on course toward justice. To quote a sage from my own Jewish tradition, Hillel the Elder, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Our time is now and our cause is just. We only need to choose to act.

Endangered Childen and Community Conscience

July 27, 2014

There has been great debate throughout our nation concerning what shall be done with the hundreds of unaccompanied children who have in recent weeks crossed our border, seeking a refuge from the chaos and violence to which they were subjected in the homes in Central America.  Their parents sent them on that dangerous trek to the United States because they knew that if their children did not flee, more than likely, their children would wind up the victims of brutality, rape, and murder.  Today our country is divided between those who wish to welcome and protect these children and those who see them an placing an unacceptable burden upon our country’s resources and wish to send them back to from whence they came.

About two weeks ago, Bill Gluba, the Mayor of Davenport, Iowa – my community – put forth a proposal to  bring some of these children to our city.  Not surprisingly, the response to that proposal was mixed, marking us as a microcosm of the national debate.  There were those who gathered to plan on how we could best welcome these children, while there were those, including some alderman of our city council, who expressed there determination to keep them out of our town.  One alderman, on national TV, proclaimed his intention to stand in the middle of the street, blocking any bus carrying such children from entering within our city limits.

As those who know me can well imagine, I stand on the side of welcoming the children.  To that end, I have joined with other community clergy who are planning an event meant to declare an interfaith message of support for opening our doors to these young refugees.

Five days ago, I submitted an Opinion Page letter to the Quad City Times, expressing my particular perspective and feelings on the matter.  So far, my letter has not appeared in print or on their website.  They may yet publish it or they may never publish it.  I suspect that they have received many letters and cannot begin to publish them all.  Still, I want my voice to be heard, even if the audience is not nearly as large or as locally focused as it would be in our local paper.  Therefore, I have decided to share the text of this letter here in my blog.  While it speaks specifically to the question of whether or not the Quad Cities should open its doors and welcome these children, it also can be understood to address whether our nation itself should open its doors and welcome these children, declaring them “official” refugees from grave danger and persecution.  Here is what I wrote:

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, when the specter of the Holocaust loomed ever greater in Europe, and the borders of the free world were generally closed to Jews seeking to flee the coming destruction, there was one small ray of hope. That ray radiated out of England. While England, like the United States, would not open its doors to the endangered Jews, it did decide to open its doors to Jewish children. Boatload after boatload of Jewish children landed on British shores. With many tears and great anguish, their parents sent them away, knowing that they might never see them again, so that these children might not die at the hands of the Nazis. This valiant effort to save the children was called “Kindertransport” and it came to an abrupt end when England entered the war.

Holocaust analogies can easily be overplayed but sometimes they are truly appropriate. This is such an occasion. Today on our southern border there are amassed a large number of unaccompanied children from Central America who have been sent to our country by their parents, seeking asylum. Their parents, with broken hearts, sent them away because could not stand idly by while their children would have been beaten, raped, and killed. Like with the Kindertransport, these parents made an extremely hard choice in order to save their children’s lives.

Today, we in the Quad Cities are faced with a choice as well. Will we, like the people of England, open our doors and our hearts to these refugee children, or will we, like so many other nations back in the ‘30’s, choose to slam our doors shut on them and in so doing, condemn them to cruel suffering and death? In the years to come, which choice will we be better able to live with?

Sacrificial Offerings

September 17, 2013

As those of you who have shared Rosh Hashanah with us over the years know, every Rosh Hashanah morning I dedicate my sermon to a theme born of this morning’s Torah portion – the Akedah – the Binding of Isaac.  Over the years, I have drawn many lessons from various aspects of this text.  I have found meaningful messages in the roles of Abraham and Isaac, the roles of the servants who accompanied them, whom are tradition identifies as Ishmael and Eliezer; I even have found meaningful messages in the roles of the donkey and the mountain.  My Akeda sermons have been finessed and nuanced in numerous ways.  However, this morning I want to do something just a little different; a little different yet something old and classical.

I want to turn to one of the primary interpretations of this Torah text, as found in our tradition.  For the ancient rabbis were quick to see this strange story of Abraham and Isaac on top of Mount Moriah as being first and foremost a story about sacrifice.  That is what I want to talk about this morning – sacrifice.

There are those who say that this account was included in the Torah as a polemic against human sacrifice; a practice that was very common among many Near Eastern religions in Abraham’s day, and throughout the biblical period.  In fact, just beyond the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem is Gei-Hinnom – the Valley of Hinnom.  As testified to by such great prophets as Jeremiah and Isaiah, it was in that place that Canaanite idol worshipers offered up their children to Moloch, the god of fire.  For the ancient Israelites, it was a place of fear because of the horrors that took place there.  It is even said that one of the ways Israelite parents would discipline their children was by telling them, “If you’re not good, I’m going to send you to Gei-Hinnom!”  It is spoken of in the Talmud as Gehenna, and there it is considered a frightening place of fire and death.  Indeed, Christ­ianity would draw heavily upon these images of Gehenna as it fashioned its own concept of Hell.

Therefore according  to some interpreters, this morning’s Torah text is meant to serve as a powerful Jewish rejection of those sacrificial practices.  For there is Abraham, willing to serve his God by physically sacrificing his child just as so many around him actually did sacrifice their children in the service of their gods.  Yet, at the very last moment, as the knife is about to fall, God’s angel shouts out, “Do not raise your hand against the boy nor do the least thing to him!” in a crystal clear statement that God is not interested in human sacrifice; that such an act is abhorrent to God.  For God, animal sacrifice is quite sufficient as Abraham finds a ram to offer in place of his son.

That is one interpretation of this story.

Yet for many of the ancient rabbis, this text was so much more than a proof text as to why Jews don’t prac­tice human sacrifice.  For understanding, they ask an all important question:  If God did not want human sacrifice, why did God ask it of Abraham in the first place?  God simply could have said to Abraham:  “I forbid you and those who follow after you from sacrificing children.  It is abhorrent to me, even worse than bacon!”  For these rabbis, there had to be more to the story than just a rejection of a religious practice which was common among Abraham’s neighbors.

For these rabbis, the heart of the story rests squarely on God’s request and Abraham’s response.  God asked of Abraham to surrender that which was most precious to him – “Take your son, your only child, whom you love, Isaac, and offer him up on a mountain that I will show you” – and Abraham was willing to do it without question or doubt because he believed in God so completely that even in this he would obey.  For these rabbis, this text challenges us, asking, “Look what Abraham was willing to sacrifice in the service of God.  What are we willing to sacrifice – not only to God, but also generally in the name of those ideas, or principles, or causes, in which we claim to believe and to which we claim to be committed?  Indeed, are we willing to give to anything until it hurts?  Even more simply, are we willing to give as well as to take, and if so, are we willing to give as much as we take, or even more?

These questions remain as pertinent today as they did when the ancient rabbis first posed them; perhaps even more so.  We are Jews who live in a time and a place of extreme blessings, and not just as Jews but as Americans.  No matter how much we complain about the state of the economy and taxes and the cost of gas at the pump, our lives are far more comfortable than the vast majority of people on our planet.  They are also far more comfortable than most of those of the generations that came before us.  I think of my own parents, of blessed memory.  It was only toward the end of their lives that they were able to enjoy such luxuries as an air conditioned home or a microwave.  Going out to a restaurant was a real treat for them while admittedly, I eat more meals in restaurants than I do at home.  For them, a vacation was going camping in the woods while for me, a vacation usually involves getting on an airplane.  I can only speculate as to how amazed they would be if they were around today to witness the marvels of dishwashers and K cups and computers and printers and cell phones and I Pads and cable or satellite tv – My father loved to watch tv.

We are a people whose pantries are filled, whose refrigerators and freezers are filled, whose closets are filled, whose garages are filled, whose lives are filled with a bounty of plenty.  Yet when it comes down to it, how much of that plenty are we willing to give up in support of those causes which we claim to be important to us?  How much are we willing to sacrifice?  Abraham was willing to give up his beloved – his only – son because God was important to him.  What are we, who have so much, willing to give up be­cause anything is so important to us?

In this day and age, that is an uncomfortable question for many.  We have so much, but we have grown so accustomed to having so much that we resist letting any of it go.  We do not wish to impair our comfort or even take the risk of impairing it.  While we are willing to give, how many among us are willing to give until it hurts?  How many are willing to give of their bounty to such an extent that it will actually alter, even if just a little, their lifestyle?  How many of us are willing to make such a sacrifice that as a result we would need to deny ourselves one less meal in a restaurant each week or each month, or we would need to hold on to that car for another year or so, or take one less vacation every few years, or find ourselves needing to wear some of last year’s fashions this year?

Now do not think that this whole question of sacrifice is about surrendering material possessions.  Of course that can be part of it but it is far from the whole.  In fact, many find that giving materially is far easier and far less demanding than giving in other ways.

I remember one year when Shira was in college and it was time for the students to move out of their summer apartments and into their winter ones.  Now in Madison, Wisconsin, where Shira went to school, every student moved out on the same day and every student moved in on the next.  So I went up to Madison to help her move.  It was chaos and it was exhausting.  On the second day, as we were moving Shira into her winter quarters, I took a break outside of her apartment building.  Soon I was joined by a set of parents of another student who was moving in as well.  In shared agony, we struck up a conversation in which that student’s father commented, “These two moving days make paying tuition seem relatively painless!”  And he was right!  For while giving away or spending money may be momentarily painful, chances are good that we will be earning more money and the pain will quickly fade.

Giving time.  That’s a whole other story, for our time is not a renewable resource.  When we spend it, it is gone and it is not coming back.  Trust me.  When you reach a certain age, you begin to wonder where it all went, and how did it fly by so quickly.  Time is a precious commodity, so it stands to reason that many would prefer to give money than to give time.  But even as our time is precious to us, it is also precious to others.

Our time is most certainly precious to our family.  So many of us claim that our family is the most important thing in our lives.  But is it really?  A good measure is to be found in how much of our time do we devote to them, and how much do we spend in other pursuits.  It is a source of a certain amount of embarrassment to me that when Shira was young, there were too many occasions when she had some special event, and I missed it because I was here at the Temple teaching a class or attending a meeting, or whatever.  What do you think about a dad who lets his neighbor from across the street escort his daughter to a Dad-Daughter Date Night at school?  That dad was me.  However by the time it was Helene’s turn,  I came to recognize how incongruous that was with my values.  I discovered that I could say, “I’m sorry, I cannot attend that meeting because Helene has such-&-such an event” or “I’m sorry but we will not be holding class on this or that date because I need to be with Helene for a program.”

Not only is our time precious to our family but it is precious to others as well.  Worthy organizations with noble goals are always starving for volunteers.  Whether or not people step forward to fill those spots can make all the difference in the success or failure of those organizations, and more importantly, whether or not those noble goals are met.  Just think about our own efforts when it comes to addressing world hunger.  Is there anyone here who would say that they do not give a hoot or a holler about all those people starving across the world?  Of course not.  We all think that it is a shame; a travesty.  We all wish that everyone had enough food to eat.  Yet how many of us are willing to sacrifice a Sunday afternoon in October to walk in the CROP Walk?  The more people who walk, the more money we raise.  The more money we raise, the more lives we save.  It is all a matter of sacrificing a little time in order to make a great difference in the lives of many people.  And yes, pledging some money as well.

We can give of our money.  We can give of our time.  But what about giving of ourselves?  That, perhaps, is the hardest sacrifice of all, save literally giving of our lives.    To give of ourselves means to truly care about something or someone other than ourselves.  It means being willing at times to put them first, before us and our wants and our needs.  It means being willing to step forward, be counted, and even take risks on their behalf.  It means stepping off the sidelines, stop being an observer, and start being a participant in the quest to bring about righteous change in the world.

Walter Friedlieb was Susie Rothbardt’s father, Greg Rothbardt’s grandfather.  Walter was also one of those German Jews who was able to escape Nazi Germany before it was too late.  He knew first hand what it meant to be on the receiving end of prejudice.  I remember so well his telling me with great pride about how he and his Chicago rabbi, David Polish, went down South to participate in a civil rights demonstration, and how, as a result, they wound up in jail.  He could have stayed home in Chicago, reading the newspapers and watching the news, sharing with others his disdain for racial discrimination in conversations over cups of coffee but he chose to act instead of just talk.  He chose to put himself on the line in the cause of racial justice.  He chose to help make change happen rather than just hope for it to happen.  He chose to give of himself, willing to accept the consequences of his sacrifice.  And he did help to bring about a positive change in his world.  How many of us can say of ourselves, we have done the same?

Abraham was willing to sacrifice everything – and believe you me, Isaac was everything to him – because he believed it was the right thing to do.  To this day, the story of Abraham and Isaac which we read from the Torah just a short while ago, challenges us to ask of ourselves, “What sacrifices would I be willing to make in the name of those people and ideas and values and causes which I hold to be near and dear?  What sacrifices would I be willing to make in order to do my part in making this world a better place for all who live here?”

A PASSIONATE CALL FOR A RETURN TO POSITIVE POLITICAL CAMPAIGNING

May 24, 2012

Back in 2006, several members of the Quad Cities clergy joined Rev. Ron Quay – the Executive Director of Churches United of the Quad Cities Area – and me in putting out a call for a return to a positive focus when it came to political campaigning.  Below is a petition document that we compiled and which, in its final form was co-sponsored by the Quad Cities Progressive Clergy and Churches United of the Quad Cities Area.  We did get the support of our local media, both electronic and print.  In fact, it was published in both of the local papers.  Unfortunately, out of a local population of some 350,000 people at the time, we only were able to amass some 400 signatures.  That low number was quite disappointing, considering how much complaining we hear from the public about negative campaign ads.  We attempted to put it forward again, in 2008, in anticipation of the Iowa Presidential Caucuses.  Once again, while we received media and clergy support, we were disappointed with the lackluster response from the community.  With the nominating conventions of both political parties not that far away and as the 2012 Presidential Political Campaign season is about to begin in earnest, I thought that I would share with the readers of this blog, the text of our hopeful and heartfelt petition.  Back in 2006, one reporter asked one of my colleagues whether or not he thought that this effort was a bit Pollyanna-ish.  My colleague responded by saying, “Yes, but what is wrong with that?  Sometimes people have to be fools for truth.”  My personal prayer is that when it comes to negative political campaigning, one day the good people of our country will rise up and with a loud, strong voice, proclaim:  “ENOUGH ALREADY!  We want our candidates to speak honestly about themselves and stop denigrating their opponents.”  I share with you our original petition, for whatever it is worth:

We, the undersigned, are deeply disturbed by the character and tone of the vast majority of political campaigns which are being conducted during the election season of 2006.

The overwhelming use of negative campaign strategies and attack ads constituted nothing less than a national disgrace.  Negative campaigning erodes the moral fabric of our society.  In the eyes of the public, it not only diminishes the stature of the candidates, but also the importance of the offices which they seek.  Such campaign tactics generate an environment of distrust of public officials.  Even worse, by forcing the voters to choose between what is presented as “the lesser of two evils,” these strategies serve to dramatically discourage citizen participation in the electoral process.

The American people need and deserve far more from its political candidates.  We need and deserve to have the candidates’ attentions focused on positively presenting their positions on the pressing issues of our day.  We need and deserve to hear thoughtful dialogue between the candidates on these issues.  We need and deserve to know what our potential future leaders stand for, and what they intend to accomplish should they be elected.

Therefore, we the undersigned, believing that negative campaigning is destructive to the American democratic electoral process:

  1. Call upon political candidates to responsibly present to the public their own positions on the pressing issues of our day, refraining from irresponsible and misleading interpretations of the positions held by their opponents.
  2. Call upon political candidates to cease and desist from attacking the character of their opponents.
  3. Call upon political candidates to distance themselves from and denounce any political ad run by an independent source which supports their candidacy, but which also engages in the destructive practices mentioned above.
  4. Call upon the American public to withhold financial support from political campaigns that engage in a strategy of negativism.
  5. Call upon the news media to monitor and report upon the successes and failures of political campaigns to adhere to these principles.

A National Holiday for Prayer

April 25, 2012

Just when you think that you are familiar with all of our national holidays, you find out about one that you never heard of before.  So it probably is for many of you when it comes to the National Day of Prayer.  That’s right – the United States of America actually has an official national holiday dedicated to prayer!  If falls on the first Thursday of May.

The history of this holiday is interesting.  It was officially designated by Congress as a national holiday in 1952, as a day when the American people are asked “to turn to God in prayer and meditation.”  Each year, the President signs a proclamation in which he reaffirms the purpose of this holiday.  However, its historical roots sink far deeper into the American tradition.  The first proclamation calling for a National Day of Prayer was issued by the Continental Congress, in which it declared July 20, 1775 to be “a day of publick humiliation, fasting, and prayer.”  Subsequent declarations for individual National Days of Prayer were issued by Presidents George Washington, John Adams, and Abraham Lincoln.  But it was not until 1952 that it became an annual event.

In my community of the Quad Cities, which straddles the Mississippi River uniting Iowa and Illinois, for several years now, there has been a group which has sponsored an annual National Day of Prayer breakfast.  Not surprisingly, the organizers of this breakfast are exclusively Christian.  Therefore, the tone of this event also has been exclusively Christian.  A little over four years ago, Rev. Ron Quay, the Executive Director of Churches United of the Quad Cities Area, approached these organizers and proposed that they broaden the religious base of their event by inviting non-Christian faith groups to participate in it as well.  After some deliberation, their response to Rev. Quay’s request was that while non-Christians are always welcome to attend, the nature of their event will continue to remain exclusively Christian.

Upon receiving that response, Rev. Quay approached Rev. Roger Butts (then minister of the Unitarian Church) and me to consider joining with him in organizing an interfaith National Day of Prayer event.  And so we did.  For the last three years, Temple Emanuel has hosted an Interfaith National Day of Prayer luncheon which was primarily targeted toward community clergy.  We chose to do this as a luncheon because, while we wished to provide an interfaith alternative to the exclusively Christian event, we were not interested in competing with it.

This year, the sponsorship for this event has been taken up by our newly formed Interfaith Clergy Caucus.  Yet once again, Temple Emanuel will be the host institution.  However, this year we are instituting a significant change. Instead of restricting the event to clergy, we are opening it up to the general public.

In the beginning, why did Rev. Quay, Rev. Butts, and I feel that organizing such an event was so important?  Why have the members of the Interfaith Clergy Caucus decided that it was important to sponsor such an event?  It is because we believe that the National Day of Prayer does not belong to any one faith group exclusively.  It belongs to all people of faith who enjoy the blessings of living in this American democracy.  Indeed, it is a time for us of many faiths to come together to thank God or the Divine Powers, whatever our beliefs, in our many ways for the blessing we share in this land.  It is a time to celebrate the wonder and the beauty of the religious diversity of America.  That is what it was ALWAYS intended to be.  In fact both John Adams and Abraham Lincoln said as much in their particular proclamations for the day.  To quote Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation:

“Now, therefore, in compliance with the request, and fully concurring in the views of the Senate, I do, by this proclamation, designate and set apart Thursday, the 30th day of April, 1863, as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer.  And I do hereby request all the People to abstain, on that day, from their ordinary secular pursuits, and to unite, at their several places of public worship and their respective homes, in keeping the day holy to the Lord, and devoted to the humble discharge of the religious duties proper to that solemn occasion.”

All the people… at their several places of worship.”  This day was never meant to be the exclusive domain of one faith or another but is the possession of all people of all faiths.

While Americans today do not face as great a crisis as we did in 1863, still there is ample call for praying for our country; praying for justice, praying for equality, praying for peace, praying for prosperity.  Let us pray that no America need ever go homeless or hungry or jobless.  Let us pray that no American ever need suffer from discrimination, hatred and intolerance.  Let us pray that no American ever be denied health care or education.  Let us pray that the day will soon arrive when no longer will we need to sacrifice the lives of our sons and our daughters on the battlefields of this planet.

On May 3, 2012, let us as a nation composed of many people of varied faiths once again raise our voices in prayer as we rededicate ourselves to building a better tomorrow for all.

The Prayer of Breath, the Breath of Prayer

February 26, 2012

There are many reasons why people come to Shabbat services.  Some come to remember loved ones who have passed away.  Some come to take the opportunity to actively affirm their Jewish identity.  Some come because they find Shabbat worship to be a meaningful way to start a weekend of leisure.  Some come to connect with Jewish friends or with the Jewish community as a whole.  Perhaps some come because they have nothing better to do on a Friday evening.  There are many reasons why people come to Shabbat services, but I suspect – indeed, I hope – that perhaps the most common reason is that in one way or another they wish to try to establish some sort of connection with God.  At the least, they may view the very act of leaving their home on a Friday evening and making the physical effort to come to the synagogue for prayer as a means of showing God that they care.

To me, the saddest aspect of contemporary American Jewish life is that in most synagogues, like my own synagogue, many of the seats of our sanctuaries remain empty Shabbat after Shabbat after Shabbat.  For the empty seats serve as a painful testimony to the fact that most of our people rarely or no longer feel the desire or need to connect with God.  They are Jewish.  They probably believe in God.  But they have little interest in pursuing an active relationship with God, particularly through prayer and worship.

But be that as it may, we cannot force people to want to connect with God; to want to engage God in their lives through prayer.  We can only try our best to provide them with the opportunities and the inspiration to do so.  The rest is up to them.  As the old adage says, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.”

However, as for the people who do choose to come to Shabbat worship, to stretch that analogy a little further, they are the horses who have chosen to drink; to drink from the wells of spiritual refreshment and Divine connection which Shabbat worship can offer.  It is precisely to these people that every synagogue has a responsibility; the responsibility to assist them – to work with them – in the search to find ways to make their prayers a more effective vehicle for connecting with God.

This past December, I traveled to Washington, D.C. in order to attend the biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism.  While at that convention, I had many wonderful and meaningful experiences.  Among them was a workshop entitled “Making Prayer Real.” It is upon that workshop which I wish to reflect.

First off, I have to tell you that I found the title of that workshop to be odd.  “Making Prayer Real” implies that our prayers are not real, and I do not believe that to be the case.  I believe that the prayers of any person who takes the effort to come to synagogue on Shabbat are real.  They may not be as effective as they could be, but they definitely are real.

That aside, I found the workshop  – particularly one aspect of the workshop – to be enlightening.  It was some­what meditative, but it was more than mere meditation.  I say “mere meditation” because I believe that while meditation techniques can assist us in prayer, they cannot replace prayer, especially in a Jewish setting.  For Jewish prayer is predominantly, though not exclusively, communal, while meditation is almost exclu­sively, if not exclusively, personal.  While there is a place for meditation in Jewish prayer, the greatest power of Jewish prayer is to be found in what we do together as a community of worshipers.

But back to the workshop.  At this workshop, one of the presenters – Cantor Ellen Dreskin, with whom I used to serve on faculty at the NFTY National Camp in Warwick, New York – conducted an exercise involving God’s name and breath.  As most, if not all of you know, we Jews are not permitted to pro­nounce the actual name of God.  It is a four-letter name composed of the letters Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey, and when we see it in the texts, we say “Adonai” in its stead.

Yet there are many Hebrew words and names that incorporate elements of this name in order to include some sort of connection with God.  So, for example, the Hebrew name for Elijah is “Eliyahu.”  “Yahu” comes from that four-letter name of God, and the name “Eliyahu” means “Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey is my God.”  There is also a very well known Hebrew word which also includes an element of God’s four-letter name.  That word is “Halleluyah” with “Yah” being the God part.  The word means “Let us praise Yah; Let us praise Adonai.

Yet when you consider “Yah” it is a sound that is made up of nothing but breath – “Yah.”  So Cantor Dreskin had us do an exercise.  She asked us to take a deep breath and hold it.  Hold it as long as we could.  And when we finally let it out, we were to let it out with a “Yah.”  Dear reader, try that now then do it again.  “Yah” – God – is breath, and without the eventual “Yah” – without God – we cannot continue to breathe.  When you think about it, God is present in our every breath.  Every time we exhale, God is there.  For as long as we breathe, God is an integral part of our every moment, both waking and sleeping.

Then she turned our attention to that word: “Halelu-yah – Let us praise Yah.”  So we took a deep breath and held it, and then let it out saying “Halelu-yah.”  Dear reader, try that then do it again: “Halelu-yah.”  With our breath, we are praising God.  Our every breath should praise God, for without God, we would have no breath.

There is probably nowhere in Jewish texts in which this is better expressed than in Psalm 150, which is included in the Shabbat morning worship service.  For in verse 6 of that psalm it says, “Kol haneshama t’haleil Yah, halelu-Yah! – Every breath praises Yah, so let us praise Yah!”  Of course Cantor Dreskin had us sing this verse, but if you cannot sing it, then at least say it:  “Kol haneshama – t’haleil Yah, – halelu-Yah!”

This is not just a prayer nor is it just a meditative technique.  What it is, is a life perspective; an important spiritual life perspective.  For if we want to truly connect with God, we have to honestly come to the realization that God is just not present to us in the sanctuary, but is present to us every day, every hour, every minute of our lives, with every breath we take.  God is our constant companion, and every breath – every moment of life – is yet another gift from God; a gift for which we should be grateful.  It is only when we begin to view God in this way that we can begin to start to pry open those gates which seem to keep us from God and God from us.  The Hasidic master, the Kotzker Rebbe, once said, “Where is God?  Wherever you let God in!”  When we begin to recognize God’s presence in our every breath – that our every breath is a prayer – then we will have begun to let God into our lives.

So if our every breath is a prayer, why come to the synagogue?  Why come to services?  I once heard a dear friend and colleague of mine, Rabbi Stephen Pinsky, give a sermon about prayer.  It was back in my New York days.  In that sermon he said, “People ask me, ‘Why do I have to come to the synagogue to pray?  I can pray in the middle of Central Park.’  To this I respond, ‘If you find yourself in the middle of Central Park then you better pray!’” His point was telling.  People say that they can pray anywhere but the fact of the matter is that unless the situation is such that it evokes prayer, they rarely if ever pray.  The Shabbat worship service offers us the opportunity to set aside some time for the act of praying; for actively reaching out to God, and opening ourselves up to receive a God who is reaching out to us.

It is not unlike our love for our dear ones.  We know we love them.  We feel our love for them con­stantly, but we don’t always express it.  We don’t always marry word and deed to intention.  We don’t always say to them, “I love you,” nor do we always demonstrate through our deeds the love we hold for them.  Yet there are times like birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, which provide us with the opportunities to express in word and deed that which is always in our hearts.  So it is with Shabbat and worship.  It offers us the opportunity to open our hearts and express to God that which is always there, and perhaps even open our souls and receive God’s reciprocating touch.

Sensing God in our every breath – praising God with our every breath – and praying to God on Shabbat are by no means alternatives but rather they exist in a symbiotic relationship.  Our constant experiencing of God in our lives fuels and vitalizes our prayers.  It makes them meaningful.  It endows them with wings with which to fly to Heaven.  And as for our prayers, they give voice – a clear and beautiful voice – to the connection we feel to God with our every breath.  They enable us to announce to the world, and most importantly to God, those profound feelings we carry in our hearts.  For in the end, prayer is not just a matter of reading words out of a book but rather attaching those words to that which is in our hearts, so that together they can rise to Heaven and draw Heaven to us.