Archive for the ‘Shabbat’ category

Bringing the Yahrzeit List to Life

February 29, 2012

For those who are not aware of it, we Jews honor the memories of our loving departed by observing the anniversary of their passing by reciting a special memorial prayer in the context of our worship.  We call that anniversary by its Yiddish name, “yahrzeit.”  The prayer we offer in memory of our our loved ones is called the “Mourners” Kaddish.”

Last year, the President of my congregation came to me with a suggestion about how to make our services more personal at the point in the service when we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish.  I believe she had witnessed this at another congregation and found it meaningful.  Her suggestion was that before we read the Mourners’ Kaddish, we offer those who have a yahrzeit to observe the opportunity to share some brief reflections on the person or persons they are remembering.  So we gave it a try and I have to tell you, I found it to be quite a powerful and moving change in the routine of our worship.

As long as I can remember – as a child and as an adult – while attending Jewish worship services, the recitation of the Yahrzeit List before the reading of the Kaddish was this dry cataloging of names of people, most of whom I did not know.  Of course these names were meaningful to those who came to remember them and to those who actually knew them, and that indeed was important.  Needless to say, the older I got and the more time I spent in the community, the more names there were on the Yahrzeit List were those of people I actually knew; people of whom I had personal memories; people for whom the act of saying Kaddish was more meaningful for me.  Yet still, on any given Shabbat, many of the names, if not most of the name were for me, and I suspect for most of the rest of the worshipers, names of people unknown to us, and therefore impersonal.  And on those Shabbatot where all of the names where unknown, the Yahrzeit list and the Kaddish were little more than signals that the service was drawing to a close and that the Oneg would soon begin.

However, this all changed dramatically as soon as we began to invite mourners to share their memories of loved ones with us.  First of all, understand that not every mourner wishes to do so.  It is not their obligation.  It is their option.  There are many people who are uncomfortable speaking in public, and there are others who find the public sharing of such memories to be too personally painful.  But those who wish to share are invited to do so, and several do.  We ask that these remarks be brief and some are less brief than others, but none so far have been overly long.

But far more important than whether or not their remarks are short or long is what they have to say.  For it is in what these people say that we discover the power of the moment.  These mourners share both memories and feelings.  In so doing they transform these names into loving, caring human beings.  They share their virtues.  They share their faults.  They bring a tear.  They bring a smile.  In the end, everyone in the sanctuary finds themselves, to some degree or another, mourning individuals who they may never have known face-to-face.  We feel in our hearts the loss that our mourners feel.  We feel our own sense of loss in that we have been introduced to an individual who we probably would have enjoyed knowing, but never had the opportunity to get to know.

In this way, in our services, the Mourners’ Kaddish has become far more than a marker, indicating that the service is nearing its conclusion.  Its fundamental purpose – that of keeping alive the warm and loving memories of those now gone – has been reawakened in our hearts and in our lives.  We all become mourners.  We all come to realize that every single individual – living or dead – is far more than just a name; that every single individual brings into this world their own special brand of beauty.  When they pass away, and at least some of that beauty is lost, we are all diminished by their passing, even if we never knew them in life.

This has become a very meaningful congregational tradition for it has taken our worship services to a higher spiritual realm.

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.

Snow What?

January 27, 2012

Friday, January 20th was not a wonderful weather day here in the Quad Cities.  Indeed, it was actually quite miserable, with cold and snow falling all day into the early evening.  It most understandably was one of those days when, having arrived at home after a long day at work, for most people, going out again was probably one of the farthest things from their minds.  Here at Temple Emanuel, during the course of the day we wrestled with whether or not to cancel services.  However, since by mid afternoon, we only had about 2 inches of snow on the ground, we decided to hold them.  After all, Shabbat is Shabbat, and 2 inches does not a blizzard make.

One of the calls which we received during the day, asking whether or not we would be cancelling services was from the associate pastor of a local Presbyterian church whose Confirmation class had been scheduled to attend our worship that evening; a church which has been sending its Confirmation class to our synagogue for a “Jewish worship experience” for so many years I cannot begin to count them.  When I told her that services would be held as scheduled, she sounded quite pleased rather than disappointed.

That service was planned as a special one for our congregation.  Not only were we hosting these visitors and longtime friends of our congregation, but we also were hearing from those of our congregation who had the privilege and pleasure of attending the recent joint biennial convention of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Women of Reform Judaism, as they shared with us their insights and reflections on that gathering.  On top of that, we were observing the first Yahrzeit of beloved modern Jewish music composer, Debbie Friedman, by including in the music of the service many of her settings for our prayers.

No sooner had the Cantor and I pulled into the parking lot than the students from the Presbyterian church started arriving in car-after-car-after-car.  While some of our congregants arrived later, when the service began, the Presbyterians were in a significant majority.  Though the numbers gap shortened as the evening progressed and a few more of our people arrived, I strongly suspect that had it not been for the special reports and music, we would have remained far outnumbered.  At the beginning of the service, I made a quip about how it seemed as though the Presbyterians were made of far hardier stock than the Jews, but we all know that it is more than that.

Our congregation serves as host to many different church groups in the course of any given year.  One thing that most of these groups hold in common is that they are in awe of what they experience here.  They are captivated by the very sound of the Hebrew prayers.  They find our melodies enchanting.  The text of our services really touches them.  They are both fascinated and moved by our Yahrzeit boards, our obser­vance of Yahrzeits, and especially when mourners share some reflections on the people they are remembering that Shabbat.  And when the ark is open, and they see the Torah scrolls they are wide-eyed in mystical wonder, and especially so when they are fortunate enough to attend on a Shabbat eve when we actually take the scrolls out of the ark, carry them around the sanctuary, and read from them.  For so many of these church members, attending our services constitutes a spiritual, or even mys­tical, experience.

This is truly one of the great ironies of American Jewish life; that Christians have a far greater appreciation of Jewish worship than do Jews.  They find so much more meaning in our worship than do our own people.  Nor is this odd imbalance limited to the worship experience.  I find it so whenever I speak or teach about Judaism to a non-Jewish audience.  The non-Jews flock to study Judaism while the Jews seem to flee from the opportunities to do so.  In speaking with the folks at our own Federation, they, too, acknowledge that while their public programs have met with great success, it is not so much the Jews who attend them but rather the non-Jews.  Indeed, for as long as I have been in our community, that has been the greatest complaint that I have heard about the massive crowds who year in and year out attend our Interfaith Yom HaShoah observances; “Where are the Jews?”

I have to tell you that our community is not alone in this Jewish malaise.  According to a study done by the Pew Forum, which is an organization devoted to studying all aspects of religious life in America, we Amer­ican Jews have a pretty pathetic showing when it comes to the appreciation of our religious oppor­tunities.  So, for example, while the national average for those who attend worship services weekly or more than weekly is 39%, out of 14 different faith groups, with Jehovah’s Witnesses ranking 1st at 82%, American Jews are tied with “Other Faiths” for 12th and 13th place – just above the “Unaffiliated,” with 16%.  According to that same survey, when it comes to how important people feel religion is in their lives, with the national average for those who feel that it is very or somewhat important being 84%, and with Historical Black Churches ranking number 1 with 98%, we Jews rank number 12, with 71%, just above “Other Faiths” and the “Unaffiliated.”

One cannot help but feel sad in the face of these statistics, and in the face of the reality that not only our synagogue but almost all American syna­gogues face on an ongoing basis.  Why is it that so many of those who are not Jewish have such a great appreciation for the rich and wonderful heritage which is our own, while we Jews look at it and yawn?  Perhaps it is the fault of the synagogues.  Perhaps it is the fault of the rabbis and the cantors.  Perhaps it is the fault of our religious schools.  Perhaps it is the fault of our obsessive desire to “fit it” with the rest of our society and not to be viewed as “different” or “alien” by our non-Jewish neighbors; to be with them, wherever they are, whenever they are there, doing whatever they are doing, and not to let our Judaism get in the way of that.  But more likely, it is all of these reasons, and even more.

There are those who say that competitiveness is a Jewish trait.  Maybe it is.  But if it is, then we as Jews cannot be satisfied being near the bottom of the list when it comes to religion; just one or two steps above those who openly profess that they do not care at all about religion.  So what are we going to do about it?  Whatever it is, we have to start doing it together.

The Blessing of Being Different

November 9, 2011

The Torah portion “Lech Lecha” is aptly named, for it means “You go!” in the command form.  It opens with God’s very first instruction to Abraham.  That instruction is for him and his household and his followers to leave their native land and go to a place of their own, which will be given to them by God.  Today we call that place Israel.

When you think about it, this is not just the very first instruction which God gave Abraham but it also is the very first instruction which God gave to us, the Jewish people.  “Go!”  Separate yourselves from that which is familiar and make of yourselves a singular and unique people.  In other words, “Be Different!”  Be different from all those who surround you.  Be different and be proud.  How prophetic were God’s words to Abraham, for as we know now, 4,000 years later, throughout the millennia, one of the primary hallmarks of being a Jew has been, is, and most likely will continue to be, being different; being different from everyone else who surrounds us.

We all know that being different has been for us Jews both a blessing and a curse.  There is an old Yiddish maxim which I love to cite.  “Schwer zu sein ein Yid und schayne zu sein ein Yid” – “It is difficult to be a Jew and it is beautiful to be a Jew.”  Most of us, at one time or another, have experienced both sides of that equation.

There is no question but that we have known the schwer side – the difficult side – of being a Jew all too well.  So many of our holidays commemorate our having survived the attempts of others to crush or even destroy us.  Passover celebrates our redemption from slavery in Egypt.  Hanukkah celebrates our reclaiming Jerusalem and rededicating the Temple to God from the Syrian Greeks who turned it into a house for pagan worship.  Purim celebrates the undoing of Haman’s plot to execute the entire Jewish population of the Persian empire.  Yom HaShoah memorializes the six million Jews slaughtered as a result of the genocidal plans of Nazi Germany.  Yom HaAtzmaut celebrates the establishment of the State of Israel, and its survival, both in its War of Independence when the Arab world vowed to “drive every Jew into the sea” and through all its subsequent wars, each time defeating a foe who would see it completely destroyed.  Tisha B’Av commemorates the destructions of the Temple by both the Babylonians and the Romans, as well as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

Nor is our familiarity with the schwer side – the difficult side – of being a Jew limited to our knowledge of past history.  Unfortunately, we continue to experience it first hand as well.  We experience it every time Israel has been attacked by terrorists bent on its destruction, yet the rest of the world remains silent about such attacks while they are ready and eager to condemn Israel for defending its citizens.  We experience it every time one of our children is been put into the situation in a public school in which they find themselves forced to sing words of faith which are contrary to ours.  We experience it every time the schools hold standardized testing such as the SATs or the ACTs on Jewish holidays; or for that matter, home­coming celebrations on our holidays.  We experience it every time employers balk at or flatly refuse to grant their Jewish employees time off in order to observe Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.  We experience it every time someone starts to rant about what they call “The War on Christmas” simply because some businesses attempt to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone in America celebrates that holiday.  We experience it every time someone insists that America is a “Christian” nation, meaning that the rest of us are not true Americans but rather some sort of tolerated guests.  We experience it every time we attend a public gathering in which a prayer is offered and the person offering that prayer chooses to close it with a statement like, “in Jesus’ name we pray.”  We experience it every time social pressure calls upon us to desert the observances of Shabbat and the holidays in order to engage with our neighbors in secular activities, for if we truly want to be accepted by others, we have to minimize if not abandon that which marks us as Jews; that which makes us different.

Yet even while being different can be a tremendous burden upon us as Jews, there is the shayne side – the beautiful side – as well.  That, too, we have experienced.  Who can deny the beauty of a Passover seder?  As Americans, we celebrate Thanksgiving as we gather round the dining room table for our Thanksgiving feast, and it is nice.  But the Thanksgiving feast pales in comparison to the seder.  There is wonder and magic and beauty to be found there.  So much so that even our Christian neighbors envy us our seder celebrations.

Who can deny the overwhelming joy of watching a child – especially when it is one of our children – becoming a Bar or a Bat Mitzvah?  How justifiably filled with pride we are, and more importantly, how justifiably filled with pride our children are, at such a special occasion.  And once again, our Christian neighbors envy us our Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations.  Not just the parties, for anyone can hold a big party.  They envy us the dedication and achievement of our children.  They envy that our children are so ready and capable to stand up in public and profess their bonds to our people and our faith.  I know that, for this is what I so often hear them say while standing in those Bar and Bat Mitzvah receiving lines.

Who can deny the power of a Jewish wedding?  All weddings are beautiful but there is something very special about Jewish weddings.  The rituals speak straight to the heart.  There is the chupah, symbolizing the home and the new family unit that this couple is creating.  With a roof but no sides, it is an open home, welcoming all who care for the happy couple, with both sets of parents standing beside them as well as their friends and siblings.  There is the wine, symbolizing our prayers that the newlyweds’ lives together be both sweet and joyful.  There is the ketubah, the wedding contract, symbolizing the commitments that are necessary to create a lasting marriage.  There is the breaking of the glass, symbolizing the seal of sanctity that has been placed on the union they have created.  And once again, our Christian neighbors envy us our wedding rituals.  I know this because often, after conducting an interfaith marriage ceremony, the non-Jewish parents, who often at first were hesitant about participating, approach me to tell me how beautiful, meaningful, and inclusive, they found the whole experience to be.

Whether we choose to realize it or not, there is a message embedded in all of this.  That message is that when we affirm our Judaism, when we celebrate our Judaism, when we elect to stop being afraid of being different and willingly embrace that in Judaism which makes us different, there is great beauty to be found there.  At the end of the day, that which makes us Jews different is not a curse, but rather a blessing; a profound blessing.

While we seem to be able to uncover such blessings in the big Jewish events in our lives, those are not the only places in which such blessings reside.  For if we but seek them out, we will find that they permeate all of Jewish life; the big moments and the small ones as well.

Recently, I explored with the students of our religious school the practice of reciting the prayer “Modeh Ani” upon waking up in the morning.  It is a simple prayer and easily chanted.  In translation the text states, “I offer thanks to You, ever-living Sovereign, that You have restored my soul to me in mercy: How great is Your trust.”  What a wonderful way to start each and every day – thanking God for the gift of another day of life!  For when we go to sleep at night, there is no guarantee that we will wake up.  That is why it is a Jewish practice that right before we go to sleep we recite the “Shema”, which according to our tradition is supposed to be the last words a Jew utters before dying.  So when we do wake up in the morning, “the Modeh Ani” reminds us that each day is a gift.  What a wonderful, positive thing it is for us to start each and every day, recognizing that it is a gift and should be treated accordingly.  It is a blessing that our Judaism teaches us to approach each and every day with an attitude of gratitude.

The same holds true for saying the “Motsi” whenever we sit down to eat.  In a world filled with starving people, Judaism teaches us to appreciate the blessing of having food with which to sustain our bodies.

The same holds true for all those opportunities offered to us to say the “Shehechiyanu”; all those times in our lives which are special and unique.  For this prayer is not just for lighting the first candle on Hanukkah or just for Bar and Bat Mitzvah services and weddings.  Our lives are filled with “Shehechiyanu” moments, if we but recognizing them and feel moved enough by them to sanctify them with the prayer.  Our Judaism teaches us that there are special moments in our lives which call for a special blessing.

The same holds true for the observance of Shabbat.  There are those Jews who think of Shabbat as one of the most onerous burdens placed upon us as Jews, and so they choose not to observe it.  But then there are those Jews who choose to observe Shabbat, and in their observance they discover, not burden but blessing.  They discover that Shabbat Shalom, the peace of Shabbat, is far more than some empty words with which Jews greet each other on this day; that enfolded in Shabbat can be a profound sense of peace, if we but choose to access it.  That Oneg Shabbat, the “joy of Shabbat” is far more than just a snack of coffee and cookies after the services; that there is a true sense of joy to be found in taking this weekly opportunity to affirm ourselves as Jews, proud of being Jews, connected through Judaism to our fellow Jews and to God.  Shabbat can be an enormous blessing offered to Jews week after week after week if we but choose to pick it up.

These are but just a few simple examples of how those aspects of Judaism which makes us different from others are not to be feared or resented but rather embraced, for it is precisely that which makes us different from others which is also that which enables us to sanctify our lives, both in the big moments and in the small ones.  While there is no denying that which makes us as Jews different from others can, at times be a curse from which we can suffer greatly, it is all the more true that what makes us as Jews different can be, at all times a blessing.  To be a Jew is to receive the blessing of being different.

The Perfect Day: A Sermon for When Yom Kippur Falls on Shabbat

October 12, 2011

How many people here have ever participated in a guided visualization?  Raise your hands.  My first experience with guided visualizations was – and this shouldn’t come as a surprise – back in the days when I served a congregation in California.  Well, if you haven’t had such an experience up until now, after tonight you can proclaim to the world that you have done one.

For those of you who are uncertain about what a guided visualization is, let me explain.  What I propose to do is take you on a journey, but not a journey in which we actually physically leave this building or even our seats.  The journey I wish to take you on is one that will take place totally in our minds.  I am going to try to help you to relax and open your minds, so that you can better imagine this journey as I describe it to you.  I know that sounds very touchy-feely – very California – and it is not something the we reserved Midwesterners do easily, but I want you to give it a try nonetheless.  I want you to drop your defenses and your scepticism, and open yourselves up to the possibility of such an experience.

So the first thing we need to do is relax.  We need to put our bodies and our minds in a relaxed and open state.  There are things that we can do to help bring that about, so here is what I want you to do.  First of all, I want you to sit up.  Uncross your arms and put them at your sides.  Uncross your legs and plant your feet flat on the ground.  Now close your eyes and keep them closed.  I will tell you when you can open them.  Now, we are going to do a breathing exercise.  Bear with me.  This will help.    I want you to take a deep breath in, hold it, and now very slowly let it out through your almost closed lips.  Let’s do that again.  Take a deep breath in, hold it, and now slowly let it out.  And one more time.  Take a deep breath in, hold it, and now slowly let it out.  Hopefully by now you are feeling somewhat more relaxed.  You should be feeling little if any tension in your muscles.

Now that we are more relaxed, I will walk you through our journey, describing it in some detail.  What I want you to do is picture in your mind what I describe to you.  Not just seeing the scene, but experiencing the feelings as well.

It is a beautiful early Fall morning.  The sun is shining and you can feel the warmth on your skin.  It is warm but not hot.  It feels nice.  It feels very nice.  You are walking in a forest.  It rained the night before and you can smell the fresh damp earth.  That luscious musty smell.  The trees around you are green, but they are starting to change color.  Some sooner than others.  The green of the woods is speckled with oranges and yellows and reds.  Ahead of you, you see that the trail opens up.  You see the increasing light in front of you.  As you continue to walk toward the light, you find yourself entering a lovely glade, with a pond.  You stand there, looking at the pond.  Its water is still.  It is like a mirror.  You gaze upon it and see the reflection of the glade and the sky in the water.  You feel the warmth of the sun on your face.  It feels great!  You hear the chirping of birds in the background.  As you look around, you see some hills in the distance.  The sky above is blue with a few scattered puffy clouds.  You are taking it all in.  You are at one with the beauty.  It is as if you entered a landscape painting and have become part of the painting.  It is better than a painting.  You are transfixed.  You never want to leave.  It is a perfect moment.

When you entered the forest, you were carrying many burdens in your heart; worries and concerns about money, work, family, friends.  But as you stand in this glade, breathing in the sweet fresh air, with the warmth of the sun on your face, you begin to feel the weight of those burdens lifting.  Your heart seems lighter, freer.  You are at one with the beauty that surrounds you.  You feel a connection between you and the beauty which surrounds you; between you and the glade; between you and the sky; between you and the chirping birds.  You are filled with a certain sense of awe at how wondrous all this is; and a certain sense of gratitude.  The pleasure of the moment is a gift and for it, you are grateful.  In this grateful moment, you somehow feel a bit more connected to the artist; to the Giver of the gift; to God.  You are happy as you realize that the One who would grant you such a gift must care for you; must love you; must want you to be happy.  You stand there, filled with a sense of peace; a peace that comes from your connectedness to all that surrounds you.  You sense that you are a part of something greater than yourself, and in so sensing, you never felt better.

It is time for you to leave the glade.  You need to walk back through the forest, and back to your home and your life.  You turn and start down the trail.  But this time, you do not carry with you the burdens with which you entered the glade.  Rather you carry the memory of the sun on your face, the fresh smell of the air, the song of the birds, the beauty of the pond.  Your heart is light rather than heavy.  Ahead of you, you see light.  You are coming out of the woods, heading toward home.  Your journey is ending.

You can open your eyes now.  I hope that you permitted yourself to experience the journey, or at least parts of it, and in having done so, found it refreshing; an oasis of peace in a stressful life.

If you opened yourself up to the possibilities of this journey; if you permitted yourself to visualize being in the forest and the glade, taking in the warmth, the beauty, the peace of the moment; if you allowed yourself to become immersed in this imaginary sojourn,  then whether not you realize it, you also allowed yourself to experience just a hint of what Shabbat can be like in our lives.  For like the glade, Shabbat, too, can be an oasis of peace, beauty, relief, and connectedness; a welcome, blessed, and rejuvenating escape from our all too demanding and draining weekday lives.

But like this guided visualization, only those who are willing to open themselves up to possibility of the experience of Shabbat can benefit from it.  I know that among you this evening there were some, maybe many, who resisted this experiment.  They sat in their seats, refusing to engage in it, perhaps thinking to themselves, “What kind of narishkite is this?  This is silly!  This is a waste of my time!”  But I expect, indeed I hope, that there were some among you, even if just a few, who were not as cynical and as closed; who were willing to engage in the spirit of the moment, and in so doing, did discover it to be a somewhat pleasurable experience.  So it is with Shabbat.  There are those Jews who choose to close themselves off from the Shabbat experience, perceiving of it as an inconvenience or even a burden.  It, too, they view as narishkite and a waste of their time.  But then there are those Jews who choose to embrace the Shabbat experience, and in so doing discover it to be not a burden but rather a relief; not a waste but rather a gift – a precious gift – one they look forward to receiving week in and week out.

When I was growing up, my parents would host a big family dinner every Sunday afternoon.  After religious school, all sorts of relatives would descend upon our home.  My mother loved to cook, so every Sunday was like Thanksgiving as we crowded round the dining room table, which was filled to overflowing with a variety of delicacies.  One of those delicacies was sweet potatoes topped by toasted marshmallows.  Everyone would devour them; everyone that is except me.  I would have none of it.  They would urge me on, saying, “Just try it!  You’ll love it!  It taste like candy!”  But I was convinced that they were lying.  It was just a trap, for nothing as orange and vegetable looking as that could ever taste good.  So for years and years, I refused to let sweet potatoes touch me lips.  That is until one day, at a Thanksgiving dinner, as an adult, I permitted myself to be persuaded to at least give it a try.  So I placed as small a morsel as possible on a fork and put it to my lips.  And you can guess the rest of the story.  It was delightful!  Everything that all those people at those family dinners said about sweet potatoes was right on the money.  For all those years, I had denied myself that wonderful treat!  Now that was a waste!

Shabbat is the sweet potatoes on the serving table of our lives.  We can convince ourselves that Shabbat – as I had convinced myself that sweet potatoes – is something to be avoided.  But in so doing, we deny ourselves a very special treat; something that can bring so much pleasure into our lives.

Now I know that there are among you those who are thinking, “Whose he kidding?  I’ve been to Friday night services?  Where’s the pleasure outside of the oneg?”  But I strongly caution you.  Do not equate Shabbat with Shabbat services.  While Shabbat services are a part of Shabbat – an important part of Shabbat – they are not the totality of Shabbat.  Shabbat is not just an hour and fifteen minutes on a Friday night.  That’s right, an hour and fifteen minutes, shorter than even a Disney movie.  Shabbat is a whole day.  Traditionally, 25 hours.  It is prayers – it begins and ends with prayers – but it is far more than prayers.  It is the creation of an oasis of peace and beauty and freedom and love in the midst of what often can be a tempestuous week.  That is why we Jews greet each other on Shabbat by saying “Shabbat Shalom,” may the peace of Shabbat embrace you.  It is, or can be, a cherished opportunity to reconnect with our loved ones, our fellow Jews, our God, and with ourselves.

As many of you know, I am a strong advocate of sending our children to Jewish summer camps.  Invariably, when you ask these children who attend these camps – who love attending these camps and go back year after year – “What is it about camp that you like the most?” they do not tell you it is the boating or the water-skiing or the water slide or the climbing tower or the horseback riding.  They say, “It’s Shabbat!”  When you ask them “What is it about Shabbat which is so special?”  They will tell you about the special Shabbat dinner and the singing and the dancing that follows.  They will tell you about being able to sleep late on Shabbat morning, and having an unprogrammed day of freedom and relaxation, in which there are activities available which they can choose, or choose not, to partake in.  They like being off the clock.  They like being able to take some control of their lives rather than having others control it for them.  If they want to go swimming, they go swimming when they want to go swimming and not when someone else is telling them, “Now is the time to go swimming.”  Yes.  Shabbat is about freedom and leisure.  The great theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, put it so well when he said that Shabbat is not a time “to do” but “to be.”

Many of you may remember our former congregant, Dick Gottlieb.  Several years ago, Dick offered me some truly sage advise.  He said, “Henry, you have to take time to sharpen the saw.”  What is “sharpening the saw?”  The analogy that he drew was with someone who is sawing wood.  That person goes along, sawing and sawing, cutting more and more wood.  But eventually his blade starts to dull, and the wood cutter discovers that even though he is expending more and more time and energy, the result is that he is cutting less and less wood as his blade grows duller and duller.  So he invests himself longer and harder into his task, but contrary to his desire, his productivity continues to decline.  What he needs to do is, rather than trying to continue to cut wood with a dull saw blade, he should stop his wood cutting altogether in order to take the time necessary to sharpen his saw.  We all need to sharpen our saws.  We need to break from the routines of our lives in order to refresh ourselves, so that, when we return to the tasks at hand, we can do so with renewed physical, mental, and spiritual vigor.  Shabbat is our weekly opportunity to sharpen our saws.  It gives us the chance to break with all the demands that drain us physically, emotionally, and spiritually during the rest of the week; to put them on hold and say, “Not today!  Today is not for meeting your needs but rather, for meeting mine.  It is for recharging my battery, so that I can better face you in the week to come.”

In the course of my life, I have observed many Shabbatot.  I have observed them in Iowa and New York, all over the country and in many places around the world, including in Israel.  But the most perfect Shabbat for me was – believe it or not, not in Jerusalem, nor was it at camp – but rather it was a Shabbat that our family spent with our traditional cousins in Minneapolis, Joyce & Robert Warshawsky, one Thanksgiving weekend several years ago.  To me that Shabbat stands out in my mind as an ideal; as a goal to strive for in Shabbat observance.  As I describe it, some of you may find yourselves surprised, for it was not what you might have expected to hear from me.
The Shabbat started, of course, on Friday night, with a typical traditional Shabbat dinner, replete with flowers, candles, Kiddish and challah, the blessing of the children, along with the “Eishet Chayil,” the praise of the women, and a luxurious meal.  There was singing and schmoozing around the dinner table long into the evening.  Believe it or not, we did not go to services that night.

We did, however, go to services the next morning.  It was a rainy day.  So our cousin, who belongs to both an Orthodox and a Conservative synagogue gave us a choice of where to pray.  When we put the ball back into his court, he chose the Conservative one because we could drive there, while we would have had to walk to the Orthodox synagogue without even being able to carry umbrellas.  The service was nice.  Long, like most traditional services, but it was followed by an excellent luncheon.  Besides, it felt good to spend the time with other Jews – even though, aside from my family, they were all strangers to me – praying familiar prayers, singing familiar songs, strongly sensing that we shared something special with these people which we shared with few others in our lives.  On top of all that, the rabbi’s devar Torah was a good one, providing much food for thought.

By the time we got back into our car, the rain had stopped.  We drove back to our cousin’s house where we spent most of the afternoon lounging around.  We took naps, read books, sat around and talked, and much to my surprise, considering our cousin’s traditional leanings, even watched a movie; if memory serves me correctly, “The Mask” with Jim Carey to be precise.

Later in the afternoon, we went for a walk around a nearby lake.  We walked, we talked, we sat on benches.  We simply enjoyed being together and being outdoors.

We went back to the house, hung out some more, until it was time for Havdalah.  We held that brief service with its powerful symbolism, and as we doused the candle into the wine and sang “Eliyahu HaNavi” our Shabbat drew to a close.

Now that may not sound like much, but it was so peaceful.  Nothing was forced or demanded, one way or the other.  No pre-torn toilet paper or lights on timers.  It wasn’t about prohibitions but rather about relaxing and being together.  It was about centering ourselves and disengaging from the hectic pace which can overwhelm our lives.  In its very simplicity, that Shabbat was truly an oasis of peace and rest for the body and the spirit.
I share all this with you because tonight and tomorrow we celebrate Shabbat as well as observe Yom Kippur.  Contrary to what some might think, that is no small thing.  It is a big thing.  For Shabbat, the most frequent of Jewish holy days is also the most sacred of Jewish holy days.  Even more sacred than this High Holy Day of Yom Kippur.  Not only is it the only holy day mentioned in the Ten Commandments, but its very frequency significantly contributes to its sanctity.  For one can never dream of nurturing a healthy spiritual life by merely dedicating one or two or three or four days a year to matters of the spirit.  Our souls, and our relationship with God, and with our Jewish identity and our Jewish people requires more continuous and consistent care.  And that is where Shabbat comes in.

On Yom Kippur, we are called upon to confront our sins and seek to repair them.  We consider ourselves a community of sinners.  One of the sins we need to confront is our neglect of Shabbat, and in so doing, our failure to foster our own spiritual lives.  In so doing, we not only sin against God and the Jewish people, but we also sin against ourselves.  Each and every one of us, whether we recognize it or not, needs Shabbat.  We need the peace that it brings and the healing that it brings and the unity that it brings.

On this Day of Atonement, may we truly repent our neglect of Shabbat and sincerely commit ourselves to atone for this sin by striving to make Shabbat a part of our weekly lives, by not only attending services – though that would be nice – but also by electing to break with our weekly routines on this day, setting it aside for the refreshment of body and soul and for the renewal of our relationships with our loved ones, with our Jewish people, with God, and also with ourselves.

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 7

May 9, 2011

Back in December, when I wrote the last installment in this series of articles, little did I dream that it would be May before I would write the next.  For that, I apologize.  This has not been an easy winter for me.  I underwent major surgery and almost died from post surgical complications.  But now I definitely am on the mend and my return to writing for this series of articles is but one more testimony to my daily improving health.

As I stated at the end of my last article in this series, in this article I wish to turn my attention to the commitment the Reform movement has made to matters of Tikkun Olam or, as we used to call it, Social Action.

I remember as a child being told that Reform Judaism is Prophetic Judaism.  What is Prophetic Judaism?  When we call Reform Judaism Prophetic Judaism we mean that at its heart are the teachings of the biblical prophets, and that those teachings are primarily the teachings of social justice.  Like the biblical prophets, Reform Judaism holds that ritual observance is empty unless it is accompanied by deeds of loving kindness directed toward the less fortunate of society.  I remember, in my childhood congregation, how seriously we took Isaiah’s message of social justice when we read it as the Haftarah on Yom Kippur morning:  “Is such the fast that I have chosen?  The day for a man to afflict his soul?  Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?  Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?  Is not this the fast that I have chosen?  To loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?  Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou shalt bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?  When thou seest the naked, thou shalt cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?  Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the Lord shall be thy rear-guard.”

I also remember that prayer in Shabbat evening service number 3 of the old UNION PRAYER BOOK, which read, “How much we owe to the labors of our brothers!  Day by day they dig far away from the sun that we may be warm.”  When I asked my rabbi to explain what that meant, he told about how our movement supported the efforts of the coal miners in their struggle to earn a living wage and to require their employers to establish safety standards for their working conditions.

I also remember how, when I was in my Confirmation year, the principal of our religious school arranged for our class to attend a weekend retreat with students from an Afro-American church (we called them “Negroes” at that time), co-sponsored by the NAACP and the Nation Conference of Christians and Jews.  Attending a predominantly Jewish public school, this was my first serious encounter with African Americans as a group.  It was on that weekend that I first learned the songs “We Shall Overcome” and “Go Down, Moses.”  It was on that weekend that I first became committed to the Civil Rights Movement.

I remember that it was from the pulpit of the Reform synagogue of my teenage years that I first heard a message opposing the war in Viet Nam; a message lifting up the principle of peace.  I have no doubt that marked the birth of my involvement in the anti-war movement; a movement which would have a serious impact upon my college years, including my decision – much to my parents’ chagrin – to turn in my graduation gown and join others in boycotting our college graduation in protest to the war.

As time marched on, in Reform Judaism, the terms “Social Justice” and “Social Action” were replaced by the Hebrew expression, “Tikkun Olam” meaning “Repair of the World.”  Yet while whatever we called it may have changed, Reform Judaism’s commitment to the values of making our world a better place to live for all people has remained constant for over well over a century.  One need only look at the long list of social justice resolutions passed by both the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis to witness how constant and how broad based was, and is, our commitment to the principle of Tikkun Olam.  Whenever injustice has reared its ugly head, either in our American society or in the world at large, our movement has not hesitated to stand up for what is right and decent.  More often than not, we have been among the first to do so.

Today, the Union for Reform Judaism can justifiably boast that it is the only Jewish congregational organization in North America that has established specific centers dedicated to the advancement of Tikkun Olam, both here in America – the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. – and in Israel – the Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem.  These two centers labor to keep all Reform Jews aware of the pressing social justice issues of our day and to engage us in the work of addressing those issues and righting those wrongs.

Indeed, I who am a person committed to the pursuit of Tikkun Olam, at times have to admit to feeling overwhelmed by all the issues which the Religious Action Center places before me and calls upon me to address.  There is just so much work to be done and our movement insists that we cannot ignore it.  If one were to go to the website of the Religious Action Center (http://rac.org/index.cfm?), they would find an extensive directory for “Key Topics” which would include issues concerning:  affirmative action, Africa, antisemitism & the Holocaust, arms control, bilingual education, bio-ethics, campaign finance reform, child soldiers, children’s issues, civil liberties, civil rights, conflict diamonds, crime & criminal justice, Darfur, death penalty, debt relief, disability rights, economic justice, education, election reform, environment, fair trade coffee, GLBT equality, global poverty, gun control, hate crimes, health care, HIV/Aids, housing and homelessness, human rights, human trafficking, hunger, immigration, intelligent design & creationism, interfaith affairs, Israel, judicial nominations, labor issues, living wage, mental health, privacy, race relations, religious liberty, religious persecution, reproductive rights, school prayer, school vouchers, separation of church & state, sexuality issues in public school, social security, socially responsible investment, stem cell research, substance abuse, torture, U.S. foreign policy, violence against women, welfare reform, women’s health, and world Jewry.  There is a list of equal length in regards to the work of the Israel Religious Action Center, with its focus being on Tikkun Olam issues particular to the State of Israel.

Orthodox, Conservative, Reform – we all agree that the father of modern Judaism was the great sage, Hillel the Elder, who lived in the first century B.C.E.  One of Hillel’s most famous sayings was:  “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?” (PIRKE AVOT 1:14)  Reform Judaism, through its commitment to Tikkun Olam, strives to live up to Hillel’s standards.  As Jews, we are for ourselves, striving to live our Jewish lives more fully.  But if we are only for ourselves, then we are nothing.  Therefore, through our pursuit of Tikkun Olam – by being for others as well – we bring meaning to our Jewish selves.  “If not now, when?”  Our answer is crystal clear.  Now, most assuredly now!  As Reform Jews, we can neither wait to repair the world nor can we expect others to do it for us.  In committing ourselves to the work of Tikkun Olam, we are not only fulfilling ourselves as Jews but are also partnering with God in the ongoing work of perfecting creation.

In part 8, I will reflect upon why it is important for synagogues to band together into an ideological family, and how the Union for Reform Judaism has enabled its member synagogue to maximize their pursuit of living a modern, liberal approach to their Judaism.

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 5

December 29, 2010






While there are many things I love about being a Reform Jew, few make me prouder of our movement than its inspiring history of caring and sensitivity when it comes to issues of personal Jewish status.  It is here that our Reform leaders, both past and present, have demonstrated the courage to break with traditional Jewish perspectives in favor of opening their arms and hearts to others who were defined by the rest of the Jewish world as outsiders or unacceptable.

From the very earliest days of our movement, Reform Judaism has engaged in the sensitive yet important process of examining and altering age old Jewish standards when it comes to these issues.  Right out of the gate, our earliest Reform rabbis made significant changes in the status of women within the synagogue.  Until the advent of Reform Judaism, and still today in Orthodox settings, women were and are literally set apart from men during worship.  They were and are viewed as a distraction to “true” worshipers, and as those who, while they were permitted to worship, were not expected or required to do so.  In the traditional morning liturgy there is even a prayer thanking God “for not making me a woman.”  Early Reform Judaism was quick to address this inequity.  It did so first by eliminating separate seating and permitting men and women to sit together.  This change dates back to the 1850’s and is attributed to none other than the father of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise.  In fact, Rabbi Wise was a major proponent of equality for women within Judaism.  He even admitted women to the Hebrew Union College though none completed the course of study for ordination until 1973 when the Hebrew Union College ordained Sally Priesand as the very first woman rabbi.  The investiture of women as cantors was soon to follow, with the first woman cantor, Barbara Ostfeld, being invested by the Hebrew Union College in 1975.  Along with the elimination of mixed seating, very early on in the history of our movement women were given the honor of blessing the Torah; something that they were not permitted to do in Conservative Judaism until the late 1970’s and are still not permitted to do in Orthodox Judaism.  I remember very well that while I was serving the Reform congregation of Lincoln, Nebraska (1977-1982), our neighbors in the Conservative congregation were embroiled in the debate as to whether or not to permit their women to bless the Torah on Shabbat.  I remember too how I simply shook my head in disbelief when they finally resolved to permit the women to do so one Shabbat a month.  It always fascinated me how much Conservative Judaism struggled with such women’s issues as blessing the Torah, rabbinic ordination and cantorial investiture whereas for Reform Judaism, these were simply a matter of doing the right thing and eliminating a previous injustice.  But here, once again, we see the power and the benefit of Reform Judaism’s willingness not to follow Jewish tradition blindly but rather to judge issues on their own merits.

While the status of women was one of the earliest personal status issues tackled by Reform Judaism, it was far from the last.  Compared to those issues which would follow, it may very well have been one of its least challenging.  So many of the issues which followed offered challenges which had the potential of shattering the fragile bonds which bound our movement to the other theological approaches to Judaism.  Yet in spite of those risks, our movement chose to grapple with these issues and, in the end, continued to follow the dictates of conscience rather than conformity.

One of the thorniest of these issues was that of intermarriage.  The longstanding opposition of our people to interfaith marriage is legend.  It was not that long ago that it was truly common for parents of those who married out of the faith to completely disassociate themselves from their children.  Images, such as that in the Neil Diamond movie, “The Jazz Singer,” in which a Jewish parent literally went into mourning, as if their child were dead, were more fact than fantasy.  When I was ordained, in 1975, the intermarriage rate was reported as beings around 20%, and that was considered a significant crisis in the Jewish community.  In fact, in my personal library, I have a book entitled HOW TO STOP AN INTERMARRIAGE.  Today, that rate stands at about 54%.  Whether or not to officiate at intermarriages; this was one of those issues over which the membership of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (C.C.A.R.) was deeply divided.  On the one hand there were, and are, those Reform rabbis who join with our Conservative and Orthodox colleagues who feel that intermarriage is the undoing of the Jewish people.  They are convinced that the majority of such marriages will result in the Jewish partner abandoning our people and faith, and even if the Jewish partner does not, the children will.  On the other hand there were, and are, those Reform rabbis who feel that you cannot swim against the tide; that by officiating at such marriages, under specific conditions which they set, even without the benefit of conversion for the non-Jewish partner, the family, feeling welcomed by the officiating rabbi, may very well be saved for Judaism.  This tension in the Reform rabbinate was accurately reflected in a resolution on intermarriage which the C.C.A.R. passed in 1973.  While this resolution stated the opposition of the Reform rabbinate to intermarriage, it also affirmed each Reform rabbi’s right to follow the dictates of conscience on this matter.  According to a recent survey of Reform rabbis, today approximately 48% of them do so officiate.

In part 6, I will continue these reflections on personal Jewish status issues, focusing on Reform Judaism’s approaches to Outreach to intermarried families, the role of the non-Jew in the synagogue, the Jewish status of children born of intermarriages, and the treatment of those Jews with a same sex sexual orientation.