Archive for the ‘Interfaith Relations’ category

911 Remarks at a Mosque in the Shadow of Hate

September 13, 2010

With the controversy swirling around the building of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City, our entire country has experienced a burgeoning of Islamophobia – hatred directed at all the followers of Islam.  In response to this sorry state of affairs, an interfaith gathering – called a Day of Unity and Healing – was held at the mosque in Moline, Illinois, on September 11th.  It was heartening to see that the room was packed, as was an overflow room.  It was estimated that there were about 400 in attendance.  I was one of those who was invited to offer some brief remarks.  I share them with you here.

First of all, I want to take this opportunity to say that as a Jew and as a rabbi, I am honored to have been invited to speak with you today, here in this mosque. It is no secret that there are serious issues which divide Muslims and Jews these days; issues which each side takes very much to heart. But as bitter as are the challenges which divide us, there is something that we must never forget. We are family. We are cousins. We are both children of Abraham; we Jews by way of Isaac; you Muslims by way of Ishmael. Ishmael and Isaac. They were half brothers. Ishmael was my uncle. Isaac was yours. So we are family, and families can argue. They can battle bitterly. But at the end of the day, family is family, and as such family members stand by each other, especially in times of need. You are my cousins, and I am here. There is no place else I could be. And I speak not only for myself, but for the membership of Temple Emanuel as well.

That being said, I want to express my heartfelt thanks to Pastor Terry Jones and to his followers, the members of the Dove World Outreach Center, in Gainesville, Florida. I know that might sound odd, but I am serious. We owe this man, and so many others like him, a profound debt of gratitude.

Why? Because they have forced the American people to confront the ugly face of vile and virulent hatred. They have forced us to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, “Is this who we are? Is this who we wish to be?” And the answer has been a resounding “NO!” These extremists do not speak for the vast majority of the American people and their message in no way reflects the ideals of freedom, inclusion, and respect upon which our nation was founded.

America is filled with people of good conscience; people who detest the toxic teachings of fanatics like Terry Jones. Yet we people of good conscience can often demonstrate ourselves to be quite a complacent crew. We poo-poo bigotry and prejudice, but we do so in the comfort of our homes and in our conversations with our friends, and all too often that is where it ends. Privately, we tell others how much we loath such hatred, but rarely do we take the next step and actually do something about it. And through our inaction, we permit this infection of the American soul to fester and spread. As Edmund Burke, the 18th century Irish philosopher so wisely put it, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

But then every once in a while, a fellow like Pastor Jones comes around; someone who is so outlandish in their prejudice that they make it nearly impossible for those who are truly people of good conscience to keep our high ideals to ourselves. They impel us to stand up publicly for that which we believe. The are a wake up call, reminding us that if we truly believe in the dignity of all people – if we truly believe in respecting the diversity of all those who populate our planet – then we need to stand up and be counted. We need to make it clear to the world at large that there is no place for prejudice in our town, our state, our nation, or our world.

Back in 1790, President George Washington wrote the following words to Moses Sexias, the leader of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island. “For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.” I am here today, along with all the other non-Muslims who are here today, to assure our Muslim brothers and sisters – my Muslim cousins – that we take very much to heart the words of President Washington – “To bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Anyone who attacks your right to worship as you please, where you please – even it it is two blocks from Ground Zero – attacks everyone’s right to worship as well. That you pray to Allah, and I pray to Adonai, and our Christian brothers and sisters pray to, or through, Jesus, and that so many people of so many other faiths each pray in their own way is not a matter of right or wrong. It never has been. Rather, it is a testament to the gift of so many roads which lay before us as personal opportunities for all people to choose how they feel they can best connect with the divinity that is the foundation of the universe. It is at times like these that we are reminded that if we are to travel our own chosen paths to the divine, then we must defend, even with our lives, the rights of others to travel theirs.

Dear Muslim cousins, on this day of September 11th, we reverently remember those who fell victims to the toxins of hatred 9 years ago. We refuse to permit such toxins to poison our community today. In that spirit, please be assured that we stand by you, we stand with you, today and every day.

Our Cousin at the Foot of the Mountain

September 11, 2010

Continuing my series of High Holy Day sermons, here is the sermon on delivered on Rosh Hashanah morning.

Every year, on Rosh Hashanah morning, I turn to the Torah portion, the story of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac, as a source of inspiration for my sermon. This year will be no different. However, before I enter into my remarks, I must tell you that the sermon you are about to hear is not the sermon I originally intended to share with you. That particular sermon will have to wait until next Rosh Hashanah.

In some ways, that is unfortunate because, though its text has not yet been committed to paper (or whatever you commit texts to when you type them into your computer), it was, is, and will be a very nice sermon; one of those thought provoking feel good sermons that people so much like to hear these days. But as I said, it will have to wait.

You may wonder why I felt the need to set that sermon aside. That is a fair enough question. The answer is that there are times when the world takes over and as a result the sermons that clergy plan to deliver are not the ones they wind up delivering. Rather, they find themselves needing to deliver the sermons that the world demands of them. Unfortunately, this is such a time.

With that being said, let me turn to our Torah portion.

Usually, when rabbis discuss this Torah portion, they almost always center their reflections upon Abraham and Isaac, and all that transpired between them in this powerful account. However, when we consider the totality of the story, we need to recognize that Abraham and Isaac were not the only characters present. There were others. The Hebrew text refers to these others as Abraham’s “na’arav” or “sh’nei na’a’rav,” which most translations, including the one in our prayer book, renders as “servants” or “two servants.” However, the typical Hebrew term for servant is not “na’ar” but “eved.” “Na’ar” usually means “youth.” Recognizing this irregularity in the text, the rabbis of the Midrash asked, “Who were these two special youths who accompanied Abraham and Isaac on their journey?” They generally agree upon the answer. One of them was Abraham’s servant, Eliezer; the person who, later in the text, Abraham would send to Aram Naharayim, the town in which Abraham’s brother, Nahor, lived, in order to acquire a bride for Isaac. The other was none other than Ishmael, Abraham’s oldest son, the son of the maid servant Hagar, Isaac’s half brother.

The presence of Ishmael in this seminal story of our people is highly significant. For even here, in the midst of a foundation story of the Jewish people – a story of one of the truly make-or-break moments in the history of our people and our faith; for if Abraham had carried through with his intended sacrifice, then this story would have marked the end of the Jewish people and of Judaism – even here we sense the presence of Ishmael. And who is Ishmael? As Isaac’s half brother, he is our uncle. But he is more than that. For as we Jews trace our lineage back to Isaac, the followers of Islam trace theirs back to Ishmael. With that in mind, we must never forget that the Muslims are our cousins. They are part of our family, and as such, they have been present with us throughout our history, even from our very beginnings. For even in this story, while Isaac the Jew is on top of Mount Moriah – what would become the Temple Mount – with Father Abraham, Ishmael the Muslim is standing at the foot of the mountain, awaiting the outcome. He accompanied us on our journey there, and he will accompany us on our journey back to Beer Sheva.

So the Muslims are our cousins; they are our family. In the light of contemporary history, that is a difficult concept for many to grasp. For we have spent the last 70 years or so contending with them. So much blood has been shed. Jewish blood by Arabs. Arab blood by Jews. Still they are our cousins. How can we reconcile the two? Well, as many of us know, sometimes the most strident conflicts occur within families. Family feuds can be the most bitter and devastating of controversies. Yet even so, in the end, family is family. And while within a family we can engage in the most vicious warfare imaginable, still there is something almost instinctive within us which demands that we set aside our differences and stand by our family members when others endanger them.

I remember an incident from my childhood which testifies to this phenomenon. My sister, of blessed memory, was six years older than I. As children we always fought, and she would never pass up even the slightest opportunity to beat me up. However, one day, standing at the school bus stop, one of the older boys started beating me up. Immediately, she stepped in and started beating him up. “Wait a minute!” he protested. “Why are you hitting me? After all, you beat up Henry all the time.” To this she replied, “He’s my brother, so I can beat him up, but don’t you dare lay a hand upon him!”

So it is, or should be, within the family of Abraham. It is one thing for us to contend with our cousins, the Muslims. It is quite another to stand silently by while others persecute and abuse them. And sad to say, that is exactly what is happening today – not in some far off land but rather here, on our very shores.

What I am referring to is the controversy which has whirled around the proposal to build an Islamic community center two blocks away from Ground Zero, in New York. The debate over this proposed mosque has stirred up some of the ugliest aspects of American culture today. As a result, we have witnessed a burgeoning of virulent hatred and prejudice. As a result, we Jews, as people of conscience, nevertheless cousins to the Muslims, have been handed the challenge of whether we will join in this hate fest, or silently stand by, and by our silence give tacit approval to it, or stand up and stand with our cousins, even though our dispute with them over the future of the Middle East continues to be bitter and bloody.

Personally, I have struggled with this issue. When the question of the mosque first arose, I have to admit that I myself wondered, “Why do they have to build it there? Isn’t that more than a bit insensitive considering the fact that the tragedy of September 11th was perpetrated by Muslims who claimed to be acting in the name of their faith?” I also have to admit that I wondered about where the funds were coming from. It would be one thing if they were being raised from among the American Muslim community, but something else if they were coming out of the Arab world. Yet even as I entertained these questions, my main concern still centered on the principle of freedom of religion. Still, this is America and in this country people of all faiths are supposed to be free to worship according to their faiths wherever they choose to worship; even if they are Muslims who wish to worship at or near Ground Zero.

As I was grappling with my mixed feelings over this issue, one day at lunch I was approached by Rev. Ron Quay of Churches United, who wanted us to get together to discuss whether or not the Quad Cities faith community ought to take a stand in support of the mosque.

When we did hold our meeting, we ultimately decided not to act immediately but rather to wait and see. What were we waiting for? First of all, we feared that by jumping into this controversy, we would actually be causing more harm than good. At that time, all the negativity was centered on the mosque in New York. There had been no expressions of anti-Muslim hostility here in the Quad Cities. So we feared that if we spoke out, we would actually provoke such hostility. We did not want to give this hostility more legs, especially more local legs than it already had. Secondly, we felt that it would be inappropriate for us to step forward without a request to do so coming from our local Muslim community. If they wanted our help and our support, all they needed to do was ask for it. For us to impose it upon them might indeed do them more harm than good.

But as fate would have it, the anger and the prejudice surrounding the proposed New York mosque would not remain in New York. Like the virulent social cancer hate is, it began to metastasize, spreading its toxins across our country. Feeding off the New York controversy, the purveyors of Islamophobia starting peddling their poisonous pellets of prejudice wherever they could.

The New York Times published a feature article about an evangelical pastor in Florida who was organizing a public book burning of the Koran scheduled for September 11th. I know that there are those who are very unhappy with me when I make Holocaust analogies, but how could I, as a Jew, not shiver at the parallel between this man’s intentions and the Nazis’ burning of Jewish sacred books and books by Jewish authors?

In the Washington Post, I read about how the Islamic community of Mufreesboro, Tennessee – a community which lived in peace and harmony with its neighbors for over thirty years – had met with strong opposition when they proposed building their own mosque in their own town. Nor was this opposition made up exclusively of those who spoke out at county board meetings. It also included hundreds who gathered for a large noisy protest rally in the town square and political candidates who made their opposition to this mosque a center piece of their campaigns. Painfully, an article published in the Post one week later, reported that among those who opposed this mosque there were those who had escalated their protests to include acts of violence such as an act of arson at the construction site, along with reports of gunfire there as well.

Rev. Quay and I conferred. We had worried about giving Islamophobia legs. Well, as report after report of anti-Islamic hatred came in, it was becoming abundantly obviously that this hatred was growing legs of its own. It was likewise becoming obvious that sooner or later – sooner rather than later – we would have to take a stand in opposition to it. For as this issue has evolved, it is no longer an issue of whether or not the site of the New York mosque is appropriate. It has become crystal clear that the fundamental issue here is one of protecting religious freedom; one of taking a strong stand against prejudice and bigotry.

Still, on a local level, there were some pieces that were missing for us. First of all, there was the fact that this hatred of Muslims had yet to touch our community. And of course there was the fact that our local Islamic community had yet to express a desire for any public action in this regard.

Well, that too, was soon to end. It ended for me one morning while on the treadmill during a respiratory therapy session. The TV was on in the therapy room, as we patients were watching the Today Show on KWQC as we exercised. And then there it was on the screen before us, being broadcast by our local TV station. It was the most horrible of commercials. I suspect that at least some of you have seen it. It started off with the claim that whenever the Muslims conquered a place, they celebrated their victory by building there a mosque. Images of Jerusalem, Spain, and now Ground Zero. It equated the building of a mosque at Ground Zero with the building of a Japanese temple at Pearl Harbor. It then went on to castigate Congressman Bruce Braley for supporting the building of this mosque and it encouraged our local citizens to call Congressman Braley to express their opposition and discontent. Now this Islamophobia had local legs. This hatred had come to roost in the Quad Cities. The picture was complete. Our community would not be spared the taint of this hatred. The strident voices who strive to provoke fear in the hearts of the American people by invoking that fearful term, “jihad” were now here recruiting our friends and neighbors to join them in their own holy war against anyone who follows the faith of Mohammed.

So Rev. Quay and I contacted the local Islamic community to let them know that if they wanted to take public action in response to such prejudice, we were willing to stand by them and with them, and we would encourage the other members of the Quad Cities faith community to do so as well.

They have taken us up on our offer. So, on Saturday evening, September 11th, starting at 5:00 p.m., the Moline Mosque will be hosting an interfaith gathering; a Day of Unity and Healing. The program will only last an hour but if people of conscience – and I hope that includes everyone in this room and everyone in our Jewish community – if people of conscience come out and support it, the impact of such a gathering on the Quad Cities will have enduring value. It will affirm the living essence of those important words which President George Washington wrote back in 1790 to Moses Seixas, the leader of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island: “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.”

Our Muslim cousins residing here in the Quad Cities are good citizens. We most certainly disagree with them strongly about the situation in the Middle East, but still, they are good citizens; as good as we are. We, a people who have suffered centuries of persecution, only to find a haven here in a free America, may very well be the best equipped in our land to appreciate their current situation; to appreciate what it is like to be the target of hatred. If we do not stand up for them now, then we demean the memories of all those Jews of generations past who fell victim to the power of bigotry.

I not only invite you to stand with me on the evening of September 11th, in the mosque in Moline. I implore you. It is the debt we owe to our forebears. It is the debt we owe to our children. It is also a family thing. They are our cousins and they need our support. As Ishmael stood by Isaac. So must we now stand by them.

The Egg as a Symbol of Hope and Hate

April 4, 2010

I love symbols.  They possess the power to concretize concepts.  They can make the abstract far more tangible.

Yet I find great irony in how there are times when the same symbol can take on different, and even divergent meanings.  In the past week, much to my chagrin, I experienced an example of this phenomenon.

The symbol in question is the egg.  During our local Pesach/Passover celebrations I have made a point of explaining to my congregants both the symbolism of the egg on the Seder plate and its ideological connection to the far better known egg symbol of this time of year – the Easter Egg – as well as to its symbolism within the ancient pagan Spring festival.  For in all of these holidays, the egg symbolizes the beginning of life; both birth and rebirth.  For the pagans, they were celebrating the rebirth of nature after the death of winter.  The Christians celebrate the the rebirth – resurrection – of Jesus after his death on the cross.  While we Jews celebrate the rebirth of the Jewish people after the death of slavery in Egypt.  For all three belief systems, the egg is a symbol of hope, potential, and significant new beginnings.

Yet last night I also experienced the egg as a very different symbol.

If you have been reading my blog of late then you know that I have been engaged in a local controversy over whether or not a governmental agency – in this case the city government of Davenport – should be declaring religious holidays as “official” holidays; whether by doing so, the government is in violation of the First Amendment.  The controversy, as you probably have read, arose when our local Civil Rights Commission recommended to our city government that they change the name of the paid holiday on their calendar from “Good Friday” to “Spring Holiday,” and the city administrator complied.  The city received an immediate and harsh reaction from several city employees.  As a result, the city administration buckled under the pressure, abandoned the principle of governmental agencies needing to remain religiously neutral, and changed the name back to “Good Friday.”  And the debate over the issue has been raging ever since.  To those who know me, it should be no surprise that I have been one of the vocal proponents of promoting communal respect for religious diversity and maintaining a high wall of church-state separation.

This brings us back to the egg.  Last night, I took my teenage daughter and her best friend to a late night movie.  Her friend had driven to our house and had parked in front of it.  When we returned home, we found that her car and our driveway had been “egged”.  I checked around the rest of our block and found no evidence of any other home being “egged.”  From that I deduced that this “egging” was not just some youthful prank pulled on our neighborhood but was a directed attack on my home.  I further assume that it was probably in response to my public statements about the Good Friday vs. Spring Holiday controversy.

There is a certain irony, considering the symbolism of the Easter Egg, that there would be those who would turn that egg around and use it as a symbol of anger and hatred against someone of another faith, simply because that person does not share their faith and does not wish to have it imposed upon them.  It would seem that such people have missed the point of the very Easter they believe they are defending.  I am confident that most of those who believe in the resurrection of Jesus do not believe that he rose from the dead so as to encourage others to egg the homes of those who choose to adhere to a different faith.  It would seem to me that the perpetrators of this act of vandalism have not celebrated a Happy Easter but rather a Hateful one!

When It Comes to the Passion Story, Not All Passion is Good

April 2, 2010

As I stated in my last posting on this blog, there has arisen in my community quite a furor over whether or not it is constitutional acceptable for a city government to call a paid holiday for its employees by a religious name or a secular one.  The holiday in question is Good Friday, and the contested alternative name is the religiously neutral one of Spring Holiday.

Today, in our local newspaper, the Quad City Times, an editorial was published which was supportive of keeping our city government religiously neutral.  That is the good news.  Unfortunately, the author of the editorial chose to introduce his text by drawing the following comparison with the traditional gospel version of the Passion Story – the account of the execution of Jesus.

“Somber Christian church services today mark Good Friday, commemorating a day in 33 A.D. when government leaders in Jerusalem caved in to public pressure and executed a religious leader. In Christian churches across the Quad-Cities today, lectors will read the portion of the passion play when Pilate, a governor, then Herod, king, tried to convince the mob otherwise. But the people wouldn’t listen. “Crucify him!” the people said, according to the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Mark.

So the government leaders complied with the will of the people.”

This account was so disturbing to me that I posted the following comment on their web site and now wish to share it with my blog readers:

I do applaud the stand taken in this editorial calling for us to reconsider how governmental bodies should treat religious holidays.  Thank you!

However, I do wish to correct some historically inaccurate statements made in its introductory section.  The story of the execution of Jesus as presented here is the story as it is presented in Christian scripture, particularly the Gospel of John.  Of all the four gospels, John was written later and is clearly the most antisemitic.
The story as presented was intended to generate hatred for the Jews who, at the time, were competing heavily with the Christians for the conversion of the pagans, particularly the Romans.  They were bitter blood rivals.  Especially considering the desire of Christianity at the time to appeal to the Roman population and someday perhaps even become the official faith of the Roman empire, there was a great need to re-frame the story so as to take responsibility for Jesus’ death off of the Romans.  Transferring the responsibility to the Jews serve a double purpose for the Christians since it not only took the responsibility of “deicide” off of the Romans but it also served as a serious blow to the Christians’ Jewish competitors.  Indeed, when John has the Jewish crowd shouting to Pilate “Let his blood be upon our heads and the heads of our children,” that statement was intended to justify Christian prejudice and persecution of all Jews throughout the ages, and not just those who were contemporary with Jesus.  It takes but a short review of the history of that period to see that the Jews of the time were open to embracing any person who offered them any form of hope.  They had no reason whatsoever to denounce him and call for his execution.

As Paul Harvey, of blessed memory, used to say, “And now for the rest of the story!”  Most credible scholars today recognize that the traditional Christian account of the execution of Jesus is terribly historically flawed.  First of all, the Roman empire was a hard and ruthless ruler of its occupied provinces.  Their governors – called Procurators – ruled with iron fists, imposing Roman rule and collecting heavy taxes.  Roman rulers never were the type that would bow to the pressure of their non-Roman subject people.  This was especially true in the province of Judea.  The Judeans had been involved in anti-Roman revolutionary activities since the rebellion of Judah of Galilee in 6 B.C.E.  In fact, Galilee, where Jesus lived, was a continual hotbed of revolution.  Josephus, in his history to the period identifies these revolutionaries as on of the four sects prevalent among the Jewish people and calls them the Fourth Philosophy.  They are also known as Zealots.  Fundamental to their belief was that the Jewish people owed no allegiance to an earthly ruler but only to the Heavenly Ruler.  These Zealots conducted continual guerrilla warfare against Roman caravans in the Galilee.  The Romans called the brigands and robbers.  In the urban centers, especially Jerusalem, there was another group of revolutionaries called the Sicarii, which means “Dagger Men” in Greek (the common language of the Roman empire).  These revolutionaries were terrorists.  They would go into crowds, especially markets, with daggers under their cloaks.  They would then approach Romans or Jewish collaborators with the Romans and stab them to death and then disappear back into the crowd.  In was because of this environment that the Roman empire decided that Judea needs to be ruled with a special rigor.  Therefore they sent their worst, most corrupt soldiers there, both as punishment to these soldiers and to the Judeans.  As for their Procurators, they sent their hardest, greediest men.  A Procurator of a province received a percentage of the taxes.  The more the people were taxed, the richer the Procurator became.  In Judea, it was standard that a Procurator would rule for three to six years and amass such a fortune that they could retire to Rome and live the rest of their lives in luxury.  Enter Pontius Pilate.  Unlike the gospel descriptions of him, Pilate was anything but a gentle soul whose heart would go out to someone like Jesus.  In fact, Pilate was the ONLY Procurator in the history of Roman rule in Judea who was recalled to Rome for use of excessive violence.  He probably still holds the world’s record for number of crucifixions.  He was so harsh that the Roman senate determined that he was doing more to provoke revolution rather than suppress it.  When Jesus entered Jerusalem to observe the Passover pilgrimage festival, as far as Pilate was concerned, he had all the markings of a revolutionary or a potential revolutionary.  He came from the rebellious province of Galilee.  He was developing a significant following.  He numbered among his closest advisers (apostles) one man who was a known Zealot – Simon the Zealot – and another who might have been a member of the Sicarii – Judas Iscariot.  The name “Iscariot” is neither Hebrew nor Greek.  Monsignor S.G.F. Brandon, in his work JESUS AND THE ZEALOTS, proposes that the name is actually a combination of both languages and originally was “Ish” (which in Hebrew means “man”) “Sicarii”.  In other words, a member of the Sicarii.  Therefore, seeing Jesus as a threat, it was Pilate who had him arrested and executed.  It also should be noted that when Jesus was crucified, the two other men crucified along with him were, according to the gospels, thieves.  Crucifixion was even for a Roman like Pilate too extreme a penalty for theft.  However, if you recall, this was the term the Romans used for Zealots, revolutionaries.  It would therefore appear that Pilate viewed Jesus in the same light as he did these two rebels.
I share all this with you because it is important to understand that the Passion story, as portrayed in the beginning of this editorial is not only historically inaccurate but has stood at the very foundation of Christian based antisemitism for almost 2,000 years.  The belief that Jews were the ones directly and primarily responsible for Jesus’ death – the sin of “deicide” – the murder of God – has fueled a hatred that has resulted in the barbarous murder of literally millions of Jews throughout the ages, culminating in the Holocaust, and is still virulently alive today in the doctrines of so many of the hate groups.  When we tell this story as so presented in the editorial, whether intending to or not, we are fueling the fires of what many consider humanity’s longest hatred.

Good Friday? Perhaps Not!

April 1, 2010

Here is an article I just submitted for our congregational newsletter concerning a Church-State Separation controversy that is occurring in our community.

By now, we should all be aware of the flap going on in the Davenport city government over the attempt to change the name of the “Good Friday” holiday to a “Spring” holiday.  My God!  It has even made the national news!  Before I get to the heart of the issue for us as Jews I might as well get the glib response out of the way.  There are those who have said, “Well, for me, every Friday is a good Friday!”  Yuck, yuck!  Actually, for me, every Friday would be a good Friday if only many more of the members of our congregation could find their way to the Temple for Shabbat services!

Now to the serious business at hand.  There are those who moan that all of this is just making a mountain out of a mole hill.  While on the surface it would appear that way, if we, as Jews, start to consider it more carefully, we should discover that perhaps it never was a mole hill but alwaya an ugly mountain.  Why an ugly mountain?  Let us consider the facts.

We need to start off with the First Amendment to the Constitution.  It states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Thomas Jefferson would later refer to this principle as Separation of Church and State – so for all those wisenheime­rs who petulantly declare that Separation of Church and State is not in the Constitution, they need to be re­minded that while the actual words “Separation of Church and State” are not in the Constitution, the prin­ciple is most certainly to be found there.  Indeed, I find it of special significance that the framers of the Constitution thought this to be such an significant principle for the American democracy that they not only placed it in the Bill of Rights, but they placed it at the very beginning of that document.  If the constitutional text is not clear enough, let me restate it more directly.  All government agencies must remain religiously neutral.  They are forbidden from promoting any one faith over all others and they are likewise forbidden from interfering with anyone’s ability to freely practice their faith.  It is imper­ative to understand this when looking at the current situation, for since it involves the Davenport city government, that gov­ernmental agency is constitutionally bound to abide by the parameters of the First Amend­ment.

Now let us look at the recommendation which was offered to the Davenport city government by the Civil Rights Commission.  They simply recommended that the city change the name of the “Good Friday” holiday to a “Spring” holiday.  They NEVER recommended doing away with the holiday, but only that it be renamed.  They made this recommendation because when a governmental agency makes a religious holiday an official holiday, it runs the risk of being charged with violating the First Amendment.  By simply renaming the holiday with a neutral name, it avoids that violation while at the same time continues to permit those who observe this Christian holiday to do so without penalty.  Nothing changes but the name, and people can do as they choose with the day.

Now here is where this who brouhaha should become of serious concern for us as Jews.  That the name change should evoke such a vitriolic response from so many people that the city government decided to change it back should serve us non-Christians as a profound warning signal.  After all, what are these people so angry about?  They still have their holiday?  No one is stopping them from going to church.  All that is changed is a name on a governmental calendar.  But that seems to be enough to outrage them.  Why?  Because they are fundamentally opposed to the principle of religious neutrality for our govern­ment.  In fact, they do not view the government as “our” government but rather as “their” government, and we who do not share their faith are but tolerated guests in “their” land.  We can speak of diversity, but they will re-label it as “politically correctness”, which has somehow come to be synonymous with “hog­wash” (Personally, I have always marveled at how some people can consider the term “politically correct” as a pejorative.  I have often wondered whether or not they are saying that they aspire that our country be “politically incorrect).  My dear friends, you must awaken to the realization that when people like this explode over matters of inclusiveness and diversity, what they are telling us is nothing less than that they do not see us – Jews and people of other minority faiths – as being full Americans, in any way equal to them.  Such outbursts are aimed directly at us, even though only one Jew sits on the Dav­enport Civil Rights Commission, which presented the original recommendation.  For us, this is not a mole hill.  This is a mountain; a mountain of religious prejudice.

As you probably know, I am a strict Church-State separationist.  I believe that government and religious observances and professions of faith should be kept completely apart.  That is why for all these years I have waged combat against religious music in the public schools.  That is why I have always been op­posed to the placement of any religious symbols – including Jewish symbols – on governmental property, whether they be the Ten Commandments or a creche or a Hanukkah menorah.

As a strict separationist, I would far prefer that a governmental agency such as the Davenport city govern­ment simply not recognize Good Friday as a holiday, just as they do not recognize Yom Kippur.  Yet I appreciate that in order to do that, they would have to take away from their employees the oppor­tunity to practice this aspect of their faith, and I am certainly not one who wishes to see anyone discouraged from practicing their faith.  To me, that would go against the second part of the First Amendment which assures all Americans the freedom to practice their faith unimpeded by the government.

As I have considered this situation, I am reminded that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” is a combination of the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity”.  So it is with our current “crisis”.  Enfolded in it is the “danger” of a burgeoning religious prejudice and conflict.  But also enfolded in it is an “oppor­tunity” for our governmental agencies to rethink how they approach the question of religious holiday in general, remaining far truer to the text and spirit of the First Amendment.  I have a proposal, though I doubt anyone will take it seriously.  I propose that governmental agencies should wipe all religious holidays off of their calendar, including Christmas and Easter.  In their stead, they should offer all their employees the opportunity to take three religious holidays of their choosing during the year.  At some point in time, they would need to file their request for these holidays.  As with the Davenport police contract, if the city is unable to give them off on any of those days, then they should receive time-and-a-half overtime for their work on them.  In this way, Christians can take off for Christian holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Good Friday; Jews can take off for Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach; while Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahai, etc. can choose their own holidays.  If someone does not profess a faith, or their religion does not have three holidays, then they still can access three additional days off of their choosing.  In this way, the government can remain religiously neutral, not showing preferential treatment to one faith over another yet also not interfering with their employees’ right to freely exercise their faiths.

I pray that when all the smoke clears, we will find that the city of Davenport and the people of the Quad Cities will have grown wiser and more caring of each other as a result of grappling with this sensitive issue.

Hints of a Post-Partisan Universe

February 11, 2010

Partisanism (if that is indeed a word) has become the bane of contemporary American life.  More and more it seems that people are taking sides, one against the other.  If one side says that something is white, the other side immediately claims it is actually black.  And so it goes on and on and on.  More than people are concerned about the issues we must confront, we tend to be more concerned about our maintaining ongoing conflicts with the “other side.”

Of course on the contemporary scene, one need look no further than our own government to witness the devastating effects of such partisan thinking and behavior.  In Congress, practically every issue is addressed according to party lines.  If the Democrats want to do X, the Republicans are lined up to  diametrically oppose X, and uniformly support Y; which, of course the Democrats unanimously reject out of hand.  Rare is the politician who thinks for him or her self.  They all toe the party line.  None of them really judge the matters in front of them purely on their merit, in light of their personal opinion of what would best serve the American people.  Is it no wonder that in spite of the fact that for all too many years, the American people have been clamoring for such significant changes as health care reform and election finance reform, yet in spite of the expressed will of the people, absolutely nothing has been accomplished, nor probably will be accomplished given to current state of affairs.  To watch the State of the Union address on TV – any State of the Union address during these past many years – is to witness a physical manifestation of such partisanship.  Regardless of whatever party the current President happens to belong, you can watch as the members of his party applaud those key moments in his speech while the members of the opposition party sit with their hands folded across their chest; that is unless their party leaders give them the signal that it is permissible at some points to applaud.  For it matters not what the President says.  It only matters to which political party the President belongs.  It is all very sad, and infantile, and it cannot help but leave all cognizant and concerned Americans with a profound sense of hopelessness.  Ultimately, no matter who the President happens to be, the State of the Union remains clearly the same:  deadlocked and immobilized.

What is true for the realm of American politics unfortuately is just as true in the realm of American religion.  Here, too, we have drawn our battlelines.  Yet these battlelines are not necessarily determined by what would seem to be the obvious; the major divisions of faith – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Unitarian, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.  Rather, our battlelines have been drawn according to whether one identifies as a religious conservative or as a religious liberal; as a fundamentalist or as a progressive.  Once those lines have been drawn, we tend to be as dismissive of the other, as the Democrats are of the Republicans and visa versa.  If the religious conservatives stand on one side of an issue, you can be sure that the religious liberals stand on the other.  One’s black is the other’s white, and neither will even consider the possibility of the existence of shades of gray.  And just like the political parties, very few among us feel any urgent desire to talk to the “others” in hopes of finding some resolution to our differences and perhaps even some common ground.

As a rabbi who has found value in connecting with Christian conservatives when it comes to addressing issues involving Israel, I have experienced this partisanship up close and personal, with much of its ugliness.  Through our local Jewish Federation, I have worked hand-in-hand with an organization of Christian conservatives named CUFI – Christians United For Israel.  This group is populated by many of the very same people with whom I have crossed swords on a number of social issues, such as women’s reproductive choice, separation of church and state, and same-sex marriage.  Yet when it comes to Israel, we share a common view of the importance of the continued existence of that nation and the protection of her right to exist, as well as her citizens’ rights to live without the threat of terrorism.

Yet my work with CUFI has not been without its speed bumps.  Right off the bat, I had to endure the challenges put to me by my mainstream Protestant friends; my dearest and closest allies on so many social issues.  “How can you, in all good conscience, work with those people?” they would ask.  Even more painfully, the very fact the these conservative Christians support Israel has driven so many of these liberal friends to stand against her.  If the “Religious Right” claims that the actions of Israel are justified, then the “Religious Left” feels a near sacred duty to denounce Israel’s actions as grossly unjust.  The circumstances are of no concern to them.  As Mark Twain once put it, “My mind is made up.  Don’t confuse me with the facts!”  All that seems to matter is that it is inconceivable for them as liberals to share any common ground with the conservatives.

That is not to say that the CUFI conservatives do not also demonstrate such blind partisanship, for they most certainly can, and sometimes do.  I have found myself criticized for having offered prayers at CUFI “Night to Honor Israel” events in which I have stated that God loves all people, regardless of what faiths they profess, or that God exists in a special and unique relationship with each and every religion.  To some of these folks, God can only have a special relationship with Christians, and especially those who profess their brand of Christianity, with God having provided the Jewish people with a singular exemption to policy.  I have had to challenge some CUFI speakers for speaking derrogatorially of the Roman Catholic Church, and especially the Pope.  Just last year, there were a number of conservative pastors and congregations which withdrew from the “Night to Honor Israel” event because of my having officiated at a same-sex marriage, regardless of the fact that the “Night to Honor Israel” is completely separate and distinct from all the other issues which may divide us.

The bottom line is that on the landscape of the American religious scene, there is more than enough partisanism to go around.

However, within the last few weeks, we have been afforded a small glimpse of the possibility of a post-partisan world, at least within the universe of American religious groups.

Soon after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the Quad Cities Progressive Clergy group held one of its regular monthly meetings.  At that meeting, we discussed the possibility of putting together some unified faith community program of support for the earthquake’s victims.  Since each of our national and international faith umbrella organizations had set up their own programs of response, we agreed that whatever we did, we should be encouraging congregations to support their own denominational relief efforts.  In the end, we decided that our best course of action was to pool not dollars but figures; to compile and make public a record of all those congregations that have been active in promoting Haitian relief, and how much money had been collected through the various faith communities in this cause.  In so doing, our goal was to place before the public a message of how universally caring faith communities are, and how significant an impact they can have in making this world a better place for all people.  What we wanted to show our fellow Quad Citians was an image of the world of religion at its best, rather than at its bickering worst.

As I write this, the congregational responses are still coming in.  As of now, we have some 30 congregations and faith organizations which have reported to us, with the funds raised totally over $116,000.00.

As I review the list of participating congregations, I cannot help but feel a certain uplift in reading the names of conservatives congregations right there beside liberal ones.  Names that would never appear next to each other on so many other lists, stand side by side on this list; on the list of those whose hearts have gone out to the people of Haiti; on the list of those who wish to do something to ease the plight of their suffering fellow human beings.

I read that list and I am filled with hope; hope that someday we may actually achieve a post partisan world.  I read that list and I see in it a remarkable testimony to the fact that no matter how sharp we choose to draw the lines which divide us, there are still those things – those very important things – which unite us; those significant values which we share in common.  As much as we, in our blinding partisan perspectives, resist facing that truth, it is there and it is undeniable.  Perhaps someday – and I pray that someday will come soon – we will open our eyes, and more importantly our hearts, to acknowledge such truth.  Having acknowledged it, we might even summon up the courage to act upon it by reaching out to each other in hopes of building a relationship based upon the foundations of that which we share rather than fueling our animosity with that which keeps us apart.

My mother of blessed memory was fond of saying, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”  Whether it has been in the realm of American politics or the realm of American religion, we have yet to learn that lesson.  But perhaps one day…

The Conversational God

January 29, 2010

This evening I participated in an interfaith study session at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Illinois.  The theme was Abraham in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures.  Each of the presenters had to select an Abraham text from their sacred literature for us to share and discuss.  The assembled study group was an interesting mix of students and faculty, from various faiths.

The text I chose is one of my favorites – Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.  My reason for choosing it was because it presents such a non-traditional image of both God and prophet.  Here, not only does Abraham have the audacity to argue with God, but Abraham actually bests God with the logic of his argument.  He establishes a principle and then uses that principle to argue God down from the need to find 50  righteous people in order to save the cities to 10.  Here we have in Abraham someone comfortable and confident enough to contend with the Almighty, and a God who is bound to abide by the same rules of conduct as that God imposes upon humanity; the rules of justice and compassion.

While we did discuss those very aspects of the text, yet one of the participants – a Jewish faculty member – threw in another issue; a hot one at that.  This individual posed the often asked question:  “If God spoke to Abraham, how come God does not speak to us today?”  The scriptures – and it does not matter whose scriptures you are talking about – are filled with reports of God talking to people, whether they be Abraham or Moses or Jesus or Mohammad.  Yet as talkative as God seems to have been in those days, God appears to have remained silent for quite some time.

But has God truly remained silent or have we just turned deaf?

Many years ago, I heard my mentor, Rabbi Jack Stern, Jr., tell the following story.  It touched me so then and it continues to touch me.

It was about 5:00 p.m. on a weekday in downtown Manhattan; on Madison Avenue to be exact.  Offices had just closed for the day, their workers crammed the sidewalks and the streets, rushing to go home.  The air was filled with the sounds of honking car horns and shouting people.  In this hubbub of noise and in the crush of people pushing and shoving, two old friends who had been separated for years happened to bump into each other.  Instantly recognizing each other, they stopped and embraced.  All around them people were bustling by while they stood their ground, savoring their sweet reunion.  Then suddenly, one of the men said to his friend, “Listen!  Can you hear it?”  “Hear what?” the other replied.  “Don’t you hear the little bird caught in that bush in that window box over there?”  When the friend turned to look, he saw that the window box in question was maybe fifty yards away.  “Do you expect me to believe that you can hear a little bird chirping in that window box, all the way over there, in the midst of all this noise and chaos?” the doubtful friend replied.  “Come.  I’ll show you.”  And with that, they walked over to the window box.  The friend who claimed he heard the bird bent over and with the back of both of his hands, he parted the branches of the bush.  As he did so, a little bird flew out and flew away.  The other friend was absolutely astounded.  “How could you possibly hear that little bird as such a distance, in all this noise?  You must have Superman hearing!”  No.  Not really,” replied the friend.  “Let me show you something.”  With that, he stuck his hand in his pocket and pulled out a quarter, which he then proceeded to drop on the sidewalk.  The minute the coin hit the concrete, maybe twenty people stopped, turned, and looked around, searching.  As the man bent down to retrieve his quarter, he turned to his friend and said, “You see.  It all depends what you are listening for.”

Is it that God no longer speaks to us or is it that we are not listening for God or that we are listening for other things?  That is the real question before us.  Have we become so self-involved and so pseudo-sophisticated that we have become incapable of conceiving of a God who actually speaks to us; that God could be shouting into our ear yet we would not hear even a Divine whisper?

I happen to be one of those who believe that not only does God still speak to us but that God is speaking to us constantly.  The only thing that stands in the way of our hearing God is ourselves.  I know that there are those who, upon reading this, will instantly proclaim that only the insane believe that God speaks to them.    To such a claim I must respond that it is only the spiritually pathetic who would cling to the belief that God is incapable of speaking to them.

Now for my confession.  I speak to God quite often and God answers.  God speaks to me.  So grab that straight jacket and reserve a bed in the psych ward.  But I have to warn you:  All the psychotherapy in the world will not change that reality.  For that is what it is; reality not fantasy, experience not illusion.

What makes such a claim so difficult for so many to believe is to be found in the manner in which we conceive of how God communicates with humans.  The scriptures of the various faiths talk about God saying this and God saying that, and we take those texts so very literally.  When they report that, “God spoke; God said”, our vision is that of a God who speaks words, like we human beings speak words.  We envision that thundering voice from heaven.  And so we become spiritually jaded, for such a voice has not been heard in quite some time.

There is a certain irony here.  For you see, when we apply this type of thinking to God, we postulate a God who is not greater than us but rather more limited than us.  For when we communicate with others, we do not restrict ourselves to mere words.  We also employ the tone of our voices, the pace and volume of our speech, facial expressions and body movements.  When we communicate with others we utilize every tool in our communication toolbox in order to get across our message.  We use tools which are not available to God as long as we apply to God that literal verbal communication model.  Do we really choose to believe that God has less tools in the Divine communication toolbox than we have in ours?  I don’t think so.

Even when we consider all the communication tools we possess, we have to admit that still, our communication skills are extremely limited.  What human being has never experienced the frustration of trying to get across a particular message to another person, yet has failed, attempt after attempt after attempt, to get their point across?  We all have.  Just take a look at literature and song and you will see how meager are our communication skills.  Countless are the individuals who, having experienced the powerful joy of love, wished to share those ecstatic emotions with others.  So they wrote love poetry and love songs, hoping to bottle what is in their heart and fills their very being.  Many have failed.  Some have succeeded, but only partially.  Throughout the ages, no one has succeeded fully.  No one has written that love poem or composed that love song to which every human being can point to and declare, “That is exactly how I feel when I am in love!”  At best, we have chopped around the edges of describing love.  No one has of yet captured its true essence.

The point here is that human communication, at its best, is extremely limited.  To postulate that the God who created the universe would be restricted to such a limited form of communication is simply illogical.  It does not take a science fiction writer to arrive at the conclusion that a higher form of being would possess far more sophisticated communication skills.

God does speak to us but does so by means far beyond the limits of the spoken word.

So how does God communicate?  In the writings of the Hebrew prophets we encounter a recurring imagery which I believe is a key to understanding God’s communication techniques.  We continually hear of prophets “being filled with the spirit of God.”  What does that mean?  It sounds like God’s presence fills their very being.  God has somehow or other gotten inside of them and they find themselves so filled with God that they feel they could burst.

What’s that all about?  I believe we have a word for it.  We call it “telepathy.”    I believe that what these prophetic texts were describing was the receiving of a telepathic communication from God.  While we can debate from today till tomorrow whether or not there are humans who possess the ability of mental telepathy, I hold that God most certainly possesses that ability.  I believe that God can telepathically transmit to human beings, not just words, but emotions and images as well.  God can get inside of us so that we can think God’s thoughts and feel God’s feeling, and even see what God sees.

Now it does not have to be an all or nothing affair.  God can control how much or how little we receive.  Not every one who receives a communication from God has to become God intoxicated, as were some, if not most, if not all of the classical prophets.  Indeed, very few have achieved such an intense link with God.  Yet all of us have the ability to be touched by God; to feel God’s presence and to “hear” God’s voice speaking directly to us.  I firmly believe that anyone can experience this if only they would drop their defenses and open themselves up to the possibility of connecting with God.

Earlier I stated that “I speak to God quite often and God answers.”  In truth, I do not consider myself an especially spiritually endowed human being.  I am not by any stretch of the imagination a saint.  Far from it.  I have more than my fair share of human flaws and foibles.  Even though I am a rabbi, I do not believe that my ability to establish a connection with God is the product of my rabbinic status.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  It was my desire to connect with God which led me to becoming a rabbi and not my becoming a rabbi which enabled me to connect with God.

The first time I can accurately claim that I had such a God connecting experience was back in 1970.  I know it may sound cliched but it happened in Israel; at the Western Wall, the most sacred site on earth for the Jewish people.  At the time, my soul was in turmoil.  I was deeply unhappy with my life.  I was in my first year in seminary.  I was spending that entire year studying in Jerusalem.  It was not only the first time that I visited Israel, but it was the first time that I ever flew on an airplane.  Until then, I never traveled farther than an automobile could take me in less than a day.  As a result, I was not handling very well such a dramatic transplant of my life.  One night, for reasons I cannot fully explain, I was so distressed that I felt compelled to go to the Western Wall.  So I left my dorm room and walked the dark streets of Jerusalem into the Old City, and then to the Wall.  Standing there, alone – for there are not that many people who pray at the wall at about 11 o’clock at night – I placed my forehead against its cool stones and in a practically inaudible whisper I poured out my heart to God.  I have no idea how long I stood there, sharing my thoughts, my feelings, my anguish with God, but somewhere along the line, a feeling of great peace and tranquility took hold of me.  Once again, I know it sounds cliched, but a great weight was lifted from my heart.  I was filled with a sense that everything was going to be all right, more than all right, just fine.  I most certainly did not bring that sense with me to the Wall that night.  Far from it.  But there it was nonetheless.  I had somehow or other been given a gift.  There was not the slightest question in my mind where that gift came from.   It came from God.  It could have come from nowhere else.  I left the Wall and headed back toward my dorm, but I was a different person, changed not just for the moment but for life.

What I discovered that night in Jerusalem was nothing more than a piece of wisdom which I later learned was passed down to us by one of the early Hasidic rabbis.  He was asked, “Where is God?” to which he answered, “Wherever you let God in?”  The trick to plugging God into our lives – to connecting with God – is as simple as that.  We have to be willing to let God into our lives.  We have to be willing to drop our defenses and reach out for God.  And if we truly reach out for God, more often than not, we will find God reaching out for us.

I do this and I do it often.  However, I have to admit that I usually do it in private.  After all, I do realize that even though I know that I am in dialogue with God, to any casual observers it can very well appear as though I am some sort of lunatic, muttering to himself.  When do I do this?  One of my prime times is when I go for walks; for exercise.  Other people feel that they need partners when they go on such walks so as to make their walks more palatable.  For me, God is my walking partner.  They talk with their friends.  I talk with God.  And not unlike my experience at the Wall those many years ago, I pour out to God what is in my heart and on my mind.  Whatever  issue I am struggling with at the time, I share it with God.  And somehow or other, more often than not, as our conversation progresses God tosses in a thought here, and idea there, a perspective I had never even begun to consider.  Often, not always, but often, God has helped me to see things in a new light.

There are those who would claim that God has nothing to do with this; that I was just processing my thoughts.  But I know differently.  Not, I think differently, but I know differently.  I know differently because there are so many times when the insights I receive have come from so completely outside of myself.  They are definitely not my thoughts.  They are definitely not my words.  I could not have created them, but once they have been placed before me, I am more than willing to adopt them as my own.  Indeed, as a rabbi, I have to admit that some of my most “successful” sermons were not really mine, but God’s.  While I, with my ego, surely enjoyed the praises they received, I also felt a pang of guilt for taking credit for that which was not mine.

God is my confidant.  God is my most trusted and sage adviser.  I am still far from a perfect human being, and I do not always travel the road to perfection efficiently, but at the end of the day I know that I have been blessed.  For with God as my companion, I live with hope and with the promise that I am capable of growing into my potential, if only I choose to do so.

The God I discovered that night in Jerusalem; the God with whom I travel down the path of my life, is most certainly available to every one of us.  The power to connect with such a God is in our hands, far more than it is in God’s.  For this God eagerly awaits our call.

Connecting With Others

January 27, 2010

I have been writing this blog and sending my thoughts out into the possible void of cyberspace, never really knowing whether or not I was reaching anyone other than my family and friends; people who occasionally read this blog more out of an act of kindness to me than out of any curiosity or compelling interest in what I have to write – mercy subscribers!

Then it happened!  The other day, I received my first comment from a total stranger – or at least someone who I believe is a total stranger – for they signed in as “Me”, with an email address I did not recognize.  Indeed, I found their comment in the spam filter.

It is hard to describe my feelings at receiving that comment.  I was so thrilled that my words, sent out into the void, somehow or other found their way to the attention of another human being; someone removed from my circle of intimates.  Through the miracle of the internet, I connected with some total stranger, and neither of us were trying to sell or scam the other.  We were just interested in entering into dialogue.  I do not know whether or not it will ever happen again, but the very fact that it happened even this once makes all the effort worthwhile.

This experience lead me to reflect upon why I do this and why this person happened to stumble upon my text.  The answer, of course, can be folded into one word – COMMUNICATION.  We all hunger for communication.  We want to be in touch with others.  The more we widen our circle of communication, the more we come to recognize how connected we are, and more importantly, can be, with our fellow human beings.  It is in such connectedness that our lives become all the more meaningful.  For as we touch others, and let others touch us, our world both grows and shrinks simultaneously.  It grows in terms of the number of people who help define our lives and it shrinks in terms of the distances which separate us from others.  Our world becomes more intimate, the more we connect with others.

For the longest time, I have held  to what most people would consider to be an unattainable ideal.  It is the ideal of the coming of a day when every person on the face of this planet comes to feel and experience in a very real way a true sense of connection with every other person.  I know how absurd and childlike that sounds.  I would almost be embarrassed to admit it except for one truth that I have discovered in my life.  That truth is that, with very, very few exceptions, all the people I have encountered are fundamentally good at heart.  I may not always agree with them.  Indeed, we may disagree with great energy.  But if we separate the people from the issues, we find that they possess the same needs as do we.  They want to be happy, secure, appreciated, respected, and loved.  The same things with make us smile, make them smile; which make us frown or cry, make them frown or cry.  We are just like them and they are just like us.  The only thing that is missing is that we have never gotten the chance to know each other.  We remain strangers, and as such, alienated one from the other.

No place have I witnessed the truth of all this more than in that most contested of lands, Israel.  To read the newspapers and to listen to so many of the commentators, one can easily be led to believe that the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is irresolvable; that they are blood enemies, neither of which could ever be satisfied with anything less than the total destruction of the other.  Yet, as I have visited that land, time and again, I have found that some of my most pleasant experiences have been my interactions with Palestinians.  I have found them to be just as humanly driven as am I.  They could just as easily be my friends as my enemies.  True story.  Several years ago, I was with a tour group in the Old City of Jerusalem.  The tour guide warned the members of the group to make sure to protect their purses and their backpacks for, if given the slightest chance, the Palestinians would rob them blind.  I was walking next to the 20-something son of a friend.  He immediately flinched and went to check his backpack.  I told him, “Don’t pay too much attention to what that guide said.  I have met far more nice Palestinians in this section of Jerusalem than bad ones.”  He did not seemed convinced.  A little ways down the road, he felt a tap on his shoulder.  As he turned around, he found himself confronted by a Palestinian teenager.  The young boy said to him:  “Excuse me, mister, but your backpack is open.”  I could not pass up that “I-told-you-so” moment.

People are people.  We are yearn for approval and for relationships.  Having positive connections with others fulfills our lives.  It invests our lives with greater meaning and purpose.  What we all too easily forget is that in those desires we are far from alone.  Every person, regardless of race, nationality, creed, gender, gender orientation, and political ideology, shares those desires and needs in common.  We all want it.  We are all open to it.  We all appreciate it immensely when we find it.  The trick is letting ourselves be open enough to give others a chance to connect with us.

This can be one of the great benefits of the internet, for it allows us to reach out to total strangers and transform those strangers into friends, even when we do not know where they live and what they look like and a laundry list of other characteristics.  For those characteristics turn out NOT to be defining ones.  What is most defining about us is that we are human beings who wish to share some portion of our lives with others; who wish to connect.

In Hebrew we have a saying – “Ken y’hi ratson! – May this be God’s will!”

Chabad in the Quad Cities

January 9, 2010






Since 2004, the Jewish community of the Quad Cities has been attempting to deal with the introduction and activities of Chabad in our town.  Unfortunately, the coming of Chabad has generated far more controversy than stimulation in our Jewish lives.  Recently, our local Jewish Federation was thrown into a crisis over this issue.  On Erev Shabbat, January 8, 2010, I delivered a sermon addressing this matter.  I wish to share with my readers an EXTENDED version of this sermon.

UPDATE ON CHABAD AND THE JEWISH FEDERATION

Yesterday, the Board of the Quad Cities Jewish Federation received an email from our Executive Director, Allan Ross, stating that the Federation had just averted a crisis concerning Chabad.  I do not exaggerate when I say that the crisis in question had a very real potential to tear apart the Federation and perhaps even destroy it.

However, before I share with you the nature of that crisis and how it was averted, or at least averted for the moment, I need to take you on a journey; a journey down the road to this crisis.  For before I can share the crisis itself, I need to share the history which led up to it.

But even before I can do that, I need to rectify an important misconception about myself.  In our community, we have had a lot of controversy surrounding Chabad, and admittedly I have been, and will continue to be, a key player in those struggles.  However, there are those who believe that I am simply anti-Chabad; that it is part of my essential nature as a Reform Jew and a Reform rabbi to oppose them.  That is the misconception that I wish to clear up.  While it is true that at this point in time I have significant issues with Chabad, it was not always so.  Indeed, there was a time when I was a friend to Chabad.

Back in the 70’s, as a rabbinic student intern in a large New York suburban congregation, I used to take my Confirmation classes – classes of over 60 students – to Crown Heights, Brooklyn in order to spend a weekend – to spend Shabbat – with the Lubavitcher Hasidim.  Indeed I met and prayed with Menahem Mendel Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rebbe.

While serving as a rabbi here in the Quad Cities, there was a time when I definitely was Chabad friendly.  There was a time when I invited Chabad representatives from Postville to come into our synagogue and conduct family education programs.  They conducted a program on the baking of matzah and another on the making of a shofar.  Then there was the time when I invited them to do a program on the making of Torah scrolls.  They cancelled on me twice, with the last cancellation coming less than an hour before the scheduled event.  Yes, I was angry.  Those of you who know me well can imagine just how angry I was.  But still, I did not hold it against Chabad in general.  I attributed this problem to the fact that the Chabad rabbi in question was simply a jerk.

When University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom published his best selling book, POSTVILLE, I reviewed that book from this very bimah.  Some of you might even remember hearing that review.  I panned the book.  I criticized the author for engaging in excessive exaggeration.  I accused him promoting harmful stereotypes; stereotypes both of Hasidic Jews and of Iowans.  I stated that if the images he drew of the Hasidic Jews of Postville were anywhere nearly as inaccurate as the images he drew of Iowans in general, then what he wrote at least bordered on bigotry, if it did not actually cross that line.  But I now admit that I was wrong.  If I were to review that book today, it would be substantially different.

The point is that I did not start off being an opponent of Chabad.  However over the years, the circumstances, and particularly the circumstances in our own community, have been such that I have become one.

While I am certainly troubled by some of the more global issues concerning Chabad, I will not focus on them tonight.  There is no question but that they do contribute to my attitudes on this subject.  I am deeply disturbed by that major segment of Chabad that professes that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe was the Messiah and that he will return.  I truly believe that such a profession carries them outside the realm of Judaism and into a faith all their own, like Christianity, which of course holds similar views about the person of Jesus.

As you all know, the legal and ethical abuses perpetrated by the Chabad owners and managers of the Agriprocessors Kosher Meat processing plant in Postville offend me to the very core.  Their actions were completely contrary to everything I understand about how our Judaism instructs us to live our lives.  I am proud that I was the one who authored the resolution of the Central Conference of American Rabbis which addresses the issue of adhering to Jewish ethical standards as well as ritual standards in the preparation of kosher food.

But I will not dwell on those global topics now. Rather I wish to dedicate the remainder of my remarks to the activities of Chabad within our local community and why those activities have led to a crisis which threatened to undo our Federation.

Our journey began in the Fall of 2004.  It was a Monday, my day off, when I received a phone call from our Federation’s Executive Director.  He had a visitor in his office; a representative of Chabad.  This man had come to the Quad Cities to “explore” the possibility of creating a Chabad presence in our community.  He wanted to meet with me.  I told him that while I could not meet with him on that day, I would be happy to do so on the next.  However, since he was only here for a day, we wound up meeting on the phone.

It was during that phone conversation that I witnessed a the very first hint of the problems that would quickly arise between our two local synagogues and Chabad.  The Chabad representative told me, as he told others, that it was the intention of Chabad to work in cooperation with the local synagogues.  They would not be replicating the services provided by the synagogues nor would they be recruiting from among the synagogue members.  He said that Chabad possessed a list of over 2,000 names of unaffiliated Jews living in our small Jewish  community.  This, and this only, would be their target population.  Of course, every local Jew with whom he spoke – myself included – told him that he was sorely mistaken.  While there are unaffiliated Jews in our community, the numbers are not anywhere near what Chabad projected.   Indeed, the total number of Jews in our community – unaffiliated and affiliated together – were not anywhere near what Chabad projected.   Still he persisted in insisting that these numbers were accurate.  So I pressed him on Chabad’s commitment not to recruit from current synagogue members.

I spoke to him of the Jewish legal principle of Hasagat G’vul, the respecting of organizational boundaries.  This is a principle which governs inter-congregational relations in most, if not all, Jewish communities around the world.  Simply put, local congregations agree not to recruit from those who are members of other local congregations and rabbis agree not to provide rabbinic services for other rabbis’ congregants or take actions which would undermine the relationships between other rabbis and their congregants.  Unaffiliated Jews, of course, are fair game for everyone.  But when it comes to affiliated Jews, it is strictly hands off.  It is in this way that local congregations are able to establish and maintain cooperative and hopefully harmonious relations, for it is important to have confidence that when congregations work together they are not unwittingly providing opportunities for one congregation to prey on the membership of others.  Such a predatory environment would be toxic to the well being of any Jewish community.

It was his response to my pushing this issue which sent up red flags.  Of course, he assured me that Chabad would not be doing this.  But then he went on to say that he did not understand why I was so concerned.  After all, if Chabad was going to be drawing members away from any congregation in our community, it would be from the Tri City Jewish Center, the traditional congregation, and not from my Reform congregation.  After all, Chabad’s form of Judaism would be more attractive to traditional Jews than to Reform Jews.  So why was I worried.  Indeed, in many communities, Chabad enjoys a wonderful partnership with Reform congregations and Reform rabbis.  It was as if he was giving me a wink and nod, implying that we could be partners in the dismantling of the Tri City Jewish Center, and it would be to the benefit of both of our organizations.  Suffice it to say that he did not evoke from me the reaction he obviously anticipated.  I would have no part in such a conspiracy.

It would be a few months before Chabad would actively pursue their plans of establishing a presence in our community.  In December they held their first community informational meeting.  They held it at the Blackhawk Hotel.  Just as I had feared, it was not their list of unaffiliated Jews who received phone calls, inviting them to attend, but rather affiliated Jews from both congregations.  They held their second meeting on Tuesday, January 11, 2005 – five years ago this coming Monday – and I attended.  There were no unaffiliated Jews there.  All, with the exception of myself, were members of the Tri City Jewish Center.  Once again, in my conversation with the Chabad rabbi that evening, I pressed for adherence to the principle of Hasagat G’vul; respecting institutional boundaries.  This time I was told that this principle does not apply to them for they are not “in the same business” as the local synagogues.

In March of that year, leaders from our two congregations and the Federation held the first of several formal meeting with Chabad leadership, in order to work out our differences.  That particular meeting was with Rabbi Yossie Jacobson, the chief Chabad rabbi of Iowa.  We told Rabbi Jacobson that of course we understood and respected the fact that this is a free country and, as such, Chabad most certainly was free to set up shop wherever it choses.  However, if Chabad was going to come to our community, we wanted the Chabad organization to respect the same rules of the road as are followed by our other local Jewish organizations including the halachic principle of Hasagat G’vul.

At first, Rabbi Jacobson said that the principle of Hasagat G’vul should not apply to Chabad because Chabad is not a synagogue.  Since it is not a synagogue, it cannot be considered in the same category as the local congregations nor could it be held to the same standards of behavior.  I pointed out that, like a synagogue, Chabad was intending to offer worship, study, and communal activities.  Therefore, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, you have to treat it as if it is a duck.  As odd a duck as Chabad might be, for the well being of our community, it still must abide by inter-synagogue rules.  When Rabbi Jacobson did come around to stating that he was not adverse to abiding by such principles, it was pointed out to him that these principles were already being violated, in that the Chabad rabbi from Iowa City was providing Bar Mitzvah training to a child whose family belonged to the Tri City Jewish Center.  While Rabbi Jacobson stated that he would investigate the matter and put an end to such violations, when all was said and done, he took absolutely no action.

When Rabbi Shneur Cadaner, our local Chabad rabbi, arrived in our community, matters did not get better.  In fact they got worse.  Soon after his arrival, Rabbi Cadaner would say one thing to Rabbi Michael Samuel (of the Tri City Jewish Center)  and another thing to me.  Only when Rabbi Samuel and I talked did we begin to realize that we were getting mixed messages.  We tried to resolve these differences by asking Rabbi Cadaner to meet with the two of us together.  However, Rabbi Cadaner insisted that he would not meet with us together, but only alone.  He claimed that he did not want us to “gang up on him.”  When one of my congregants made a similar request of him – that he sit down with the rabbis of the two synagogues and work out our differences – he responded by saying “I don’t believe in organized crime.”

It was not long before Rabbi Cadaner started approaching Jews who belonged to one congregation or the other.  He would visit them in the hospital.  He would visit them in their homes.  He would visit them at their work places.  Now many people would say, “What’s wrong with that?”  Let me explain.  There are valid reasons why rabbinic professional ethics forbids rabbis from performing pastoral services for the congregants of other rabbis.  Those reasons involve both the the possibility of congregants receiving conflicting pastoral counseling as well as the unfair psychological impact of such visits.

The dangers of conflicting pastoral counseling are very real and very serious.  My own experience with with the Chabad rabbi in such a situation serves as an excellent example.  One of my congregants was a wonderful woman who did much for our congregation and our community, and was beloved by all.  Unfortunately, one morning she collapsed.  She was rushed to the hospital where it was determined that she had major arterial blockages.  While the doctors did their best to clear them, her brain was deprived of oxygen for too long and she was basically brain dead.  So she lay as a vegetable in the Intensive Care Unit, with her loving family and friends continually by her side.  When it was clear that her situation was hopeless, her family decided to accede to her stated wishes and remove her from life support.  Enter the Chabad rabbi.  He proceeded to tell her youngest son that Judaism considers it a sin to remove her life support; that the family needs to seriously reconsider its decision.  This was in direct contradiction to the supportive counseling which they had received from me; counsel which had a strong foundation in our sacred texts.  Fortunately, the family was strong willed and determined enough to set aside the Chabad rabbi’s counsel.  Yet strong willed or not, who in that situation needs to be subjected to that type of doubt and guilt?  When, later that day, I learned of what this Chabad rabbi had done, I felt deeply violated!  How much more so must that family have felt it?

That type of violation is manifest as well when one rabbi takes it upon him or herself to make uninvited visits to the congregants of another rabbi, as did and does our local Chabad rabbi.  For when a rabbi visits his or her congregants in the hospital or when they are homebound, while the congregants do appreciate those visits, still in a way they also expect it.  After all, part of their rabbi’s job is to visit them.  However, when another rabbi visits – a rabbi who is not “paid” to do so by these congregants’ dues – then that visit tends to be considered especially virtuous.  “It was nice that my rabbi visited me but how wonderful of this other rabbi to come and visit me as well!  After all, he did not have to do that!”  Such visits do unfairly interfere with the relationships between rabbis and their congregants.

Just as such actions interfere with the relationships between rabbis and their congregants, so do they interfere with the relationships between congregations and their congregants for, right or wrong, congregants start feeling that they are being better serviced by the other rabbi and his institution than by their rabbi and their congregation.

Along these lines, another serious bone of contention has been Chabad’s insistence upon sending publicity flyers to members of the two synagogues; sending these flyers without specifically being asked by these congregants to be included on the Chabad mailing list.  This is but another form of illicit congregant solicitation.  Once again, it is a standard of inter-congregational relations that synagogues do not include members of other congregations on their mailing lists unless those individuals have specifically requested to be included.  This, too, is an issue of creating a predatory environment.

When it comes to our local Chabad rabbi, he claims that he only sends his publicity materials to the names and addresses on the list of Jews which Chabad purchased in advance of its coming to our community.  However we know that is not an accurate statement.  There is evidence that he has used, without permission, the Temple’s membership list, if not the membership list of the Tri City Jewish Center as well.  How do we know this?  Because Betty Cottrell, our non-Jewish retired office administrator, whose name and address appears in our Temple Directory, receives Chabad mailings.  There is very little, if any chance, that her name appears on any other compiled Jewish list.  The odds are extremely high that the only way that Chabad could have gotten her name on its mailing list was by taking it off of our mailing list.  And that was done without our permission.  That is highly unethical.

It could also be considered unethical when the local Chabad rabbi started befriending on Facebook the children of families belonging to the two synagogues.  To him, these children were complete strangers, yet as Jews they seemed to be legitimate targets.  Of course, anyone can choose to befriend anyone they want on Facebook, but at the least, his doing this was more than a tad creepy.

Inappropriate congregant visitations and recruitment have just been the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the transgressions of our local Chabad rabbi.

There have been those occasions when he has misrepresented himself to the general community as speaking for all Quad City Jews.  Soon after his arrival, he went around to several local businesses, soliciting paid ads in a calendar he was producing, telling these business people that his was the ONLY calendar which would be published in the Jewish community.  He said that, in spite of the fact that both of the synagogues also distribute calendars.  Indeed, at that time, the calendar of the Tri City Jewish Center included paid advertisements.  This type of  inappropriate approach to the non-Jewish community repeated itself during his first winter holiday season in our community.  It was then that he went to the officials at the Moline City Hall and insisted that since they had a Christmas tree in their lobby, the Jewish community demands that they display a Hanukkah menorah as well.  In this, he was not only not speaking for the entire Jewish community but he was, in fact, speaking in a manner contrary to the generally held position of our Jewish community; a position strongly in support of the separation of church and state; one which definitely would not want to see a Jewish religious symbol displayed on public property.  The damage done by this request was only compounded by the fact that he delayed for so long in removing that menorah from their lobby that the Moline city leaders decided not to have any holiday displays in their lobby in the future.

There are other aspects of his relationship with our non-Jewish neighbors which I find deeply disturbing as well.  For example, one day he met a local monsignor; a man of great public distinction and deservedly so.  Not only that, but this priest has been a long time friend of our local Jewish community.  When the priest extended his hand to shake, Rabbi Cadaner rejected it, stating that “We do not do that”.  Well, soon after that incident a member of the Jewish community intentionally offered to shake the Chabad rabbi’s hand, and they did.  So the message seems clear.  From his perspective when he says “we do not do that,” what he probably means is “we do not do that” with non-Jews.  As a small Jewish community, we depend heavily upon the good will of our non-Jewish neighbors.  Such prejudicial behavior hurts us all.

Likewise, when we held a community interfaith service in response to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, the Chabad rabbi turned down an invitation to participate.  I cannot help but wonder:  Was it because he would not pray with non-Jews?  Was it because the service was held in the sanctuary of the Reform congregation?

Of course, our Chabad rabbi’s attitudes about the local synagogues and their clergy have not helped resolve our problems.  They have only exacerbated them.  My colleague, Rabbi Samuel, reported to me that in one angry encounter, the Chabad rabbi told him that he (the Chabad rabbi) was the only “real” rabbi in our community and that he would still be here long after Rabbi Samuel and I were gone.  Then there is the matter of his total disrespect for the clergy status of our cantor, who also happens to be my wife.  We met in seminary.  She is a fully credentialed cantor.  Still, Rabbi Cadaner refuses to recognize her clergy status and won’t even respond to her communications.  At one point, he requested that she be excluded from any formal meetings between the Jewish community leaders and Chabad.

Over the years, both congregations and the Federation have tried to make it very clear that in order for Chabad to truly be considered a part of our community, then it must abide by the rules which govern our community.  Unfortunately, time and again, Rabbi Cadaner has refused to accept that offer.

And this is what brought us to the recent crisis.  According to the bylaws of our Federation, the rabbis of the local synagogues are granted automatic seats, with voting rights, on the Federation Board.  In recent months, Rabbi Cadaner and the supporters of Chabad chose to insist that this provision be applied to Chabad as well the synagogues, and that Chabad itself be considered a synagogue.  Of course, that claim contradicts what Chabad had been saying all along; that our inter-synagogue rules do not apply to them because they are not a synagogue.  However, now claiming to be a synagogue, Chabad still claims that inter-synagogue rules do not apply to them because they are Chabad, and as such are unique.

The issue of whether or not to grant Rabbi Cadaner a seat on the Federation Board created a great rift in our community.  So much so that those on both sides of the issue threatened to withdraw their financial and human support of the Federation, should the decision go against them.  The supporters of Chabad threatened to do so, claiming that such a contrary decision would deny the Orthodox community representation on the Federation Board.  The opponents of Chabad threatened to do so, claiming that if the Federation officially recognized Chabad, it would also tacitly be  granting its seal of approval to Chabad’s continued violations of the rules of inter-congregational behavior; it would officially be approving Chabad’s predatory practices.  Such an abandonment of the long established local synagogues would simply be unacceptable.  It seemed as if, for the Federation, this would be a lose-lose situation, with them losing significant, perhaps vital, financial support no matter what they did.

This crisis was averted, thanks to the efforts and creative thinking of Jeff Goldstein.  It was Jeff who suggested that if the Orthodox community feels unrepresented, then let them be represented by a lay person on the Federation board.  In that way, our Federation could avoid being caught in the middle of a bitter struggle over the actions of Rabbi Cadaner.  Those of us who were opposed to Rabbi Cadaner’s being seated on the board, and by so seating him apparently granting Federation approval to his objectionable actions – myself included – had no qualms about the Orthodox community itself being represented.  Therefore, we had no problem with a lay representative.  But the ball rested in Chabad’s court.  Would they accept a lay representative in place of Rabbi Cadaner?  They were presented with the proposal, considered it for some time, and in the end, finally accepted it, turning a lose-lose situation for the Federation into a win-win.

Now it is time for us as a community to move forward.  And so we hope to do so.  However, we do so recognizing that our problems have not gone away, and they will not go away until Rabbi Cadaner and Chabad agree to become community team players and change the way in which they do their business; until they come to recognize and accept that they too are expected to abide by the very same rules and principles which govern the behaviors and inter-relations of both the Temple and the Center.  We have asked nothing more of them than we expect of ourselves.  We pray that someday soon they will decide to live up to those expectations.

Reflections on a Jewish Christmas

December 29, 2009

This is my first posting on this blog, so forgive me if I mess it up.

Right now we are in that American holiday limbo between Christmas and New Years.  Yet I cannot shake my discomfort with this year’s Christmas day experiences.

Many people wonder, “What do Jews do on Christmas?”  I know one antisemitic joke responds that we all gather around our cash registers and sing, “O What a Friend I Have in Jesus!”  Well, I just recently turned 60 years old and can say from my own life experiences that I have never witnessed or heard of anything remotely resembling that remark.  Indeed, when you consider who own the major merchandising firms today, the overwhelming majority of these folks are Christian.  I have always been astounded at how hate filled and bitter this joke is; all the more so since it is attached to a season which is supposed to be dedicated to “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward All”.

All my life, as a Jew, I have found the Christmas season to be one of both great beauty – physical & spiritual – and great discomfort.

I have always loved the lights and the festive spirit.  As a child, on Christmas eve, my family would pile into our car and my father would drive us all around town so we could admire the lights.  I still do that with my own children.  As I have grown older, I have increasingly grown to appreciate the uplifting messages of the Christmas stories, songs, and films.  I am a collector of DVDs and yes, I admit it, I own copies all three of Tim Allen’s SANTA CLAUSE movies, Bill Murray’s SCROOGED (I have always adored Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL), and of course, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  Christmas Shistmas!  I find these stories to be universally applicable and universally enlightening.  There is much of great value that this holiday season offers all people, regardless of faith affiliations.

Yet there is the discomforting part of Christmas as well.  In my opinion, there is no other time of the year in which Jews find themselves feeling more on the outside of American society than now.  Granted, we are a religious minority living in a predominantly Christian population.  I fully understand and appreciate that, and I do not in the least begrudge my Christian neighbors the joy and the wonder of their very special holiday.  Indeed, I pray that they would actually take the true meaning of this day more to heart.  For Christmas is not, or more correctly, should not be centered around its commercial and material aspects.  Rather, our Christian neighbors should focus on the profound spiritual message of the day.  Borrowing a term from my own faith tradition, Christmas is a Christian High Holy Day and should be treated as such.

Yet all that being said, as a Jew, I must admit that I find the constant barrage of music extolling Jesus as lord and savior, which one encounters in the stores, in the restaurants, on the radio, on TV, and most painfully, in the public school music programs to be a wearying assault on the very validity of being a non-Christian in America.  Indeed, it saddens me when I witness Jewish and other non-Christian children, whose love of music has led them to desiring to participate in public school music programs, both choral and instrumental, being called upon to praise Jesus in song, declaring him a spiritual king.  It has broken my heart to watch as my own children have ultimately come to their own decisions to give up their beloved music activities rather than continue to buck the tide.  My youngest daughter attends a public high school which has a “tradition” of  performing Handel’s MESSIAH every year at this time – and I find that an outrageous violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee that the government will strictly refrain from promoting any one faith over the others.

Then, as if to add insult to injury, a few years back Bill O’Reilly started in on his rants about”The War on Christmas” and that red herring just refuses to let go.  One cannot imagine how painful it is to be considered an enemy of Christmas and Christians simply because one advocates in our society on behalf of a increase in multi-cultural and multi-faith sensitivities.  It was a dark day, indeed for America, when there arose those who proclaimed that the greetings of “Happy Holidays” and “Seasons Greetings” were part of a nefarious conspiracy to destroy the very essence of Christianity.  My-way-or-the-highway seasonal greetings?  Who would have thunk it?  I do not know about the rest of my fellow Jews, but I for one am weary of being considered the Grinch Who Stole Christmas just because I am proud enough to say that in our society there are more faiths than just Christianity.  What ever happened to “live and let live”?

So one can say that part of what Jews do on Christmas is to both bask in the beauty of the season and persevere, looking forward to its passing.

But still, what do Jews actually do on Christmas day?  For many of us, we have half jokingly called it our tradition to go out for Chinese food and then to a movie.  Why Chinese food?  Because, until recently, the Chinese restaurants were the only ones open on Christmas.  And how about the movies?  They, too, were the only form of entertainment outside of the home which was available on Christmas day.  And besides, with all the Christians gathering in their homes, with their families, opening their presents under their Christmas trees, drinking egg nog, and wearing festive clothing in green and red, both the Chinese restaurants and the movie theaters were pretty empty.  Service was good and you could always get in to see a film.  In fact, back when I was in Lincoln, Nebraska, I knew of one Jewish family who hopped from movie theater to movie theater on Christmas day, always striving to break their own record as to how many films they could see.  The Chinese restaurants and the movie theaters were somewhat of a Jewish haven on this most Christian of days.  We enjoyed having them to ourselves.

That is until recently.  Over the last few years, I have been surprised at how many others have joined us in those “Jewish havens” on this most “Christian of days.”  The places have been packed.  Indeed, this year on Christmas day my family and I encountered bigger crowds in the movie theater than at any other time during the rest of the year.  It was like a mirror image of all the Christmas days at the movies of my youth and even my middle age!  Gazing upon the massive crowds, my daughter asked me, “Aren’t these people supposed to be in church or something?  Aren’t they supposed to be over at Grandma’s house visiting with their family?”  And I joined her in my wonderment.  It seemed as though the secret of the Jewish Christmas had leaked out and now everyone wanted to take advantage of it.

But tongue-&-cheek aside, I found it disturbing on a more essential level.  Over some time now, there has been a lot of talk in our society about “family values”; how they seem to be slipping away and how we need to grasp them greedily and fold them back into our lives.  Well, Christmas for Christian, like Pesach for Jews, and Thanksgiving for all Americans, has traditionally been a bastion of family values living.  Traditionally, these have been times when families have moved heaven and earth, if necessary, to come together and be with each other.  The Christmas table, the Seder table, the Thanksgiving table, have been the sacred altars of reaffirming family life.  But as Christians as well as Jews flock to the Chinese restaurants and the movies on Christmas day, one cannot help but feel that once again the American family has taken a major hit.  The song says, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and not “I’ll Meet You at the Movies.  Make sure to get the popcorn and the pop.”  And this has saddened me, saddened me greatly, even though this is not my holiday.  For it is another victory for the secularization and the commercialization of Christmas; another defeat for what are supposed to be the essential messages of the holiday; another defeat for the spirituality of Christmas.

So as a Jew, why should I care?  After all, this is a Christian holiday.  I care because whenever the spiritual is defeated by the secular, we all suffer, whether we realize it or not.  As American Christians become more secular, so do American Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists, and you get the idea.  Regardless of our faiths, our various spiritualities are interconnected and interdependent.  Their defeat is our defeat and our defeat is theirs.  And in these defeats, we move further away from each other and further away from God.