Archive for the ‘Jewish Study’ category

Traveling the Road to Sinai

April 1, 2013

Our Pesach Seder, or S’darim, are behind us.  In just a few days, Pesach itself will be concluded as we gather for Yizkor.  Now, as our tradition tells us, we are in the period of the counting of the Omer.

But what is counting the Omer?  In the book of LEVITICUS, our people were instructed that on the second day of Pesach they were to bring to the Temple a sheaf of barley as an offering.  The Hebrew word for “sheaf” is “Omer.”  In that same passage it states that starting on the second day of Pesach, it is a mitz­vah to daily count the Omer; counting the 50 days from Pesach to Shavuot.  Since Shavuot is the festival of the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai – and as our tradition expanded upon that, the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai – the counting of the Omer is literally marking the days between the time we were liberated from our slavery in Egypt to the time God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai.  In counting the Omer, we are in our own way participating in the journey across the wilderness from Egypt to Sinai; from slavery to Torah.

From the first Pesach and Shavuot to this very day, by counting the Omer, we Jews make that very same jour­ney.  While Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua, and all of their followers physically traveled the 50 day journey from Egypt to Sinai, we, on the other hand, spiritually travel it.

But how does one spiritually travel from Egypt to Sinai?  To answer that question, we have to ask ourselves, “What does Egypt spiritually represent?” and “What does Sinai spiritually represent?”  For in finding the spiritual meanings of Egypt and Sinai, we discover the true path of the spiritual journey which each of us, as modern Jews, must take.

What is the meaning of Egypt?  We hear it stated over and over throughout our Pesach Seder.  Egypt is slavery, and therefore the journey from Egypt is nothing less than freedom.

What is the meaning of Sinai?  For Jews throughout the ages, Sinai has always stood for Torah.  So what is Torah?  Torah is our guide book to becoming a good Jew and a decent human being.  It tells us what we need to do in order to achieve those goals.  In other words, it lays out for us our responsibilities as Jews.

For us, the counting of the Omer should not only remind us of that journey our ancestors took some 3,500 years ago, from Egypt to Sinai, but also the journey that each of us as modern Jews need to take; the journey from freedom to responsibility.  For freedom is a wonderful thing, a blessing, and we American Jews enjoy a great deal of it, but freedom without responsibility is nothing other than license, and that is not a good thing.  It most certainly is not a blessing.

As Americans we are well aware of the fact that freedom has a price; that sometimes it even requires a sacrifice.  We know that freedom does not mean “I’ll do whatever I damn well please and the heck with you!”  While freedom is a gift, it is not the gift of absolute selfishness.  It is the gift of living in a community of people equally free, and doing whatever is necessary to protect the freedom of others as well as our own, and to protect the integrity of the community and all that it stands for.  In order to do so, we have to exercise our freedom to choose to do the right thing and not just the selfish thing.  We have to choose to be at one with others rather than only looking out for ourselves, at times placing above ourselves the values and principles that keep freedom alive and vibrant.  Hillel put it so well 2,000 years ago when he said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, then what am I?”  With freedom comes responsibility.

For us as Jews, our Omer counting journey places its focus on some very particular freedoms and some very particular responsibilities; the freedoms and responsibilities of what it means to be a Jew today.

There is something sadly telling in the fact that most modern Jews celebrate Pesach – celebrate freedom – but far fewer celebrate Shavuot – celebrate responsibility – and even fewer still count the Omer – give serious consideration to what it means to make the journey from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility.  Yes, we know that we are free to be Jews, but too many of us interpret that as merely meaning that we don’t have to convert to another faith to be considered equals in the land we live.  Too many of us think that being free to be Jews means being free to choose to do nothing Jewishly with our lives, and if not nothing, then to choose to keep our Jewish activities at a bare minimum – attend a Pesach Seder of sorts which often is significantly abridged; perhaps go to a High Holy Day service or two; light some candles and give gifts on Hanukkah; or even take on the expense of joining a synagogue but rarely attend or participate; while never publicly denying being a Jew, at the same time never really publicly proclaiming it either.

But does the freedom to be a Jew really include the freedom from living Jewishly?  Many years ago, when I was a rabbinic student intern in a wonderful congregation in Scarsdale, New York, one of my responsibilities was to teach the Confirmation class.  Our Confirmation program centered upon a series of guest speakers, each addressing a topic of significance.  In one section of the course, over three weeks we explored the differences between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism.  While all three speakers were excellent, the one that really stands out in my memory is the Orthodox rabbi.  Why?  Because of an exercise he conducted with my students.  He simply asked them, “What does it mean to be a Reform Jew?”  One student replied, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to keep kashrut.”  Another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means you don’t have to wear a yarmulka at services.”  Yet another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to fast on Yom Kippur.”  Still another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to go to services on Saturday, or even on Friday if you don’t want to.”  And so the students went on, that is until he stopped them.  Then this Orthodox rabbi turned to them and said, “Don’t tell me about what you don’t do as Reform Jews.  Tell me about what you do.”  The students were stumped.  For them, being a Reform Jew was all about not having to do this and not having to do that.  It was all about their freedom and little or nothing about their responsibilities.  That Orthodox rabbi challenged those students to tell him, “As a Reform Jew, I choose to do this or I choose to do that” and they were hard pressed to respond.  For them, Reform Judaism meant a lot of free­dom but little, if any, responsibility.

Those Confirmation students are far from alone when it comes to Jews today, nor are their responses just restricted to Reform Jews.  Just count the empty seats in any synagogue on Shabbat.  Just count the empty chairs in any Jewish adult education class.  Just compare the number of those who attend syna­gogue and Jewish community events to those who belong to the synagogue and to the community.  Just examine how most Jewish institutions languish for need of volunteers and especially for leaders.  Even Tikkun Olam activities which, at least in our synagogue, are the most popular, pale in support when compared to our population.  Today so many Jews are just too busy to be Jewish.

This is precisely why the counting of the Omer journey is so vitally important for our people.  We need to come to grips with the fact that being Jewish does not end with our freedom to be Jewish.  Our journey is not just a Pesach journey.  It is not just about our liberation from Egypt.  It is also a Shavuot journey.  It is a journey toward Torah; toward the taking on of Jewish responsibilities.  It is about imbuing our Jewish freedom with Jewish life and Jewish meaning.  It is about bringing our Judaism to life in our lives and in the lives of our families and our community.  We need to journey from Pesach to Shavuot.  We need to journey from Egypt to Sinai.  We need to journey from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility.  The 50 days of the Omer stretch before us, offering us the opportunity to explore, to ponder, and ultimately to decide how each of us, making the decisions that work best for us, can travel that path from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility; from being free to live as Jews to living meaningful Jewish lives.

When Reform Rabbis Meet: What Really Happens at Those Regional Conferences?

February 2, 2013

The Quad Cities temperature was 7 degrees above 0, with a wind chill of about 19 degrees below, early last Saturday morning when I drove to the airport to catch my flight to Phoenix, Arizona – more precisely Scottsdale – and the annual conference of the Mid West Association of Reform Rabbis.  I would be lying if I told you that I was not looking forward to escaping the brutal winter cold for the desert warmth, even if just for those few days.  Indeed, I was.  As it turned out, arriving in Scottsdale I encountered some of the worst winter weather that area has endured for a while.  Indeed, in the 11 years our organization had been holding its January meetings in Scottsdale, the weather has never been that foul.  On all but one day it rained, and the temperatures ranged from the low 60’s in the day to the mid to upper 40’s at night.  So it must have been an odd sight for the locals to see this bunch of mid western rabbis continually exclaiming how wonderful was the weather!  Everything is relative!

Now I expect that there are those, in each of our congregations, who earnestly believe that the only reason we rabbis and our wives go to this conference is because of the weather; that this is some sort of rabbinic junket.  But truth be told, they are wrong – dead wrong.  There are many reasons why my colleagues and I attend this conference.  The weather just happens to be a great fringe benefit.

Aside from the weather, why do we go?

One reason is that we go to study with a true Jewish scholar on a professional level that we simply cannot achieve at home.  At home we spend a good part of our lives being teachers of Judaism and as such, the resident Jewish experts; the top of the local Jewish learning food chain.  However, at these conferences we revel in not being teachers but rather being students.  We gladly surrender our place on the top of the Jewish learning food chain to our scholar.  And then we marvel at the wonderful insights our colleagues contribute to our classroom discussions.  For those who love the very act of learning, our study sessions are festivals in intellectual renewal.

So what do we study and how relevant is it to our work back home?  The main topic varies from year to year.  Sometimes we study various aspects of our classical texts.  At those times most of our studying is done in Hebrew and Aramaic.  At other times we may be studying matters of theology or history or ethics or any number of Jewishly related topics.  Sometimes the content of our study is directly relevant to what we do in our congregations.  Sometimes it is indirectly relevant, and sometimes it is purely study for study’s sake, with no relevance to our roles as congregational rabbis.  Our tradition calls such study Torah LeShma – the Study of Torah for Its Own Sake – and considers it the highest form of study; the greatest study mitzvah there can be, for it is study for the sake of heaven and not for the sake of personal and professional gain.

This year we studied about early Christianity, its relationship to ancient Judaism, and how the rise of Christianity altered the then traditional Jewish attitudes toward Gentiles.  Our scholar was a young assistant professor at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.  He was brilliant, informative, entertaining, and personable.  We thoroughly enjoyed him, but he made me and my contemporaries feel old, especially when he spoke about growing up in the congregation of one of our classmates; my good friend and rabbinical school car pool buddy, Rabbi Alan Katz.  Was what we learned directly relevant to my work here?  Could I take my notes from his lectures and offer a class in our adult education program?  Not really, for in order to appreciate what he was teaching, one needs to have a somewhat significant background in Jewish knowledge.  But on the other hand, it was indirectly relevant to my life back here in the Quad Cities, for from his lectures, his handouts, and our discussions, I did obtain a deeper understanding and appreciation of Jewish-Christian relations; one that will enhance my interactions with our Christian neighbors.

Another reason is that we go to pray together.  As you know, we rabbis pray all the time, much of it from the bimah.  Prayer is important to us, and we try to communicate our love of prayer to our congregants.  But to be honest, congregational prayer, as many of you know, is also political.  One congregant wants our prayers to be this way.  Another congregant wants our prayer to be that way.  Sometimes we rabbis find ourselves simply praying that we can magically make everyone happy.  But when we gather as rabbis to pray, the only ones who we have to make happy are ourselves.  We are free to lose ourselves in prayer, knowing that everyone else in the room is likewise praying with abandon.  As our voices rise up in song – for most of our prayers are sung – we can sense our souls rising along with them.  Rabbis in prayer are a powerful prayer community.

Another reason is that we go to meet with and learn from representatives of some of the significant Reform Jewish organizations; organizations like the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Rabbinic Placement Commission, and the Reform Pension Board.  They advise us as to what is going on, and what is on the horizon, in their various organizations.  Through them we get a snapshot of the state of our movement, and of its future.

So, for example, we learned how the Central Conference of American Rabbis is getting ready to field test its new High Holy Day prayer book.  We also discussed how the landscape of the contemporary rabbinate has been altered by the rise of so many independent rabbinic seminaries, ranging anywhere from offering serious rabbinic education to online seminaries that offer almost instantaneous ordination.  Questions now arise as to which rabbinic degrees are to be considered legitimate and which not.  So we learned that our own organization – the Central Conference of American Rabbis – when considering legitimacy for serving Reform pulpits, has divided the seminaries into three categories: 1) Those that provide a competent rabbinic education and demonstrate a commitment to the ideals of Reform Judaism;  2) Those that provide a competent rabbinic education but whose commitment to Reform Jewish ideals are questionable;  and 3) Those that do not provide a competent rabbinic education and whose commitment to Reform Jewish ideals are questionable.  The more we discussed this matter, the more I realize that our congregations need to come to terms with it as well.  For with budgetary constraints, there is a great allure to hiring rabbis on the cheap.  But when a congregation places financial considerations above ideological ones, what are they letting themselves in for?

From the URJ representative we learned that the Union is going to be moving forward with its emphasis on new technologies.  What I heard described was something akin to an Iphone Siri that will provide guidance on all sorts of Jewishly related subjects from studying Talmud to synagogues with solar panels.  Also, interestingly enough, the Union is feeling the ill effects of having eliminated its regional structure.  So now they will be looking to re-create it, in a fashion, but with lay leadership instead of rabbinic.

Yet another reason that we go – and perhaps the most important reason – is for our sense of hevruta, community.  There is a special bond that ties rabbis together, especially if we are of the same ideological ilk.  We are a family, and as such, we understand, appreciate, and care for each other as no one else can.  We need each other for no one understands rabbis like other rabbis.  We love our congregations and the people who populate them.  We all have been fortunate to have in our congregations and in our communities friends whom we hold as especially dear, but still, at the end of the day, each of us is “The Rabbi” with all the expectations and limitations that go along with that title.  Only among our colleagues can we fully let our hair down; can we lower our guard and not be “The Rabbi” but simply be a thinking, feeling, flawed human being, and with it all, be unconditionally accepted and loved.  No, we are not just colleagues.  We are family, and such meetings are emotionally charged family reunions.  We know that we can reach out to each other anytime and be confident that the others will be there for us.  So, for example, when Rev. Ron Quay was diagnosed with lymphoma and was told that the doctor he needed to see – the best in the field – was in Omaha, I knew that if I picked up the phone and called Rabbi Aryeh Azriel in Omaha, and if he had the right connections, he would make it happen.  And so I did.  And so he did, with Rev. Quay receiving a call the very next day from the office of that doctor.  So we know that we are there for each other all the time, and that only makes it all the more powerful when we can be there for each other in person, rather than at a distance.

So every year the Cantor and I eagerly look forward to our January sojourn in Scottsdale.  Of course we enjoy stepping out of the mid western winter into the realm of the desert.  Even as the sun renews us, we are all the more renewed and revitalized by all that we share with our colleagues during those too few days in the Arizona sun.