Archive for the ‘True Faith’ category

One Jew Reflecting Upon Christmas

December 29, 2013

Well, we made it through another one!  Christmas has come and gone – except for the post-Christmas sales – and Jews can breathe a sigh of relief as once again we can consider ourselves part of the mainstream of American life.

For quite some time I have had a love-hate relationship with Christmas.  Believe it or not, there is so much that I, as a Jew and as a rabbi do love about the holiday.

My earliest recollections of Christmas prominently include my father taking my sister and me for a Christmas eve drive around our neighborhood so as to enjoy the beauty of the lights decorating the homes of our Christian neighbors.  I still enjoy going on those light tours, which of course today include visiting some of those over the top houses with their complex musical light shows.  I have to admit that as garish and as energy extravagant as those light shows are, they are fun to watch; that is as long as such houses are not on my street, tying up traffic, and especially not across the street from me, flashing its performances into my windows every half hour on the half hour.  But even as I revel in the beauty of the lights – and they are so beautiful – I cannot help but ponder that it is near unto impossible for me to conceive of any Jew who would actually choose to get out their ladder in the late November or early December cold in order to climb up on their roof to string lights, only to climb up there again on a frigid January day in order to take them down.  Most Jews would label that meshugah!  We call that cultural diversity.  Perhaps that is why when you come upon the occasional Jewish home whose residents have felt a need to decorate their house with blue and white lights for Hanukkah, those  displays are always pretty lame.  Yet when all is said and done, I am profoundly grateful to my Christian neighbors for bringing such beauty and light to the dark and gloomy nights of early winter!

While my love of the lights were born of childhood experiences and have remained with me ever since, they are not the only aspects of Christmas that I have come to appreciate.  Growing older and more thoughtful, my love of Christmas has extended to so many of its messages.  While “peace on earth, good will to men (all)” has become so much a cliche, I still find it to be a powerful expression of this holiday’s aspiration that the spirit of pure love and human unity take hold in the hearts of all God’s children.  To me, this is Christian teaching at its finest; in its most ideal state.  While, as a Jew, I do not personally believe that Jesus was anything other than an historical figure, I do believe, based upon my studies of the Gospels, that these are the values which he preached and by which he lived.  They are the aspect of Jesus that all people – Christian and non-Christian alike – can embrace and aspire to live up to.  From a Jewish perspective, it is precisely these types of teachings which confirm Christianity as a legitimate religious expression; as one of the truly valid spiritual paths to God.  As a Jew, my path to God is through Torah.  For Christians, their path is through Jesus.  Whichever path we choose, it is meant to lead us to the same God.  It is meant to lead us to a God who loves all humanity and who expects us, people of our respective faiths, to share that love.

In fact, that is why I love Christmas movies.  Not all Christmas movies, but several of them; the ones that I consider to be the really good ones because they embody such uplifting and hopeful messages.  As a rabbi, I freely admit that for me Christmas is not Christmas unless I watch at least one such movie.  Top on my list is Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  George Bailey is the personification of the message of Christmas.  George Bailey is the personification of the message of all ethically based faiths.  Christian, Jew, Muslim, it matters not where we pray or in which language we pray.  In the end, our various faiths call upon us to live our lives as George Bailey lived his, caring for his neighbors, striving to do his part to help make their lives at least a little better.  The same can be said for the number two movie on my list – any version of Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL, though from a purely entertainment perspective I do prefer both the Alistair Sims and the Bill Murray versions.  The question we all must confront is “How much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge from the beginning of tale and how much are we like the Ebenezer Scrooge of its conclusion?  In this day of growing corporate greed, where the income gap between executives and employees grows exponentially greater, where for the sake of profit companies outsource their jobs to nations that fail to provide legal protections for the rights of their labor force, the evolving character of Ebenezer Scrooge has so much to teach us.  Recently, I encountered a quote from Walter Bruggerman, the imagery of which really touched me.  He spoke of “eating off our hungry brother’s and sister’s table.”  How guilty are we of such an act; of filling our stomachs at the expense of those in need; of taking from them in order to increase our own luxury?  These are the types of ethical challenges which Christmas places before us as it calls upon each and every one of us – Christian and non-Christian alike – to make of ourselves better human beings; to transform ourselves from being the Ebenezer Scrooge who appears at the beginning of the tale to the one who appears at its end.

While I am deeply moved by the universal nature of the ethics of Christmas, I am also moved by its spirituality.  Even though, as a Jew I do not accept in any way, manner, shape, or form a belief in the divinity of Jesus, still I can have a profound appreciation for the spiritual forces born of those beliefs which so inspire my Christian brothers and sisters and draw them closer to God.  True faith is a beautiful thing, even if it is not your own faith, as long as that faith carries one to acts of righteousness, justice, and love.  Perhaps being a person of faith myself helps to make me more attuned to and appreciative of the spiritual power of other faiths.  The function of a true faith is to help us actualize God’s caring presence in our lives.  For those of us who actively seek that presence through the practices and values of our own faith traditions, it may be easier for us to recognize and acknowledge when the practices and values of other faith traditions actualize the Divine presence on the lives of those who adhere to those traditions.  Such is the case when I witness those who truly observe Christmas; the real Christmas – the one observed in the church and the home more than in the shopping mall and the big box stores.

And how can I not help but love the great value Christmas places on family?  It is a time when the bonds of familial love are so strong that family members are magnetically drawn together, even across the miles, and sometimes across the planet, to share their Christmas experience; to reaffirm the power of family love in their lives.  “I’ll be home for Christmas” so says the song.  Homecoming is as much a part of Christmas as is the Christmas tree – even more so.

And yes, one of the things I love about Christmas is egg nog, and it matters not whether it be the alcoholic or non-alcoholic version.  It is the consummate seasonal drink, only to be surpassed, according to my taste buds, by that Arabic winter drink, sahleb.  Once again, cultural diversity!

These are just some of the aspects of Christmas which I as a Jew and a rabbi truly love and perhaps even envy, though each and every one of them are also to be found in my own faith, that is if you would accept the substitution of egg nog for matzah ball soup.

But as I stated earlier, my relationship with Christmas is one of both love and hate.  Sadly, there are other aspects of Christmas – particularly Christmas in America – which I freely admit evoke in me anger and bitterness.  For there are those who have chosen to set aside the universalistic Christmas message of love and respect for all of God’s children and have replaced it with a sort of perverse imperialistic parochialism.  For whatever reasons, these people have come to believe that Christmas will be somehow diminished unless all people, Christian or not, are required to engage in its observance.  When non-Christians like myself tell them, “Go, enjoy your beautiful holiday but leave me and my children out of it,” we become the enemy; we become the embodiment of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas.  I for one don’t take kindly to that.

I have always tried to be a live and let live type of guy.  You lead your life and I will lead mine and we should respect each other for our uniqueness and individuality.  That is why it has so deeply offended me when others have tried to impose their observance of Christmas, especially the religious aspects of Christmas, upon everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.  As a Jew, I have always wanted my Christian neighbors to enjoy the fullness of their Christmas holiday, but what I have never wanted is for my neighbors to turn around and expect me, or my children, or any non-Christian adult or child, to join them in their Christmas observance.  I am quite happy witnessing Christmas from the outside, looking in, appreciating all that is beautiful and wonderful about it.  I don’t need to be on the inside, I don’t want to be on the inside, and I resent any attempt to force me or my kind to be on the inside.  I don’t mind listening to your Christmas songs as they are broadcasted wherever I go in the month of December, and often I enjoy their melodies even if I cannot accept the message of their lyrics.  But do not expect me to sing them.  Do not expect any non-Christian to sing them, especially non-Christian children.  These songs speak of a faith that we do not nor cannot accept.  When public school music teachers force such expressions from the lips of our children, what they are doing is nothing less than spiritual child abuse.  Ironically, it also diminishes the Christian beliefs which those songs are intended to lift up.  For what does it say of the purity of Christianity when the tenets of its beliefs are forcibly falsely uttered by those who reject those very beliefs?

A painful vignette:  When my youngest daughter was in 7th grade, my wife and I, being loving and dutiful parents, attended her school’s winter music concert.  The first group to sing was the 6th grade chorus.  Standing among them was a little Muslim girl, dressed in traditional Muslim garb.  When the songs they sang were essentially Christian in nature, she stood there still and silent, standing out like a sore thumb.  It was heartbreaking yet uplifting to witness this child resist the enormous social pressure as she refused to publicly denounce her faith by proclaiming another.  The next year, when we attended the concert, I was particularly interested in hearing the 7th grade chorus sing, being curious to see whether or not that Muslim child would be among them, and if so, what she would do.  As that chorus took to the stage, it soon became clear that the Muslim girl was not not to be seen.  What a tragedy!  Why should a child who happens to be a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist or a Hindu or an atheist in America – a nation which at least theoretically holds on to the principle of separation of church and state – be forced to choose between participating in a public school music program and remaining true to the tenets of his or her faith?

While this issue of celebrating Christmas, a religious holiday, in what are supposed to be religiously neutral public schools has been a source of contention for many years, going back to my own childhood, over the last few years this struggle has taken on a new and even more invasive and sinister dimension.  I speak of the so-called “War on Christmas.”  Those crusaders who claim themselves to be the defenders of the sanctity of Christmas, led by such zealots as Bill O’Reilly and so many of his colleagues at Fox News, have vigorously invested themselves in the cause of claiming black is white and fiction is fact.  In their own insidious way, they have attempted to turn the tables on us non-Christians who have worked so hard to convince our Christian neighbors that our participation is neither essential nor desirable for their own celebration of their sacred Christmas holiday.  All that we have asked is that our fellow Americans acknowledge and respect the wondrous religious diversity of our land.  Yet these Christmas crusaders have decided to redefine such respect as being an affront to Christianity and a direct assault on Christmas itself.  For them, there is no middle ground.  To say “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is an offense equal to spitting in the face of Jesus.  They have taken this struggle over Christmas beyond the public schools and out into the shopping malls and the grocery stores and onto the media – radio, TV, and print.  This year, they have even made it into a racial issue, claiming Christmas and Jesus to be the primary possession of the white Christian race.  Emphatically they have insisted that Santa is white (even though the original Santa Claus came from Turkey) and that Jesus was white (even though historically he was a Middle Eastern Jew) and that any other perspective is nothing short of a vicious lie.  Indeed, they have given a completely new meaning to the phrase “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” a song which, by the way was written by the Jew, Irving Berlin.

In all of this, look at what obviously has been lost.  The true meaning of Christmas.  The essential teachings of Jesus, whose birth Christians are supposed to be celebrating.  They have become Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL in reverse.  Instead of the spirit of Christmas transforming a mean spirited, narrow minded bigoted Ebenezer Scrooge into a lover and care giver for all humanity, they have been working to transform the loving humanistic spirit of Christmas into a festival of partisanship and xenophobia.  What they claim to be our War on Christmas is in fact their War on Non-Christians; their war on those children of God who have chosen not to share their religious beliefs.  As one such non-Christian, I cannot help but be angry and resentful.

The saddest part of all is that there is a War on Christmas, but definitely not as the Bill O’Reillys of the world describe it.  The real War on Christmas is the war to secularize it; to diminish if not strip away entirely its fundamental religious nature.  It is a war which seeks to transform a sacred season into a shopping season and the worship of God into the worship of materialism.  Box stores instead of churches become the centers of holy gatherings.  Baby Jesus and the person he would grow to become is being supplanted by that heavy set man in the red suit who fills the houses with games and toys for children of all ages.  Peace on earth, good will to all is utterly forgotten in the crush of the early morning stampedes on Black Friday.  Christmas as a family day – not so much so any more.  It used to be that Christmas day for Jews meant Chinese food and a movie.  The Chinese restaurants were the only eateries open and the movie theaters were also open but relatively empty as our Christian neighbors gathered with their families around their trees and their festive dinner tables.  At a time of year when it is typical for Jews to feel left out, having the movie theaters mostly to ourselves did serve as somewhat of a healing balm.  In fact, when I was a rabbi in Lincoln, Nebraska – in the days before multiplexes – I had one congregant family who prided themselves on their ability to travel from theater to theater to theater, catching several films on any given Christmas day.  But over the past few years, the theaters have not been so empty.  This year, our local multiplex was literally packed.  It saddened me, not so much because we had to fight the crowd, but more so because of what it represented about the changing face of Christmas in America, as the movie theater replaced the home as the central gather place for Christians on Christmas day; as spending Christmas day with the latest Hollywood releases replaced spending it at home, around the tree, around the fire, around the dinner table, with family and friends.  This is the true War on Christmas and it has nothing whatsoever to do with saying “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”  Rather it has to do with materialism, commercialism, and secularization.  Sadder still that it is so obvious to a Jew like myself, someone on the outside looking in, while for so many others, for whom Christmas is their holiday, they don’t even see it.

I am a Jew and I love my faith and I love my people.  My religion has given me so much joy, pleasure, and inspiration. Its observances – daily, Shabbat, holidays – have so greatly enriched my life.  My gratitude knows no end.  I wish that all people could receive such gifts and that they should receive them from the values, teachings, and practices of the faith of their choosing, whatever that faith may be.  I know that all true faiths freely offer such gifts to their adherents.  For my Christian neighbors, Christmas is most certainly one such gift; true Christmas, Christmas as it was intended to be celebrated.  As a Jew, I marvel at its wonder and its beauty and all that is good about it.  I see it for all it is and all it can be yet I am puzzled why, for so many Christians, that does not seem to be enough.  Why is it not enough for them to bask in their gracious holiday celebration?  Why do they somehow feel incomplete as Christians if they fail to drag others who do not share their beliefs into their observances?

As the outsider looking in, I freely admit that I love Christmas for all it was intended to be yet hate the aggressive and mean spirited holiday into which some have re-framed it.

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Faith: One More Reading of the “Binding of Isaac”

October 4, 2011

When it comes to this morning’s Torah portion, there are almost countless interpretations.  Indeed, it is one of the most studied and commented on sections in the Torah.  Yet, even with that being said, there still stands one interpretation that is considered by all rabbis the classic interpretation; the mother of all interpretations of the story of the Binding of Isaac.  That interpretation is that this story is a story of faith; Abraham’s absolute faith in God.  For Abraham’s faith in God was so great that when God instructed him to take his son up to Mount Moriah and there to offer him up to God as a sacrifice, Abraham did not question.  He did not doubt.  He did not hesitate.  Indeed, the classic commentary points out that the Torah text itself states that after receiving God’s instructions, Abraham got up early the next morning to carry them out, which supposedly shows that Abraham was so eager to fulfill God’s will that he did not want to delay it even a moment.

Obviously, there are certain moral problems with such an interpretation.  After all, what kind of God would demand the death of a child?  And what kind of parent would not only be willing but actually eager to meet that demand?  So as you can imagine, alternative interpretations quickly arose, and multiplied, in their attempts to redeem at least the image of Abraham, if not God, from the implications of this story.

Yet as troubling as we find this Torah text, the classic interpretation of it is right on target.  This story is a story about faith and the importance of faith.  However, in order to appreciate it more fully we have to recognize and understand that there is a difference between true faith and blind faith.  While true faith is about following a path because our knowledge and experience has led us to believe that the path in question will lead us to good and positive ends, blind faith is about a total surrendering of our will and judgement to another and in so doing, being willing to travel any path we are told to travel without any consideration of right or wrong, or of the consequences.  It’s about “only following orders.”

While it is easy to interpret Abraham’s actions in this story as a product of blind faith – of his being willing to slaughter his son merely because God told him to do so – it is not necessarily that simple.  To be true to the Torah text, and to the special relationship that the Jewish people have had with the Torah text for thousands of years, we have to be willing to explore the possibility that Abraham’s faith was a true faith rather than a blind one; that Abraham was more than just God’s lackey.  That he was God’s trusting and trusted partner.

When we look at the Torah, one of the most important indicators that this was not just a matter of blind faith on Abraham’s part is to be found in the personality of Abraham himself.  Throughout the book of GENESIS, we see that Abraham was never really a mindless follower.  He was a thinker.  He was a questioner.  He was a challenger.  No where is that clearer than in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, where he confronts God directly, challenging God’s sense of justice in regards to God’s intention to destroy the two cities.  It is not logical to assume that the very same man who went toe-to-toe with God, challenging God by asking, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” would then turn around and passively accept God’s decision to brutally take the life of an innocent child.  If Abraham challenged God’s intentions for Sodom and Gomorrah, so much the more so would Abraham challenge God’s intentions in this instance if he truly believed that God wanted to see the brutal slaying of an innocent child.

Perhaps Abraham did not challenge God in this instance because his understanding of God’s instructions were different than the typical translations and interpretations that have come down us over the years.  Perhaps Abraham did not see this, at least initially, as a call for him to physically sacrifice his son, but rather as something very different.

In reviewing the Hebrew of the text, it struck me that one of its key statements which has always been understood as a call for the physical sacrifice of Isaac, can, in fact, be given a dramatically different translation than the one we are used to.  In the Hebrew, God says to Abraham, “Ve’ha’aleiju sham l’olah,” which is typically translated as “offer him up there as a sacrifice.”  But perhaps it actually means something else entirely.  This difference between the standard translation and a translation I am about to propose, hinges on the understanding of the Hebrew word “oleh”, which has a double meaning.  One meaning is that of “going up” both physically and spiritually, as we see in the term “aliyah” which is physically going up to the bimah for the high honor of blessing the reading of the Torah, while the other meaning – the one generally applied to this text – is that of “making a sacrifice to God” such as the “olah”, the burnt offering which was offered at the Temple.  However, perhaps it was the first, and not the second meaning that was meant to be attached to these words in this sentence in this Torah account.  Perhaps God was not saying that Abraham should “offer Isaac up there, on Mount Moriah, as a sacrifice,” but rather that he should “bring Isaac up there so as to elevate him,” not just physically but spiritually, by including the lad in the ritual of offering up a sacrifice to God.  You might even consider this to be like the first Bar Mitzvah, as Isaac would be assuming the role of a Hebrew adult by participating in this sacred ritual, just like our children who come up to the bimah to bless the Torah for the first time in their lives.

If we begin to understand the text in this way, then another part of the story assumes a significantly different meaning.  While Abraham and Isaac were walking up the mountain, Isaac asked his father, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”  To this, Abraham replied, “God with provide the lamb, my son.”  Traditionally, Abraham’s response has been interpreted as meaning that the lamb which God will provide for the sacrifice was none other than his son.  But perhaps that interpretation is wrong, and that the simple meaning of the sentence is the true meaning of the sentence; that Isaac should not worry – that he should have faith that God, when needed, will provide the animal for the sacrifice.  Indeed, in the end, that is exactly what God did.  God provided the ram which they sacrificed together.

It we take this approach, we discover an Abraham who is not driven by blind obedience but rather who possesses a true faith in God; trusting in God and in so trusting, confident that in the end, all things will work out for the good.

It is only when the altar is build, and the wood for the fire is all arranged, and Abraham is ready to make the sacrifice, but there is no lamb or ram to offer up, that Abraham even considers the possibility that Isaac is the intended sacrifice.  Yet still trusting in God, Abraham continues to believe that things will work out, even as he is binding up his son and placing him on the altar.  Indeed there is a midrash which states that while Abraham was doing this, he was crying.  His tears dropped into Isaac’s eyes and were the cause of Isaac’s blindness, as described in the story of Jacob and Esau.

Indeed, even though Abraham momentarily had doubts about God’s good will, his faith was well placed, for God stopped the sacrifice.  God was distressed by the very thought that Abraham would consider doing such a horrible thing to his son.  “Do not raise your hand against the boy or do any harm to him!” God’s angel tells Abraham.  Perhaps Abraham’s actual attempt to sacrifice Isaac was a misunderstanding.  Perhaps it was Abraham’s slipping for a moment from true faith to blind faith; a move which deeply disturbed God rather than gratified him.

Understood in this way, Abraham’s faith was, for the most part, a true faith.  Abraham had faith in God.  Why?  Because so many of Abraham’s experiences with God were such that God earned Abraham’s faith.  Abraham trusted in God because even though life was not always easy for Abraham, and along the way there were many challenges to be met, still in the long run, God’s promise was kept and things worked out for the better.  God’s desires were known to Abraham, and in those desires, Abraham saw only good things, positive things, not only for himself and his family, but for all humanity.  Abraham saw God as good, and therefore as worthy of his faith.  His true faith.

Blind faith is easy.  Just do what you are told.  You don’t need to think about it.  Your life is totally in the hands of another.  Good and bad.  Right and wrong.  They do not matter.  Obedience is the only thing that matters.

True faith, on the other hand, is not so easy.  It means that we need to constantly look at the bigger picture.  We have to constantly consider the past in measuring the future.  Good and bad, right and wrong do matter, when it comes to our judgement as to whether or not our faith is well placed.  It means trusting that things are not always what they appear to be at the moment; that sometimes in order to arrive at good times, you have to endure bad times.

This is what Abraham saw in God.  This is why Abraham trusted in God.  This is why Abraham sought to obey God.

Who should know this type of faith better than we, the Jewish people?  Our long history is a patchwork quilt of keeping faith in bad times as well as good times, and ironically sometimes finding it harder to keep faith in good times as well as bad times.  Today, we American Jews live in marvelous times.  We have good lives in a country which welcomes us and considers us equals; citizens and not strangers.  God has blessed our lives with an abundance perhaps unequaled in Jewish history.  Yet for some, finding a true faith in God is still elusive.

One cannot help but wonder why so many Jews have been able to keep their faith in God across the millennia?  Because their faith and our faith has been a true one.  We have maintained our faith in God because when we consider what God wants from us, and wants from the world, we see that these are all good things.  God wants the best for us and for all humanity.  God wants peace.  God wants healing.  God wants prosperity.  God wants love.  God wants justice and fair treatment for all.  God wants to be our parent and for us to be a family.  Our God has always been a God worthy of believing in; worthy of our trust and faith; our true faith.

Having such faith in God can help us to live our lives as better human being.  For our faith in God can serve as a model for our faith in others.  When we apply the same principles that govern a healthy faith in God to our relationships with other people, then we can start down the road toward building healthy relationships, not only with God but with worthy people as well.

As a true faith requires us to ask of our relationship with God – Where is this taking us?  Is it leading us down the path to being better people and leading a better life? – so we should be asking those very same questions when it comes to our relationships with other human beings.  Will these relationships contribute to making us better people and, as better people, leading us to a better life?

As true faith calls upon us to invest a great degree of trust in God because God has proven worthy of our trust, so should we be willing to invest a great degree of trust in others who, by their past actions have proven worthy of our trust.

This, for some reason, seems to be very hard for some people to accomplish.  There seems to be a part of the human psyche that wants us to think the worst of others, and of God, even if they have done much in the past which should have proven their trustworthiness to us.  We seem to revel in looking at the dark side; in gobbling up the rumors as is they were established facts; in readily embracing the worst scenarios rather than the best possibilities.  But just as a true faith in God – Abraham’s faith in God – calls upon us to invest our trust in God, not just because God is God but also because God has earned that trust through intentions and past actions, so should the spirit of true faith call upon is to invest our trust in so many of those people in our lives, not just because they are in our lives, but because they have earned our trust through both intentions and past actions.  They have earn that place in our lives in which we should always first assume the best of them rather than the worst; in which we should always first grant them the benefit of the doubt rather than instantly doubting their credibility, their intentions, and their good will.

In this way, if we can find it in our hearts to take on the mantle of true faith, both in God and in those individuals who populate the landscape of our lives, then we will discover that with true faith in our hearts, blessings will surely follow in our lives.  For we will more readily discover joy instead of sorrow; contentment instead of dissatisfaction; confidence instead of doubt; pleasure instead of pain; love instead of anger.