Archive for the ‘Ethical Mitzvot’ category

Politics and Justice: The Foggy Line

May 15, 2013

I tend to be outspoken, both in my synagogue and out in the community, on issues of Tikkun Olam – Social Justice – even when they are controversial; perhaps especially when they are controversial.  Over the years, I have advocated for the hungry, for the homeless, for the newcomers to our shores.  When African American churches were being set on fire in the South, Rabbi Stanley Herman and I organized the Burned Churches Fund.  When local bigots burned crosses in West Davenport, Dan Ebener, who was then the Social Action Director of the Diocese of Davenport, and I organized a Say No to Hate Rally at Sacred Heart Cathedral; a rally which filled the cathedral to overflowing.  When it became apparent that while our community had many wonderful agencies to address the needs of the homeless, they needed help in raising funds of their efforts, I, along with a group of caring citizens, several of them from my congregation, put together a fund raising organization called In From the Cold, which focused its efforts of supporting agencies serving the homeless.  When it became increasingly clear that in my community the primary religious voice that was making itself heard in the publid forum was the voice of conservative Christianity, I joined with Rev. Dan Schmiechen of the United Church of Christ and Rev. Charlotte Saleska of the Unitarian Church in organizing a group called Progressive Clergy, which would serve as the voice of socially liberal religious traditions in our community.  When I became aware of how many of our local school children were without adequate winter wear to fend off the Iowa cold, I got together with the superintendent of the Davenport School District and organized a program called Coats for Kids whose function it was to collect, clean, and distribute gently used winter coats to needy children.  When there were those who were burning the Koran in protest to the proposed opening of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York, I was one of the primary supporters of an interfaith solidarity gathering at the Moline mosque.  I have testified before the city councils of both Davenport and Bettendorf in support of both women’s reproductive choice and extending the categories of groups protected by our civil rights ordinances to include the diversity of sexual orientation.  When John Deere sought to cut the health care benefits of its retirees, I led the clergy in protesting that action.  This list can go on and on.

As a Jew, my passion for Tikkun Olam comes naturally to me.  The Torah continually instructs us to be proactive in matters of social justice.  So many are the times when the Torah calls upon us to pursue this course, reminding us, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”; reminding us that as Jews, we have known what it means to be the victims of injustice and from those experiences, we must take away the lesson of how imperative it is for us to pursue justice for all people – “tzedek, tzedek tirdof! – Justice, justice shall you pursue!”  Where the Torah leaves off, the prophets picked up, for their voices were clarion in the call for the pursuit of justice.  Indeed, when Reform Judaism had turned away from the rigors of ritual mitzvot such as kashrut as the primary expression of our Jewish identity, we turned to focusing on the ethical mitzvot, especially the social justice mitzvot.  And what did we call ourselves?  We called ourselves prophetic Judaism.  Indeed, to this day, across the Judeo-Christian spectrum, when we talk about pursuing social justice, we refer to it as a prophetic mission and the prophetic tradition.

There was a time, really not that long ago, when this was almost expected of faith communities and their religious leaders; when the pursuit of social justice was considered an essential part of the mission of communities of faith.  So we saw wonderful images, such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel walking side-by-side with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the cause of civil rights for all people regardless of race.  We saw clergy and congregations across faith lines speaking out and marching in protest to the Viet Nam War.  In my own community, sometimes I would be approached by congregants who would say, “You know, Rabbi, people out in the community tell me how much they respect you for most of the stands that you take, but they are really troubled by your stand on Planned Parenthood…”  In saying that, they were informing me that while there were those who disagree with me, no one was challenging the appropriateness, or legality, of taking a stand on a social issue.

Now you need to understand that for tax exempt not-for-profit organizations like synagogues and churches  there is a very important line that separates social issues advocacy from political advocacy.  While it is perfectly appropriate for organizations like synagogues and churches to take stands on social issues, it is strictly prohibited and jeopardizes their tax exempt status if they advocate for particular political candidates or parties.

For most of my rabbinate, and before, the lines separating those two types of advocacy were pretty clear and such conflicts were easily avoided.  But in the course of time something has changed, and these lines have gotten blurred.  They seem to have gotten so blurred that today there are those who feel that they can claim that advocating for particular social issues is, in effect, advocating for one particular political party over another; one political candidate over another.  Therefore, for a synagogue – and perhaps even its rabbi speaking and acting outside of the synagogue – to advocate for a particular social issue would seem to violate the prohibition against engaging in partisan politics.

In the world of politics, it seems that times have changed.  There was a time when a political figure’s stand on any given social issue was not a function of party politics but rather of personal conscious.  There was a time when our political leaders felt freer to follow their consciences rather than the agenda of their parties.  Anyone who has seen the recent movie “Lincoln” knows from whence I speak.  The 16th amendment passed, granting freedom to African Americans, because there were those in Congress who were willing to vote their conscience rather than their party.  As a youth I recall reading with wrapped attention John F. Kennedy’s book, PROFILES IN COURAGE, in which he raised up 8 U.S. senators who courageously crossed party lines in order to vote their conscience.

But somewhere along the line, the landscape of American politics changed.  I remember first clearly noting that change while watching President Bill Clinton delivering one of his State of the Union addresses.  As I watched, I noticed that when it came to the applause, the members of Clinton’s party applauded every time.  However, the Republicans only applauded when signaled to do so by their Congressional leadership.  The members of both sides never really chose for themselves but rather they stood by their parties.  Once aware of this, of course I needed to test my theory.  So I would continue to watch State of the Union addresses with this in mind, and sure enough, this held true during the presidency of George Bush with the Democrats reserving their applause only to those times when they received the signal.

What I was witnessing is something that we all already know; that our country has become divided along political party lines.  As a manifestation of that political divide, each of the parties has staked its claim on one side or the other of social issues.  Therefore, if you take one side or the other, you can be accused of lining yourself up with one party or the other.  As things have shaken out, the Democrats tend to be more on the left, and the Republicans more on the right.  So no matter which position we as a faith community take – the more liberal or the more conservative – there will be those who accuse us of engaging in partisan politics.

This situation tends to paralyze American congregations and clergy of all faiths.  They so fear becoming identified with one political party or the other, and therefore risking the loss of their tax exempt status, that they choose to refrain from all Tikkun Olam activities or restrict themselves to only the least controversial, or the non-controversial, such as supporting meal sites and hunger programs.  While these are indeed good works, and should be pursued, that is not nearly enough for faith communities, for if faith communities relinquish their role as the guardians of conscience in our society, then who will pick it up?  Regardless of what faith we profess, our faith calls upon us to be courageous in our efforts to care for and protect all of God’s children.  We must be courageous as the prophets were courageous; we must be outspoken as the prophets were outspoken.  Because there are those who accuse us of being partisan in our politics, that does not grant us license to abandon the demands of our conscience.

We must come to recognize that the problem does not reside in our having become partisan in our politics, for we are not.  As long as we focus our words and actions on the issues and not on the political parties or the individual politicians, we are not engaging in partisan politics.  We are engaging in Tikkun Olam.  Where the problem does reside is to be found in what has happened to our political system, where the party line has drowned out the call of conscience.  And that is partly our fault.  It is our fault in that we no longer demand of our political leaders that they be people of conscience; people who are willing to cross party lines to support what they truly believe in; people who are more interested in advancing the interests of the American people than then interests of their particular political party; people who would qualify for inclusion in John F. Kennedy’s book PROFILES IN COURAGE.  We have the power to make that happen, for we have the power of the vote.  We have the power to tell those who aspire to political leadership that our top priority is that they do the right thing – following the dictates of their conscience – even when it is not the party thing.  Then once again, we will find ourselves living in an American where there can be times when Republicans and Democrats stand together to do the right thing.  When standing on one side or another of an issue will no longer be confused with engaging in partisan politics.

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Evangelizing Jews to Judaism

June 18, 2012

A few years back, I invested myself into reading all 12 volumes of the LEFT BEHIND series; that best selling series of novels built around the beliefs of certain evangelical Christians concerning the future period of time between the “Rapture” – when all truly believing Christians will be physically taken up to heaven – and the Second Coming of Jesus.  I read these books because I felt it important to get inside the minds of the evangelicals.  I felt that we Jews need to know what these people believe, and particularly what they believe about us, especially considering how significantly their influence on American society has increased, not to mention the number of copies of each of those books which were sold, and therefore the large number of people who resonate the the theology expressed in those books.

One of the things that is abundantly clear from these books is their burning passion to evangelize Jews to Christianity.  Indeed, while these books described their desire to bring everyone to their beliefs, when it comes to the Jews, their hunger for our conversion is nothing short of obsessive.

It is in this light that one of the great ironies of our time is that it some of our most ardent allies when it comes to Israel are evangelical Christians .  It is this irony which has ignited many debates in the Jewish world over whether we should embrace these evangelicals as our friends when it comes to Israel – under the rubric of “a friend in need…” or distance ourselves from their support of Israel, in light of their apocalyptic designs for Israel and for us.

For centuries upon centuries, we Jews have been greatly distressed by the attempts of Christians to bring us to Christianity.  Throughout that time, various Christian groups have employed many strategies to “save our souls for Jesus.”  Indeed, throughout most of that time, they turned the political power of their societies against us in pursuit of this goal, attempting to convert us through coercion , persecution, expulsion, and even execution.  Therefore, when put in a historical perspective, the attempts of contemporary American evangelicals to bring Jews to Jesus are pretty innocuous.  Yet their efforts continue to concern us.

I propose that the efforts of these evangelicals constitute little, if any, threat to the American Jewish community.  It is not that the evangelicals are not sincere in their aspirations.  They are most certainly sincere.  Nor is that they are not energetically invested in their efforts, for once again, they are most certainly energetic in their pursuit of our souls.  Rather, they pose little threat to us because of the nature of the American Jewish community itself.

For the evangelicals to be successful in their conversionary tactics, their Jewish targets must possess some basic desire for a religious expression in their lives.  American Jews need first to be concerned about the well being of their souls before they can start to worry about in what manner can their souls be saved.

Sad to say, the overwhelming majority of my co-religionists do not possess such desires or concerns.  The nature and the well being of their souls is probably one of the last things about which they are worried.  They truly consider themselves Jews, but for them, being Jewish is more of a tribal thing than a spiritual one.  They are Jews, but for all intents and purposes, they are a-religious.  Indeed, even the nature of their tribal affiliation can be vague and tenuous, as is evidenced by their lack of involvement, support, commitment, and knowledge of such tribal organizations and issues as the Jewish Federation and the State of Israel.  They are Jews, but the nature of the thread that binds them to their Jewishness is thin and frail, and when it comes to spiritual matters, it is practically non-existent.

Case in point:  For the last several years I have joined with my evangelical neighbors in their “Night to Honor Israel” programs.  I figure that if I can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my Roman Catholic neighbors in attempts to address the blights of war, poverty and homelessness, in spite of our significant differences over such issues as women’s reproductive rights, then I can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with my evangelical neighbors in our support of the State of Israel, in spite of our differences over several sensitive social issues such as same-sex marriage.  From these “Night to Honor Israel” experiences I have garnered three interesting insights:  1) That there are evangelicals and then there are evangelicals.  There are those evangelicals whose faith compels them to save the souls of the Jews by bringing them to Jesus, and then there are those evangelicals whose faith instructs them that of all the people on the face of the earth, the only ones that do NOT need to be brought to Jesus are the Jewish people, for the Jews are the people of Jesus and most beloved in the eyes of God.  2) That the commitment of these evangelicals for the survival and well being of Israel is indeed profound; more profound than that of far too many American Jews, and 3) That when at these events, as we all talk about our commitment to Israel, while the evangelical speakers address their commitment to Israel in religious terms, often quoting the Hebrew Scriptures not just for illustrative purposes but rather as absolute proof texts, the Jewish speakers invariably frame their remarks in terms of Jewish history and Jewish peoplehood and rarely, if ever, mention God and scripture.   For these Evangelicals there is an eternal and indestructible relationship between the State of Israel and God.  Ironically, for the Jewish speakers there seems to be little if any connection between Israel and God.  Spirituality does not seem to play much of a role in this matter, or in any matter, for so many of our Jews.

So the evangelical Christians can try as they may to bring Jews to Jesus but they are plowing and sowing their seeds in infertile soil.  In presenting their case to such Jews, they might as well be speaking in tongues for these folks possess little, if any, spiritual vocabulary and perhaps even less of a sense of spiritual connectedness.

But this is not necessarily all bad news.  While we need not worry about our co-religionists being evangelized to Christianity, we should be seriously considering how we, as a RELIGIOUS community, can more effectively evangelize our fellow Jews to Judaism.  After all, while the threads that bind them to Judaism are thin and frail, they still exist.  There is something within them that helps them to see their Jewish identity as something important enough not to let go of it.  Right now, it may not be important enough to play an on-going role in their lives; it may be something buried deep within the background of their consciousness, but still something is there.  It has not disappeared all together.

This is where the synagogue comes in.  For the synagogue is the Jewish RELIGIOUS institution.  Though one of the roles of a synagogue is a communal one, that of being a “Beit Keneset,” a House of Jewish Assembly, we are NOT just a Jewish community center.  We are NOT just some sort of Jewish ethnic society.  We are far more than that.  We are a “Beit Tefilah,” a House of Jewish Worship, and a “Beit Sefer,” a House of Jewish Study.  Our primary mission is a spiritual one.  It is to promote Jewish spirituality; to empower and enable our members to connect with God in very Jewish ways.  To that end, our secondary mission is an educational one.  It is to provide opportunities for Jewish learning so that our people can have access to the tools necessary to accomplish our primary mission.  As far as Jewish communal activities are concerned, they are but our tertiary mission.  The Jewish community WE build is suppose to be built around our shared spiritual values.  It is the function of Jewish Federations to build a Jewish community around our shared ethnic values.  In the synagogue, we are supposed to be coming together as a community to enhance our worship and study experiences; to find ourselves drawing closer to God in a both a personal and communal way through prayer, study, and the performance of mitzvot, both ritual and ethical.  Back when I was growing up, the organization, Religion in American Life, used to run TV ads stating, “The Family the Prays Together Stays Together.”  It is in that way that a synagogue is one big family.  We need to pray together if we are to stay together.

Therefore, the mission of every synagogue is and should be to evangelize Jews to Judaism; to build upon the tenuous connection that most Jews have to their Judaism; to strengthen and enrich those bonds in powerful spiritual ways.  It is our responsibility to enable our people to evolve Jewishly; to take them from identifying themselves as Jews by birth to a place where they will identify themselves as Jewish by choice; to help them to come to appreciate that being Jewish is meant to be more than a mere accident – something we are stuck with – but rather it can be something that positively impacts upon our lives on a daily basis.

The other day I was looking through a book entitled THE ROSH HASHANAH AND YOM KIPPUR SURVIVAL KIT.  It is one of a growing genre of books aimed at Jews who get little or nothing out of their Judaism.  Such books operate under the assumption that Jews think doing things Jewish is a waste.  In fact, a few years ago, the Wednesday morning book group in my synagogue studied such a book whose title says it all.  That title: “HOW TO GET MORE OUT OF BEING JEWISH EVEN IF:  A. You are not sure you believe in God, B. You think going to synagogue is a waste of time, C. You think keeping kosher is stupid, D. You hated Hebrew school, or E. All of the above!”  There is no question about who is the target audience for that book!

Anyway, I was looking through this book about making the High Holy Days more meaningful, especially for those Jews who are basically clueless as to what Judaism is all about, and I came upon the author’s analysis of Jewish education.  He stated that Jewish education should be answering the questions, “What,” “How,” and “Why”.  What aspect of Jewish practices are you studying?  How should you observe them?  And why should you observe them?  He then went on to say that traditionally, synagogues and religious schools have focused their efforts on addressing the “What” and the “How” but have failed to adequately address the “Why”.  For example, they teach that on Pesach you hold a Seder.  That is the “What.”  They then go on to teach that when you hold a Seder, you are expected to do A, B, & C.  That is the “How.”  Where they fall down is that they fail to adequately teach, “Why do you hold a Seder?  Why do you eat matzah, charoset, and bitter herbs?  Why do you have a cup for Elijah?”  You get the idea.  There is a failure in teaching the deeper meanings behind the actions.  That, by the way, is why I have always loved being a Reform Jew, for historically, Reform Judaism has instituted many changes in Jewish life in order to pay more attention to the Why.  For example, when I attend traditional Jewish worship services, they being all or primarily in Hebrew, even though my Hebrew skills are of such a level that I can understand the meaning of the prayers being offered, still I walk away feeling empty because I cannot help but think of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the worshipers in those sanctuaries have no more of a grasp on the meaning of those prayers than if those prayers were being offered in Klingon or Martian.  They may love the sound of the Hebrew and the feel of the Hebrew, and even the thrill of being able to “decode” the Hebrew characters of the text, but that is simply the “What” and the “How.”  The “Why” is nowhere to be found in such worship experiences.  Since prayer is speaking to God, how sad it is that they do not even know what it is they are saying!  Reform Judaism on the other hand felt it imperative to introduce praying in the vernacular as well as in Hebrew so that our worshipers can know what they are saying when they are speaking to God.  Our traditional prayers have meaning – deep meaning – and understanding what we are praying – what we are saying to God – that is the all important “Why”.

I share all of this with you because I agree and I disagree with this author.  I agree with his claim that by our better understanding of the meanings of behind religious practices those actions will start to come to life for us; that in order for our rituals to have any vibrancy in our lives, we need to understand their deeper meanings.  It is in such understanding that our rituals possess their great power.  However, where I disagree with the author is in his claim that all of our synagogues and our schools have failed to teach those meanings.  With this, I disagree strongly.  For there are many synagogues and schools in which they are being taught.  We do teach them, and we will continue to teach them.  The problem is not that we do not teach these things but rather that we can teach them till the cows come home, yet all our efforts will be to limited purposes if the vast majority of our people continue to refuse to avail themselves of such education.

This is the real challenge which we face in evangelizing Jews to Judaism.  It is the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.”  Offering classes and programs is not the problem for us.  We can do that.  They can take many shapes and forms.  We are flexible if flexibility truly helps us to meet this need.  But how do we get our people to drink the water from the well of Jewish knowledge?  How do we awaken in them the desire, nevertheless the hunger, to learn more about our faith and our heritage?  They exercise and watch what they eat to safeguard the health of their bodies.  How can we awaken within them the realization that they need to safeguard their spiritual health as well?

I teach a B’nei Mitzvah Family Class.  In anticipation of their special day, every Bar or Bat Mitzvah student and his or her parents are required to attend this 8 session course.  While most groups going through this class are a mix of those who are  synagogue regulars and those who are not, the majority generally are not.  You do not see them at services.  You do not see them in adult education classes.  If you see them at all, it is more likely at social functions.  During these classes, we explore the meanings behind Bar & Bat Mitzvah and related topics such as “What is a mitzvah?” and “What are meanings of the rituals found in the Bar/Bat Mitzvah service?”  Invariably, most of these people find themselves deeply engaged in these sessions.  For these brief moments they come to see their Judaism in ways they have not seen it before, and they find it very meaningful.  The challenge facing our synagogues is how do we build upon this?  How do we engage such people in further Jewish study when there is no gun being held to their head – “Take this class if you want your child to have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah service”?  How do we engage others in such meaningful study?

This is where we need to turn to our synagogue “regulars.”  We do not need to sell them on the power of Jewish worship or on the power of Jewish study.  That truly is preaching to the choir.  For they have already discovered these things.  They come to Shabbat, not because of any requirement but rather because it fulfills them in very special ways.  They attend adult education classes, not because of any requirement, but because the knowledge and the insights they receive from those classes enriches their lives.  They fully know from whence I am speaking.  They know that it is the power of Jewish worship and study which fuels their sense of engagement in this Jewish community.  Indeed, it fuels their sense of engagement in the greater human community.

That makes them our best representatives to the the Jewish people at large.  Rabbis such as myself could deliver this message to our fellow Jews who do not seem to know what these people know – We could deliver it day after day; we could deliver it standing on our heads – and most would react by thinking, “The rabbi is just blowing smoke.  What do you expect a rabbi to say?”  But if they could hear it from their fellow Jews; if these inspired Jews were the ones who went to their fellow Jews and said to them, “Come join me at Shabbat services.  Come with me to this class or that class” and these inspired Jews told them why they find Shabbat services so meaningful; what it is they find so compelling about Jewish learning, then perhaps – just perhaps – what these inspired Jews have to say about these passions of theirs will start to ignite similar passions in their apathetic fellow Jews.

The American Jewish community needs some serious evangelism of its Jews to Judaism.  While we rabbis and cantors can offer to this efforts our knowledge and our expertise, there are no greater evangelicals – no people better suited for this task – than inspired lay people; Jews who love Shabbat; Jews who are thrilled by Jewish study; Jews who revel in their life in the Jewish community.  Jews who understand that their involvement in such Jewish activities does contribute significantly to making them both better Jews and better human beings.  This is their time.  They are the key to the Jewish future.