Archive for the ‘Quad Cities Jewish Community’ category

Bringing the Yahrzeit List to Life

February 29, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snow What?

January 27, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacred Sites

December 9, 2011

Last Shabbat, the Torah portion, “Vayetzei,” included the very famous passage of Jacob’s Ladder.  According to the text, in his flight from the wrath of Esau, his brother, Jacob reached a point at which he could travel no more and decided to spend the night.  So he went to sleep, taking a stone and used it as a pillow.  While asleep he had an amazing dream.  He dreamt that where he slept there was a ladder, with its foundation in the earth and its top reaching heaven.  On this ladder he saw angels, going up and down.  God stood next to him, speaking to him of grand promises for the future. When Jacob awoke he was filled with awe, declaring “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!”  He was certain that this place was none other than the house of God – in Hebrew, Beit El – and the gateway to heaven.  And so he named the site Beit El, or as some may be more familiar with the anglicized version, Beth El.

As I was pre­paring my D’var Torah, pondering how filled with awe Jacob was when he awoke, I found my thoughts drifting to the very concept of sacred sites; places which seem more conducive for spiritual experiences; places which seem to offer a special connection between heaven and earth.  Some might think that humbug but I truly believe that such sites exist.  For example, I know that when I have been privileged to be in Jerusalem, and I have prayed at the Western Wall, I have felt especially connected to God.  I felt that there, for whatever reasons, heaven was more open to receiving my prayers, and that there, for whatever reasons, I was more open to hearing God’s voice and feeling God’s presence.  Don’t ask me to explain why, for I cannot.  I just know beyond a shadow of a doubt that those experiences were real.  I also know that I am not alone in having such experience.  People of faith across the globe have identified hundreds of such sites.  It is to such sites that so many of the faithful make pilgrimage.  Beit El is but one of them.

When it comes to Jacob’s dream of the ladder, the rabbis were quick to note an oddity in the text.  For according to the text, the angels were going up and coming down.  Since angels are believed to reside in heaven, logic would dictate that the angels would be going down and coming up, not the other way around.  As you can imagine, this inconsistency gave rise to countless rabbinic interpretations.  So I wish to add mine to the list.

Perhaps what makes a site sacred is that on it the search for sanctity must start here on earth and reach up toward the heavens.  Only then can that sacred connection descend down the ladder and touch the earth.

If that be the case then we human beings have it within our power to create sacred sites and not just stumble upon them by happenstance, as did Jacob.  Indeed, for millennia we human beings have been engaged in the quest to create such sites; the Jerusalem Temple, Stonehenge, the Ka’ba in Mecca are just some of the more famous ones.  There are countless others, as we continue to create them today.

Not as famous, but potentially as spiritually powerful, can be any church, any mosque, any synagogue.  Indeed, that is why so many synagogues are named Beth El, or as in the case of my own congregation, Emanuel, which is the anglicized version of the Hebrew Imanu El – “God Is With Us.”  Yes, a synagogue can truly become a powerful sacred site.  Within its walls, God can truly be felt to be “with us.”  But, as with the angels and Jacob’s ladder, in order for the sanctity to be realized, it has to begin here on earth, with our reaching upward toward heaven.  Then, and only then, will we begin to feel the effects of heaven reaching downward toward us.

How is this accomplished?  It is accomplished by many individual acts of will.  It is accomplished by each and every one of us actively choosing to make our site a sacred site.  We do so by acts of kavanah – acts of spiritually focused intention.  We do so by consciously deciding that within these walls everything we do or say must be done or said in the service of God.  Before we act, before we speak, we need ask ourselves: How will our words, how will our deeds serve to bring God closer to us and to those around us?  Most certainly, if we dedicate our every word and our every deed to reaching up toward heaven, then heaven will lovingly descend upon us.  Then we, like Jacob will be able to proclaim, “Surely God is in this place!”

Bystanders

October 14, 2011

As most of you know, aside from serving as the rabbi of Temple Emanuel, for as long as I have lived in this community, I also have served on the faculty of the Theology Department at St. Ambrose University; a position I inherited from my predecessor, Rabbi Robert Benjamin, of blessed memory.  At St. Ambrose, I teach one Jewish studies course per semester.  While over the years I have taught many different courses, early on I made the decision to dedicate one semester a year to a course on the Holocaust.  It might interest you to know that the St. Ambrose administration supported, and continues to support, that decision, and one need only look at the heavy enrollment in my Holocaust classes to see that the students support it as well.

Back in rabbinical school, even though my major field of study was Jewish history, I never envisioned myself as any sort of Holocaust scholar.  My scholarly pursuits centered upon the period of Jewish history known as the Second Commonwealth; the time between the Maccabees and the destruction of the Second Temple and the fall of Masada.  I left Holocaust studies to my good friend, Peter Weintraub, who had the great privilege of doing some studying with none other than Eli Wiesel.  Ironically, all these years later, I find myself teaching the Holocaust and being invited to attend scholarly seminars at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum while several years ago, Peter chose to leave the rabbinate in favor of becoming a wealthy man, taking over his family’s very lucrative import-export business.  Life is funny that way.   It never plays out as we think it will.  It twists and turns and takes us to some of the most unexpected places.  So I have found myself living in Iowa, teaching the Holocaust.

There is an interesting thing about teaching a subject on a college level.  The more you teach the subject, the more you yourself learn about it.  It is not long before you start discovering that there are certain aspects of that subject, about which you did not give much thought before, but you come to realize that they happen to be very important.  Often, the public pays little attention to these aspects but you become convinced that it is precisely these aspects that should be receiving a lot of attention.

So it has been with my studying of the Holocaust.  While I could tick off for you a list of Holocaust issues which should receive more of our attention, I won’t.  Rather I want to spend some time this morning focusing on one such issue; the issue which has come to be known as “The Bystanders.”

Who were the Bystanders and why do I think that they are so important?

When most people think about the Holocaust and the groups of people that played a role in the Holocaust, they tend to focus their attention on two main groups, those groups being the “Perpetrators” – the evil Nazis who committed these atrocities – and the “Victims” – the innocent civilians who suffered horribly at the hands of the Nazis.  Indeed, even when it comes to the Victims, most of our attentions are directed toward the 6 million Jews who were slaughtered, while we tend to ignore or minimize the other 3 million non-Jewish victims; the mentally and physically disabled, the Roma – which is the appropriate title for what most people call Gypsies – the homosexuals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Afro-Europeans, the Communists, and the political dissidents.

However, the cast of characters in the Holocaust was more complex than that.  The Holocaust was not just a matter of black-&-white; of bad guys and good guys; of Nazis and Jews.  There were shades of gray as well.  There was a continuum of players that need to be carefully considered.

On the Perpetrators’ side of the continuum, you also had the Collaborators.  These people were not Nazis.  Most of them were not even German.  They were of many nationalities.  Regardless of where they were born or where they lived, they shared a certain affinity with the Nazis, and particularly with the Nazis’ hatred of the Jews.  Therefore, when the Nazis invaded their countries, they did not resist the invaders but chose to actively assist them, particularly in their efforts to exterminate the Jews.  Accounts of the Holocaust are filled with testimonies of how Lithuanian and Ukranian collaborators and guards were even more brutal than the Nazis in their treatment of the victims.  The Arrow Cross, Hungary’s home grown Nazi-like fascists, were notorious for their cruelty.  In almost every occupied country there were those who were all too ready to lend the Nazis a helping hand, or if not a helping hand, at least to take full personal advantage of the suffering state of the victims.

On the Victims’ side of the continuum, you had the Rescuers; to whom Yad VaShem, the Israel Holocaust museum, has bestowed the title, the Righteous Among the Nations.  These people were not members of any of the targeted groups, yet they were driven by the call of their conscience.  Witnessing injustice, they felt impelled to act.  At the very real risk of their lives, they went out of their way to do all they possibly could to protect and save those who the Nazis had marked for imprisonment, suffering, and death.  Some of their names have become well known to us, like Raoul Wallenberg, Oskar Schindler, Miep Gies, Corrie Ten Boom, and Irena Sendler.  There are many whose names are known, but not nearly as well known.  And there are many whose names will never be known because they worked in secret and were caught and executed in secret, or because they worked in secret and never shared their secrets, even after the war.

Still there was another group who played a role in the Holocaust.  In fact, they were the biggest group of all, yet they are the ones we talk about the least.  They were the Bystanders.

The Bystanders were all those people who stood by in Germany and Austria, or during the Nazi occupation of their countries and elected to help neither the Perpetrators nor the Victims.  They were the ones who saw what was happening and chose to do nothing about it.  They watched as their neighbors and fellow countrymen were rounded up and sent away to the ghettos and the camps, or were taken out to the forests and shot.  They watched and said nothing.  They watched and did nothing.  After the war, they would claim innocence.  After all, they did not participate in the persecutions.  They did not lift a hand against the Victims.  But then again, neither did they lift a hand to help them.  “What could I do?” many would claim.  “If I tried to interfere, the Nazis would have punished me and my family.  I was powerless.  My first obligation was to my family and myself.  Sure, I felt bad about what was happening to those people.  It was horrible what they did to them!  But that was their problem, not mine.  I had problems of my own.”

Nor were the Bystanders only to be found under Nazi rule.  There were plenty of Bystanders here in America and in Great Britain as well.  They heard about what the Nazis were doing to their Victims and they kept silent.  They did not call upon their free governments to act; to save.  The entry gates to the United States, Great Britain, and Palestine, all were closed and locked.  The Victims were pleading to have those gates opened, and the American Bystanders and the British Bystanders said nothing; did nothing to help them.  “We’re just coming out of the Depression.  The job market is fragile.  We can’t let all those foreigners in.  They’ll steal our jobs!” were the cries so often heard in defense of doing nothing.  Sad to say, among those Bystanders were many Jews; Jews like you and me.

Were the Bystanders innocent, as they claimed to have been?  No.  Not by a long short.  They may not have lifted their hands to actively help the Perpetrators, but by their very choice to stand by, saying nothing, doing nothing, they in effect enabled the Perpetrators to do their worst.  They could do their worst because they knew that no one was going to stand up to them in opposition.  As Edmund Burke so astutely observed, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  Those Bystanders; most of them were probably good men and women, but they chose to do nothing.

Could they have done something or was their paralyzing fear of the Nazis truly well founded?  Would helping have without question or doubt resulted in their destruction?  While many would say yes, one need look no further for another model than to countries like Denmark and Italy.  For in such countries, there were to be found enough good people who chose NOT to do nothing that a majority of the targeted Victims were in fact saved.  Practically the entire Jewish population of Denmark was saved because the Danish people chose to do something, and not nothing.  In Italy, 80% of the Jews survived because there were so many Italians who chose to do something, and not nothing.  In such countries, those who could have been Bystanders chose not to stand by, and in so choosing made all the difference in the world; and in so choosing, proved themselves to be beacons of justice and right and good.

Of all the players on the stage of the Holocaust, it is the Bystanders who have the most to say to us today.  And what they say is, “Don’t become like us!  Don’t carry on your souls, the sins we carry on ours!”

When my St. Ambrose students and I discuss the Bystanders, not all of them but many of them, perhaps most of them, are quick to declare that they could never have been a Bystander.  Indeed, they proclaim that they cannot fathom how anyone could have stood by and done nothing.  If they were there, they most certainly would have done something!  They claim that, but then I ask them, “Tell me.  What have you done to feed the hungry in our own community?  What have you done to help the homeless?  What did you do about the genocide that was taking place in Darfur?  What are you doing about the starving multitudes in Somalia and East Africa?  Did you ever see someone being bullied in school, whether it be this school or back when you were in high school?  What did you do to stop it?  What have you done to help stop human trafficking?  Do you even know what human trafficking is?  Have you ever actively protested against discrimination directed at homosexuals or people of color?  What have you done in response to ads – especially political ads – which demonize Muslims and immigrants, whether legal or undocumented?  What have you done to stand up against those states which have enacted laws permitting the profiling of certain groups of citizens, making them vulnerable to increased scrutiny and intolerable treatment?”  These questions most of them cannot comfortably answer, for while they talk about standing up, in reality they more often than not choose to stand by.

Now my students at St. Ambrose are not evil people.  They are part of Edmund Burke’s good people.  Nor are they alone, for they have plenty of company.  And in that company, if we are honest with ourselves, most of us can be numbered.

We consider ourselves to be good people, but still, when we hear or we read in the news about all those people in this world that are suffering, whether they are being denied food or clothing or shelter or equality or freedom, or even their lives, we may feel sorry for them, but how often do we do something to actually help them?  Their plight might be tragic, but they are so far away.  Their world is not our world, so it is easy for us to ignore them or forget them.  And there are so many of them, we cannot help them all.  There are so many problems out there.  It is beyond our ability to solve them all.  So we wind up convincing ourselves that since we cannot help them all, we need not help any of them; since we cannot begin to solve all those problems, we need not contribute to solving any of them.  We just need to get on with our lives.  It is tragic what is happening to them but we have our own problems.  Sound familiar?  It should.  For we have become the Bystanders.

Now wait a minute, Rabbi?  How can you compare us to all those people who passively stood by and watched as 9 million innocent souls perished at the hands of the Perpetrators of the Holocaust?  Well, perhaps you did not hear what I said during my Hunger Appeal on Rosh Hashanah.  There are 12 million innocent souls in East Africa, right now – not 70 years ago – who are in very real danger of perishing from starvation, and what have we done?  How much have we done?  Can we do more?  Or will we choose to go “tsk, tsk!” and then put it out of our minds.  East Africa is thousands of miles from the Quad Cities.

In the streets of Syria, people are being gunned downed by soldiers simply because they wish to protest in the name of freedom.  I know that the Syrians are not our friends, and as hostile as the current Syrian government is to Israel and the Jewish people, if a new government arises, there is a good chance that it may even prove to be more hostile.  But still, people should have a right to express their hunger for freedom.  It should not have to cost them their lives.  But what have we done in their defense?  We have watched it on the news and read about it in the papers and have done nothing.

On the very borders of our country, there are those who are desperate to flee from a life of poverty and deprivation.  They yearn to grasp the promise that has always been America’s promise.  The very same promise that brought our own ancestors to the shores of this country.  But in response to their aspirations, we build fences to keep them out, send out patrols to drive them back, and establish laws which enable the authorities to stop any Latino looking person on the street and arrest them if they cannot adequately prove that they are citizens of this great republic.  And what do we do about it.  We do little if anything to stop it, and there are those of us who encourage it and want it to increase.

It is true that as individuals, we cannot solve all the problems of the world.  By ourselves, we cannot eradicate poverty or disease or injustice.  But that in no way permits us to do nothing.  In PIRKE AVOT, Rabbi Tarfon is quoted as saying, “Lo Alecha Hamlacha Ligmor, V’lo Atah Ben Horeen L’hibatayl Mimena – While you are not required to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.”  In other words, we may not be able to do everything, but we ought to do something, for something is far better than nothing.  And you know, if I do a little something, and each of you do a little something, and our friends and neighbors decide to join us and do a little something, the next thing you know, we are Denmark!  For we have come together, each of us doing our little something, which when you put it all together adds up to something great.  The world can change – dramatically change for the better – if we but choose to stand up instead of stand by.  In a moral universe – and I would hope that you would join me in wanting to create a moral universe – there is simply no room for bystanders.

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

October 12, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 8

July 18, 2011

In my first installment in this series, I spoke about merger discussions which were going on at the time between my congregation and a local independent pseudo-traditional congregation which withdrew from the Conservative movement several years ago.  At that time I stated that since I had addressed my institutional reasons for why the resulting congregation should affiliate with the Reform movement in my answer to one of the questions in the Merger Task Force’s rabbinic questionnaire, therefore in this series, I would restrict my focus to my personal ideological reasons for my love of and commitment to Reform Judaism.  However, as I now conclude this series, I wish to remove that self-imposed restriction and revisit why I feel so strongly about my congregation’s connection to the institutions and organizations of Reform Judaism.

While ideology, practice, culture, all are important, they do not exist in a vacuum.  They do not spring up overnight, born of thin air.  Rather they are the product of like-minded people coming together and investing their time, energy, thoughts, and emotions into formulating these ideologies, establishing these practices, and creating this culture.  That is precisely what has been, and continues to be, accomplished by the institutional branches of the Reform movement – the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ – formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations), the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the American Conference of Cantors (ACC), the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR),  the National Association of Temple Educators (NATE), the National Association of Temple Administrators (NATA), the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ – formerly the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods), Men of Reform Judaism (MRJ – formerly the National Federation of Temple Brotherhoods), and the National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY).  It is because of the work of these organizations that the ideals of Reform Judaism have been translated from thought into action; from dream into reality.  It has been through the organizations of Reform Judaism that our ideology has been given substance.

As a Reform rabbi, I probably am more conscious of this fact than many congregants, for throughout my career I have had the privilege of being on the “front lines,” participating in my own small way as so many of the principles of Reform Judaism have transitioned from discussion topics to Reform Judaism’s operative doctrines.  I was ordained with the second woman rabbi, in the same ceremony in which the first woman cantor was invested.  Indeed, at ordination, I walked down the aisle with the second woman rabbi.  My wife/cantor and I were the first clergy couple to meet and fall in love at the Hebrew Union College.  Today women rabbis and cantors, as well as Jewish clergy couples, abound.  I was there at the CCAR conventions when the principle of Patrilineal Descent was first proposed, then submitted to a task force for study, later to have that task force report on its findings, and then finally to have the body debate and vote this doctrine into being.  I, along with several of my congregants, was at the plenary session of the then Union of American Hebrew Congregations, as we considered and ultimately approved resolutions calling upon our congregations to be open, welcoming, and fully inclusive to all Jews regardless of sexual orientation.  Then later I was there when the Central Conference of American Rabbis voted to accept gay and lesbian rabbis, and later still, to support rabbinic officiation at same sex marriages.  These, and so many other significant issues were seriously studied and debated before they were voted on and established as Reform Jewish standards.  Today, so many of these ideals are considered as matter of fact on the liberal Jewish scene, but they would not exist today had it not been for the formal efforts of the institutions of Reform Judaism to give them birth and establish them as fixtures of contemporary Jewish life.  Others may have come along later and adopted them for themselves but there is a fundamental difference between adopting a principle and establishing one.  It is likewise fundamentally true that those who establish principles will continue to work to establish new principles while those who merely adopt the work and ideology of others will only continue to adopt the work and ideology of others, drawing from the well but never adding to the pot; never building for the future.  The institutions of Reform Judaism build for the future.

While establishing ideological principles is an important part of the work of the organizations of Reform Judaism, it is not the sum total of what they do.  There is so much they do which is practical and hands on for our congregations and their members, and for other Jews as well.  In my own congregation, one of the clearest examples of this is to be found in the Reform movement’s creation of the Chai Curriculum and its support materials, which is the curriculum which we have been using in our Joint Religious School.  The students from my congregation, as well as the students from the unaffiliated congregation, are receiving an excellent Jewish education as a direct result of the efforts of the Education Department of the Union for Reform Judaism.  Along with the Chai Curriculum, my religious school has greatly benefited from the counsel and expertise of educational consultants whose services have been provided to us by the URJ, free of charge.  Then there are the camps.  Over the years, so many of our children have greatly benefited from the excellent Jewish summer camp experiences which are to be found in the network of our movement’s Reform Jewish summer camps.  Likewise, there have been young people in my congregation whose knowledge of and commitment to the State of Israel are a direct result of their have gone on wonderful youth trips to Israel sponsored by NFTY.

However, do not think that belonging to the URJ only benefits the children.  It benefits the adults of a congregation as well as the congregation as a whole.  Educational consulting is only one of the consultation opportunities which is provided by the URJ.  On several occasions my Board of Trustees has benefited greatly from synagogue leadership workshops conducted by URJ staff members.  We have sought their counsel on financial matters, fund raising matters, administrative matters, and even on the subject of possible merger – something from which the members of the other local congregation also benefited.  The URJ also offers a host of materials to enhance adult education programs and worship.  Indeed, throughout most of the 150 year history of my congregation, whichever prayer book we used in our worship, it was a prayer book produced by the Reform movement.  Then there are the URJ’s online resources.  Congregants can participate in online adult education through such programs as “Ten Minutes of Torah.”  Our movement also provides online discussion groups for those interested in various aspects of Reform Jewish living.  If you wish to discuss worship practices, you can be a member of IWorship.  If you wish to discuss the particular issues that confront small congregations, you can be a member of Smalltalk.  An invaluable tool for every synagogue president in our movement is the discussion group Presconf.  Personally, I have derived great benefit from participating in the discussion groups for Reform rabbis (Ravkav) and HUC alumni (Hucalum).

Nor do the offerings of our movement end here.  Of course there are our affiliate organizations, such as the Women of Reform Judaism (of which my congregation’s Sisterhood is one of the founding members), Men of Reform Judaism, and NFTY (which has provided our community with regional and national youth group experiences for high school students from both of our local congregations).  Then there are the URJ’s subsidiary organizations such as the Hebrew Union College, the Religious Action Center (RAC), and ARZA.  The Hebrew Union College trains our rabbis, our cantors, and our educators so that they are not only highly educated Jewish professional but highly educated Reform Jewish professional, who are committed to Reform Jewish principles.  It is through the RAC that so many of the Tikkun Olam activities of our congregations originate and are coordinated.  Make no mistake about it!  It is due to efforts of the RAC that when it comes to Tikkun Olam activities on the American Jewish scene, it is Reform Judaism which is the unchallenged leader.  ARZA is the body which connects our movement to Israel and advocates for Reform Judaism in Israel.

As a result of all of this, it is the formal structures of our movement which weave our individual congregations into a powerful Reform Jewish family.  It is through this network of connections which we share with other Reform congregations that we draw strength, sustenance, and identity.  Others may imitate us but in the end, without these connections, they will always remain mere imitations; never the real deal!

Daily Dayenu

May 10, 2011

At this year’s Congregational Seder, while we were singing and reciting “Dayenu,” I could not help but be struck by the spiritual confluence of 3 events which took place within the last few months:  my surgery and subsequent illness, my congregation’s celebration of its 150th anniversary, and Passover.

The message of the “Dayenu” is summed up by its title, for the translation of dayenu is “It would have been enough for us.”  The text takes us through the story of the Exodus and breaks it down into each of the blessings our people experienced in the course of that event.  Recounting each of those blessings, we respond by saying “Dayenu!” – if this had been the only blessing which we experienced then “it would have been enough for us.”  But of course, each of those blessings was not the only one from which our people benefited.  The story of the Exodus is one of blessing upon blessing upon blessing.  However, even as we retell the story, we seem to take those manifold blessings for granted.  Therefore the task of “Dayenu” is to recount each individual blessing, and in so doing, reveal to us the magnificent tapestry of blessings which constitute the true miracle of Passover.

The Exodus was not the only time when we have experienced blessing upon blessing upon blessing.  More often than we appreciate, our lives are a tapestry of blessings.  We live among miracles but do not always recognize them.  This brings me back to my congregation’s 150th anniversary and to my recent illness.

The fact that Temple Emanuel of Davenport, Iowa has survived and prospered for 150 years is the direct result of a long chain of blessings.  There have been so many dayenu moments in the history of our congregation and there have been so many dayenu people – both laity and clergy – who have made that history and our very existence possible.  Each of these moments and each of these people was a special gift – a blessing – for our congregation.  Each one brought to us their own brand of miracle.  Indeed, it was their collective miracles which made us the congregation we are today.  But whether or not we realize it, the blessings and the miracles continue today.  They are to be found in so many of the people who give and do so much and who labor to keep our congregation alive, vibrant and meaningful.  These are our current dayenu people and they are busy continuing to create our dayenu moments.

As for my illness, it has awakened within me a sense of the dayenu in the course of daily living.  There is an old joke about a doctor coming out of surgery, informing the family that the operation was successful but the patient died.  These days I resonate with that joke for my surgery was successful but I almost died from  post surgical blood clots.  Indeed, I would be dead today had it not been for my coincidentally going to the Mayo Clinic for my 6-week post surgical follow-up.  After experiencing my symptoms and being instructed by the physician’s assistant in my pulmonologist’s office that all I needed to do was depend more on my asthma medications, it was the doctors at the Mayo Clinic who quickly picked up on the seriousness of my life threatening condition and hospitalized me.  There is nothing like a near death experience to help one to appreciate the fragility and impermanence of our lives!  We tend to live our lives as if there will always be a tomorrow when the harsh reality is that there is no guarantee that there will be a tomorrow.  Today – this very moment – may be all that we have left.  If we find ourselves awakening in the morning, we should recognize that we have been blessed with the gift of another day.  In fact, in our Jewish tradition, there is a prayer we are supposed to offer upon awakening – “Modeh ani lifanecha, Melech chai v’kayam, shehechezarta bi nishmati b’chemla.  Rabbah emunatecha – I give thanks before You, everlasting Sovereign, for You have returned my soul to me.  Great is Your faithfulness.”  Every morning is a dayenu moment.  Life is far shorter than we choose to believe.  All our moments are precious, for any one of them could be our last.  It is up to us to choose whether we treasure them – whether we embrace them with the appreciation of a dayenu – or we squander them.  Likewise, when it comes to illness and the other trying times in our lives, we are quick to discover who are our dayenu people; who are those people whose concern and caring bring into our darkest moments the brilliant miracle of a healing of the spirit.  There are too many people who we take for granted; too many people who we think of in terms of “What have you done for me lately.”  Yet the fact that they populate our lives and fill it with their love and concern, and their eager willingness to help and comfort, is most certainly deserving of a heartfelt dayenu; a dayenu for each and every one of them.  They each are a blessing which we should never take for granted.

May each and every one of us come to appreciate the dayenu moments and the dayenu people in our lives!

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 5

December 29, 2010






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

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

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

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

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

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 3

December 3, 2010






In part two of this article, I addressed Reform Judaism’s openness to change, as long as change serves to enhance our connection to our people, our faith, and our God.  Toward the end of that section, I discussed the thoughts of the 20th century Jewish theologian, Franz Rosenzweig, concerning the Reform Jewish approach to the mitzvot; an approach, on a mitzvah-by-mitzvah, person-by-person basis, of continual re-evaluation of their meaning and their value in our lives.

Hand-in-hand with Reform Judaism’s openness to change, and particularly with the “Rosenzweigian” concept of our personally reassessing the role of individual mitzvot in our lives, we encounter another fundamental concept of Reform Judaism – the principle of Personal Autonomy.  According to this principle, each Reform Jew is free to choose for him or herself which mitzvot add meaning to their Jewish lives and which do not; which mitzvot they choose to observe and which they wish to set aside.  While critics of Reform Judaism claim that Personal Autonomy is just an escape clause permitting Reform Jews to be lazy or negligent in their Jewish observances, actually it calls upon us to be all the more diligent about our spiritual lives; to be engaged in a constant search for those Jewish religious activities which spark and heighten our spiritual awareness.

To better appreciate the importance of Personal Autonomy for the Reform Jew, one needs to understand the Reform approach to revelation and Torah, and particularly in how it differs from that of traditional Judaism.

Simply understood, revelation is communication from God to human beings.  While both Reform and traditional Judaism believe in revelation – that God has and does communicate with us – we differ dramatically on the nature of that revelation; the process of that communication.  For traditional Judaism, revelation is simple communication from God.  When the Torah states that “God spoke,” traditional Judaism literally believes that God spoke; that God communicated in words.  Therefore in traditional Judaism, the Torah, which is God’s primary vehicle of revelation to the Jewish people, was given by God to the Jewish people, at Mt. Sinai, word-for-word; that every word found in the Torah is the actual spoken word of God.   In the Reform Judaism, revelation is complex communication from God.  Unlike traditional Judaism, Reform Judaism does not believe that God’s communications are limited to the narrow span of human language.  Human language is too inexact for God.  It is easily misunderstood and often important nuances are lost in its transmission.  Every human being has at one time or another experienced not being able to find the right words to adequately express their thoughts and feelings.  Every human being has at one time or another experienced trying to tell others what is on their mind and in their heart, only to have some walk away from that encounter with an understanding extraordinarily different from their intended communication.  Therefore, Reform Judaism believes that God, being God, would resort to a form of communication more precise than mere speech.  For lack of a better term, one might say that God communicates telepathically.  God implants not just words but also ideas, feelings and images in the mind of those privileged enough to receive revelation.  Perhaps this is what is meant when we read in Hebrew scriptures that this prophet or that prophet were “filled with the spirit of God.”

Of course, once a person receives such a revelation, in order for them to share it with others they are faced with the problem of how do they communicate such a complex message?  Unlike God, the recipient of the revelation, being a human being, is basically limited to communicating through language.  In doing so, what ultimately gets communicated to others is not the totality of the direct communication from God but rather that individual’s interpretation of God’s message.  I once had a teacher who compared this process of revelation to the transmission of light.  When white light travels through a pane of glass, it comes out on the other side as white light.  That is just like the word-for-word concept of revelation held by traditional Judaism.  However, when white light travels through a prism, it comes out on the other side, not as white light, but as a spectrum of light – a rainbow if you will.  What the prism does is “interpret” the white light into its component colors.  That is just like the telepathic concept of revelation held by Reform Judaism.  The challenge for the rest of us, according to the Reform understanding of revelation, is to work our way through that interpretation, reconstructing it in such a way as to find at least glimmers of God’s original message; to seek out glimpses of white light within the spectrum.  How do we accomplish that?  Or more to the point, how do we know when we accomplish that?  It is when we feel God’s presence.  When we come across something that somehow or other makes us feel more connected to God.

It is in that search to rediscover God’s presence in transmitted/interpreted revelation that the principle of Personal Autonomy becomes essential for us.  For each and every Reform Jew has to have the freedom to choose for him or herself where they personally find God; where they personally hear God speaking to them; where they witness the “white light” of God’s presence.  In our personal quests to find God’s presence in our lives, each and every individual mitzvah serves as an opportunity to encounter God.  As we explore each and every mitzvah sometimes we will find God present within them and sometimes not.  There will be those Reform Jews who find God present in certain mitzvot, while other Reform Jews fail to find God there, but find God in other mitzvot instead, and that is perfectly all right.  The important thing for each Reform Jew is not observing “the mitzvot” but rather observing the particular mitzvot which somehow or other draw us closer to God, for in the end the most important thing is drawing closer to God.

This principle of Personal Autonomy creates for the possibility of all sorts of permutations and combinations when it comes to mitzvah observance.  In part one of this article I shared how I wanted to wear a talit and a kipah for my Bar Mitzvah while my father did not wish me to wear either, and how we ultimately compromised with my wearing the talit but not the kipah.  In traditional Judaism, such a compromise would be totally unacceptable.  Indeed, if a male was to attempt to bless the Torah without wearing both, it would be scandalous.  Yet the choice of wearing neither or both, or one or the other is perfectly in keeping within a Reform Jewish framework precisely because of the principle of Personal Autonomy.  Indeed, my Bar Mitzvah experience would echo within my rabbinate.  When I began to serve my previous congregation, the chair of the Ritual Committee insisted that a talit and a kipah be available on the bimah, and that anyone who was called to bless the Torah be required to wear them if they were not already wearing their own.  I successfully challenged that practice on the grounds that as a Reform congregation, each and every person called to bless the Torah must be permitted the freedom to choose whether or not they wished to wear either, neither, one or the other, and whether they wished to bless the Torah in Hebrew or in English.  For when we deny our people such personal choices, we stop being a Reform congregation.  It is precisely this freedom of Personal Autonomy that we witness at every Reform worship service where one will see some worshipers – women as well as men – wearing kipot, and others not.

Several years ago, I made a public statement in our community about Reform Judaism and Personal Autonomy which set off a firestorm of controversy, especially among some of the more traditional Jews.  I said that within this principle of Personal Autonomy, it would be considered completely appropriate for a Reform Jew to take up the mitzvah of wearing a kipah on a daily basis yet choose not to observe in any manner, shape or form, the laws of Kashrut; the Jewish dietary laws.  Therefore such a Jew could conceivably wear a kipah while eating treif (non-kosher) food in public.  As difficult as this image is for some Jews to grasp, it truly is a litmus test as to whether or not one is able to accept the Reform principle of Personal Autonomy.  It may not be Judaism as some people choose to follow it, but within the Reform Jewish framework, if we truly believe in Personal Autonomy – that every Jew has the freedom and the right to select which mitzvot they will choose to observe, on a mitzvah by mitzvah basis, – then we must permit other Jews to be free to make such choices.  Just as other Jews cannot impose their mitzvah priorities upon us, so are we prohibited from imposing our mitzvah priorities upon others.

All of this is not to say that the principle of Personal Autonomy is not without its difficulties and its challenges, for they most certainly do exist.

First among them is the question of whether or not it is truly a matter of anything goes?  The answer is no.  There are limits to Personal Autonomy.  However, those limits are wide, providing as much space for personal freedom as possible.  Basically put, those limits are the limits of Judaism itself.  There are lines which one can cross which would take them out of the realm of Judaism.  The principle of Personal Autonomy does not permit us to cross those lines.  So, for example, once cannot accept a belief in Jesus as the Messiah as a matter of Personal Autonomy and remain a Reform Jew.  For if one accepts Jesus as the Messiah, by so doing, they have left Judaism and entered Christianity.

Then there is the more challenging difficulty when the principle of Personal Autonomy comes into conflict with communal Jewish living.  The principle of Personal Autonomy has the potential of generating tremendous diversity within a Reform synagogue.  Yet as a synagogue, there are many things which we are meant to do communally, such as worship.  One of the greatest challenges facing Reform synagogues today is how do we respect that diversity yet effectively bridge the gaps it creates so that we can indeed come together as a community?  This is no easy task.  Yet all things considered, as a Reform Jew I would rather struggle with this challenge than surrender the freedom of personal spiritual search in order to impose some sort of cookie cutter communal Jewish existence.  Protecting the principle of Personal Autonomy is worth every effort expended in bridging such gaps.

In the next part, I will discuss how and why Reform Judaism and Reform Jewish theology has altered the very nature of the Jewish worship service.

Terrorism Today: Up Close and Personal

November 8, 2010

In August of 1970, at Kennedy Airport in New York, I boarded a plane headed for Israel.  I was not alone.  There were about 60 other young men, some with wives, who boarded that plane with me.  All of us were headed to Jerusalem, where we would be the first full class of rabbinic students from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion who would spend their entire first year of study in Israel.  With us as well was a handful of upper classmen who had taken it upon themselves to enhance their own rabbinic studies by spending a year in Israel.

Two of the young men aboard that flight were Lawrence Edwards and Michael Zedek.  After the year in Israel, Larry would be among those who joined me in continuing our rabbinic studies at the New York campus.  After ordination we lost touch with each other until the summer of 2008, when we found ourselves together again in Washington, D.C.; the only rabbis invited to participate in a week-long seminar hosted by the Church Relations Department of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  It was a great feeling to renew our old ties.  Michael was one of those upper classmen I spoke about.  Sunday afternoons in Jerusalem usually found me in the school library, struggling with researching a major theology paper upon which a significant part of my future as a student in the school would hang.  On one such afternoon, I felt the need to have my work reviewed by a neutral but informed party.  I looked around the room in search of one of those upper classmen, and there was Michael.  Up until then, our relationship had been cordial.  Yet in the course of that afternoon it evolved from cordial to friendship. While after Israel, Michael would return to his studies in Cincinnati, our friendship would continue and flourish.

Considering my ties to both of these men, one can imagine how taken aback I was when I read the news of the recent Yemenite terrorist plot to send a mail bomb to a Chicago synagogue, only to learn that the rabbi of the targeted congregation is none other than Rabbi Larry Edwards, and that his congregation, which has no home of its own, is hosted by a larger congregation whose rabbi is none other than Rabbi Michael Zedek.  All this is only compounded by the fact that this might very well be the first time pro-Palestinian terrorists have targeted a Midwest synagogue, nevertheless one that is a mere two and a half hours away from my home.

For many years, I have been one of those who have taken the threat of terrorism to Jewish institutions very seriously.  I believe that there are forces out there that truly have it in for the Jews and that as a result, Jews and Jewish institutions find themselves more at risk than others.  It has been 11 years since the infamous “Summer of Hate” (1999), which saw a string of hate crimes perpetrated by members of white “Christian” supremacist groups, many of them directed against Jews and Jewish institutions.  Much to my chagrin, for the most part, too many of my fellow Jews have chosen to forget that threat.  It was during those days that my own congregation instituted the practice of engaging off duty police officers to patrol our grounds whenever we held a worship service or our religious school was in session.  Now, every so often, we hear voices raised, questioning the need for such protection.  Indeed, there have been times of late when I feel as though there are those who now perceived of me as an alarmist and perhaps somewhat of a crackpot, if not worse, whenever I speak of such dangerous possibilities.  Even when I point out last year’s attempted bombings of two synagogues in Riverdale, New York, the failed Times Square bombing, and the murder of the security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by a white supremacist, not to mention the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India of two years ago which included a Chabad center as one of their targets, I am met with the dismissive responses of, “But that could never happen here.  They would never do that to us.”

So often have my concerns been minimized that I have not been able to help but wonder myself whether or not I have gone somewhat over the top on this issue.  But just when I find myself struggling with my own self doubt, there is an account in the news of another attempt to do mayhem to a Jewish institution by those who hate us, with the recent news of the terrorist attempt, so close to my home, targeting the Chicago congregations served by two of my old friends being just one more example.  In this latest attempted attack, the intended victims are not strangers in some distant city.  They are friends who live and work just down the road from where I live.  Indeed the issue of terrorism and Jew hatred has not been as up close & personal for me since 1993 when Neo-Nazis, in response to the release of the film “Schindler’s List.” sent post cards to my congregation, the local Jewish Federation, the Davenport police and the FBI, threatening to blow up both my home and my synagogue, along with the offices of the Jewish Federation.

I suspect that my friends Larry Edwards and Michael Zedek, and their congregations, never seriously believed that their congregations would be the targets of a terrorist attack.  I am sure that while they entertained the possibility, still they felt that the odds were greatly against it.  That is normal.  In fact, that is how I feel.  While I entertain the possibility that my congregation and the other institutions of my Jewish community someday might be targeted by those who hate Jews, still I believe that the odds are greatly against it.  That being said, that chance – that possibility – no matter how remote, still exists.  It is that possibility, no matter how slight, which should inform the decisions and actions of every synagogue and Jewish institution.  While it should not paralyze us Jews with fear, it should motivate all Jews to take such dangers seriously enough so that we take wise steps to prevent them.  For while as Jews, we should not live in fear, neither should we bury our heads in the sand, denying the possibilities of dangers which may confront us.  In all of this, the Jewish attitude should be “hope for the best but prepare for the worst.”  That is the prudent course to take.  That is the responsible course to take.  For if Jewish institutions choose the path of inaction – the path of failing to defend our people either because of a refusal to accept the possible danger, or worse yet, because considering the odds, they do not wish to incur such expenses – then God forbid, should some ill befall such a Jewish institution, bringing injury and perhaps even death in its wake, then some of the burden of guilt will rest upon the shoulders of those who chose to ignore the possibility of danger as well as upon those of the attackers.

It is a sad thing to have to admit that even though we now live in the 21st century, there is still too much truth to the old Yiddish expression, “Schwer zu zein ein Yid! – It is difficult to be a Jew!”