Archive for the ‘Separation of Church and State’ category

One Jew Reflecting Upon Christmas

December 29, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

The Rabbi Sat on Santa’s Lap

December 22, 2012

Well, it is that time of year again; that time when we Jews, more than any other time of the year, can feel like outsiders in our own society – like children, faces pressed against the window glass of a toy store, gazing in at all the wonder but unable to enter ourselves.
Christmas is seen as such an “American” holiday that there are times when it can even lead us, who do not celebrate Christmas, to questioning the authenticity of our own American identity.  Are we less American because we do not take on the trappings of Christmas; the trees, the lights, and the presents?
There was a time, and it was not that long ago, when American Jews were far more insecure about their place in American society than we are now.  So much so that many felt the need to take on those Christmas trapping not only so that we could feel more comfortable at this time of year, but also so that we could feel that we were being more accepted by our non-Jewish neighbors.  I remember that time very well, for while it started almost as soon as we arrived on these shores, it included the time of my childhood; the ‘50’s & the early ‘60’s.
I grew up in New York City, which, especially in those years, was heavily Jewish in population.  In my public school, over 90% of the students and the faculty were Jews.  On Jewish holidays, hardly anyone was in school, while on Christian holidays, when the school was open, it was business as usual.  Indeed we Jewish students used to resent the fact that when we were off for our holidays, our Christian classmates basically spent their school time playing instead of studying, while, when we are in school during their holidays, we worked.  Yet in spite of the numbers being so heavily in favor of the Jews, we had our Christmas programs, in which primarily Jewish teachers taught primarily Jewish students, how to sing and play Christmas songs – including some very religious Christmas songs – in order to perform them for an audience which was primarily made up of Jewish parents.  No one challenged all this on the grounds of Separation of Church and State because the underlying assumption was that Christmas is an American holiday which all Americans are expected to celebrate.
That assumption did not end at the doors of the school building.  It found its way into many Jewish homes as well.  Mine was one of them.
Yes, your rabbi grew up with Christmas.  In our home we had a tree and some Christmas decorations.  I remember most vividly that in our living room window we placed an electrically powered moving model of Santa in his sleigh being pulled by his reindeer, as the reindeer and the sleigh rocked back and forth.  And yes, on Christmas morning, there were presents awaiting my sister and me under the tree.  As far as lights on the house were concerned, there were not many – just a string of blue Christmas lights framing our front door.  After all, you have to draw a line somewhere.  I think it is a cultural thing, for even Jews who seek to celebrate Christmas find it a bissel meshugah to climb around the outside of your house, from roof to lawn, in the winter’s cold, in order to string festive lights.  That is why, as Jews, for centuries, in our celebration of Hanukkah we only have placed the menorah in the window and left it as that.  And yes, your rabbi did visit with Santa Claus, in Gimbels department store, sat on his lap, and rattled off his Christmas wish list – and the Cantor has saved the photographic evidence to prove it!
In our family, all this came to a sudden end when my sister started attending religious school.  For some strange reason, my parents joined an Orthodox synagogue.  While my father would not set foot in the place until my sister’s pseudo-Bat Mitzvah, my mother got involved in non-worship activities.  In any event, one day my sister announced that since we are Jews we should not be celebrating Christmas, so no more trees, no more lights, no more Santa, and unfortunately, no more gifts.  Her protest must have stung my parents’ conscience, for they readily agreed.  The only dissenting voice was mine.  What do you mean “No more tree?  I like Christmas!  Why are you taking it away?”  So my father explained to me about our being Jewish and how Jews don’t celebrate Christmas, and in the end we struck a compromise – reluctantly on my part.  That compromise was that from then on, on Christmas eve we would all pile in the car and drive around the neighbor, looking at the beautiful Christmas lights on the homes of our Christian neighbors.
I did not know it at the time, but that compromise would lay the foundations for my evolving Jewish attitude about Christmas.  Once I started attending religious school – by that time my family had joined a Reform congregation – and my own sense of Jewish identity was strengthening, I quickly made peace with the fact that Christmas was not my holiday any more than Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur were the holidays of my Roman Catholic next door neighbor and childhood companion, Neal DeLuca.  But that did not mean that I could not enjoy Christmas.  Every year, I looked forward to the family Christmas lights tour .  In fact, as my own children were growing up, the Cantor and I continued that tradition with them.
But more than the lights, I enjoyed and continue to enjoy the spirit – the true spirit – of Christmas.  Not the commercialism, and especially not the insanity of Black Friday, but rather that spirit of “Peace on Earth, Good Will toward Men (and Women).”  I enjoy the fact that during this season people tend to be more sensitive to and caring of others.  I particularly love Christmas movies – not all of them, but ones that I consider to be good ones.  I consider them good because of their universal messages which somehow or other all boil down to “we can be better people.”  Along those lines, my favorite is Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in all of its varied manifestations and modernizations.  I even have the book on my Kindle.  And then there is “It’s A Wonderful Life” with its message that each and every one of us can and do make a difference, so let us make a difference for the better.  I even love Tim Allen’s “Santa Clause” movies for they teach us that it is not so much “seeing is believing” as it is “believing is seeing.”  So much of how we view the world around us is shaped by what we believe the world to be.  If we believe that people are selfish and cruel at heart, we will see our world as being filled with selfishness and cruelty.  But if we believe people are truly good at heart, then we will see a world filled with acts of loving kindness.  As Jews – as outsiders looking in – Christmas still offers us much that is meaningful, uplifting, and downright encouraging about the human condition, or at least the human potential.
We do not have to buy into the particular theology of Christmas in order to enjoy and benefit from these aspects of the holiday.  However it is important for us to recognize, and respect, the fact that so much which is positive about Christmas is born of Christian theology.  That we, as Jews, can find it so uplifting is but a testimony to the fact those particular Christian teachings which give birth to so many of Christmas’ positive elements are founded in values which Judaism and Christianity happen to share.  Joy and beauty, peace and good will, caring for others and a human potential to be better are as much Jewish virtues as they are Christian.  As we Jews watch Christians celebrate these virtues, it is only fit and proper that our observations should fill us with joy, for seeing our shared virtues celebrated in a religious framework other than our own should fill us with hope for the future; a hope that since we are not alone in the struggle to make these real, that together, hand-in-hand, Jews and Christians, all faiths who share these ideals, will eventually bring about that momentous day which we Jews call the Messianic Age.
And by the way, one more thing about Christmas that I enjoy is that on Christmas Day I run into so many of my fellow Jews in the Chinese restaurants and the movie theaters.

The Blessing of Being Different

November 9, 2011

The Torah portion “Lech Lecha” is aptly named, for it means “You go!” in the command form.  It opens with God’s very first instruction to Abraham.  That instruction is for him and his household and his followers to leave their native land and go to a place of their own, which will be given to them by God.  Today we call that place Israel.

When you think about it, this is not just the very first instruction which God gave Abraham but it also is the very first instruction which God gave to us, the Jewish people.  “Go!”  Separate yourselves from that which is familiar and make of yourselves a singular and unique people.  In other words, “Be Different!”  Be different from all those who surround you.  Be different and be proud.  How prophetic were God’s words to Abraham, for as we know now, 4,000 years later, throughout the millennia, one of the primary hallmarks of being a Jew has been, is, and most likely will continue to be, being different; being different from everyone else who surrounds us.

We all know that being different has been for us Jews both a blessing and a curse.  There is an old Yiddish maxim which I love to cite.  “Schwer zu sein ein Yid und schayne zu sein ein Yid” – “It is difficult to be a Jew and it is beautiful to be a Jew.”  Most of us, at one time or another, have experienced both sides of that equation.

There is no question but that we have known the schwer side – the difficult side – of being a Jew all too well.  So many of our holidays commemorate our having survived the attempts of others to crush or even destroy us.  Passover celebrates our redemption from slavery in Egypt.  Hanukkah celebrates our reclaiming Jerusalem and rededicating the Temple to God from the Syrian Greeks who turned it into a house for pagan worship.  Purim celebrates the undoing of Haman’s plot to execute the entire Jewish population of the Persian empire.  Yom HaShoah memorializes the six million Jews slaughtered as a result of the genocidal plans of Nazi Germany.  Yom HaAtzmaut celebrates the establishment of the State of Israel, and its survival, both in its War of Independence when the Arab world vowed to “drive every Jew into the sea” and through all its subsequent wars, each time defeating a foe who would see it completely destroyed.  Tisha B’Av commemorates the destructions of the Temple by both the Babylonians and the Romans, as well as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

Nor is our familiarity with the schwer side – the difficult side – of being a Jew limited to our knowledge of past history.  Unfortunately, we continue to experience it first hand as well.  We experience it every time Israel has been attacked by terrorists bent on its destruction, yet the rest of the world remains silent about such attacks while they are ready and eager to condemn Israel for defending its citizens.  We experience it every time one of our children is been put into the situation in a public school in which they find themselves forced to sing words of faith which are contrary to ours.  We experience it every time the schools hold standardized testing such as the SATs or the ACTs on Jewish holidays; or for that matter, home­coming celebrations on our holidays.  We experience it every time employers balk at or flatly refuse to grant their Jewish employees time off in order to observe Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.  We experience it every time someone starts to rant about what they call “The War on Christmas” simply because some businesses attempt to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone in America celebrates that holiday.  We experience it every time someone insists that America is a “Christian” nation, meaning that the rest of us are not true Americans but rather some sort of tolerated guests.  We experience it every time we attend a public gathering in which a prayer is offered and the person offering that prayer chooses to close it with a statement like, “in Jesus’ name we pray.”  We experience it every time social pressure calls upon us to desert the observances of Shabbat and the holidays in order to engage with our neighbors in secular activities, for if we truly want to be accepted by others, we have to minimize if not abandon that which marks us as Jews; that which makes us different.

Yet even while being different can be a tremendous burden upon us as Jews, there is the shayne side – the beautiful side – as well.  That, too, we have experienced.  Who can deny the beauty of a Passover seder?  As Americans, we celebrate Thanksgiving as we gather round the dining room table for our Thanksgiving feast, and it is nice.  But the Thanksgiving feast pales in comparison to the seder.  There is wonder and magic and beauty to be found there.  So much so that even our Christian neighbors envy us our seder celebrations.

Who can deny the overwhelming joy of watching a child – especially when it is one of our children – becoming a Bar or a Bat Mitzvah?  How justifiably filled with pride we are, and more importantly, how justifiably filled with pride our children are, at such a special occasion.  And once again, our Christian neighbors envy us our Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations.  Not just the parties, for anyone can hold a big party.  They envy us the dedication and achievement of our children.  They envy that our children are so ready and capable to stand up in public and profess their bonds to our people and our faith.  I know that, for this is what I so often hear them say while standing in those Bar and Bat Mitzvah receiving lines.

Who can deny the power of a Jewish wedding?  All weddings are beautiful but there is something very special about Jewish weddings.  The rituals speak straight to the heart.  There is the chupah, symbolizing the home and the new family unit that this couple is creating.  With a roof but no sides, it is an open home, welcoming all who care for the happy couple, with both sets of parents standing beside them as well as their friends and siblings.  There is the wine, symbolizing our prayers that the newlyweds’ lives together be both sweet and joyful.  There is the ketubah, the wedding contract, symbolizing the commitments that are necessary to create a lasting marriage.  There is the breaking of the glass, symbolizing the seal of sanctity that has been placed on the union they have created.  And once again, our Christian neighbors envy us our wedding rituals.  I know this because often, after conducting an interfaith marriage ceremony, the non-Jewish parents, who often at first were hesitant about participating, approach me to tell me how beautiful, meaningful, and inclusive, they found the whole experience to be.

Whether we choose to realize it or not, there is a message embedded in all of this.  That message is that when we affirm our Judaism, when we celebrate our Judaism, when we elect to stop being afraid of being different and willingly embrace that in Judaism which makes us different, there is great beauty to be found there.  At the end of the day, that which makes us Jews different is not a curse, but rather a blessing; a profound blessing.

While we seem to be able to uncover such blessings in the big Jewish events in our lives, those are not the only places in which such blessings reside.  For if we but seek them out, we will find that they permeate all of Jewish life; the big moments and the small ones as well.

Recently, I explored with the students of our religious school the practice of reciting the prayer “Modeh Ani” upon waking up in the morning.  It is a simple prayer and easily chanted.  In translation the text states, “I offer thanks to You, ever-living Sovereign, that You have restored my soul to me in mercy: How great is Your trust.”  What a wonderful way to start each and every day – thanking God for the gift of another day of life!  For when we go to sleep at night, there is no guarantee that we will wake up.  That is why it is a Jewish practice that right before we go to sleep we recite the “Shema”, which according to our tradition is supposed to be the last words a Jew utters before dying.  So when we do wake up in the morning, “the Modeh Ani” reminds us that each day is a gift.  What a wonderful, positive thing it is for us to start each and every day, recognizing that it is a gift and should be treated accordingly.  It is a blessing that our Judaism teaches us to approach each and every day with an attitude of gratitude.

The same holds true for saying the “Motsi” whenever we sit down to eat.  In a world filled with starving people, Judaism teaches us to appreciate the blessing of having food with which to sustain our bodies.

The same holds true for all those opportunities offered to us to say the “Shehechiyanu”; all those times in our lives which are special and unique.  For this prayer is not just for lighting the first candle on Hanukkah or just for Bar and Bat Mitzvah services and weddings.  Our lives are filled with “Shehechiyanu” moments, if we but recognizing them and feel moved enough by them to sanctify them with the prayer.  Our Judaism teaches us that there are special moments in our lives which call for a special blessing.

The same holds true for the observance of Shabbat.  There are those Jews who think of Shabbat as one of the most onerous burdens placed upon us as Jews, and so they choose not to observe it.  But then there are those Jews who choose to observe Shabbat, and in their observance they discover, not burden but blessing.  They discover that Shabbat Shalom, the peace of Shabbat, is far more than some empty words with which Jews greet each other on this day; that enfolded in Shabbat can be a profound sense of peace, if we but choose to access it.  That Oneg Shabbat, the “joy of Shabbat” is far more than just a snack of coffee and cookies after the services; that there is a true sense of joy to be found in taking this weekly opportunity to affirm ourselves as Jews, proud of being Jews, connected through Judaism to our fellow Jews and to God.  Shabbat can be an enormous blessing offered to Jews week after week after week if we but choose to pick it up.

These are but just a few simple examples of how those aspects of Judaism which makes us different from others are not to be feared or resented but rather embraced, for it is precisely that which makes us different from others which is also that which enables us to sanctify our lives, both in the big moments and in the small ones.  While there is no denying that which makes us as Jews different from others can, at times be a curse from which we can suffer greatly, it is all the more true that what makes us as Jews different can be, at all times a blessing.  To be a Jew is to receive the blessing of being different.

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 7

May 9, 2011

Back in December, when I wrote the last installment in this series of articles, little did I dream that it would be May before I would write the next.  For that, I apologize.  This has not been an easy winter for me.  I underwent major surgery and almost died from post surgical complications.  But now I definitely am on the mend and my return to writing for this series of articles is but one more testimony to my daily improving health.

As I stated at the end of my last article in this series, in this article I wish to turn my attention to the commitment the Reform movement has made to matters of Tikkun Olam or, as we used to call it, Social Action.

I remember as a child being told that Reform Judaism is Prophetic Judaism.  What is Prophetic Judaism?  When we call Reform Judaism Prophetic Judaism we mean that at its heart are the teachings of the biblical prophets, and that those teachings are primarily the teachings of social justice.  Like the biblical prophets, Reform Judaism holds that ritual observance is empty unless it is accompanied by deeds of loving kindness directed toward the less fortunate of society.  I remember, in my childhood congregation, how seriously we took Isaiah’s message of social justice when we read it as the Haftarah on Yom Kippur morning:  “Is such the fast that I have chosen?  The day for a man to afflict his soul?  Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?  Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?  Is not this the fast that I have chosen?  To loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?  Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou shalt bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?  When thou seest the naked, thou shalt cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?  Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy healing shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the Lord shall be thy rear-guard.”

I also remember that prayer in Shabbat evening service number 3 of the old UNION PRAYER BOOK, which read, “How much we owe to the labors of our brothers!  Day by day they dig far away from the sun that we may be warm.”  When I asked my rabbi to explain what that meant, he told about how our movement supported the efforts of the coal miners in their struggle to earn a living wage and to require their employers to establish safety standards for their working conditions.

I also remember how, when I was in my Confirmation year, the principal of our religious school arranged for our class to attend a weekend retreat with students from an Afro-American church (we called them “Negroes” at that time), co-sponsored by the NAACP and the Nation Conference of Christians and Jews.  Attending a predominantly Jewish public school, this was my first serious encounter with African Americans as a group.  It was on that weekend that I first learned the songs “We Shall Overcome” and “Go Down, Moses.”  It was on that weekend that I first became committed to the Civil Rights Movement.

I remember that it was from the pulpit of the Reform synagogue of my teenage years that I first heard a message opposing the war in Viet Nam; a message lifting up the principle of peace.  I have no doubt that marked the birth of my involvement in the anti-war movement; a movement which would have a serious impact upon my college years, including my decision – much to my parents’ chagrin – to turn in my graduation gown and join others in boycotting our college graduation in protest to the war.

As time marched on, in Reform Judaism, the terms “Social Justice” and “Social Action” were replaced by the Hebrew expression, “Tikkun Olam” meaning “Repair of the World.”  Yet while whatever we called it may have changed, Reform Judaism’s commitment to the values of making our world a better place to live for all people has remained constant for over well over a century.  One need only look at the long list of social justice resolutions passed by both the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis to witness how constant and how broad based was, and is, our commitment to the principle of Tikkun Olam.  Whenever injustice has reared its ugly head, either in our American society or in the world at large, our movement has not hesitated to stand up for what is right and decent.  More often than not, we have been among the first to do so.

Today, the Union for Reform Judaism can justifiably boast that it is the only Jewish congregational organization in North America that has established specific centers dedicated to the advancement of Tikkun Olam, both here in America – the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C. – and in Israel – the Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem.  These two centers labor to keep all Reform Jews aware of the pressing social justice issues of our day and to engage us in the work of addressing those issues and righting those wrongs.

Indeed, I who am a person committed to the pursuit of Tikkun Olam, at times have to admit to feeling overwhelmed by all the issues which the Religious Action Center places before me and calls upon me to address.  There is just so much work to be done and our movement insists that we cannot ignore it.  If one were to go to the website of the Religious Action Center (http://rac.org/index.cfm?), they would find an extensive directory for “Key Topics” which would include issues concerning:  affirmative action, Africa, antisemitism & the Holocaust, arms control, bilingual education, bio-ethics, campaign finance reform, child soldiers, children’s issues, civil liberties, civil rights, conflict diamonds, crime & criminal justice, Darfur, death penalty, debt relief, disability rights, economic justice, education, election reform, environment, fair trade coffee, GLBT equality, global poverty, gun control, hate crimes, health care, HIV/Aids, housing and homelessness, human rights, human trafficking, hunger, immigration, intelligent design & creationism, interfaith affairs, Israel, judicial nominations, labor issues, living wage, mental health, privacy, race relations, religious liberty, religious persecution, reproductive rights, school prayer, school vouchers, separation of church & state, sexuality issues in public school, social security, socially responsible investment, stem cell research, substance abuse, torture, U.S. foreign policy, violence against women, welfare reform, women’s health, and world Jewry.  There is a list of equal length in regards to the work of the Israel Religious Action Center, with its focus being on Tikkun Olam issues particular to the State of Israel.

Orthodox, Conservative, Reform – we all agree that the father of modern Judaism was the great sage, Hillel the Elder, who lived in the first century B.C.E.  One of Hillel’s most famous sayings was:  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?” (PIRKE AVOT 1:14)  Reform Judaism, through its commitment to Tikkun Olam, strives to live up to Hillel’s standards.  As Jews, we are for ourselves, striving to live our Jewish lives more fully.  But if we are only for ourselves, then we are nothing.  Therefore, through our pursuit of Tikkun Olam – by being for others as well – we bring meaning to our Jewish selves.  “If not now, when?”  Our answer is crystal clear.  Now, most assuredly now!  As Reform Jews, we can neither wait to repair the world nor can we expect others to do it for us.  In committing ourselves to the work of Tikkun Olam, we are not only fulfilling ourselves as Jews but are also partnering with God in the ongoing work of perfecting creation.

In part 8, I will reflect upon why it is important for synagogues to band together into an ideological family, and how the Union for Reform Judaism has enabled its member synagogue to maximize their pursuit of living a modern, liberal approach to their Judaism.

Good Friday? Perhaps Not!

April 1, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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