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How Is God Best Served in the Time of Corona?

July 10, 2020

Below is an article from the New York Times. It addresses the controversial issue of whether or not houses of worship should reopen in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are those who frame this matter as an issue of the First Amendment right of Freedom of Religion. But is it? Does restricting mass gatherings, including religious in-person worship services, during a time when a highly contagious, lethal disease is running rampant in society, with no cure available, really an infringement of Freedom of Religion, especially when we have the technology for faith communities to gather for pray virtually online? What is, and what should be, the role of faith leaders, both clergy and lay, when grappling with such issues? Where do their duties lie; to God and to their congregants?

For a member of the clergy or a faith lay leader to say, as one person cited in this article said, “My personal belief is, I have faith in God, If God wants me to get Covid, I’ll get Covid. And if God doesn’t want me to get Covid, I won’t.” is nothing short of a demonization of God. We are confronted with a horrible pandemic which his killed 100,’s of 1,000’s of people worldwide. To lay the responsibility of all this tragedy at the feet of God, and to attempt to wipe your own hands clean of any of that responsibility as you intentionally place in harm’s way the people who have placed their spiritual and physical wellbeing is criminal blasphemy!

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO GOD HELPS THOSE WHO HELP THEMSELVES????

When God created human beings, God gave us some very special gifts, gifts not given to any other of God’s creatures. Two of those gifts were the gifts of creative minds and the ability to engage in higher thinking. Those gift, perhaps more than any other, embody the truest sense of what it means “to be created in the image of God.” Like God, we are creative creatures with the ability to grow in knowledge as well as spirit. My Jewish tradition teaches that with these gifts, God intentionally created us to be God’s partners in the process of continual creation. God has charged us to use these gifts to forever strive to make the world a better place. There is the belief that God intentionally created the world as an imperfect place so that, as God creation partners, we can work to bring it ever closer to perfection. The answers are all there. We have only to discover and apply them.

So it is with the Coronavirus. God has given us the ability to rid the world of this blight, but it is up to us to apply our minds and our moral compasses to do so. That is where science comes in. Science is not “the devil’s work.” Science comes from God. It is woven into the very fabric of creation. It is one of the tools we use to perfect the world. God wants us to learn the science and apply the science as part of our duty to repair the world.

When faith leaders call upon us to deny the science, they are calling upon us to deny God and reject the charge God has given us to actively bring more and more good – more and more light – into a world which is sometimes dark with suffering. When they turn their backs on the life saving instructions of those who have applied their God given gifts to study and understand contagious diseases, and insist that their people fill their houses of worship while in the midst of a toxic plague, ESPECIALLY AT A TIME WHEN SCIENCE HAS GIVEN US THE ABILITY TO GATHER IN PRAYER SAFELY, they are not doing God’s work. They are undoing God’s creation.

Mask, Shmask: A Corona Reflection

July 9, 2020

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I bought some face shields from the University of Iowa Hospitals. We have only used them a few times – when we visited with friends. Otherwise, we wear face masks when we are out in public. The other day, while waiting for an Aisles on Line grocery pick up at HyVee, I noticed that our face shields needed a cleaning. The inside of the shields were splattered with dots, very much like the residue of raindrops you find on your car and windshield, after the rain water evaporates.

Those dots were the residue of the droplets that all the doctors talk about when they discuss the Coronavirus and how it spreads. It was a stark revelation to actually see them. When we hear about the droplets, we simply envision droplets of water invisible to the naked eye. But here them were, all over the inside of our face shields. Their reality and their shear numbers were shockingly unavoidable. They were on the inside of the shield, where they belong, for that is why we wear masks and face shields – to keep them away from others. TO PROTECT THE PEOPLE WE ENCOUNTER IN THIS TIME OF PANDEMIC.

With each passing day, we learn more and more about this terrible virus.

Now we know such significant facts as that these droplets are the primary means by which this virus is passed from one person to the next. These invisible droplets, undeniably present and present in large numbers, are the vehicles which turn healthy people into sick ones; they are the vehicles which have infected over 3 million Americans and killed almost 135,000 of our fellow countrymen and women.

Now we know – so I heard yesterday – that these droplets remain suspended in the air far longer than we thought before. After we are gone, they remain, waiting for some unsuspecting person to walk through them, and be infected by them.

Now we know – I just learned this today – that the time when a person infected with the Coronavirus is the MOST CONTAGIOUS to others is BEFORE they even know that they are sick; BEFORE they have displayed any symptoms of the disease. Now, they even have a name for those carriers who will soon succumb to the disease. They are called “SILENT SPREADERS.” They think they are healthy. They think they are safe. They think that they need not be bothered by the inconvenience of wearing a mask. Yet they are the ones who will soon experience the ravages of this disease, which was inflicted upon them by like minded people. They are the ones who, even as they protest the wearing of a mask, are infecting their family, their friends, the people they love and strangers on the street.

Somehow or other, they have been convinced that they do not need to wear a mask; that wearing a mask is an unjust infringement of their freedom. Somehow or other, they have been convinced that the medical experts know nothing and the certain politicians are the bearers of truth; that science is fake and public health safety protocols are merely a plot to enslave them. By some twisted logic, they have come to believe that wearing the mask is all about them when in fact, it is all about all the other people then encounter. They are being asked to put on the mask, not to protect themselves, but rather to protect the people around them. The mask is about each of us PROTECTING EACH OTHER. It is the most important symbol of what it means to live in a community in a time of pandemic. IT IS ONLY BY CARING FOR EACH OTHER AND COMMITTING TO PROTECT EACH OTHER THAT WE, AS A COMMUNITY, WILL DEFEAT THE VIRUS; THAT WE, AS A COMMUNITY AND AS INDIVIDUALS, WILL SURVIVE.

In these terrible and frightening days, the power of life and death rests in each of our hands. To wear a mask is to choose to be an agent of life. To refuse to wear a mask is to choose to be an agent of death. CHOOSE LIFE, THAT WE ALL MAY LIVE!

Silver Linings and Rays of Hope: A COVID Reflection of Hope

May 23, 2020

This Shabbat, when we read Torah, we began our journey through its fourth book; the Book of NUMBERS.  As you may or may not know, the meaning of the Hebrew names of the books of the Torah do not necessarily match their English names.  The Book of NUMBERS is a perfect example.  In English, it is called “NUMBERS” because in its beginning, it does a deep dive into the taking of a census of the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land.  Its Hebrew name – BEMIDBAR – delivers quite a different message.  BEMIDBAR means “In the Wilderness.”

As I contemplated our entering the text of BEMIDBAR, I could not help but grasp the parallel with our own lives at this juncture of history.  For, like the newly liberated Israelites, we find ourselves wandering in a wilderness.  Just like our ancestors who were faced with the challenges of needing to traverse their wilderness, with all its difficulties and dangers, we, too, find ourselves faced with the challenges of needing to traverse a wilderness all our own.

Our wilderness is not like theirs.  It is not a wilderness which stretches across miles.  Its difficulties are not the burning desert sun, rough roads to travel, thirst and hunger.  Its dangers are not the fear of attacks from wild beasts, snakes, scorpions, and marauding tribes.  The difficulties and dangers of our wilderness come from this highly contagious and lethal disease which afflicts us today.  They are the difficulties embedded in our need to change our lives so dramatically in order to protect our lives; masks, physical distancing, sheltering at home, shortages at the grocery store, massive unemployment and the poverty and deprivations it entails, the upending of our world economy, the severely diminished education of our children, our inability to be in the physical presence of loved ones and friends, and, of course, the uncertainty of what the future holds for us – the new normal – and when that future will arrive.  As for the dangers, they are self-explanatory, or at least they should be, but for some inexplicable reason there are too many in our society who refuse to acknowledge them.  They are the dangers of our enormous vulnerability to a horrible disease which has the power to inflict unbelievable and prolonged suffering, and possible death, not to mention that unless we behave carefully and responsibly, we could bear the guilt of inflicting all of this upon others, including the people we love.  This is our wilderness.

Yes, the wilderness can be dark and dangerous, whether it be the wilderness of our ancestors or our own.  But even in its midst, there are silver linings and rays of hope which can be found.  Next Thursday evening, we as Jews will commence the celebration of one major silver lining, one major ray of hope, which our ancestors encountered in their wilderness. That silver lining, that ray of hope, changed the world and the history of humanity for all time, and changed it for the better.  The celebration I speak of, of course, is Shavuot, the festival of our receiving the Ten Commandments.  It was in the wilderness, with all its hardships, pain, and suffering, that our ancestors found themselves standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, and there, receiving directly from God, the ten most important rules which would, from that time forth, serve as the guiding principles for the advancement of humanity.

Like our ancestors, as we traverse our wilderness of COVID, there are silver linings and rays of hope to be found.  They do not diminish the hardships we must endure, just as the Ten Commandments did not diminish the hardships endured by our ancestors, but they can redeem our wilderness sojourn from being bereft of any meaning whatsoever, just as, in the same way, God’s gift of the Ten Commandments redeemed the wilderness sojourn of our ancestors.

Some may wonder:  What are these silver linings and these rays of hope which manifest themselves now, in our darkest hours?  They are rays of hope which have the potential to light the path to a better future in what eventually will be a post-COVID world.  But what are they?

One of them is that it has been determined that as a result of the pandemic and the restrictive changes in behavior that it has required of us, the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere has been reduced by 17%, dropping to the levels of 2006.  This is but one of several positive impacts our lockdown has had on the environment, as we have been allowing nature to heal itself.  It shows us that if we can choose to change our behaviors, we can begin to ecologically repair our planet.  While it should go without saying that we cannot maintain lockdown protocols forever in order to save our planet, still we can change our attitude of “business as usual” and seriously engage in environmentally responsible behaviors, such as truly committing to the pursuit of alternative clean energy sources.  We have it within our ability to turn back the doomsday clock.

Another ray of hope found in our wilderness is that after 72-years of an ongoing Middle East conflict, it has taken this pandemic, with all its pain and suffering, to start to open a door for, at least a new beginning of Arab-Israeli cooperation.  Three Arab states – states that for all these years have been sworn enemies of Israel – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait – have turned to Israel for assistance in their struggles against the COVID-19 virus.  This is in no way a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it is a glimmer of a recognition of how the countries of the Middle East need each other in order to survive and prosper.  It is but one step toward a resolution of this tragic conflict.  As we march into the future, this moment should not be lost or forgotten by its players, Hopefully it will serve as a building block toward a kinder, gentler Middle East.

Still another ray of hope is born out of the very anguish of our wilderness.  This public health crisis has only accentuated some of the social problems that long existed before the world ever heard of the Coronavirus.  Specifically, the fundamental injustices inherent in the vast socio-economic divide which exists in our nation and the dire consequences of our failure to humanely address that divide.  As we watch how this virus has devasted members of our economically disadvantaged community, way out of proportion to their numbers in our society, we can no longer ignore or turn a blind eye to the evils of runaway, abusive capitalism, the maintenance by way of neglect of a permanent underclass, and the innate evil of systemic racism.  These are intolerable conditions in a society which claims to be great, enlightened, and just. – “With Liberty and Justice for ALL.  If, after the nightmare of witnessing what this pandemic has done to the disadvantaged of our society, we do not commit ourselves to closing the socio-economic divide, then the guilt rests on our shoulders.  If nothing else, this crisis has shown us the necessity of our building a more just society, but we need to choose to act on it.

Still another ray of hope coming out of our current dilemma is that we can no longer afford to think in nationalistic terms.  Yes, we can be patriotically proud of our nation, but we cannot continue to view our nation as being superior or separate from the community of nations.  Last week, I watched Rachel Maddow interview Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York.  She asked an interesting and insightful question – “If you could turn back the clock to a time when you could have done something different in your response to the virus, when would that be and what would you have done differently?” His response was even more insightful. He said that while he was tempted to say March or February, actually he would have turned that clock back even earlier, to when we first were hearing about the outbreak in China.  With the wisdom of hindsight, he continued, saying that as soon as he heard of the Corona Virus outbreak in China, he would have started to prepare for its coming to New York. For, as he pointed out, in today’s world, when a virus strikes anywhere in the world, it can strike here tomorrow. All that is necessary is for one infected person to board a plane.  This pandemic should have taught us that we can no longer afford the foolishness of naively ignoring that we live in a global society.  Like it or not, we are intimately and inextricably bound to each other. Indeed, this is not new wisdom. As far back as 1624, the poet John Donne spoke of this reality when he penned his famous poem, “No Man Is an Island.” If, as a result of this pandemic, we can embrace this sense of international interdependence – that as a human race, we are at our best when our nations work together to build a better world – then the future we will build will be brighter and better than we ever dreamt.

Even in these dark hours, let us come to recognize and work to realize the lessons to be found in the silver linings and the rays of hope that, too, are products of this tragedy.  They cannot compensate for the suffering and the loss of life we have and we will endure, but they can show us the way to build a better world for tomorrow.  They redeem these days from the cruel fate of being totally meaningless blips of horror on the timeline of history.

Your Identity is Showing!

February 13, 2020

I was raised as a Reform Jew, or more precisely, as a classical Reform Jew. My mother was also raised as a Reform Jew, but I never knew that until I started doing some genealogical research and found an announcement of her Confirmation service at one of the major Reform synagogues New York City. I knew that she felt it was important for our family to connect to our Judaism but she never really spoke about it. I do know that my sister, who was 6-years older than me, went to religious school at a nearby synagogue, but we never went to services, and my father, to my knowledge, never entered that synagogue until the day of my sister’s Bat Mitzvah. It was an Orthodox synagogue, and her Bat Mitzvah service was a class presentation on a Sunday morning, without the Torah ever being taken from the ark. After the Bat Mitzvah, my family resigned from the synagogue.

About 2 years later, my parents were approached by neighbors who were recruiting for a newly formed Reform congregation. I was in first grade and my mother must have been feeling angst over providing me with a Jewish education. So, I imagine she pressured my father into checking it out. I say, “imagine” because none of this religious tension was ever really manifested to my young self.

The congregation was renting a loft on a Bronx business street, over a stationary store and a Chinese restaurant. One winter’s day, my father took me there. As we entered the building, facing a long set of stairs going up to the loft, I took off my hat, for that was the polite thing to do when they enter a building. My father turned to me and said, “No, Henry. In a synagogue you are supposed to wear your hat.” So began my introduction to Judaism. Actually, as time would tell, in that congregation, being a classical Reform congregation, it turned out that no one wore a hat – except the ladies, for it was the 1950’s!

My father fell in love with that congregation and its approach to Judaism. When it came to my Bar Mitzvah, and my mother took me to the Judaica store – yes, in the Bronx there were independent stores that actually sold only Jewish religious articles – I was immediately attracted to the Bar Mitzvah boy mannequin decked out in a talit and a kippah. I must admit that the attraction was not born of any religious fervor but rather because I always loved costumes, and it just made sense that for my Bar Mitzvah, I should wear a “Jewish” costume. Little did I expect the repercussions of that choice. For reasons I did not understand, my father was livid! He would have none of it! My mother finally got him to agree to a compromise. I could either wear the talit or the kippah for my Bar Mitzvah service, but not both. I chose the talit, because, of course, it was a more obvious costume than that little hat.

Only later in life would I come to understand my father’s actions and attitudes. He was born in 1903, one year after his family immigrated to America from Austria. He, his parents, and his siblings lived with his mother’s brother and her father. Her father, my great grandfather, had been a noted Jewish educator in Austria, and so the whole family lived by the letter of Jewish law as followed by the Orthodox. My father’s Bar Mitzvah was not the major event that Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations are today. He went with his father to the synagogue on either a Monday or a Thursday morning – when the Torah is read – was called up to bless the Torah, then after the service, they served honey cake and schnapps, and off he went to school. He was one of those young Jews, raised Orthodox, who despised the restrictions of that form of our faith. While never considering converting, still he fled from it. It was not until he was introduced to classical Reform Judaism that he found a comfortable home in Judaism, and he dived into it with both feet. My mother was thrilled, and I was raised to love the life of a Reform Jew.

With the passage of time, and my continued study of our faith, its teachings and practices, my attachment to and appreciation of many of our traditions and symbols have grown deeper and more profound than merely a desire for Jewish costuming, and they have done so within the framework of Reform Jewish ideology. Of course, the experiences of my first year of rabbinic studies, in Jerusalem back in 1970-71, had a significant impact on my approach to all things Jewish. Mine was the first class that the Hebrew Union College sent as an entire body to study in Israel. The talit I am wearing tonight, and whenever I conduct worship, was purchased then and there.

It was as early as in my second year of rabbinic studies that I was introduced to the teachings of many of the great Reform Jewish theologians of the early 20th century. Several of those teachings have done much to provide me with an all important framework to my approach to Judaism, linking my emotional attachments to an intellectual appreciation of why those attachments move me so.

As a Reform Jew, I was especially taken by the ideas concerning mitzvot formulated by the theologian Franz Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig’s approach to mitzvot was fluid and filled with personal power. He walked a middle line between classical Reform’s near total rejection of ritual mitzvot and Orthodoxy’s adoration of them. Rebuking his fellow Reform Jews for their setting them aside out of hand, he encouraged them to study the mitzvot seriously; not just the mechanics of how to observe them but even more importantly, why to observe them; what is their underlying meaning. Doing that, he called upon Reform Jews to take on an attitude toward the ritual mitzvot of assuming that while there are those that I do not observe today, I may, in the future, discover meaning within them and choose to start to observe them. And as for those I do observe today, there may come a time in the future when I, no longer finding them meaningful, may choose to set them aside. This approach became one of the hallmarks of Reform Jewish thinking; the autonomy of each individual Reform Jew to choose what aspects of the tradition speak to them and enrich their lives as Jews. For the blind, rote observance of rituals does little, if anything at all, to lend power and meaning to our Jewish lives. It is in embracing the meanings behind those rituals that grant them their power. My father, as he grew in his own sense of Reform Judaism, embraced that idea, though I doubt that he ever heard of Franz Rosenzweig.

Remember that kippah that I did not get to wear at my Bar Mitzvah? Well, my relationship to that kippah was a testimony to Franz Rosenzweig’s approach to mitzvot. It was during my year in Israel that I, and many of my formerly classically Reform classmates, came to a point in our lives when we found that the wearing of a kippah during worship did enhance our worship experience. It somehow brought us closer to God in our prayers. The next Fall, when we arrived on the various U.S. campuses of the Hebrew Union College, the faculty did not quite know what to do with us. They sent us to Israel to learn Hebrew and to grow our attachment to the State, but this traditional ritualistic behavior, they were not counting on. In the end, they could not avoid the fact that basic to Reform Judaism was its commitment to change. Though they had envisioned that change to be forward moving, moving backward was just as legitimate. Thank you, Franz Rosenzweig!

By the time I arrived in Davenport, in 1985, there were very few congregants who questioned my wearing of the kippah on the bimah, though when my predecessor, a few years earlier, had announced his intention to do so, in a High Holy Day sermon he entitled, “The Rabbi Wears a Hat,” he was roasted on an open spit.

But my kippah journey was far from over. In 1999, the Central Conference of American Rabbis issued its “Statement of the Principles of Reform Judaism.” Among other matters, this statement addressed the ongoing sticky issue of the observance of the mitzvot within our movement. It emphasize that each Reform Jew must decide for him or her self which mitzvot carry meaning for them and therefore they choose to embrace, while at the same time it affirmed that those who choose to adopt mitzvot that Reform Judaism previously rejected are well within the spirit of Reform Judaism in doing so. That Statement of Principles might very well be considered the official birthplace of what we today call Reform Judaism’s “Big Tent.”

The rabbinic discussions which were a part of the framing of that document inspired me to act upon something I had been giving thought to for maybe a year; expanding my wearing of the kippah beyond worship and into daily living. I announced that decision to my congregation in a High Holy Day sermon and received very little pushback. So that became my new practice. However, the sea of life was soon to turn turbulent. When the Statement of Principles was approved, I was interviewed by the local newspaper. In that interview, I explained that according to the statement, and Reform Jewish ideology, we are instructed to evaluate each individual mitzvah on its own merits. Therefore, within that system, we are free to adopt any particular mitzvah without accepting other of the mitzvot. The example I gave was one I gave in my earlier sermon. I had chosen to wear the kippah daily, but I had not chosen to maintain the dietary laws of kashrut outside of my home.

As a matter of full disclosure, I did say that I was perfectly comfortable about wearing my kippah and dining at Jim’s Rib Haven. Well, that did not sit well with the members of the Tri City Jewish Center, a more traditional synagogue on the other side of the Mississippi, in Rock Island. They rained their fury down upon me and the members of my congregation. So much so that, for the sake of community unity, my congregants placed enormous pressures upon me to recant the statement. The experience was so painful that rather than recant, I withdrew from my daily wearing of the kippah. The power of the way that daily wearing kept my consciousness closer to God was drowned out by the anguish that controversy brought me.

So, it was until recently. For many years now, I have been deeply concerned about the growing level of antisemitism around the world, and eventually here in our own country. I have been posting about it regularly on Facebook in a series I call “Antisemitism in Action.” The horrible attacks on Jews which took place in December just brought it to a head for me. More and more, I would be hearing of Jews who are now afraid to wear their kippot in public. What kind of world are we living in where people should fear displaying the symbols of their faith lest they suffer injury? As some of you may know, I am deeply involved in an anti-hate group in the Quad Cities called One Human Family QCA. I am one of its founders. A day or so after that brutal attack on the home of a rabbi in Monsey, New York, during a Hanukkah party, I received a call from Rev. Richard Hendricks, my co-founder of One Human Family. Rev. Richard Hendricks is the pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church, a predominantly gay congregation, and is himself gay. Rev. Hendricks proposed a program which would involve a community response to the epidemic of antisemitism. He called it Kippah Day. His plan was to hold a community event in which kippot were distributed to people of all faiths, who would be encouraged to wear their kippot on the next day – all day – to show their solidarity with their Jewish neighbors and their opposition to antisemitism, and hate in all its manifestations.

His proposal was very much in the spirit of One Human Family QCA, in that we believe that it is not enough for each identity group to stand up against the hate directed at their own group, but rather we must stand up for each other as well, regardless of which group is the target of the moment. For the disease that plagues us is hate itself. The various manifestations of hate – racism, antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia, Hispanophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, etc. – are but symptoms of the disease and not the total disease in and of themselves. The harsh truth is that those who hate are what we call “equal opportunity haters.” They have more that enough hate in their hearts to spread it around to many targeted groups at the same time. With that in mind, we need to act in the tradition of Hillel the Elder, the founder of modern Judaism, who said: “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?”

I have to admit, when Rev. Hendricks first proposed the Kippah Day idea, I was hesitant, and I told him, only if he can obtain buy-in from my successor, Rabbi Linda Bertenthal. She, who does wear a kippah on a daily basis, quickly agreed. The event was held. About 500 kippot were distributed on a Thursday night. They were worn by the participants all the next day. The Kippah Day culminated with the participants being invited to Temple Emanuel, for a Shabbat evening service. The sanctuary that night was filled; a sea of kippot worn by both Jews and friends of the Jewish Community.

It was during the planning of this event that I realized that the time had come. It was time for me to return to that earlier intention of wearing my kippah day in and day out instead of just when I worship. My wife soon was joking about how I was presenting the world with a kippah fashion show, as I started wearing kippot that matched to color scheme of my daily attire. In making this choice I was choosing to wear the kippah for all the spiritual reasons that led me to my earlier decision – helping to heighten my awareness on a daily basis, moment to moment, that I live my entire life in the presence of God – but I also for yet another reason; to demonstrate to the world that I am proud to be a Jew and that no thug is going to intimidate me into hiding from the public who I am and for what I stand.

My thoughts quickly returned to a day in 1993. The Quad Cities interfaith Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – Committee had arranged to host a premiere showing of the film “Schindler’s List” as a fundraiser for local Holocaust education. Then one Friday afternoon, as the mail was delivered to the Temple, a deep, dark cloud suddenly hung over this enterprise. As I was going through the mail, I came across a postcard which read: “A Neo-Nazi group is planning to set off bombs in the theater during the Holocaust movie. Attacks are also planned for the home of Rabbi Karp and the offices of the Jewish Federation.” I immediately picked up the phone and called my friend, the Chief of Police, Steve Lynn. At first, the operator at the police station said that he was in a meeting and could not be disturbed. So I started to leave a message. The minute I gave my name, I was told to hold. The next voice I heard was that of Chief Lynn. It turned out that the meeting he was in was with agents of the F.B.I., and the topic of discussion was this very same threat. I appeared that a copy of the postcard was sent to the police. So I jumped in my car and joined them. During that meeting, I asked Chief Lynn whether we should consider canceling the showing of the film. What he said to me that day has been emblazoned in my mind. He said: “Rabbi, you are going to have to make that choice for yourself. However, if I were you, I would never cancel that movie, for if you do, then they win!” The movie was not canceled. The police and the F.B.I. did everything possible to protect against the threat; bomb sniffing dogs inspecting the theater daily, heavy police patrols around my home and the offices of the Jewish Federation, a small army of officers present at the showing of the film, both uniformed and undercover, in and out of the theater. The showing went off without incident and neither my home nor the Jewish Federation offices were ever attacked. But from that day to this, Chief Lynn’s words still ring in my ears, “If you do, they win!” We can never let them – the purveyors of hate – win! Not then. Not now.

There is an old Yiddish expression: “Schwer zu zein ein Yid und Schoen zu zein ein Yid – It is difficult to be a Jew and it is beautiful to be a Jew.” We live in a time when it can be difficult to be a Jew. Still, we must never forget or neglect, or avoid, just how beautiful it is to be a Jew. Now, more than ever, with antisemitism on the rise, especially over the last 6 years, every Jew needs to find the courage to show the world just who we are, and that who we are – JEWS – is something for which we can be justifiably proud and unashamed. The haters should never be allowed to win! Judaism is to beautiful a gift to our lives and to the world to allow it to be squashed out by the agents of evil. If my wearing of my kippah can serve to both remind me of how I live my life, day after day, in the presence of God, and at the same time, inform those who hate me for being a Jew that they will never win, then I will wear my kippah in prayerful subservience to God, in my pride of my Jewish identity, and in resistance to all who choose hate over love.

Miracles: A Reflection

November 9, 2019

Lately, I have been giving a lot more thought to the subject of miracles. Considering what I so recently went through, I don’t think many of you will find that surprising. Having a stroke, and surviving it, and having all my faculties returned to me in a matter of hours rather than months or years, can certainly focus one’s thoughts toward the miraculous.
How much the more so with my being a rabbi – a member of the clergy who has spent many years serving congregations – and as such, has accompanied many a congregant along the long and arduous road of return that typically follows falling victim to a stroke. Indeed, providing comfort and solace to stroke victims has been one of the more difficult tasks in my rabbinate, and I expect that is just as true for other clergy, regardless of their faith identities. After all, when people have lost in an instant so many physical abilities that we tend to take for granted, and then are faced with the grueling task of recapturing those abilities, in the smallest of incremental achievements over the longest periods of time, it doesn’t take long for them to view a faith leader’s words of encouragement, and hope as sounding shallow as their own efforts to recover seem increasingly futile. And who can blame them? As clergy, we not only observe the growing frustration and the spiritual and emotional agony of congregants who have fallen victim to strokes, but we, in our own sense of powerlessness – in our inability to do much more than offer words of encouragement which seem empty in the face of their painfully slow and miniscule progress – feel their pain and frustration as well.
Having accompanied so many others along that excruciating journey, how could I not but recognize the miraculous when I found myself one morning in the grips of a stroke, yet a day and a half later I was able to leave the hospital with all, or most, of my abilities restored? I tell you, that morning, when the stroke hit, and I was holding myself up over the bathroom sink by my arms, for my legs had failed me, and I was waiting for my wife to come home and the ambulance to arrive, I truly felt that this was the end; that I would not see the light at the end of that tunnel. At that moment, I was the embodiment of the prayer from the morning service which states: “Praise to You, Adonai our God, who formed the human body with skill, creating the bodies many pathways and openings. It is well known before Your throne of glory that if one of them be wrongly opened or closed, it would be impossible to endure and stand before you.” Yet here, this Shabbat, I stand before you. I have not the slightest doubt but that it was a miracle.
Now one can easily argue that it wasn’t a miracle. That it was science; medical science. The drug that was responsible for my recovery – the tPA Drip – was first introduced in 1996. If it is administered within 3 hours after the onset of a stroke, it can quickly work to dissolve the blood clot which caused the stroke, eliminating it before there is permanent damage to the brain. But when you think about, if you are not already a patient in a hospital, 3 hours is not a lot of time to work with. A lot has to happen before the drug is administered. In my own case, the diagnosis was that the stroke hit the back of my brain. But if they were to administer the drug in time, they did not have the time to do the testing necessary to determine whether or not there was any bleeding in my brain. For if there was bleeding, the drug would only make the situation worse, perhaps kill me. My wife and I decided that in spite of the risks, they should administer the drug and leave the rest to God. Considering how dire the result could have been, that I not only survived but recovered was but another miracle. Going in, no doctor could guarantee that outcome. It wasn’t just science. It was a miracle.
But if any doubt of the miraculous still lingered. That doubt was about to be washed away. After my release from the hospital, though most of my faculties had been restored, there were some lingering effects. The top of my head always felt numb. I continually had 3 separate headaches, simultaneously; one in the back of my head, around where the clot had been, another along the carotid artery in my neck, where an ultrasound had been conducted to determine any blockage, and one in the front of head, in the area of my forehead. All hurting at the same time and never going away. It was strange, since from childhood I used to have headaches regularly, but sometime in the late 80’s they just stopped and never returned. Now I had 3 of them all at one time. It was Yom Kippur afternoon – 19 days since the onset of the stroke. I was worshipping at the synagogue in Davenport. It was time for silent prayer, and I silently prayed in earnest, thanking God for my salvation, and asking God for strength. For if the way I had been feeling, with the numbness and the headaches, was to be my new normal, considering what the outcome could have been, I was more than ready to accept it. I only wanted God to give me the strength to live with it. It was while I was deep into that prayer that my prayer was suddenly interrupted by what I can only describe as a strong pop that I felt in my head. It was as if I could actually hear it as well as feel it. No sooner did it occur than the numbness and the headaches started to quickly fade. By the end of the service, they were completely gone. Now there could be other explanations for what I experienced. In fact, I shared the experience with my doctor, who had nothing to say in explanation of it. Still there could be other explanations, but I am convinced that the pop I experienced, and the relief I felt, were in answer to my prayer. Miracle number 3.
One can ask: Were any of these experiences really miracles or are there rational explanations for each and every one of them? It’s a fair question. But there is a fundamental problem with the question itself. It operates under the premise that reason and miracles must exist on two separate plains. That they cannot exist side-by-side. And that is not necessarily true. Something can be both miraculous and rational at the very same time. Being able to explain how a miracle occurred does not make it any less of a miracle. For what makes a miracle a miracle is not that it defies explanation but rather that how it occurs, when it occurs, and the circumstances in which it occurs produces a sense of awe and wonder. For this one moment, the forces of the universe came together in such a way as to produce a result which was unexpected, surprising, and in its own way, a very special gift. The fact that we can parse it and explain how it happened is besides the point. The fact that it did happen, in the way that it happened is the essence of the miracle itself.
When I was a rabbi in Lincoln, Nebraska, there was this elderly couple who belonged to my congregation – Paula & George. One day George collapsed and was taken to the intensive care unit of the hospital. He lay there in a coma, with the monitors showing very little brain function. He lay in that bed in the fetal position. I sat with Paula as she met with the team of doctors who explained to her that he lay there in the fetal position because his brain was not getting enough oxygen to function, and that the monitor was showing that he was basically brain dead. Therefore they counseled her to allow him to pass away naturally by giving the order not to resuscitate him should he go into cardiac arrest. To my surprised, she refused. All of us in the room, with the exception of Paula, were convinced that he would linger until he died. We were wrong. Several days later, he awoke, eventually left the hospital, and lived for another two years. While his recovery can be explained medically, it was against all the odds. It was a miracle.
It was but a month or two after I arrived in Iowa that on one Summer Sunday afternoon, I received a call from one of the local hospitals, telling me that a congregant was very close to death and they thought I should come as soon as possible. So I did. I had been doing yard work but I didn’t take the time to change my clothes, lest she pass before I arrived. I walked into her room and there she was, laying still on the bed. Suddenly, to my surprise and the surprise of the nurse, she sat up, looked at me and said, “Hello Rabbi. I am so glad to see you.” She, too, recovered and left the hospital. A miracle.
In 1948, the United Nations passed its Partition Plan, dividing Palestine into 2 states; one Jewish and the other Arab. The entire Arab world rejected the plan and mustered its forces to invade the fledgling State of Israel, promising to drive all its Jews into the sea. The army of the newborn Jewish State was greatly outnumbered and outgunned by the combined armies of the Arab world. The rest of the world sat back, expecting to swoop up whatever Jews survived the Arab onslaught. But when the smoke cleared, the State of Israel not only survived but was victorious. A miracle. As did the Maccabees 2100 years earlier, they, too, evoked of us the proclamation, “Nes Gadol Haya Sham – A great miracle happened there!”
Miracles occur all the time, and they don’t need to be on as grand a scale as any of these. But we miss them. We miss them because our eyes and our ears and our minds are closed to them. There is a story about two old friends meeting on 5th Avenue in New York City, just as all the business offices were letting out. The sidewalks were filled with people and street was fill with cars, and the racket they produce was intense. Now these two friends hadn’t seen each other in many years. So they fought the crowd in order to embrace each other in the moment. Just as they were embracing, one friend said to the other, “Don’t you hear it?” “Hear what?” the other replied. “Don’t you hear that little bird caught in that bush in that window box over there?” Well, the other friend looked and that window box was a good 15 to 20 yards away. “How can you hear a little bird that far away in all this noise?” he asked. “I’ll show you,” his friend replied. They walked to the window box and the one friend pushed aside the branches and low and behold, a little bird flew out. In astonishment, the other friend exclaimed, “I can’t believe you heard that bird! You must have Superman hearing.” “Not really,” the first friend replied. “Let me show you.” With that, he stuck his hand into his pocket and pulled out a quarter. He then dropped it on the sidewalk and no sooner did it hit the ground then a whole group of people just stopped in their tracks, turned around and looked. “You see,” said the friend, “it all depends upon what you are listening for.”
It all depends upon what we are listening for and what we are looking for. As long as we close our minds to the possibility of the miraculous, we will never witness it. But once we open our minds to that possibility, our world will abound with miracles. And we will be the better for it. Our lives will be so enriched by the miracles we encounter, for with them comes hope rather than despair. For in them we will experience a God who cares and is actively involved in our lives. It is Jewish tradition, that immediately upon waking up in the morning, we say a prayer of thanksgiving to God for granting us the miracle of another day of life. We begin each day by acknowledging the many miracles that surround us. In so doing God becomes all the more real to us, and not just some three-letter theoretical word we invoke in ritual moments but ignore in the course of daily living.
We should not require a moment of dire crisis to encounter the miraculous in our lives, but rather we can actively seek it out.

The Shoah and Today 2019

May 6, 2019

Last Thursday was Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is 74 years since the liberation of the camps and the conclusion of the war, yet we still hold these memorials observances. As well we should, for we must never forget what happened in Europe when the forces of hate were released from the shackles of conscience and morality.

Yet what does that really mean in terms of our observances today, 74 years later? Are our observances just a memorial to the 6 million Jewish martyrs that perished in the Holocaust? That must not be, for there were 3 million non-Jewish victims that shared their fate. They were Roma and Sinti; gay men, women, and the transgendered; Jehovah’s Witnesses and the mentally disabled; Blacks, Communists and political dissidents. They, too, we must remember and mourn, or at least we should. Are today’s observances solely a deep dive into dark memory or should they be more than that? Are they merely a solemn celebration of the vanquishing of one evil at one time in history or should they be more than that as well?

There is no rhyme or reason to the sacrifice of those 9 million lives, nevertheless the millions of war casualties both military and civilians. No one can justify their suffering and their destruction. These martyrs were victims of what happens when mindless evil is allowed to run rampant and unchecked in the world. But if we are satisfied to treat their loss as this profoundly tragic stain on the fabric of human history, then we have not done their martyrdom justice. If all they have become is a painful yet vague memory of people too numerous to name, then they truly have died in vain. We cannot allow that to happen.

We must take their sacrifice and give it meaning; true meaning and not just some superficial meaning meant to assuage the human guilt of allowing it to happen. From their sacrifice we must learn vital lessons about what we need to do in order to prevent this from ever happening again. As the philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” These martyrs must be our teachers as to what we need to do so that this history is never repeated. These are the lessons of NEVER AGAIN! NOT TO THE JEWS! NOT TO ANYONE! NEVER AGAIN should we allow anyone to single out a group of people, or several groups of people, and declare them unworthy as human beings. NEVER AGAIN should we stand idly by while others are singled out for discrimination, for persecution, or for extermination, while we say to ourselves, “Well it’s not my problem!” NEVER AGAIN should we remain silent, and through our silence, allow those in power to pursue policies that dehumanize and demonize whole segments of society, and then justify the mistreatment of those segments on the grounds of their hate-filled lies and their degrading stereotypes. There is an old saying: “Silence equals Assent” and we must never give our assent to evil.

So where do we begin? We must begin at the beginning. You would think that is the obvious answer, but not really. Why? Because today, when we look at the Holocaust, we tend to look at is as through a “rearview mirror,” perceiving it as a whole, with Auschwitz predominating our view. But the Holocaust did not begin with Auschwitz. It ended there. Rather the Holocaust was an evolving process, starting with anti-Jewish laws which carved the Jews out of society and defined than as the “other.” It is with those anti-Jewish laws that we must begin, for that is where the Nazis began as they set out on their road which ultimately lead to Auschwitz and the Final Solution.

Between 1933 and 1939, the Nazis enacted more than 2,000 anti-Jewish laws. While in the 1930s most people, including the Jews, could not conceive of the gas chambers, still the road to genocide began with these anti-Jewish laws.

In the 1930’s, the Nazis transformed their bigotry into law, and sad to say, that process of transformation is still being practiced around the world, and some would say, even in our own country. As we consider some of the policies in place today in the United States and around the world, comparing them to some of the Nazi anti-Jewish laws of the ‘30’s, let us ask ourselves, “Do we hear in them echoes of the Nazi anti-Jewish laws?”

On April 7, 1933 the Nazis enacted the Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service which forbid all Jews from serving the German government in any capacity.

Our society has long discriminated against the LGBTQ community. For the last several years, we have been reducing such discrimination. Yet recently our government announced that transgender men and women could no longer serve in the military. Captain Jennifer Peace was among trans service members who testified before Congress. She shared her reactions upon first learning of this ban. She said, “I think it was in that moment that for the first time I really questioned, ‘Why am I still waking up and putting on this uniform when time and again I am not able to serve?’ Why should I wait to deploy and risk my life again when the people I am serving do not even want me here?” In the pain in her words do we hear an echo of the pain felt by those German Jews who, in 1933, also were told that they could no longer serve their country?

On April 21, 1933 the Nazis enacted a law banning the practice of Kosher slaughter. In their propaganda, they portrayed Kosher slaughter as perversely cruel, and therefore symptomatic of what they claimed to be the inhuman cruelty of the Jews. Considering the fact that from ancient days, Kosher slaughter was specifically designed to cause the least pain and suffering on the part of the animal, the Nazi assault on it was just a veiled attempt to further demonize the Jews.

Today, in Europe, seven nations – Belgium, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden, & Switzerland – all ban the Jewish and Muslim practices of Kosher and Hallal slaughter, also claiming to do so on grounds of cruelty. Do we hear an echo of the Nazi ban on Kosher slaughter in these current bans?

In July 1938, an international conference to discuss the issue of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany was held in Evian, France, with representatives of 32 nations attending. In the end, most countries, including the U.S. and Great Britain, continued to refuse to admit these refugees, claiming, among other reasons, issues of national security.

After a year of public debate and court battles, in December 2017 the Supreme Court gave its approval to a travel ban which primarily targets refugees from 5 Muslim countries; Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. The reason given for this ban is, like the one given in 1938, “national security.” However, when one examines the acts of terrorism, and the attempted acts of terrorism, that have taken place between the nightmare of September 11, 2001 and the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting on October 27, 2018, there appears a serious inconsistency with the reasoning behind the ban. During that time period, 78 attacks or attempted attacks have been recorded. Of them, only 15 involved foreign nationals. The rest were conducted by domestic terrorists. Of the 15 attacks or attempted attacks involving foreign nationals, only 2 of the 5 Muslim countries had nationals from their nations involved; Somalia and Yemen. Yet there were 15 other nations – Muslim and non-Muslim – that had nationals involved in these attacks or attempted attacks, yet none of those nations appear on the list of the banned. Several Holocaust survivors have spoken out against this ban. Aaron Elster, who was the speaker at my own community’s interfaith Yom HaShoah service in 2003, said, “For someone to come along and say, ‘These people cannot come in,’ I believe that’s a sliding slope. It starts that way. What group will be next?” Though the order claims the ban to be “Temporary” with a possibility of becoming permanent, Fritzie Fritzshall, who also was the speaker at my own community’s interfaith Yom HaShoah service in 2004, said that for those whose lives are in danger, “90 days is a lifetime.” Do we hear the echo of the doors that were closed by the nations of the world to the Jews fleeing for their lives from the Nazis in this travel ban?

As the Nazi persecution of the Jews intensified, countless families were torn apart, whether through parents making the heart-wrenching choice to save their children by sending them to England on the Kindertransports or turning them over to non-Jews willing to hide them, or during the selection process when they first arrived at the camps.

The issue of U.S. immigration reform has been hotly debated for many years. Unfortunately, trapped within this controversy are the children of aspiring immigrants and those whose families feel they have no choice but to send their children alone to our nation in search of refuge from the violence in their own lands.
In 2014, the former administration considered sending unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America back to the dangers of their native lands. However, nationwide protests convinced the government to set aside such plans.

But now our current administration plans to reinstate its Zero Tolerance approach to deterring undocumented immigration which includes a policy of Family Separation. Children of families crossing the border without proper documentation will be taken from their families and held by our government. This policy does not include measures to eventually reunite these families. Detainees have testified to Congress that even families lawfully requesting asylum were separated.

Members of the Hidden Children Foundation, representing children hidden during the Holocaust, expressed their deep concerns over the Family Separation Policy. Co-Director Rachelle Goldstein, who herself was separated from her parents at age 3, said, “Separation of the family is probably the worst thing that ever happened to us…When you take a child away from the parents, from the home, from everything that they know, they are never the same…Most hidden children are now in their late 70s, 80s, some are even 90, and they still think about it, and it still hurts, it still aches.” Do we hear the echo of the crying children, torn from their families as a result of Nazi persecution, in the sobs of the children impacted by our own Family Separation policy today?

Nazi anti-Jewish legalization culminated in January 1942 with the ultimate anti-Jewish policy – genocide. They called it the Final Solution to the Jewish Question.

The Nuremburg War Crimes Trials outlawed genocide for all time. Unfortunately, genocide lives on, from the genocides in Darfur and Rwanda, to the ISIS massacres of entire Christian villages. Today, the Rohingya of Myanmar are victims of an ethnic cleansing. In December the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum said it found “compelling evidence” that this is yet another genocide. Do we hear the echoes of the anguished last breaths of victims of the Nazi gas chambers and killing fields on the lips of today’s slaughtered Rohingya?

When governments target whole groups of people, all humanity suffers. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hoped, may we come to measure people as individuals solely by “the content of their character.”

In memory of the Holocaust martyrs, Yom HaShoah must not only speak of past transgressions but it must challenge the transgressions of today; transgressions that have become all to numerous, both at home and abroad!

A Growing Fear in a Dark and Dangerous Time

November 29, 2017

I just have to say it. There comes a time when we have to recognize and admit that we are dealing with matters far beyond the normal boundaries of political discord; when what we are faced with is something far more distressing and dangerous than merely a clash of political ideologies; that there is a sickness present in our nation that has not only turned the American political scene toxic but threatens to upend the very stability of the planet. That time of recognition has long since passed.

Today, November 29, 2017, as I read this morning’s news, I was shaken by two reports that at any other time would seem completely distinct one from the other, but at this time in American history are inextricably linked. One was the report of the fact that North Korea’s latest missile test seems to indicate that they now have the capability of firing missiles that will reach the USA. The other was the report of Matt Lauer’s firing by NBC for a complaint of sexual misconduct.

While the situation that led to the firing of an American media icon such as Matt Lauer is saddening on so many levels, what was additionally deeply disturbing about the report was how President Trump once again jumped upon this opportunity to Tweet another attack on the mainstream media. One would think that a rational human being who has been accused of sexual misconduct by 16 women and who has been caught on tape personally bragging about having been engaged is such behaviors would not take every opportunity to rant about the sexual misconduct of his detractors and opponents while at the same time defending the sexual misconduct of his allies. One would think that a rational person in a similar situation as the President would choose the course of silence on this issue simply as a matter of self-preservation; simply out of a concern that the bullet he dodged in the past is still out there and may strike him down in the near future, re-directed straight at him by his own words. But that is not our President.  Rather, as if his own record was as clean as the freshly driven snow in matters of sexual misconduct, he has spared no efforts in his calls for the political undoing of opponents such as Al Franken because of the sexual misconduct for which they have been charged, while at the same time vigorously defending his allies such as Roy Moore against charges far more extensive and dark than those leveled against his opponents.  Even when, as reported in this morning’s news, NBC took a preemptive posture by firing Matt Lauer after 1 complaint and before the story broke in the press, instead of praising NBC for its taking swift and decisive action in defense of their code of professional conduct, he still sought a way to attack them because, in his distorted perceptions, they are what he has called “fake news.”

Once again President Trump has demonstrated himself to be a rather strange, sick, and dangerous combination of a false sense of invulnerability and invincibility, a near total lack of self-control, and an unrelenting narcissism, topped off with a malevolent bigotry against anyone who thinks, acts, feels, believes, or looks differently than himself, especially women.

And that brings us to the report about North Korean missile capabilities.  The very real nuclear threat posed by North Korea has been a challenge which at least 3 presidents before Trump have struggled.  Clinton, Bush, and Obama all have sought ways to keep the North Koreans in check in order to avoid what could easily turn into a nuclear holocaust.  Then along comes President Trump with his unearned and undeserved bravado, his delusion that no one can stand up to the United States of America, and his unrestrained mean spirited assaults on anyone who disagrees with him.  He intentionally pokes the bear with his threatening North Korea with total destruction as he personally insults its erratic leader, Kim Jong-un, calling him “Rocket Man” and doing so on the international stage of the U.N.  No wonder that this “Rocket Man” has sought to produce a missile with the capability of delivering a nuclear payload to our very shores.  At no time since the Cuban Missile Crisis have Americans found themselves more immediately under the threat of nuclear destruction than we do now.  Why?  Of course the North Koreans and Kim Jong-un have something to do with it, but not as much as does the actions and attitudes – and dare I say the mental instability – of our current President.  For it has been Donald Trump, with his over inflated ego and the ever-present bullying tactics that he has brought from the manner in which he conducted his businesses to the way he now conducts the business of our nation, who has brought us to the brink of a nuclear war.

This crisis with North Korea is but one instance of how America, and the world, have suffered as a result of the fundamental character and personality flaws of our President.  Literally in a world where every other nation has accepted as fact the science of climate change, the U.S. now stands alone in not signing onto the Paris Climate Accords.  Before he won the election, Donald Trump was a proponent of an American racism.  Whether or not he founded the “Birther Movement” he never relented in challenging Obama’s right to be President on the grounds that Obama was never a “true” American.  Since his election, in what only can be understood as a manifestation of a racist hatred of Obama, he has sought to undo every single accomplishment of the Obama administration, regardless of how many Americans he injures in the process. He simply seeks to erase Obama – the first black president – from the annals of American history.  Also, in yet another manifestation of racism, he has been seeking to purge the American society of what he considers to be foreign interlopers such as Muslims, Latinos, and most recently Haitian refugees.  When it came to the hurricane victims of Puerto Rico, his resistance to offer them the same unrestricted aid that the Florida and Texas victims received is a testimony as to how much it galled him that these Latinos were deserving of all the services available to those on the mainland because they, too, were and are full and legitimate American citizens.  When African American professional football players chose to respectfully kneel (as if in prayer) during the singing of the National Anthem – kneeling out of concern for the injustice of a “shoot first and ask questions later” attitude taken by too many of our law enforcement officers when it comes to African American suspects – our President was far more concerned with respect for a song than he was with respect for human lives, that is if those lives were black lives.  And who can forget that this was the man who referred to Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists as being “fine people”?  How can those who choose to embrace an ideology of hate and bigotry be defined as “fine people”?  Who would define them so?  Only those who share their beliefs.

There is a sickness in the White House which threatens all Americans and indeed, all the world.  It is not a matter of Republican vs. Democrat for it has nothing to do with political parties or with conservative vs. liberal political ideologies.  It is true that personally, I am a Democrat and a liberal, but as a Democrat and a liberal I have survived Conservative Republican administrations in the past.  I have lived through the Eisenhower, the Nixon, the Ford, the Reagan, and the Bush (Both Bushes) years.  Though those men may not have been my personal choices for President, they were the choice of the people, having been democratically elected.  That is what makes America great.  But this time is different.   The irresponsible actions and beliefs of the current occupant of the White House put us all in danger; in danger of destroying our world in so many ways, such as ecologically or physically.  But if that is too much to grasp or believe, how can one question but that he is in the process of destroying the very soul of our nation; our nations which has always sought to lift up the fallen, heal the sick, set free the captive, and welcome the stranger?  Yet today we are being led down many dark roads, whether they be in the directions our nation is taking when it comes to health care for all, the protection of our environment, our response to gun violence, our relationships with other nations, or our treatment of minorities and immigrants?

Is this a rant?  I guess it is.  But it is a rant born out of a deep seated and growing fear I possess for the very future of our nation and our planet if we continue along the path that President Trump has mapped out for our nation.  I SPEAK ONLY FOR MYSELF and not for any group or organization with which I am affiliated or associated, but I suspect that many others share my concerns.

Quad Cities Equality Rally Remarks

January 23, 2017

On Saturday afternoon, January 21st, as 100’s of 1,000’s of men, women, & children were gathering in Washington DC and in communities throughout the nation to protest the objectification of women and the growing dangers of bigotry and hate that have infected our land, in the Quad Cities, a rally was held to show our solidarity with all those throughout the country who were marching.  The rally, which was called an Equality Rally, focused both on the recent challenges to women’s rights and on how that challenge is inextricably connected to a complex of challenges to the rights of many targeted minorities in our society.  The rally was held in the meeting hall of the United Steelworkers Union, in Bettendorf.  The hall was filled beyond overflowing, as a mass of supporters were forced to stand out in front of the hall, due to lack of space inside.  Several inspiring individuals spoke, expressing the pain of women, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, African Americans, Hispanics, Indigenous Americans, and people with lifelong physical and mental disabilities.  I was among those honored with an invitation to speak from the perspective of our community’s newest human rights organization – One Human Family QCA (Quad Cities Area).  Below is a transcript of my remarks.

First off, thank you for the honor of allowing me to share these remarks with you today.

Before coming here today, my wife and I were attending a memorial service for Reverend Tom Kalshoven. Tom was the Executive Director of Churches United of the Quad Cities Area from 1973 to 1991. Those of you who knew Rev. Kalshoven know that he was a person profoundly committed to the causes of social justice. He marched with Dr. King. He served as the conscience of this community. I cannot help but think of how thrilled he would have been to see so many of you gathered here to affirm the cause of justice in our community.

We have come together because we are deeply concerned about what has been happening in our nation over the past year or so, and what might very well happen as we journey into the future. Let’s face it. Many of us are more than concerned. We are downright afraid, and with good cause.

This past Monday, I was similarly honored to offer a pastoral prayer at a local Martin Luther King Day celebration. There, too, those who were gathered shared our concerns and our fears. Being Martin Luther King Day, I built my prayer around one of the inspiring teachings of Dr. King. He said, “The arc of history is long, but bends towards justice.” Yet we seem to be living at a time when that arc has been diverted far off of its course, as it travels, not towards justice, but far away from it.

And that is what frightens us, for we have witnessed the forces of hate as they have freely crawled out from under the rocks which have hidden them for so long and have joyously reasserted their ideology of bigotry, and not without the encouragement of some of our nation’s most highly placed individuals. A dark and ominous cloud of prejudice is engulfing our nation. A virulent virus of discrimination is infecting it as the fever of intolerance burns hot in the minds and souls of far too many of our fellow Americans.

Part of what frightens us is that we see the profound dedication of people who hate to their hatred; people like Dylann Roof who is willingly ready to martyr himself in the cause of hate. Part of what frightens us that we have come to recognize that those who thrive on hate tend to be equal opportunity haters. They hate African Americans. They hate Muslims. They hate Jews. They hate Latinos. They hate those who do not share their sexual orientation. They hate those with lifelong mental and physical disabilities. They hate the defenders of the environment. They hate intellectuals. They may not hate women but they sure don’t look upon women as the equal of men. Rather, they prefer to look at women as mere objects placed on earth, primarily to fulfill the physical pleasure of men.

And now such people feel empowered. Now such people are empowered. And we are left with the question, “What are we going to do about that?” Of course, our natural instinct is to respond, “Protest!” but what does that really mean? We sign petitions. We post our feelings on Facebook. We gather for rallies, just like this one. But all these things; they are not really protest. They are but a prelude to protest. For true protest requires us to take action. Not for an hour. Not for a day. Not for a week. But ongoing action until we have achieved our goals. We need to work for change, with the emphasis on work; work until the job is done.

Nor can we stand alone. No one group of us can stand alone in our efforts to drive back the darkness. We need to stand together – men, women, young, old, laborers, professionals, people of every color, every race, regardless of sexual orientation, regardless of national origins, regardless of religious identity, regardless of political affiliations. We must cross lines and lock arms in common cause. On Monday, I shared with my fellow Martin Luther King Day celebrants, and I share with you now, the classic wisdom of Rev. Martin Niemoller, one of the founders of the Confessing Church in Germany, who bravely stood up against the Nazis. He said, “First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the incurably ill and I did not speak out because I was not incurably ill. Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out.” We do not have the luxury to think of ourselves as separate from others; as our plight being separate from their plight. Once again, to quote Dr. King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If we do not choose to stand together then we will not stand at all.

In our community, we have birthed a new organization. We call it One Human Family QCA. Some of you here today already have joined our ranks. Our stated mission is “to protect the life, dignity, and human rights of all people in all places in our community.” We are not looking to re-invent the wheel but to work cooperatively with many of the agencies and organizations that already exist to address issues of common concern. And when it comes to certain issues, for which no agencies or organizations exist, then we are ready to open new doors of dialogue and advocacy. Our organization provides but one opportunity to take your concerns and your values and put them into action in order to effect positive change and drive back the darkness that is engulfing us. There are many others dedicated to this cause; organizations like Quad Cities Interfaith and Progressive Action for the Common Good. The point is, when you leave here today, do not see this as an end to your protest but rather as a beginning of the very hard but important work of bringing the arc of history back on course toward justice. To quote a sage from my own Jewish tradition, Hillel the Elder, “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?” Our time is now and our cause is just. We only need to choose to act.

The Middah of Anavah

October 20, 2016

As I stated on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I have dedicated this year’s High Holy Day sermons to an exploration of the teachings of the Mussar Movement.  For the sake of those who have not had the opportunity to hear or read my earlier sermons, I will offer you a very brief introduction to Mussar and why the lessons of Mussar have so much to offer us, especially during the High Holy Days.

The Mussar Movement was started in the latter part of the 19th century, in Lithuania, and primarily is an ethics based approach to Judaism.  While Halachah – Jewish Law – focuses on the behaviors which can draw us closer to God and make us better people, Mussar focuses on the attitudes which, if we incorporate them into our life perspective, will automatically, if not instinctually, drive us in the direction of performing proper, God-desired behaviors.  While Halachah presents us with a discipline of Mitzvot – sacred behaviors which result in sacred living, Mussar presents us with a collection of Middot – sacred character traits which lead us to sacred living.  If we can incorporate the Middot – these sacred attitudes – into the way we approach how we interact with the world, then we can grow as more decent human beings and the performance of the Mitzvot will become all the more natural to us.

As I explained in an earlier sermon, Mussar views our attitudes as existing along a continuum where both extreme ends are equally destructive to our character.  The example I gave then was of a continuum extending from extreme greed to extreme generosity.  In that case, one extreme would cut us off from any sort of healthy relationship with our fellow human beings while the other would make it impossible for us to physically survive.  The Middot guide us to finding a spiritual “sweet spot”, so to speak, somewhere along such a continuum; a place where both extremes meet in a very healthy and positive manner.  In the case of the continuum between greed and generosity, the Middah takes us to that place where we are greedy enough to retain sufficient means to support ourselves and our families, yet generous enough to make a real difference in the lives of those less fortunate than us.

This morning I wish to focus our attention on a very important Middah.  It is the Middah of Anavah; the Middah of Humility.  For Anavah – Humility is a foundational Middah for both Mussar and the High Holy Days.  Without a true sense of Anavah, all that we do here today is absolutely meaningless.  Without a true sense of Anavah, we can have no spiritual life.

It has been said that the two most difficult words for a human being to utter is “I’m sorry.”  We are so ready and willing to accuse others of having wronged us, yet we are so resistant to apologizing for our actions, accepting the possibility and the responsibility for having wronged others.  Why is that so?  Because we lack a sense of Anavah; we refuse to believe that there are times when we just might be less than we think we are.  So often, we can be like the man who is about to receive a high honor and is dressing for the presentation banquet.  Gazing into the mirror as he ties his tie, he says to his wife, “Honey, how many great men do you think there really are in the world?”  To which she immediately responds, “One less than you do, my dear.”  There is just something about us which, while all too ready to raise up our strengths, is all too eager to cover up our shortcomings, as if, if we were to admit to them, we would somehow shatter completely and be no more.

In an earlier sermon, I quoted the Hasidic saying, “There is no room for God in those who are too full of themselves.”[1]  But our tradition recognized that basic human flaw long before the Hasidim came on the scene.  The Torah itself warns us about it, for as it says in the book of DEUTERONOMY. “Take care lest you forget the Eternal your God…  When you have eaten your fill and built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied and your silver and your gold have increased… then your heart will grow haughty and you will forget the Eternal your God…  And you will say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have won this wealth for me.’  Then you should remember the Eternal your God, for it is God who gives you the strength to amass wealth…”[2]

One of the basic principles of Mussar is Halachta BiDrachav – Walking in God’s Way.  In other words, living a life in imitation of God.  Trying to be more like God in our behaviors.  The mystics tell us that if it were not for God’s own sense of Anavah – God’s own humility – the universe itself would never have come into existence.  How so?  Because some of the basic, classical beliefs concerning God would have made it impossible.  First among them is the belief that God is Omnipresent; that God exists everywhere.  If God fills all existence, then there is no room left for us.  So, according to the mystics, what did God do?  They call it Tzimtzum.  God contracted God’s self in order to make room for Creation.

If we are going to live our lives in imitation of God, then we, too, have to be willing to contract ourselves.  We have to suck it in and draw ourselves back from thinking that we are everything and that the universe centers around us.  We have to make room in our lives for God and room in our lives to realize that we still have space to grow; that we are not all that we can be.  That is Anavah – humility.  As Susan Freeman puts it in her book, TEACHING JEWISH VALUES, “Being clear about what we are not is the first step in moving toward what we want to become.”[3]

When it come to the Middah of Anavah, humility, like the other Middot, it, too, seeks to find a spiritual “sweet spot” along a continuum; the continuum spanning from absolute arrogance to total self-denigration.  Somewhere between the two is true Anavah.  Unfortunately, all too often we resist seeking that sweet spot because we mistakenly confuse humility with humiliation, and nothing could be further from the truth.

Part of our resistance is a product of our modern culture.  We are constantly being told that we need the newest, the best, the biggest things if our lives are to be fulfilling.  People literally line up and wait for hours before the store opens in order to purchase the newest IPhone.  Go into a store like Best Buy and you will see bigger and bigger and bigger big screen TVs.  Somewhere along the line, we find ourselves identifying with all of that, and toxically so.  If we do not possess the newest, the biggest, the best, then we come to believe that we ourselves are not “the best.”  Enough never seems to be enough, as we find ourselves measuring ourselves by what items we own rather than by what type of people we are.  And when it comes to those possessions, the answer is always to be found on the extreme of the newest, the latest models.  To have less than that becomes humiliating.

Ironically, to attain a true sense of Anavah, is to realize that the answer is not to be found on the extreme, but rather somewhere toward the middle, and more importantly, it has absolutely nothing to do with what we own or where we live, but with who we are.  And if we can attain the Middah of Anavah, issues like what we own, where we live, what kind of car we drive, will neither humiliate us nor exalt us.  For they are no measure of the type of people we are, but only of what we have.

So when it comes to Anavah, we need to keep our eye on the ball.  Our embracing of humility should in no way disable our sense of self-esteem, bringing us to some lowly state of self-deprecation, but rather it should empower us to recognize that while we have much to be proud us, still we are not all that we could be.  There is yet some distance along the road of self-improvement which we have yet to travel.    That there is more that we can do.  More than we can be.  And we can make it, just as long as we keep trying.

Where is the Middah of Anavah to be found?  Perhaps the Hasidic Rabbi, Simcha Bunam, described it best.  He said, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending upon the need.  When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words:  ‘For my sake was the world created.’  But when feeling high and mighty, one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words:  ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”[4]

Far from humiliating us, Anavah can heal us.  It can empower us to shed the façade we present to the world of always being right, of always being perfect, of always being more than we actually are.  There is something truly uplifting in being able to admit to our shortcomings, as well as reveling in our strengths.  “I’m sorry” may be two of the most difficult words to say, but they can also be two of the most liberating words to say; two of the most healing words to say.  It can be wondrous to behold how the walls of anger and resentment can crumble before words of true repentance and an act of true atonement.  Weights can be lifted from the soul and the heart can be given wings when our Anavah leads us to resolving conflicts and rekindling love.

As embracing Anavah can clear the path to renewing and strengthening our relationship with others, it can also open the gates to Heaven.  For it is only through Anavah that we can make room for God in our lives.  It takes an attitude of Anavah to bring us to the point that we recognize that God is truly a part of our lives; that God is there for us, that God has always been there for us, but we, somewhere along the line, knowingly or unknowingly, have built a wall to keep God out, just like those people the Torah was talking about in that text from DUETERONOMY.  Yet, with Anavah, that wall, too can come down.  We can open ourselves up to the possibility of God being real, of God being present, and of God seeking us if we but seek God.  It is that spirit of Anavah which will bring life to our prayers.  It can transform them into more than meaningless utterances that may cross our lips as we wait for the clock to signal the end of this day.

There is a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, who one day, with his disciples, entered a town and went to the synagogue to pray.  As he got to the door, he suddenly stopped, refusing to enter.  He disciples were incredulous, and they asked him to explain to them what was the problem.  He said:  “The room is full and there is no room for me.”  Looking through the door of the synagogue, of course they saw plenty of empty seats, and they told him so.  He responded:  “You don’t understand.  The room is full of empty words, for the words of the prayers that are offered here have been given no wings with which to rise to Heaven.  Therefore they fall out of the mouths of the worshippers; dropping to the floor.  And there they have remained, filling this room from wall to wall and from floor to ceiling, leaving no room for me.”[5]

If we can embrace the Middah of Anavah, and in true humility, open ourselves up to the possibility of our prayers this day reaching out to God, and God reaching in to us, then the words of our prayers can fly heavenward, and God’s loving presence can be brought into this sanctuary and into our hearts and souls.  If only we can shrink our sense of self and make room for God, then God will rush to be with us.

AMEN

[1] Buber, Martin, TEN RUNGS:  HASIDIC SAYINGS, p. 102.

[2] DEUTERONOMY 8:11-18.

[3] Freeman, Susan, TEACHING JEWISH VALUES:  SACRES SOURCES AND ARTS ACTIVITIES, p. 8.

[4] Buber, Martin, TALES OF THE HASIDIM:  LATER MASTERS, PP. 249-250.

[5] Buber, Martin, TALES OF THE HASIDIM:  EARLY MASTERS, P. 73

When Silence Becomes Sinful

May 22, 2016

As a child, it was not uncommon for me to receive from my parents the counsel that “Silence is golden.” They were far from alone in their positive assessment of the virtues of silence. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with tributes to it. The Psalmist said, “To You, O God, silence is praise.” In Proverbs we read, “Even a fool, when he holds is peace, is counted wise.” The prophet Habbakuk proclaimed, “Let all the earth keep silent before God.” Nor does it stop there in Jewish sacred literature. In Pirke Avot, the great Rabbi Akiba said that “Silence is a fence for wisdom.” In Tractate Yevamot of the Talmud it states “Your silence is better than your speech.” The philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote “The world would be much happier if people were fully able to keep silence as they are able to speak.” Even such a non-Jewish luminary as Mother Teresa sang the praises of silence when she said “God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon, and the sun, how they move in silence.” Everyone seems to agree with my parents about the virtue of silence; how great it is!

But truth be told, as history has taught us, there are times when silence isn’t golden but rather toxic; when silence doesn’t praise God but rather denies God; when silence isn’t wisdom but rather foolishness, fatal foolishness; when silence doesn’t make the world a happier place but rather a far more painful place in which to live; when God is not the friend of silence but rather it’s mourner; when silence isn’t a virtue but rather a sin.

Who should know this better than we, the Jewish people? Is our collective memory so short lived – so narrow – that we are so quick to forget the toxic silence of the Holocaust? As I teach my students at St. Ambrose University, if we retell the story of the Holocaust believing that there were just the good guys and the bad guys, the victims and the murderers, the rescuers and the collaborators, then we do that story a great disservice. For there were others who were present in that time and at that place and though they never lifted their hands against a Jew, they still were far from innocent. We call them the Bystanders. These were the millions of people who stood by, watching the Nazis cart off the Jews to gas chambers, crematoria, concentration camps, and who stood by in silence. They may not have lifted a finger to help the Nazis but neither did they even utter a word of protest to save the Jews. They stood by, and in their silence and in their inaction, they allowed it to happen. It haunts me, and it should haunt you as well, every time I look at any one of the many photos taken on Kristallnacht in which crowds of bystanders are passively looking on as synagogues are being burned or Jews are being humiliated. So many silently stood by as 6 million of our brothers and sisters, infants and elderly and all those in between, were turned into ash and were sent up to heaven in dark and dusky smoke. We know from the history of our people that silence can kill.

The philosopher Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” And what is keeping silent if it is not choosing to do nothing? We have seen evil triumph, even if just for a while, aided and abetted by the silence of the multitude; by the inaction of the multitude. Now those who kept their silence may have been good people at heart, but they gazed upon the victims and said to themselves, “That’s not me nor is it my family, so it’s really not my problem.” But they were wrong. For it was their problem. For in their silence, they permitted it to happen unchallenged and unopposed, and for having so chosen, they bear their own portion of the burden of the guilt. In their silence and in their inaction, they became accomplices to the crime.

Now one could say, “That was then this is now.” Or is it? Perhaps with every passing day, “now” is becoming more and more like “then,” and we, who now live safely and securely in our own homes are finding ourselves in the role, not so much of the victim, but rather of the onlooker, the bystander. As such, with every passing day, we are being challenged – whether or not we acknowledge the challenge – we are being challenged as to whether or not we will say something; whether or not we will do something; whether or not we will keep silent and passive as we watch the world crumble around the lives of human beings other than ourselves.

Over the past few years, across our planet, we have experienced a frightening rebirth of the social acceptability of bigotry. And lately that disease has spread its infection within the very borders of our own homeland. No longer are expressions and actions born of prejudice restricted to the fringes of our society. Indeed there are those – some of whom are in high places – who encourage these expressions, these actions, and the attitudes that give birth to them, and wrap them in a so-called patriotic package they call protecting America and making America great again. But how can America be protected when certain Americans are openly attacked? How can the greatness of America grow when its seeds are sown in the soil of hatred and prejudice?

We American Jews have been lucky this time. Yes, there have been Jews who have been attacked on the streets of our cities and certainly, it is with fear and trepidation these days that we send our children off to college when antisemitism is definitely growing on the campuses of our colleges and universities. But all this is nothing compared to what is happening to the Jewish communities in Europe.  All that is nothing compared to what is happening to some other minorities in our own country.

Yes, there are others in our own land who are not so fortunate as we have been. They are today’s victims. Foremost among them probably is the Muslim community. Islamophobia has become a wildfire, blazing out of control. In my community, at a recent interfaith dialogue program entitled “The Toxicity of Fear,”two deeply disturbing stories were shared. One was caught on film outside of a Starbuck’s in the Washington D.C. area. A Muslim woman, in traditional garb, was sitting, checking her phone, bothering no one, when a Caucasian woman accosted her, screaming obscenities in her face. The Caucasian woman briefly walked away, soon to return in order to dump a cup of smelly liquid over the Muslim woman’s head. The other story struck even closer to home for it involved a well known member of our local Muslim community. One night, in the recent past, she was driving home from western Iowa, along Interstate 80, wearing her traditional head covering, when she found herself being followed very closely by a beat-up pickup truck. She sped up and so did her followers. So she pulled over and slowed down to let them pass. As they passed, they opened their window and shouted at her all sorts of obscenities and hate filled remarks about her being a Muslim. A little while later, they pulled off the road and waited for her. As she passed them, then threw beer cans and other garbage at her car. Incidents such as these are happening all over our country. How can we as Jews remain silent in the face of them?

Nor are they the only victims, as we witness a resurgence of homophobia, especially as it has been directed at those with a transgender sexual orientation. This prejudice has manifested itself both privately and publicly, in word, in deed, and even in law. How can we as Jews remain silent in the face of it?

Yes, there are times when silence is indeed golden and discretion is the better part of wisdom. But there are also times when silence becomes sinful and we, by our very silence, become greatly diminished as moral human beings and in the sight of God. Of all the people on the face of the earth, we Jews know how very lethal silence can be, for our kindred suffered and bled and died while others remained silent to their plight. If there is a commanding voice coming out of the Holocaust, then it is the same commanding voice that came out of our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt. For as the Torah demands of us again and again, “Do not wrong the stranger for remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We Jews have been victims of hatred, prejudice, bigotry, and sometimes we still are. Therefore we, of all people, must take up the cause of today’s victims. In the language of the Holocaust, God expects of us that we should become the Rescuers rather than the Perpetrators of even the Bystanders.

It was with all this in mind that a group of us who have a special interest in promoting Holocaust awareness – Jews and non-Jews alike – put together a statement entitled “A Statement Against the Rhetoric of Fear and Intolerance.”  We have been inviting those who share our concerns to add their names to our call for decency and the respect of human dignity.  As of this writing, we have collected over 200 names, but it is going to take far more than that to make enough of an impact to effectively get our message across.  I have posted that document on my blog, where you can find it immediately preceding this post.  I invite you to read it and if your agree with its message, add your name to it by simply stating your name in a “comment” to the blog.  Speaking out is the first step to putting an end to the toxic bigotry which is spreading across our country and around the world.