Posted tagged ‘Christianity’

Sacred Sites

December 9, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Blessing of Being Different

November 9, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 3

December 3, 2010






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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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