Posted tagged ‘Rabbis’

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 8

July 18, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 4

December 17, 2010






One of the things that I really love about Reform Judaism is its ongoing willingness to reassess the tenets of our faith in its quest to keep our Judaism contemporary and meaningful, and then that it has the courage to act upon such reassessments even if it means displacing major chunks of Jewish traditional thinking and practice.

Nowhere is this openness and courage more clearly demonstrated than in the Reform Jewish approach to worship. There are those who claim that Reform Judaism has played fast and loose with the Jewish prayer book and ritual practices, but such claims are based far more on an ignorance of Reform ideology and a blind attachment to traditional forms than on any serious attempt to understand why our movement has done what it has done.  The truth of the matter is that every change in worship which Reform Judaism has instituted has been the product of long and serious consideration, with open, frank, and sometimes heated discussion, by the spiritual leaders of our movement.  Reform rabbis, then and now, have never frivolously instituted worship change but neither have they been afraid to do so if they believed that such change would enhance Jewish worship.

There are many changes which we introduced into our worship, of which traditional Judaism has been highly critical.  Let us look as some of them, with an eye to understanding why Reform Judaism embraced such changes, even if it meant breaking with the practices of our co-religionists.

The use of the vernacular in the worship service:  Many consider the decision by the early leaders of our movement to include the use of the vernacular (local spoken language) in our worship as a frontal assault upon Jewish prayer.  They claim that for Jewish prayer to be authentic, it must be offered either exclusively or primarily in Hebrew.  The early Reformers saw this matter quite differently.  From their perspective, in order for prayer to be truly authentic, then those offering prayer must understand what it is that they are saying to God.  For the early Reformers, especially here in the United States, while they appreciated the historical and cultural importance of Hebrew, they felt strongly that to offer prayer in a language that we do not understand was little more than gibberish.  Therefore while they maintained a certain amount of Hebrew in the service, the overwhelming majority of the prayers, especially in early American Reform worship, were offered in such a way that the worshipers could appreciate not just the act of praying but the theological messages of the prayers as well.  Contrary to the opinion of traditional Jews, this decision was very much in keeping with the practices of the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud.  For the traditional prayer book does not contain – as some would contend – exclusively Hebrew prayers.  In it there are also Aramaic prayers, such as the various forms of the Kaddish.  Indeed, a goodly portion of the Passover Haggadah is in Aramaic rather than Hebrew.  Aramaic, to the early rabbis was like English to us.  It was the language they spoke on the street.  Indeed, it was the language in which they wrote the Babylonian Talmud.  Whenever one comes across an Aramaic prayer, the very fact that it is in Aramaic clearly announces that the ancient rabbis felt it important that the people understood its meaning.

Over the years, the role of Hebrew in Reform Jewish worship has been a matter of great debate and has changed dramatically from its place in the early American Reform prayer books.  How much Hebrew is too little or too much is an ongoing discussion in many Reform synagogues.  Those who have advocated for greater amounts of Hebrew have done so because of the spiritual attachment it can provide us to the generations, past and present, of Jewish brothers and sisters, across the planet, who likewise prayed and pray in this language.  After all, Hebrew is the language of the Torah.  Far more than Yiddish or Ladino, it is the Jewish language.  So there continues to be a struggle to find a balance between our emotional/spiritual attachment to Hebrew with our intellectual need to pray with knowledge as well as feeling.  Our most recent prayer book, MISHKAN T’FILAH, attempts to address this issue by presenting all its prayers in Hebrew and in a more or less accurate English translation.  It then goes on to speak to those who enjoy variety in worship by offering English thematic prayer alternatives.  Recognizing that many of our people simply do not have Hebrew reading skills, it also offers the Hebrew prayers in transliteration in hopes of raising those people’s comfort level with the Hebrew.  While some larger congregations with larger staffs and larger facilities have turned to such solutions as multiple concurrent services to meet the various worship tastes, smaller congregations such as the one I serve will need to continue to seek that elusive happy medium.

Revisiting the belief in a personal messiah: One of the major elements of traditional Jewish theology which Reform Judaism decided to discard was the belief in the coming of a personal messiah.  They discarded this belief, not because they wished to abandon the Jewish desire for the ultimate perfection of the world, but rather because of the bitter lessons of our history.  All too often in the past, individuals arose who claimed the mantle of the messiah, or for whom others claimed it in their name.  In each case, no good ever came of such messianic aspirations.  Too often, as a result, the suffering of the Jews increased rather than was relieved.

Rather than cling to this troublesome belief in the coming of a personal messiah, the early Reformers replaced it with a belief in the coming of a messianic age.  According to Reform teaching, no one individual will come to bring about the ultimate perfection of the world but rather a time will come when each and every one of us will participate in the realization of that dream.  For each and every individual carries a piece of the messiah within them.  We pray for the day when we will all recognize our messianic potential and our messianic responsibilities.  When that day arrives, it will be the onset of the messianic age; a time when we will all work together as one family of the children of God to fulfill God’s will and bring universal justice and healing to our planet.

This shift from a belief in a personal messiah to a belief in a messianic age had a profound effect upon the very nature of Reform Jewish prayer.  The traditional worship service dedicates a significant portion of its prayers to theological matters related to the coming of the personal messiah; all of which were rejected by Reform Judaism along with its rejection of the idea of personal messiah itself.  These related theological issues include the in-gathering of all Jewish exiles to the land of Israel, the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, the re-institution of the sacrificial cult, overseen by the priests and the Levites, and the physical resurrection of the Jewish dead, who will then themselves rejoin the Jewish people in Israel.  For Reform Judaism, the messianic age is viewed as a time of profound universal healing, and not as a time for a return to Jewish life as it was two millennia ago.  While traditional Jews view (or at least pray for) the return to the Jerusalem Temple and the sacrificial rite as part of the Jewish future, Reform Jews consign the Temple and the sacrifices to the Jewish past.  For Reform Jews the synagogue has replaced the Temple as the center of Jewish worship – and that is why so many Reform synagogues include the word Temple in their names – and prayer has replaced animal and agricultural sacrifices.  Simply put, we do not want to go back there and we therefore consider it hypocritical to pray to go back there.  As far as the physical resurrection of the dead is concerned, we believe that when the body dies, our physical existence is over.  It is our soul which lives on, and will continue to live on eternally with God.  The body will not live again, neither by the efforts of a personal messiah nor as a result of the spirit of a messianic age.

The re-introduction of instrumental music into our worship:  For the first 2,000 years of Jewish history instrumental music played an integral role in Jewish worship.  The Torah and the rest of Hebrew scriptures are replete with such musical images – Miriam dancing with her timbrel at the Red Sea; David singing the Psalms while accompanying himself on his harp; the variety of musical instruments that accompanied worship in the Temple in Jerusalem.  However, after the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 c.e. the rabbis decreed that Jews would no longer include instrumental music in their worship as a sign of mourning for the Temple’s loss.  However, when the Temple will be rebuilt, such music will return to our worship.  Since Reform Judaism rejects the traditional aspirations to rebuild the Temple and revert to the sacrificial cult, it also has set aside the prohibition of instrumental music during worship.  In re-introducing instrumental music to our services, it was only logical that the early Reformers turned to the worship of their Christian neighbors as a model to emulate.  This is how the organ found its way into Reform synagogues.  Today, the organ has either been joined or replaced by several other instruments such as the guitar, piano, and drums.  In the late ’60’s and early ’70’s our movement started to experience what might be considered a worship music revolution.  This revolution came out of our camps.  It was in many ways a product of the growing popularity in American society of folk and folk rock music.  The song leaders of our camps were playing their guitars and creating a vibrant new musical expression of Jewish spirituality which moved us to a whole other level beyond the traditional tunes of the synagogue and the “churchy” anthems which had taken hold of Reform Jewish worship.  This revolution is still going on with new lively modern Jewish liturgical music constantly being produced.  It is no wonder that when Jewish communities invite the creators of these new sounds to perform in concert and in worship, almost invariably these performers are Reform Jews and alumni of our camps.

While there are those who claim that the traditional form of the worship service is sacrosanct and inviolate, Reform Judaism has had the courage to say that we will not pray for that in which we do not believe, and when we pray, our prayers will be joyful.  In order for the soul to be fully engaged in the act of prayer, our prayers must come from and be true to both our heart and our mind.

In part 5, I will consider how Reform Judaism has struggled with determining issues of personal status and how it has demonstrated both the compassion to be inclusive and the courage to break with both Conservative and Orthodox Judaism on these issues purely on the grounds of principle.

Rabbis for Israel: An Oxymoron or a Necessary Statement

September 19, 2010

Continuing my series of High Holy Day sermons, here is the sermon on delivered on Yom Kippur morning.

This morning’s Torah portion opens with the statement: “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem; rasheichem shivteichem, zikneichem v’shotreichem, kol ish Yisraeil. Tapechem, nasheichem, v’gercha asher b’kerev machanecha, mechotev eitsecha ad sho’ev meimecha – You are standing today, all of you, before Adonai your God; the heads of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man in Israel. Your children, your women, amd the stranger who is in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water.”

At that one moment in history, all Jews stood together – “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem – You are standing here today all of you” – united as a people, united in common cause. There are those who might claim that this was the only moment in history when all Jews stood together, united in common cause. And they might not be that far from the truth. While this might not have been the only moment in our history when all Jews stood united, it probably was one of the few.

It would seem that we Jews have a special talent for disagreeing with each other. I am sure that you have all heard that old joke about two Jews stranded for a long time on a desert island. When finally rescued, they proudly gave their rescuers a guided tour of all they had accomplished during their stay. They showed them their planted fields and their handmade aqueducts, their long term food storage facilities and their comfortable shelters. In the process, they came across one grass hut and the rescuers asked, “What’s that?” to which one of the men said, “That’s the synagogue I attend.” When they came across yet another grass hut, and the rescuers asked, “What’s that?”, the other man replied, “Well that’s the synagogue I attend.” A little later, further down the trail, they came upon a third grass hut, and once again, the rescuers asked “What’s that?” and the two men replied in unison, “That’s the synagogue neither of us would ever set foot in!” Yes, we have a talent for disagreeing with each other. One might almost say that we have transformed argumentation into a sport.

But in spite of the fact that it sometimes seems that we Jews can disagree about more things than we can agree upon, still there are some topics about which we generally do agree. So, for example, we agree that antisemitism is bad. However, we don’t necessarily agree about how we should respond to it. Should we confront it head on or should we ignore it and hope it will go away? We agree that Jews should observe Shabbat and the holidays. However we don’t necessarily agree about how Shabbat and the holidays should be observed. Should we drive on Shabbat? Can we watch television on Shabbat? Turn on the lights? Tear toilet paper? Do we observe Rosh Hashanah for one day or two? Do we observe Sukkot and Pesach for seven days or eight? Are corn, peas, rice, and other foods that puff up when cooked permissible on Pesach or forbidden? We agree that the Torah is our most sacred possession and that through it God speaks to us. However we don’t necessary agree about how God speaks to us through the Torah. Is the Torah word-for-word the actual spoken words of God or is it a human attempt to put into words that fellow human beings can understand a Divine communication which profoundly transcends the narrow boundaries of spoken language?

There is another thing that all Jews should agree upon, but while all may not, at least most Jews do. That is that the continued existence of the State of Israel is an absolute necessity for the Jewish people. After the Holocaust, during which so many of the 6 million Jewish victims died primarily because there was no safe haven to which they could flee from the Nazis, it is absolutely amazing that any Jew could question whether or not the existence of the State of Israel is justified.

Now I am a product of the first post-Holocaust generation, having been born 4 years after the end of the Holocaust and 1 year after the establishment of the State of Israel. So I did not personally witness the world events which produced the Holocaust need for Israel. Yet in my own lifetime I have witnessed it with other persecuted Jewish populations. I, along with so many others, protested on behalf of Soviet Jewry. I worked to raise funds and awareness when it came to the plight of Ethiopian Jewry. And I visited with both sets of immigrants as they studied Hebrew and culture in Israeli absorption centers in order to facilitate their entry into the Israeli society which offered them a safe haven; the safe haven that was there for them but which was not available to those targeted by the Nazis.

That Jews should support the State of Israel should be a no-brainer. Even American Reform Judaism – which originally was anti-Zionist because they feared that support of Zionism might be interpreted as a questionable dual loyalty by their non-Jewish neighbors – even American Reform Judaism began to change its perspective in the 1930’s and has continually grown in its positive relationship with the State of Israel. Israel is the land of our history. It is where Abraham lived, where Isaac and Jacob lived. It is the soil that was trod by Joshua and the Judges, Kings Saul, David, and Solomon, the Prophets and the ancient rabbis. It is the land of our story. Today it is the home for all Jews who wish to live there. It is the home for all Jews who need to live there, for they can no longer survive living in the lands of their birth.

But sad to say, today there is a growing number of Jews who feel little or no connection to the land or the State of Israel. For them, for whatever reasons, Israel is no different than any other foreign land. It could just as easily be Hungary or Kenya or Samoa. Since they have no personal tie to Israel, they feel little or no responsibility to stand up for Israel when she is in need of friends. Indeed, since they have no personal tie to Israel, and yet Israel is associated by the others with them as Jews, they can find themselves feeling embarrassed or even threatened by Israel and the actions she sometimes takes; especially as those actions are presented to the public at large by an often biased media. They may even feel the need to join their voices to those of Israel’s detractors; as much, if not more because they wish to distance themselves as Jews from Israel.

Well one would expect that if Jews today are finding themselves increasingly divided over whether or not to support Israel, then at least Israel should still be able to number among her friends those Jews who, by virtue of the life they have chosen for themselves, should never forget the vital role Israel continues to play for the Jewish people – the rabbis. One would expect it to be axiomatic; rabbis support Israel. If that were truly the case, one would have to wonder why, in recent months, there has arisen a new organization on the world Jewish scene, the name of which is “Rabbis for Israel”?

Yet such an organization does exist. I know. I was present at its birthing. I was one of its earliest members. It pains me to have to admit that the creation of this organization has filled a very real need. For the time has come when not all rabbis are truly for Israel. And then there are those rabbis who claim that they are for Israel but who always seem to take the other side.

What was it that led rabbis such as myself to feel the need for an organization such as Rabbis for Israel?

For a long time on the American Jewish scene, the primary organization representing the interests of Israel was AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Founded in the 1950’s, this organization has grown to become the most powerful pro-Israel organization in America, boasting a membership of over 100,000. There is no question about AIPAC’s intense commitment to the survival of Israel. Indeed, AIPAC tends to be so intense about its commitment that it has a tendency to be blind when it comes to Israel. For, according to AIPAC, Israel can do no wrong. They will vigorously defend Israel no matter what she does and it matters not to them if she sometimes gets way out of line.

Yet while we view Israel as a very special nation, and we expect Israel to conduct herself according to higher standards than the other nations of the world, still Israel is a nation ruled by flesh and blood human beings. Still, Israel is a nation that can make mistakes. Israel is a nation that every once in a while can actually be in the wrong. The problem with AIPAC is that it has a hard time recognizing this. Their failure to do so has the potential of causing Israel more harm than good. For when the supporters of Israel try to justify that which is unjustifiable, it only results in their losing – and in Israel losing – credibility in the eyes of the world.

It was out of this type of frustration with AIPAC that another organization was born – J Street. This organization was founded in 2008, so obviously it is a new comer. Its founders gave it the name J Street for two reasons. Obviously, the letter “J” associates them with “Jews.” But also, and significantly, if one is familiar with the layout of Washington D.C., then one knows that they have streets which are progressively named after the letters of the alphabet – A Street, B Street, and so on. However, in this alphabetical grid, there is one street which – for whatever reasons – is missing. That street is J Street. So the founders named their organization J Street in order to indicate that it was their intention to present an alternative pro-Israel Jewish perspective which, up until then, seemed to have been missing from the conversation.

What is that perspective? J Street identifies itself as an organization which is pro-Israel and pro-peace. Unlike AIPAC, they are willing to recognize that there are times when Israel, by her actions, can harm the cause of peace rather than aid it. So they are fully capable of criticizing Israel as well as supporting her.

J Street endorses the two-state solution and is an avid supporter of the pursuit of diplomatic solutions rather than military ones to the conflicts which divide the Israelis and the Palestinians. Indeed, if someone, especially someone with a liberal perspective, was to go to their website and read through their Statement of Principles, they would most likely find them extremely attractive. I know that I do. In fact, for quite some time I seriously considered joining J Street because, at least in principle, they stand very close to where I stand.

However, as there is a problem with AIPAC, there is a problem with J Street as well. For J Street does not always operate strictly according to its principles. Indeed, some of the positions that it has taken have seemed somewhat contradictory to its principles. The reason for this is that J Street can often get lost in its self proclaimed freedom to criticize Israel. Eager to present itself as a conciliatory Jewish voice to Israel’s detractors, it is all too ready to jump on their band wagon; all too ready to lay fault and blame for conflict solely or primarily at Israel’s feet. Personally, I view this as another manifestation of a phenomenon we witness in our own country, where there are those who are so “liberal” – and I put that word in quotes, and remember, I consider myself a liberal – who are so liberal that whatever America does, they see America as being in the wrong. And just as there are those people who are always criticizing America, the folks at J Street seem to always criticize Israel.

It was that dichotomy between their principles and their actions that caused me to struggle with whether or not I should join. In fact, in my struggle, I sent out an email to a select group of rabbinic colleagues, sharing my indecision and seeking their counsel. Some of them were supporters of J Street, some were supporters of AIPAC, and some were like me; undecided and seeking an ideological home. Well the dialogue was fascinating. And it was out of that dialogue that one of my Israeli colleague, Rabbi Mickey Boyden, decided to organize Rabbis for Israel.

This whole question of “to J Street or not to J Street” came to a head for me, and for many others, with the Gaza Flotilla Crisis of this past summer. No sooner had the incident taken place than the president of J Street, Jeremy Ben Ami, issued a statement in the name of J Street, severely castigating Israel for its attack on the ship Mavi Mamara. It disturbed us greatly that he did not even give Israel the opportunity to state its case; he did not even wait for the facts to come in. He just assumed that Israel was in the wrong. Of course, as the videos became available and the facts became apparent, Israel was not in the wrong. The violence was the product of a planned assault by those on the ship.

So Rabbis for Israel came into being. This organization envisions itself as being centrist. Unlike AIPAC, it refuses to turn a blind eye to Israel’s failings, but also unlike J Street, it refuses to assume that Israel is always in the wrong. It is committed to seeing that in the eyes of the world Israel is given a fair shake. Like J Street, it endorses the two state solution. But unlike J Street, it recognizes that when things go awry between Israel and the Palestinians, more often than not, no one side is to blame but both carry responsibility. Those who try to lay blame exclusively at the feet of one side or the other – at the feet of the Palestinians or at the feet of the Israelis – ultimately do more harm than good to the cause of peace. Scape goating will never bring peace to the Middle East. Only honesty, an ability to accept responsibility for one’s actions, and an openness to compromise and change on the part of all parties, will bring about that peace.

So why the name Rabbis for Israel? Because the members of this organization have been really frustrated with so many of our colleagues. While so many of these other rabbis – rabbis who, believe it or not, openly oppose Israel, or who align themselves with either AIPAC or J Street – may or may not claim that they are for Israel, the stands that they take and the pronouncements that they make do Israel more harm than good. How can you truly be for Israel if you turn a blind eye to her faults, and how can you truly be for Israel if you automatically assume that whatever she does is wrong? To truly be for Israel, you must be willing to support her and to have faith in her. You must be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt yet also be willing to call upon her to do better when she has gone astray. It will only be when we, as rabbis, and we as Jews, are willing to meet those criteria that we will be able to find ourselves in another one of those special moments in Jewish history when, like in our Torah portion, we are standing together, all of us, united as a people, united in our common cause, that cause being our loving support of the State of Israel.

Temple Emanuel: Looking Toward Our Next 150 Years

September 10, 2010

If you wonder why I have not posted on this blog in some time, the answer is simple:  High Holy Days preparation.  Writing sermons and tending to countless other details prior to the advent of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur occupy nearly the totality of every congregational rabbi’s time.  So in my next few posts, I will be sharing with you the texts of the sermons that I presented to my congregation during the Holy Days.  Below is the text of my Rosh Hashanah Eve sermon.

There are New Years and then there are New Years, and this is certainly a New Year for us here at Temple Emanuel. For us, this Rosh Hashanah not only marks the beginning of the Jewish year of 5771, but it also marks the beginning of the celebration of our 150th anniversary as a congregation.

150 years! That is no small accomplishment. While ours was not the first synagogue established in the state of Iowa – for there were synagogues which preceded ours in both Dubuque and Keokuk – ours is the oldest Jewish congregation in continual existence in the state. Of that we can most justifiably be proud.

We sit here this evening in this fine 57 year old building, which, by the way, was the first house of worship in the Quad Cities which was constructed utilizing the designs of modern architecture. We sit here, not only as a viable but also as a vibrant congregation. There is so much about Temple Emanuel life which we take for granted, as if it was always so. But it was not. What we benefit from and enjoy today was handed down to us as the result of the dedication and labor of so many others who came before us; who strove to make Temple Emanuel possible, nevertheless vital and vibrant. Over the next 13 months, we will be celebrating their gifts to us, as we begin to learn more about our past and rededicate ourselves to the future of the congregation which they bequeathed to us.

Sitting here this evening, considering the life of Temple Emanuel today, let us try to imagine what Jewish life in this community was like for our founders back in 1861. In those days, the total population of Davenport was a meager 500. Of those 500, there were a scant one dozen Jewish families. Most, if not all of them were German Jews who had arrived in this community during the preceding ten years. They came to America, seeking freedom and democracy. They were part of a greater wave of German Jewish immigration that came to our shores fleeing Germany and Austria after the failures of the liberal revolutions of 1848. Yes, even then, Jews were social liberals. In fact, in our congregation today, we have direct descendants of one such famous socially liberal Jewish refugee who didn’t come to our area, but rather to Kansas. His name was August Bondi. Bringing to America his socially liberal values, August Bondi rode with the abolitionist John Brown, only to break with Brown for ethical reasons after the Potowatamy Massacre. Later, he would earn the Congressional Medal of Honor while serving the Union during the Civil War. He earned that honor by risking his life to bring wounded soldiers from both sides off of the battlefield and to safety. Hart Bondi, Greg Schermer, and their children, are his direct descendants. Those early German Jews who settled here, while maybe not as heroic as August Bondi, most certainly shared with him their motivation for coming to this country and their vision of what America should be.

So on Wednesday evening September 4, 1861 – Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5622 – our congregation held its first High Holy Day service. They had no building. They had no rabbi. So the services were led by a knowledgeable Jew by the name of Max Feder. Shortly after that, on October 21, 1861, they formally voted Congregation B’nai Israel into existence.

That’s right, Congregation B’nai Israel. That was, until recently, our original and official name. So where does the name Temple Emanuel come from? Back in 1885, we finally erected our first synagogue building. It was on Ripley Street, between 4th and 5th Avenues. At that time, belonging to our congregation was a very wealthy family by the name of Rothschild. In exchange for a major donation to the building fund, the congregation agreed to name the building after the patriarch of that family, Moses Emanuel Rothschild, who had recently passed away. So originally it was our building which was called Temple Emanuel, but with the passage of time, it was that name that stuck.

So our congregation came into being. Our first Board President was Isaac Berneis, and initially membership dues were a whopping $5.00 a year. Until we built that building in 1885, we rented space in which to meet, our first being a third floor room in a building at 3rd & Perry.

It was not until 1875 that our congregation acquired the services of a rabbi. Our first rabbi was Rabbi Isaac Fall. He served our congregation until 1890, which made him the longest serving rabbi of our congregation until yours truly. He is also the only rabbi buried in Mt. Nebo Cemetery. As part of our anniversary celebration, next October we will be holding a special ceremony at his grave. That ceremony, researched by the Cantor, is called a Hilu La Ceremony.

You might find this hard to believe, but Rabbi Fall was an Orthodox rabbi. That is not as strange as it might seem, considering the fact that in 1875 we were an Orthodox congregation. Granted, we were a liberal Orthodox congregation, but we were Orthodox nonetheless. But even at that time, we were seriously considering change. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations – which today we call the Union for Reform Judaism – the official North American organization of Reform congregations, was founded in 1873. Whether or not our congregation should join it, leave Orthodoxy and officially become a Reform congregation, was the subject of heated debate. It was not until 1879 that we decided to make that move. But even as the congregation voted to join the Reform movement, the president of our congregation at that time, John Ochs – you may have seen the Ochs mausoleum in our cemetery – resigned his post as president because of it.

Nor did the struggle over our Reform identity end with that vote. It went on for many years, painfully dividing our congregation. The planning of the dedication ceremony for our first building was embraced by the proponents of Reform as an opportunity to bring the practices of our congregation closer to their way of thinking. It was in that spirit that the Board voted that no hats were to be worn during the ceremony. They also invited a rabbi from Chicago to deliver the main address, in English. You have to understand. Up until that point, only Hebrew and German were spoken on our bimah. With this act, they introduced the use of English into our service. Later, in August of 1889, the Board voted to affirm the decision of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, to include the counting of women in the minyan.

It should be noted that through all of this, Rabbi Fall tried to be responsive to all his congregants. As an Orthodox rabbi, he demonstrated himself to be extremely flexible and open to the changes proposed by the proponents of Reform. But he was walking a tight rope, with some finding him too open to change and others finding him not open enough to change. Finally, in August of 1890, the Board released him and turned around, engaging the services of their first rabbi who was a graduate of the Hebrew Union College.

Rabbi Samuel Freuder was ordained from the Hebrew Union College in 1886. He came to our community, having previously served a congregation in San Diego. However, his tenure at Temple Emanuel was short lived. He was a living example of the caution, “Beware lest you get what you asked for.” The congregation felt that they wanted someone more progressive than Rabbi Fall, and in Rabbi Freuder they found him. However, Rabbi Freuder went too far in the other direction. As one chronicler put it, whatever was forbidden, he considered permitted. The dissatisfaction with him was so great that in July of 1891, the Board released him. However, you could imagine their dismay when the local newspaper published an article in which Rabbi Freuder announced that he had resigned and was renouncing the Jewish faith altogether.

In our lobby, you will find a handwritten letter to our congregation from Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the father of American Reform Judaism; the founding president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the founding president of the Hebrew Union College, and the founding president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. In it he expressed his apologies for not being able to provide us with a student rabbi to conduct our High Holy Day services, but recommended that we contact an unemployed rabbi living in New York. On the surface, this is a very disappointing letter. Indeed, when Joan McGee found that letter in our records, as she was organizing our 125th anniversary celebration, her comment was, “Damned Union! Didn’t do anything for us then and is still not doing anything for us!” However, you have to look at the date – September 12, 1891 – and understand it in our historical context. For obviously, it was after our congregation went through this trauma with Rabbi Freuder, and probably conducted an unsuccessful rabbinic search, that we applied to the Hebrew Union College for a student rabbi for the holy days. But by then, it was too late. All the students had High Holy Day pulpits. This was but another manifestation of how I congregation suffered in the wake of its struggle over its Jewish identity.

That struggle would continue for quite some time, only ultimately finding resolution during the rabbinate of William Fineshriber. Rabbi Fineshriber, a graduate of the Hebrew Union College, came to our community in 1900. It was through his efforts that the old wounds were ultimately healed and it was under his leadership that we finally established ourselves solidly as a Reform congregation, with the formal conclusion of the struggle being our adoption, in 1902, of the UNION PRAYER BOOK, a prayer book which we would worship from, in its various incarnations, until, in the mid 1970’s, when we adopted GATES OF PRAYER, the prayer book which replaced the UNION PRAYER BOOK as the worship text of Reform Judaism.

It was also through Rabbi Fineshriber’s efforts that our congregation seriously embarked upon its mission to pursue social justice causes and to become a voice and a presence for social justice in this community; a mission which we still pursue today, as earlier this evening I testified to, as I called upon you to support our hunger relief efforts. It is not surprising that it was through Rabbi Fineshriber’s social justice efforts that our congregation came to assume a new position of esteem and respect in the eyes of our general community; a position we still hold today, in good part due to our Tikkun Olam efforts.

I share with you these tidbits from the early history of our congregation because we need to know our past in order to appreciate our present and to start to build for our future. History, whether it be world history or American history or Jewish history or the history of our congregation, is not made up of quantum independent moments in time. Rather, it is linear; it is cumulative. Our ancient rabbis understood this all too well when they coined the concept of “Shalshelet HaKabbalah – the Chain of Tradition.” What we are today is due in great part to the gifts bequeathed to us by those who came before us. What comprises the future will be due in great part to the gifts we pass on to those who come after us. Today, we stand as one moment in time along the time line of Temple Emanuel. So much of what we are today as a congregation, whether we realize it or not, is great part owing to those who came before us. What will happen to this congregation, and this Jewish community, in the future, will be due, in great part, to the decisions we make and the actions we take; we, our generation of Temple Emanuelites.

For the first 40 years of its existence, our congregation struggled desperately with issues of its Jewish identity. Should we be a Reform congregation? What does it mean to be a Reform congregation? How much change is not enough? How much change is too much?

Struggling with our Jewish identity as a congregation is not new to this congregation. In fact, it is a very old story as far as Temple Emanuel is concerned. But from that story we must learn important lessons.

Lesson Number One: Openness to change is an intrinsic part of the nature of this congregation, as it is an intrinsic part of the nature of Reform Judaism itself. We should not be afraid of change but neither should we embrace it blindly. Change can be good, but only when it is purposeful and thoughtfully arrived at. Every possible change must be evaluated on its own merits. Is this a change for the good? Will this serve to advance our goal of being a contemporary meaningful expression of Judaism for our congregants? Will this change serve us for the good in the long run, or only in the short run? Will this change stand the test of time? Where will it take us ten years down the road? Twenty years down the road? A hundred & fifty years down the road? On the other hand, are our ties to the past founded upon the innate values of the past or only because the past is comfortable while change is disconcerting? The changes we make today, and the changes we choose not to make today, are the legacies we leave for tomorrow. Before we make them or don’t make them, we need to honestly ask ourselves whether or not this is what we wish to be remembered for.

Lesson Number Two: As the philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who fail to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.” The early history of our congregation was a very difficult history – a very painful history – because of the ways in which we dealt with, or failed to deal with successfully, the issues of change. It was a history filled with conflict and controversy. Too many people drew lines. Too many people took sides. As my mother, of blessed memory, was fond of saying, “You can disagree without being disagreeable.” It would appear that our Temple Emanuel forebears did not always appear to grasp that concept, and as a result, the congregation as a whole suffered.

Today, we, too, struggle with questions of change, both within the current life of our congregation, and especially as we consider the possibility of merger with the Tri City Jewish Center. The changes we are considering, and the decisions we will make about them, will most certainly impact the future of this congregation; the next 150 years of Temple Emanuel, or whatever it is we become if we decide to merge. As we grapple with these issues of change, we constantly need to ask ourselves two questions: (1) By making these changes, can we honestly claim that we are remaining true to our past, to our heritage? And (2) By making these changes, can we honestly claim that these are the legacies we wish to bequeath to our children and those who come after us?

As we go about our business, considering the future – the next 150 years – we need to constantly remind ourselves that we can disagree without being disagreeable. We can understand that others hold viewpoints which may differ from ours; viewpoints which may differ greatly from ours. Yet just because they differ from us does not mean that they are wrong. Each and every one of us holds the future of this congregation gently and lovingly within our hearts, within our minds, and within our hands. We all strive to do what we think will be best for our congregation and for its future. Though we may differ on approach, we do not differ on intent. And we need to respect that. We need to respect that though someone may disagree with us, they do so honestly and they do so lovingly when it comes to the Temple. Therefore, even though we may disagree, we need to maintain a respectful dialogue. We need to truly listen to each other; not just listen for the points we can dispute, but listen in order that we can come to understand where each of us is coming from. For only when we develop that groundwork of respectful understanding, can we build from that a successful compromise; a successful consensus; a successful meeting of the minds. And it is in that meeting of the minds that we will find the strongest future for Temple Emanuel. I do not know what that future will be. No one does. But let us explore it together.

Controversy and Disclaimer

April 16, 2010

I serve as a rabbi of a congregation and that is not always the easiest of jobs.  Congregational rabbis are highly visible creatures and perpetually vulnerable.  With every Jew possessing at least three opinions on any topic, the job is not that different than that of herding cats.  And to make matters all the more complex, there exists this truly interfaith phenomenon that when some people come together into association for the expressed purpose of raising up the will and work of God, for some unexplained and inexplicable reason, these individuals seem to leave both reason and compassion at the door and become easily provoked into behaving more like a lynch mob than like a sacred congregation when dealing with their clergy.  For when they find that they have differences of opinion with their clergy, they do not approach their clergy to discuss these differences rationally, in a respectful, and hopefully productive, dialogue but rather they expend great energy to spread their discontent far and wide and gather their forces to seek out the congregational lay leadership in order to pursue some sort of administrative solution which often can mimic Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Heart’s call for “Off with his head!”  Several years ago, a Protestant clergy person wrote a fairly popular study on such people and entitled his work “Clergy Killers.”

I share this with you because in my community, somewhat of a firestorm has arisen over the views that I have expressed on this blog in regards to two recent entries – “A Perfect Storm Threatens Same Sex Marriage in Iowa” and “Revisiting The Perfect Storm.”  While only two members of my community demonstrated the good character to approach me in order to dialogue about their discomfort over these articles, there seem to have been several others who have taken great pains to run to the president of my congregation with their cries of outrage.  I have been a rabbi for 35 years.  Having people disagree with me on issues is not exactly a new experience.  I welcome disagreement and the healthy discourse that it can lead to, for it is out of such discourse that we all can grow; that is if we are open to growth.  Venting one’s anger is quite another story, especially when one vents it in such a way as to attempt to do material harm to the object of their anger and that person’s family.  There is something fundamentally mean spirited about such behavior.

While these people have legitimate reasons to disagree with me – and to take issue with the content of these blog entries – they did not have  legitimate reason to seek an administrative solution to their problems through the mechanisms of my congregation.  Let me explain why.

No clergy person is the “property” of their congregation, with the congregation possessing the “right” to regulate and control their every waking action and word.  All clergy have both their professional lives and the personal lives.  What they do within their professional lives is most certainly open to scrutiny, and if necessary, censure by their congregation.  What they do within their personal lives is not.

For me, my blogging is a function of my personal life and NOT my professional one.  I write my blog entries on my own time, from my home computer.  I utilize neither work time nor work resources upon them.  One might say that my blog is my hobby.  As such, it stands outside the purview of congregational control or regulation.  Indeed, I see one of the functions of my blog being that of providing me with the opportunity to address topics that I could never address within my official role as rabbi of my congregation; topics I could never speak or write on in a newsletter article, or a sermon, or in the context of a synagogue class; topics such as partisan politics, for doing so would endanger the congregation’s 501c3 not for profit status.

While, in my professional capacity, I cannot broach such topics, that does not in any way mean that I am devoid of opinions on them or that I am completely restricted from ever addressing them at any time in any place.  No.  Clergy, like every other citizen of the United States of America possess the right to freedom of opinion and freedom of speech, as guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  The very idea that clergy, by stint of being clergy, relinquish their constitutional rights and surrender them over to the powers of their congregations is patently absurd.  Clergy most certainly have the right to publicly express their opinions on any and all matters, as long as they restrict those expressions within the legal parameters of the tax codes when they are serving in their official capacity within their congregations.  But outside of their congregational life, they are as free as any other American citizen to speak their mind.

Does this mean that the members of their faith community do not have the right to express their dissatisfaction with whatever they say, outside of congregational life?  Of course not!  It does, however mean that it is extremely inappropriate and fundamentally wrong for such faith community members to turn to and use the administrative mechanisms of their congregations in order to express that dissatisfaction.  If such people wish to take issue with what is being said by their clergy outside of their congregation, then they should go to the clergy person him or herself – as did the two individuals who actually sent me emails and entered into dialogue with me.  They can pick up the phone.  They can send an email.  They can even knock on the door.  And, in the case of my blogging, then can also make comments directly on my blog site.  But they cannot seek institutional redress for matters that are extra-institutional.

In discussing this issue with my congregational president, he pointed out that there was no place on my blog which stated that the views expressed here are exclusively my views and are not to be considered the views of my congregation.  Though such a disclaimer is not required, considering the fact that the blog is mine and not the congregation’s, I was more than happy to add such a disclaimer to the header of this blog, simply for the sake of clarity.  Indeed, after my president left my office, I immediately called my good friend, and past synagogue president, Alan Garfield, who helped me set up this blog, and asked him to help revise the header.  He did so within one hour!

Personally, I would be interested to learn of how many of the OTHER 18 blog entries, over and above the ones in question, were read by the folks who called my president to express their outrage.  I wonder if there were any of those entries with which they agreed, and whether or not they expressed their approval for those entries along with their disapproval of the two in question.  But that is probably too much to ask for, seeing that human nature tends to focus on getting upset about what you don’t like and disregarding the rest.

I know that there still will be those who will claim that no one is trying to deny me my freedom of speech, but that whenever I speak, or write, there will be those who will choose to believe that I am speaking and writing for the Jewish community as well as for myself.  In fact, what such folks are saying is that of course I have my freedom of speech, as long as they agree with what I say.  However, whenever they disagree, that freedom somehow has been revoked.  For such folks, I hope that the disclaimer now present on this blog will satisfy them.  If not, I pray that they will learn to live with it, just as I pray that the lay leadership of my congregation will learn to respond to blog complaints by saying that the blog is outside of their jurisdiction and that they suggest that the dissatisfied party seek me out directly.

By the way, as far as my presenting a questionable face of the Quad Cities Jewish Community, and of Temple Emanuel in specific, via some of the entries in my blog is concerned, the numbers tell the story.  I truly wish that this blog was so well read by others, but it is not.  Since I started it in December, it has received some 1,053 hits.  Of those hits, some 243 of them followed my posting of the first “Perfect Storm” entry.  About 23% of the total hits on my blog come from these entries and are most likely the result of the actions of those upset community members who energetically went around telling whoever they could, “Have you read what Rabbi Karp wrote on his blog?”  Over the last two days, as the word has by and large finished making its rounds, the number of daily hits has dropped back down to its typical 2 to 15 per day.  How ironic that those who were concerned about the exposure of this blog were in and of themselves responsible for providing it with its greatest exposure.  Indeed, since the complaints started coming in and making their rounds, my blog had its two best readership day.

I do not seek out ways to generate controversy nor do I get any pleasure from being embroiled in one.  But as those who know me can attest, I always have been one to speak my mind and to follow the dictates of my conscience, regardless of risk.  In the world of Western Religion, we call that possessing a “Prophetic Voice.”  And like the biblical prophets, those of us who speak “prophetically” sometimes find that we get beaten up for doing so.  We don’t like it but we are willing to pay the price.  What we are not willing to pay is the price for keeping silent out of fear of the consequences.  In the realm of Holocaust studies we call such people who surrender to such fear “bystanders”.  Now I know how some people just cannot abide with Holocaust analogies, but if the shoe fits…

So in the future, if anyone has an issue with anything I say on this blog, don’t call my president.  Call me.  I will be more than happy to enter into dialogue with you.  If our dialogue is successful, then hopefully we both will benefit and grow from it.  In Yiddish we say that is the “menschlekite” thing to do.

Should Sholom Rubashkin Receive a Get Out Of Jail Free Card?

February 5, 2010

The following article appeared on Jweekly.com:

Rabbis call for Rubashkin’s release

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A coalition of rabbis has called for the pre-sentencing release of convicted kosher meat executive Rabbi Sholom Rubashkin.

The coalition of seven Orthodox rabbis, including representatives of the National Council of Young Israel and Agudath Israel of America, issued the call in Washington on behalf of Rubashkin, the former manager of the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Postville, Iowa. The rabbis also delivered a signed letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder seeking reconsideration of the case.

Rubashkin was convicted in November on 86 counts of financial fraud and is being held in detention in Iowa pending sentencing. His bail request was denied.

Absent from the coalition was the Orthodox Union, whose kosher supervisory arm certified Agriprocessors. OU officials said that they were asked to participate but, while they support the effort, have decided to pursue the matter quietly. — jta

What is wrong with this picture?

Sholom Rubashkin is a convicted felon.  He still awaits trial for an incredible number of violations of the child labor laws – the child labor laws for God’s sake!

So you have to wonder:  On what grounds are these rabbis demanding his release?  Is it because he is Jewish?  Is it because he is an Orthodox Jew?  Is it because he is a rabbi?  It is because for so many years he supplied the kashrut observing American Jewish community with the lion’s share of its kosher meat supply?  Is it because the Rubashkin family has a history of making major donations to Orthodox – read Lubavitch Hasidic – causes?

As a Jew, and especially as a rabbi, I am outraged by the implication here that this group of rabbis somehow or other feels that they and their ilk are above the laws of the United States of America.  It was painful enough to watch these rabbis and and others stand up and protect this man when all the evidence against him which came to light after that massive ICE raid on his Postville, Iowa plant provided hideous testimony as to how abusive he was to all who worked for him and how grossly he disregarded the laws of the land.  It was painful enough to have such abuses attached to those who supposedly promote Jewish ritual observance.  But enough already!  The man has been found guilty of crimes!  The man will most likely be found guilty of more crimes – heinous crimes; crimes involving the abuse of children for the sake of profit.  Do not smear the image of the Jewish community even further by continuing to insist that we Jews – and especially that those who are particularly ritually observant Jews – are above the law and should not be subject to just punishment for their crimes.

Sholom Rubashkin has done more than enough to tarnish the image of Jews in our contemporary society.  We most certainly do not need the efforts of this group of rabbis to make a bad situation that much worse.