Posted tagged ‘Samuel Karp my father’

It All Begins With God: An Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

October 4, 2016

Every year we join our fellow Jews around the world in making our annual pilgrimage to the synagogue in observance of the High Holy Days.  But what is it that draws us to this place on this night?  On any given Shabbat, with the exception of special events, there are far, far more empty seats in this sanctuary than there are those that are occupied.  But tonight, the seats that are filled clearly outnumber the seats that are empty.  It is not that we are alone in this experience.  The same could be said of most houses of worship – Jewish and otherwise – across our land.  The non-Jews too have their special days on which their people flock to their sanctuaries in numbers far exceeding their Sabbath worship attendance.

But why is that?  I know that if I were to go around this sanctuary right now and ask each and every one of you individually, “Why did you come here tonight?  What is it about the High Holy Days that draws you to the synagogue” that I would receive an extensive and varied collection of responses.  While as diverse as those responses would be, I suspect that the majority of them would have something to do with connecting with one’s fellow Jews or somehow affirming one’s personal Jewish identity.  “I do it because I am a Jew and this is what Jews do.  They go to services on the High Holy Days.”

Now I am sure that there are those of you who feel that way; that there are those of you who feel truly, in your heart of hearts, that “I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do on the High Holy Days” is reason enough to be here tonight.  But is it really?  At one time, maybe it was, but is it now?

I can tell you, not only as a rabbi whose rabbinic career is drawing to a close, but more importantly, as a Jew who has spent his life in the synagogue – and not just any synagogue, but in the Reform synagogue – no longer is that answer enough.  At one time, observing the High Holy Days if, for no other reason than “I am a Jew and this is what Jews do,” meant truly observing them.  It meant, not just going to a service here or a service there and feeling satisfied that we have done our duty to our Jewish identity, but it meant truly setting aside these days for us and our families as Jewish days; as days on which we withdraw from our engagement with the rest of the world and maintain our focus on who we are as Jews.

As a child growing up in New York City in the ‘50‘s and the ‘60’s, it was utterly unthinkable for my Classical Reform Jewish father to attend the Rosh Hashanah Evening service and then go to work on Rosh Hashanah Day, or to go to work after the Rosh Hashanah Morning service, and you could count on the fact that on Yom Kippur my parents spent the entire day in our synagogue, and they were far from alone in that.  And so it was with us children as well.  There was no question in my house as to whether or not I was going to school on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, even for part of the day, for I was not.  If I had even broached the question with my parents – a highly unlikely scenario – they would have had none of it.  Like my parents, I was not alone in this.  For all of my religious school friends, it was the same.  We were in the synagogue for all of the services, sitting beside our parents.

Yet if my parents and most of their contemporaries were asked back then the question I asked you this evening – “What is it about the High Holy Days that draws you to the synagogue?” – many of them, including my parents – or at least my father – would have given the same answer “Because I am a Jew and this is what Jews do.”  But that was then and this is now.  For many of my parents’ generation grew up as Orthodox Jews who later discovered Reform Judaism.  My father’s grandfather had been a noted Orthodox educator back in Europe.  Theirs was the generation that experienced both the agony of the Holocaust and the ecstasy of the birth of Israel.  Their Jewish identity was indelibly impressed upon them by the forces of history and family tradition.  Therefore a more active observance of the High Holy Days was a natural expression of their Jewish identity and a product of their experiences and upbringing.

But we are not them, for our experiences and our upbringing are not theirs.  Today, the number of Jews who set these days aside and make it clear to the rest of the world that “You are just going to have to do without me on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur” is dwindling.  And it will continue to dwindle, especially as so many of our children are raised in households which choose to send then to school rather than to services on the High Holy Days.

It is not that we are bad people, or even bad Jews.  It is just that with the passage of time, the world has changed and for many Jews, being Jewish and going to the synagogue on the High Holy Days simply because that is what Jews do, is no longer enough of a reason to seriously dedicate more than perhaps a portion of these days to that part of us which is Jewish.

Of course I am certainly prejudiced on this matter, but I believe that the High Holy Days, and indeed Judaism and Jewish life itself, are too important, too precious, not only to us as Jews but to the world, to be allowed to dwindle away into nothingness.  There is a good reason why we have survived for 4,000 years in spite of the efforts of all those who have tried to destroy us.  There is a good reason why we – who have always been so few in numbers – have made such a significant impact upon not only the history of humanity but upon the culture of humanity.  And that reason is to be found enfolded into the very fabric of the Judaism we have come to this synagogue tonight to observe.  It is inherent in Judaism itself and it is both expressed and promoted in our observances and our values.  It is the Jewish perspective on what it means to be a part of humanity.  It is the Jewish call for building a better world on the foundations of compassion and right behavior.  It is the Jewish expectation that we constantly strive to make of ourselves better people.

It is vital for Jewish survival that we come to acknowledge that in the 21st century, doing Jewish things because this is what Jews do is no longer a compelling argument for us to continue to pursue a Jewish life.  There are just too many distractions and to be quite frank, many of them are simply more appealing.  They touch us in ways that are deeper than blindly following some traditions because our parents and grandparents did so.  So if we are to keep our Judaism alive, we need to seek out a deeper meaning in doing so.  Something that moves us.  Something that inspires us.  Something that touches our hearts and our souls, and fills us with a higher sense of purpose.

But where can that be found?  Where should our search begin?  Perhaps we need to go back in time, to a time before the reason Jews did Jewish things like observing the High Holy Days was just “because I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do?”  When the reason Jews lived a Jewish life was more substantive than just keeping certain traditions alive for the sake of tradition; when Jews were bound to their Jewish identity by more than just a thin thread stretching back into their past but rather they were bound by golden cords that not only stretched back into their past but also wove intimately through their present and then travelled forward into their future.

So maybe we need to go back in time and ask those Jews “What is it, not just about the High Holy Days, but about Judaism itself that drew them to the synagogue and inspired them to live Jewish lives?”  While some of them still might say, “Because I’m a Jew and this is what Jews do”, most of them would say something different. Most of them would talk about something that we today don’t spend enough time talking about, or even thinking about, for that matter.  They would talk about God and their relationship with God.  For them, God was a real player in their lives.  They felt connected to God in ways that we have somehow lost.

Of course one of the reasons that they felt more connected to God was because they felt more dependent on God.  There was so much in their world that they did not understand.  Why some people were struck down by dread diseases.  Why, at a moment’s notice, a storm could utterly destroy the livelihood and even the life of a family or an entire village.  So much seemed out of their control and therefore must be in the control of another, and that other was, in their minds, God.  So they feared God, or more precisely, they feared offending God.  They even called these High Holy Days the Yamim HaNora’im – the “Days of Awe” with the Hebrew word for “Awe” being the very same word as the Hebrew for “Fear.”  So prayer was very real to them.  It was a desperate attempt to communicate with a Divinity that was present in their daily lives, and by so doing hopefully change their future for the better.

We are most certainly not that people and the God whom they feared has little if any place in our lives.  Yet we would be sorely mistaken if we were to convince ourselves that the only God they believed in was the God to be feared. Quite the contrary, for their God was anything but one dimensional.  From the very beginning of Judaism, God was, and remains, a colorful and complex character.  As the High Holy Day prayer describes God, Avinu Malkeinu – “Our Parent, Our Sovereign.”  Powerful enough to be feared, like a king or a queen, but also loving and compassionate, like a caring mother or father.  Yes, these Jews feared God but they also loved God.  For God was not just the deliverer of punishments but also the giver of gifts. The gifts of life, of health, of food, of love, of beauty, of wisdom, of truth, of understanding, of knowledge, and of the abilities to learn and to create.  Indeed, they clearly understood that when it came to Judaism, it all begins with God.  From the moment of our people’s birth, when God first called to Abraham, Judaism was primarily about establishing a positive, healthy, and mutual relationship with God.  Without God, Judaism must fade away, for God is the foundation stone of everything that Judaism stands for.  Without God, Judaism becomes a meaningless and empty exercise, as empty and meaningless as the words in the prayer book when read by someone who chooses to watch the clock rather than search for a personal connection to God in the prayers.  For our Judaism – and for these High Holy Days – to have real meaning, we have to accept that it all begins with God.

Most Jews would agree that there is no more important a text in the Torah than the Ten Commandments.  The power of the Ten Commandments has not only touched the soul of the Jewish world but of the Christian world as well.  Our two faiths share the Ten Commandments, or so we think.  But believe it or not there are differences between the way the Christians read them and the way we Jews read them.  For the Christians, the first commandment states “I am the Eternal your God who led you out of the land of Egypt to be your God.  You shall have no other gods before Me,” while for us Jews, the first commandment is “I am the Eternal your God who led you out of the land of Egypt to be your God”, period.  For us, it is the second commandment that reads “You shall have no other gods before Me.”  The Christian version is obviously a commandment.  It instructs to action – “Have no other gods before Me.”  But what about the Jewish version?  It appears to be a declarative statement – “I am the Eternal your God…” rather than a commandment.  Where is its call to action?  Well its call to action is implied and it is essential for everything else which follows; for all the other commandments to have any meaning.  The implied commandment is simply this:  Take this statement to heart and accept it as the foundation for all that follows.  Accept that God exists and that we as Jews live in a sacred relationship with God, and that all the other commandments, all the other expectations of actions and values that are found in the Torah and grow out of it across the ages, are but functions of that relationship between us and God.  They are there to define our role in that relationship.  They feed that relationship and in so doing draw us personally closer to God.

Over the past several years, I have found it odd indeed that people are interested in talking about and seeking spirituality but not so interested in talking about and seeking God, as if the two were completely separate experiences.  But they are not.  Spirituality is far more than just a good feeling about ourselves.  It is about our reaching out for God and God touching our lives.  How so?  Our tradition teaches us that we human beings are not like any other creature living on the earth for we possess something very special; a soul.  The soul was implanted within us by God in order to enable us to connect with God.  It is our divine umbilical cord, if you will, for it enables spiritual energy to flow between us and God.  But that spiritual energy does not flow freely.  It flows at our choosing.  We control how much or how little we receive; how wide or how narrow that umbilical cord is.  If it were solely up to God, the flow would be constant and vast, but God gave us the gift of free will so that we could choose how much or how little we would let God into our lives.  There is a Hasidic saying that “there is no room for God in those who are too full of themselves.”[1]  Sadly, for too many, that is exactly what has happened.  They have turned their control valve and limited the spiritual flow to a trickle, if not closed it off completely, and in so doing, abandoned themselves to being guided primarily or solely by their base animal instincts.  They have starved their souls from the spiritual nutrients they need.

But this need not remain the case.  We can open that value, reach out to God, and feel God’s presence in our lives.  We can feed our souls and in so doing grow as more spiritual and better human beings.  How do we accomplish such a feat?  That is what a better part of our Judaism is about.  It is about how we can connect with God and let God into our lives in beautiful and meaningful ways.  Through the Torah and our sacred teachings, we have been given the owner’s manual to the soul.  We have been instructed on how to awaken and strengthen our souls so that we can come to live our lives in an ongoing relationship with God.  Not just on the High Holy Days and not even just on Shabbat, but rather on a day-to-day basis.  For whether we realize it or not, our day-to-day lives are lived in a relationship with God.  However it is up to us what the nature of that relationship will be.  We can choose to live our lives through behaviors and attitudes which strengthen the bonds between us and God or we can choose to live our lives through behaviors and attitudes which weaken those bonds.  It is up to us.

This past year, here at Temple Emanuel, I taught a series of mini-courses on what our tradition calls MussarMussar is the companion to Halachah.  As Halachah constitutes a body of Jewish laws which lead us to right actions, Mussar constitutes a body of Jewish virtues or ethical perspectives which liberate our souls and enable us to adopt sacred and healthy life attitudes.  While Halachah instructs us about what we should do while living in a sacred relationship with God, Mussar instructs us about how we can better mold our attitudes so that they ultimately instinctually guide us into right behaviors and therefore transform our lives into an active partnership with God.

While the building blocks of Halachah are mitzvot – sacred actions – the building blocks of Mussar are middot – sacred values, sacred attitudes.  I am dedicating the remainder of my High Holy Day sermons to exploring various middot in the hopes that we will begin to understand that if we choose to strengthen our souls by taking on sacred attitudes, then that can lead us to living lives filled with sacred actions, which in turn will connect us more strongly to God and help us to grow into the type of people we aspire to become.

Once we perceive of our lives as being lived in a sacred partnership with God, then we will find that there are far more inspiring reasons to come to the synagogue on the High Holy Days than merely because we are Jews and this is what Jews do.

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

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Holding On and Letting Go: Yizkor Sermon

November 6, 2014

When I was in seminary, rabbinic students were required to take only one course in what was then called “Human Relations.” Its purpose was to teach us that being a rabbi was not just about scholarly matters such as acquiring a command of Hebrew and becoming knowledgeable in Jewish laws and customs but it also was about developing our human interaction skills so that we could be better serve our congregants in both their times of need and also in the daily round of manifold synagogue activities; serve them with sensitivity, compassion, and understanding. Of course, folding all of that into only one course is a tall order, impossible to fill. Thankfully, today the rabbinic students at the Hebrew Union College receive far more training in this important field.
As I recall that course, it seemed that our professor invested a majority of our time discussing issues surrounding death and funerals such as the mechanics of writing a eulogy and the dynamics of the conversations that take place in the limousine during the ride from the funeral to the cemetery, which may not make much sense to us here in the Quad Cities but does have some relevance in a community like New York City, where such a drive can take a considerable amount of time.
After ordination, it did not take my classmates or me long to discover that there was very little relationship between the content of that course and the reality of the interpersonal dynamics – the Human Relations – which are to be found in synagogue life. Indeed, considering how much time we spent exploring the role of the rabbi within the grief and mourning process, it was remarkable how out of touch with reality our curriculum had been.
So I, like most of of my contemporaries, found that whatever skills in matters of grief and mourning I would require, I would have to acquire on the job, so to speak. Over the years, I would learn from a growing body of experiences attained by standing beside so many grieving families as I attempted to offer whatever comfort and consolation I could. Yet still it require my own personal experiences of loss to take me to the next level; to understand, not just with my mind and my heart, but with every essence of my being, what it truly meant to lose someone you love.
Having assisted and supported so many mourners as they have accompanied their loved ones to the grave, I have had the opportunity to make many observations about how people deal with their grief. Of course, no two people are exactly alike in anything, and that includes how we deal with grief. Still patterns emerge, some of them good and what I consider to be healthy, and some not so much so.
One of the most difficult challenges I have seen mourners struggling with – and by mourners here, I do not just mean those who have suffered a recent loss but also those of us who have suffered loss whether it be recently or in the distant past – is the challenge of finding a healthy balance between holding on and letting go; holding on to our love and attachment to the one who is now gone and letting go of that person, not entirely but yet enough to enable ourselves to move on with our lives.
In my experiences, I have encountered those who cling so dearly to their loss that years go by and their grief is as fresh and as painful for them as it was on the day of their loved one’s passing. As strong as is their love, the memory of the one they love remains mostly a source of tears and pain for them. Often they bemoan, “How can I go on? Life will just never be the same!” Such people never allow the memory of their loved one to evolve into the warming presence that can bring them smiles and maybe even some laughter as well as tears. It remains more like a knife cutting into them rather than a loving companion, invisibly accompanying them with wisdom and insight as they continue their life journey.
How could we not admire such a profound love? What a testament it is to the person now gone. How could anyone in good conscience counsel, “You need to love that person less”? Yet these people hold on so tightly to their beloved dead; so tightly that their grief winds up strangling them. Somewhere along the line, they seem to have forgotten that this is probably the last thing the departed ever would have wished upon them; that they live the remainder of their life enveloped in grief and misery because of their loss.
Such people are so determined to hold on to what they can of their loved ones that they cannot begin to conceive that it is also perfectly permissible to let go of them as well. Not to forget them – God forbid, not to forget them – but to let go of the intensity of their grief and to permit those feelings to evolve into something more livable.
There is a story about a man so stricken with grief at the passing of his wife that on her headstone he has inscribed the message, “The light has gone out of my life!” Time passes and as fate would have it, he meets another woman and they fall in love. He wants to remarry but is wracked with guilt over the thought of betraying his first wife, especially considering the inscription on her headstone. So he goes to his rabbi for counsel. He tells the rabbi of his feelings and of the inscription. The rabbi thinks for a moment and then suggests, “Why don’t you have an additional inscription added to the stone right below the first?” Puzzled, the man inquires, “An additional inscription? What should it say?” The rabbi responded, “It should say, ‘But I struck another match.’”
So it should be with those among us who hold on so tightly to the pain of our loss and struggle with the very thought of letting go, even if just a little. We, too, need to “strike another match.” We need to discover ways of letting go – not forgetting – but letting go enough so that we can bring some semblance of joy back into our lives. For this is not just what we need but it is what our loved ones would wholeheartedly want for us.
Just as there are those among us to who hold on too tightly to their loss and have trouble letting go, there also are those who are too quick to let go – too eager to let go – as if they are afraid to hold on to anything, perhaps because they fear that holding on will prove to be just too painful for them. I know that type of fear. Up until the day my mother died, there was nothing I feared more on this earth than the passing of my parents. There was a time when I and two friends were caught in a crossfire between the Israeli army and Hezbollah terrorists, and that did not frighten me nearly as much as the thought of losing my parents. I could not begin to imagine what the world would be like without those special people who had always been there for me throughout my life. Having felt the fear, I can understand how for some that fear becomes so overwhelming that the only way they feel they can deal with it is by refusing to confront their loss, making every effort to put it behind them as quickly as possible and get on with their life.
As a rabbi, too many have been the times when I have witnessed this type of reaction on the part of mourners. I cannot tell you how deeply saddened I am when someone from the congregation passes away and their children, living out of town, come to me with a request like, “Rabbi, our flight lands at 9:00 in the morning. Would it be possible for us to hold the service at 10:00 so that we can catch a 1:30 flight back home? I can’t afford the time away from the office and the children need to get back to school.” While there is a part of me which wants to scream at them, “Isn’t the memory of your mother / your father worth your spending at least one night in the Quad Cities? Can’t you leave a little time in your life for mourning?” still I want to believe that they truly are not so heartless, so uncaring as people that they view their parent’s passing as nothing more as a gross inconvenience in their lives. I want to believe that they love their parents and that their parent’s passing hurts them deeply; so deeply that they convince themselves that the only way they can deal with it is by not dealing with it; by getting the funeral over and done with as quickly as possible and returning to their normal routines, making believe nothing has changed. All they want to do is let go and move on, or so they think.
But in reality, when we lose a loved one, much has changed in our lives, whether or not we wish to admit it. Because of it, we cannot just let go and move on. We cannot attempt to bury our pain, along with our loved one, for our pain will not go away. We can strive to jam it into the background, but it will keep popping out – painfully popping out – whether we like it or not.
When our body is injured, we understand the need to create space in our lives for physical recovery. The same is true for our souls. The loss of a loved one is an injury – a deep wound – to our souls and our souls need time to recover. They need time to adjust to their changed condition, especially when you consider that the injury to soul inflicted by the death of one so dear will never completely heal. We will carry a part of it with us for the rest of our lives. Making believe that no wound exists is foolishness, for it does exist and we cannot simply wish it away. We must learn how to live with it. We must learn how to transform it from intense pain to a duller pain that carries with it its own gifts; the gifts of warm memories of all that was good and loving in the relationship we once shared. There is much we need to hold on to, for holding on in such a way can enhance our lives rather than detract from them. Such holding on keeps the deceased alive on this earth, through our memories and our sharing of those memories.
So it is the balance of holding on and letting go which we should be seeking in our lives. For if such a balance we can discover, we can both render proper and fitting honor to the memories of those we loved, and we can live our lives more fully and meaningfully, as those memories help to guide us as we seek to make the most of our lives. It is to the task of finding that balance that this service of Yizkor is dedicated, for it calls upon us to both remember – for the word “Yizkor” means “Remember” – and to move forward with our lives, carrying those memories with us in positive and constructive ways.

Cuba & Iran: The U.S. Then & Israel Now

November 18, 2013

Over the years, I have amassed quite a collection of DVDs, much to my wife’s chagrin and my daughters’ delight.  The other night, to fill the void of my loneliness, as my children have grown and moved away and my wife’s job has relocated her to Detroit, with only brief weekend visits every other week, I decided to pop in a movie and lose myself in the story on the screen in front of me.  Since we are coming up on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I thought I would commemorate the event by watching one of my “Kennedy” films.  So I perused my shelves of DVDs and decided on the film “Thirteen Days,” starring Kevin Costner and Bruce Greenwood.  For those unfamiliar with the film, it is a powerful drama about the struggles within the Kennedy administration over how to address the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I imagine that those younger than me can watch this film and find it interesting but a little too talky.  But I have always found this film compelling.  Then again, I remember living through the Cuban Missile Crisis.  For me, the tension that this film seeks to recreate is not just history.  It is memory.  When the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred, I was one month short of my 13th birthday and one month passed my Bar Mitzvah (my parents wanted my Bar Mitzvah reception to be a garden party and a garden party is not a very good idea for November in New York).  I remember sitting in my living room, with my parents and sister, glued to the television as the President addressed the nation, informing us of this very real threat so close to our borders.  This was just the danger for which they had been preparing us in school with those duck-&-cover drills.  It was just the danger which had led so many people to build fallout shelters.  We, in our neighborhood in the Bronx, couldn’t build such shelters.  While we all lived in private homes and had back yards, beneath those back yards were our cesspools, for city sewage pipes had not yet reached our neighborhood.  Unlike so many of my classmates, who lived in apartment buildings with fall out shelters in their basements, in our neighborhood, we had no place to flee in the event of a nuclear attack.  I remember so clearly, the day after President Kennedy’s historic broadcast, standing outside my house with Neal DeLuca, my next door neighbor playmate, sharing our fears and discussing what it would be like to die in a nuclear holocaust.  Over the years, many were the times that he and I played at war, which was common for boys in those days, whether we were playing Cowboys-&-Indians, World War II, acorn fights or snowball fights.  But this was completely different.  This was not our pretend noble deaths of  brave soldiers in combat.  This was a death by fire, completely beyond our control and from which there was no escape and no possibility of being wounded instead of killed.  Nor was it make believe.  It was all too real and all too imminent.  But of course, as school children, we could not help but wonder whether or not school would be cancelled the next day in anticipation of the nuclear holocaust (it was not).  We truly felt that our lives were about to draw to a frightening close and, as you can imagine, especially as children, we had a great deal of difficulty processing this.

Watching that movie reawakened within me all those memories and feelings.  Yet as I reflected upon them, it struck me that what I – and the rest of America – experienced then was probably not that different than what the people, and especially the children, of Israel are experiencing now in regard to the Iranian nuclear threat.  Granted, the threat of nuclear extinction is not as immediate to them today as it was for us during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but still it is no less real.  In some ways perhaps more so because the Iranians have made their intentions abundantly and consistently clear.  They intend to wipe the State of Israel off the map.  Up until now, they have affirmed this intention not only through words but through deeds, such as their significant material support of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in their terrorist war against Israel and the West.  They have done nothing whatsoever to lead us to any other conclusion but that if allowed to continue to develop their nuclear capabilities they would add their nuclear weaponry to their arsenal in their war against Israel and the West.  They would employ them against Tel Aviv & Jerusalem, Washington & New York, London & Paris.  In the movie “Thirteen Days,” upon first learning of the Russian missile sites in Cuba, Ken Costner’s character said, “I feel like we caught the Jap carriers steaming for Pearl Harbor.”  In terms of our situation today with Iran, it is as if we uncovered the Japanese plans to attack Pearl Harbor while their aircraft carriers were still under construction.

With the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was no acceptable middle ground.  Slowing down the installation of missiles in Cuba, with their ability to strike targets in the U.S., was never considered an option, not should it have been.  When it came to the safety and security of the American people, there was only one acceptable outcome; the complete elimination of those missile sites, either peacefully or militarily accomplished.  Anything less constituted just cause to go to war.  The same can, and should, be said about the Iranian nuclear program.  There can be no middle ground.  Their ability to develop nuclear weapons must be completely dismantled.  They must be left with no possibility of ever waging nuclear war against Israel or any of their enemies, which by the way includes the United States.  Anything less constitutes just cause for war, especially as Israel is concerned.

Concerning the current situation with Iran, it is easy for some Americans to fail to feel the imminent threat experienced by the Israelis, and therefore to assume that the Israelis, especially in the person of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are just being war mongers; that all they want to do is embroil our nation in another costly, drawn out, and inconclusive Middle East war, as we have experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It is easy for some journalists to speak about how a “war weary America” is simply not interested in another military venture.  It is becoming easier and easier for President Obama to compromise his assurances of American protection of Israel and our other Middle Eastern allies from an nuclear armed Iran as he futilely strives to salvage his presidential legacy by disengaging from his failed Middle East policy strategies, leaving a vacuum which Russia is all to happy to fill.  All this is so easy for us Americans because we do not feel the threat as Israel and Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Egypt and Turkey feel it.  Indeed, we have forgotten what that threat feels like as we have two generations of Americans who knew not the Cuban Missile Crisis, just as there “arose a pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”  Yet the threat remains real.  Not only does it remain real for our allies in the Middle East, but it remains real for us as well.  As for those who never personally experienced the fears brought on by the Cuban Missile Crisis, somehow or other they need to be reminded of the fears they felt after the attacks of September 11, 2001.  For those September 11th attacks were conducted by terrorists, not unlike the terrorist today whose violence and bloodshed is primarily sponsored by the same nation of Iran which is seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability; one which they will direct, not only against Israel and their other Middle East opponents, but against all who they perceive as the enemies of their way of life, and on their list of enemies, America ranks near the top.

Who Stands for Kaddish?

June 14, 2013

Recently, on the Reform rabbinic list server. there has been a discussion  about the common Reform Jewish custom of having the entire congregation stand for the Kaddish Yatom (the Mourners’ Kaddish).  While I found the give-&-take interesting, up until now I had decided that this was one conversation which I would follow but not partake in.  However that changed after one of my friends posted a very touching account of  his own personal experience at the time of his father’s passing.  In it he testified to how much more meaningful it was for him at the time of his loss to stand alone, or with a cadre of fellow mourners when saying Kaddish, and how when he found himself in the more typical Reform setting where everyone stands for Kaddish, how the transformation of this prayer into a communal event diminished his Kaddish experience.

His story inspired me to share a personal story of my own – though my experiences have led me to approach this question from a very different perspective.  His feelings are his feelings, and as I respect him greatly so do I respect his feeling.  But we are all molded by our experiences and mine have sent me down a different path than his.  So here is my story and what I have taken away from it.

Growing up, my family belonged to a classical Reform congregation in the Bronx.  My parents were a microcosm of the make up of that congregation.  My father was raised as an Orthodox Jew and for years refused to practice any Judaism, so deep was is distaste for Orthodox Judaism.  On  the other hand, my mother was raised as a classical Reform Jew by parents who had a very limited involvement in their congregation, yet as an adult she felt the need to deepen her Jewish connection.  For several years, while my sister (who was 6 years my senior) went to religious school, my family belonged to an Orthodox congregation, at the insistence of my mother. She felt it important that my sister have a Jewish education and the Orthodox congregation was the closest one to our home.  We never attended services – not even the High Holy Days – and until the day of my sister’s Bat Mitzvah (a group service on a Sunday afternoon, with no Torah reading), my father never set foot in that synagogue.  As soon as my sister had her Bat Mitzvah, my parents quit that congregation.  However, about a year later, they were approached by neighbors who belonged to a Reform congregation.  With my mother insisting that I, too, receive a Jewish education (I was in 1st grade at the time), my parents gave it a try and both of them immediately fell in love with Reform Judaism, both becoming active members of the congregation.

I grew up with only one living grandparent; my grandmother on my mother’s side.  A few years after my family joined the Reform congregation, my grandmother passed away.  At that time (this was the late ’50’s) it was still the practice within Reform Judaism that only the mourners rise for the Kaddish.  For eleven months, every Friday night, my mother would stand and say Kaddish for her mother, often standing alone, attempting to read along with the rabbi.  I say “attempting” because as a child, my mother never learned to read Hebrew.  She struggled mightily with the transliteration of the Kaddish as found in the old Union Prayer Book.  Even as a child, I clearly recognized how painful it was for her to stand alone in the congregation and fumble over this prayer.  It had to be extremely embarrassing, but she bore it every Friday evening, a true act of dedication to the memory of her mother.

Throughout our movement, my mother was not alone in this predicament.  In those days, and even more so when my mother was a child, Hebrew study was not a priority for Reform Jews.  It was after my mother’s experience that our congregation instituted the practice of everyone rising for the Kaddish.  They said it was in memory of all the Jewish martyrs of ages past but in fact it was in support of those mourners of the day who could not fluently read the Hebrew and deserved not to be so publicly embarrassed.  Feeling the pain of my mother, I always deeply appreciated that act of kindness.

Then came the days of my own mourning, with the passing of my mother, then my father, and then my sister.  One Shabbat morning, when I was attending a Bat Mitzvah at our local pseudo-Conservative congregation, I experienced for the first time what it was like to stand for the Kaddish as a mourner without the non-mourners of the congregation standing alongside of me.  Like my friend and colleague, I keenly felt the healing power of the moment in ways that I never felt in my own congregation.  I immediately appreciated what had been lost with the institution of our communal Kaddish.  Yet the memory of my mother’s Kaddish ordeal remained a painful memory.  What to do?

Shortly after that experience, in my own congregation, I instituted the practice of introducing the Kaddish in such a way that the mourners had an opportunity to spend at least some time standing alone in memory of their loved ones before they were joined by the rest of the congregation in standing and reciting the Kaddish.  Three years ago, I added a beautiful addition to that practice.  Now I not only have them stand when their loved one’s name is recited in the Yahrzeit list, but I also give them the opportunity, if they choose to take it, of sharing some personal reflection on the life of the loved on they are recalling that Shabbat.  Not only is it powerfully cathartic for those mourners who choose to take advantage of that opportunity, but it personalizes and enhances the Kaddish experience for all those congregants who will stand and pray without a Yahrzeit of their own to observe.  I have found that it truly does capture the best of both worlds.

The Rabbi Sat on Santa’s Lap

December 22, 2012

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

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

October 12, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 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.