Posted tagged ‘Values’

The Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut: A Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon

October 5, 2016

Last night I announced that I planned to dedicate the remainder of this year’s High Holy Day sermons to a sharing of some of the potentially life altering lessons of Mussar.  And so I shall.  But before I can do that, an introduction to Mussar itself is in order so as to put these lessons into an understandable context.  If you wish to enter into a deeper exploration of Mussar – and I hope you will – then I cannot recommend highly enough the book EVERYDAY HOLINESS by Alan Morinis.  It has inspired me and I know it will inspire you.[1]

The word Mussar literally means “correction” or “instruction” and also has become one of the more popular words that is used today for “ethics.”  Back in the second half of the 19th century, in Lithuania, Rabbi Israel Salanter started a movement of Jewish study which centered upon examining our ethical values and how they can influence our behaviors and therefore our lives, especially our spiritual lives.  That movement came to be called the Mussar Movement, and it remains alive and well today.

Rabbi Salanter came to understand that Halachah – Jewish law – could only take us so far in our quest to develop healthy spiritual lives.  For Halachah addresses our behaviors; our actions and our restraint from actions.  It calls upon us to adopt a system of Mitzvot – a discipline of sacred behaviors – which can have the effect  of raising us up to a higher spiritual plain.  But the performance of Mitzvot, as he and all of us have observed, can easily devolve into become a mechanical and meaningless routine.  Therefore there needs to be something deeper within us, which drives the Mitzvot and keeps them alive, fresh, and meaningful.  And this is precisely where Mussar comes in, for while Halachah addresses our behaviors, Mussar addresses the underlying attitudes which inform our behaviors.  And for Mussar, our attitudes are fundamentally a function of our souls.

In order to better appreciate Mussar you need to understand Mussar’s approach to the soul.  First of all, in Mussar we do not possess a soul, as if it were something apart from us that could be surgically removed like a kidney, but rather we ARE a soul.  It is our soul which makes us into distinct individuals.  All our physical attributes can change, and many do.  My hair is growing gray.  I used to have a 28” waistline.  Yet we remain the same people.  Even identical twins possess their own individuality.  It is the soul and not the body that is the seat of our individuality.

While the soul is one, it does have three aspects to it.  That is just like us.  Each of us is one individual but still, there are many different aspects to who we are. For example, I am a rabbi, a man, a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a teacher, a community volunteer, an American, a Jew, etc.  So it is with the soul.  The three aspects of the soul, as identified by our tradition, are the Neshamah, the Ruach, and the Nefesh.  The Neshamah is the inner core of the soul.  It is the very essence of the divinity within us.  Therefore it is inalterably holy and pure, and that can never change.  The Ruach is, for lack of a better term, the life force within us.  It is the Ruach that animates our body and impacts, and is impacted by, our physical condition.  Then there is the Nefesh.  The Nefesh is the center for our personality traits and our attitudes.  The nature and condition of our Nefesh can be altered by the choices we make and the actions we take.  It can be stained and it can be cleansed.  You could compare the relationship between the Neshamah and the Nefesh to that of the sun and the weather.  The Neshamah is like the sun, always radiating light and heat, and the Nefesh is like the weather, sometimes letting the holy light and heat of the Neshamah into our lives and sometimes blocking it out.

It is with the nature of the Nefesh that Mussar is most concerned, the goal of Mussar being to help us develop a healthy Nefesh, so that each of us can reside, so to speak, in the spiritual Sunbelt.

Mussar calls the character traits of the Nefesh, MiddotMiddah in the singular.  Middah literally means a “measure” and in this context, it is the measure of our attitudes.  It is our attitudes which inform our actions.  If we embrace one attitude we will act in one way but it we embrace another attitude, we will act in quite a different way.

Mussar envisions our attitudes as existing along a continuum, from one extreme to another, such as from greed to generosity.  Both ends of such continuums can be equally destructive.  So, for example, excessive greed can cut us off from all human relationships while excessive generosity can lead us to giving everything away to the point that we can no longer survive.  What we need is to find some sort of combination of both extremes, where they each moderate the other in such a way as to establish the ideal mix.  So, for example, that we become generous enough to make a real difference in the lives of the less fortunate yet remain greedy enough to restrain our altruism in such a way that we keep sufficient means to sustain and maintain ourselves and our families.  Achieving such ideal mixtures is the function of the Middot.

The principle which governs how we determine where along the continuum the Middah should reside is to be found in the Torah portion we will read on Yom Kippur afternoon.  It comes from LEVITICUS, chapter 9, verse 2, in which God states, “You shall be holy for I Adonai your God am holy.”  The proper mix – the Middah – is the one that leads us best to a high state of holiness; to spiritual self-improvement; to a cleansing of our Nefesh and a release of more sacred light into our lives from our Neshamah.

Now we are ready to examine our first Middah; the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut.  This Middah seeks to help us grapple with the issue of trust in our lives.  Trust, like all the other attitudes as viewed by Mussar, exists along a continuum.  On one end of that continuum is a trust which is so absolute that how can we consider it anything other than gullibility?  Those individuals who live on that end of the continuum believe everyone they meet and everything they hear.  As such, they are forever ripe targets for those who seek to take advantage of them.  On the other end of the continuum is such an absence of trust that it is nothing less than paranoia.  Those people believe no one they meet and nothing that they hear.  So Mussar, tells us that somewhere in between those two extreme is the ideal balance of absolute trust and absolute distrust.  That meeting place is the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut.

The Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut deals particularly with the level of trust we invest in our fellow human beings.  This is not just a challenge for the gullible and the paranoid among us.  This is a problem each and every one of us faces.  I suspect that for most of us, hardly a day passes when we do not find ourselves in situations which call upon us to make judgements about other people.   And if we were to be honest with ourselves, how often it is that we find ourselves all too ready to jump to our own conclusions, most of the time thinking the worst of others; we are so ready to embrace the negative.  We are so ready to ascribe an evil or selfish intent upon the actions of others.  “They wanted to hurt me!”  How we can savor a juicy piece of gossip!  The darker the rumor, the more ready we are to believe it and how ready we are to pass it on to others.  Our tradition even has a name for this.  We call it Lashon HaRa – “the Evil Tongue”, and of it the rabbis said that it is a sin worse than murder, for the murderer only destroys one soul but the purveyor of Lashon HaRa destroys three – his or her soul, the soul of the subject of the tale, and the soul of the one who listens to it.

But don’t feel too bad, don’t beat yourself up about it, for just this summer I found out that it’s not all our fault.  It turns out that there is a whole branch of psychology called Evolutionary Psychology.  Science Daily describes Evolutionary Psychology in this way:  “Evolutionary psychology is a theoretical approach to psychology that attempts to explain useful mental and psychological traits—such as memory, perception, or language—as adaptations, i.e., as the functional products of natural selection.”  In other words, there are certain aspects of the human psychological makeup which have become almost instinctual within us as a product of the process of evolution.  Our readiness to think the worst about people is part of that phenomenon.  Our brains are hotwired to expect the negative and that tendency can be traced back to the earliest days of human history when the world was a very hostile place and we always needed to be on our guard if we were ever to survive.  That is why, still today, it is part of our makeup that our anger tends to linger while our gratitude quickly fades.  We tend to cling to the memories of how others have hurt us and suppress those memories of how they blessed us.  We are so ready to forget and throw away all the good times because of one bad time.

That being said, our Judaism has always taught us that we are much more than our instincts.  There are times when we need to transcend our instincts – rise above them – in order to make of ourselves better people.  And this issue of trust is one of those times.  And that brings us right back to the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut, for that is precisely what this Middah calls upon us to do; to rise above our instinctual urges to assume negative intent in the actions and the words of our fellow human beings.  For Dan L’Chaf Zechut literally means “Judge others according to a scale of merit,” or in more colloquial terms, “Give Others the Benefit of the Doubt.”  In spite of our psychology, and maybe even our biology, we have to get over our instinct to rush to judgement and assume the worst of others.

We have to stop ourselves from automatically thinking negatively and say, at least to ourselves, and even better to others as well, “Wait a minute!  I know this person.  And knowing what I do know about this person, do I really believe that this person was capable of doing that or saying that?  Do I really believe that this person intentionally wanted to hurt others?  Could it be that this report is faulty or exaggerated, or some of the facts are missing?  You know, generally speaking there are two sides to every story.  I sure would like to hear the other side before I am ready to jump on the condemnation bandwagon.”

Overcoming this instinct of ours to generally think the worst is a real challenge.  In fact, there are very few people I have known who have ever become masters of it; who somehow inoculated themselves from such massive negativity.  One of them was my mother, and another was a person who lived in this community and has since passed away.  Many of you knew her.  Martha Stone.

For many years, our adult education program included a Wednesday morning book study group.  We called it “Sefarim” which is Hebrew for “Books.”  Among its members were Martha and Alex Stone.  From 10:00 to 11:30 every Wednesday morning we gathered in the Temple Library and seriously studied books of our choosing.  Of course, as is common in study groups that have met over time, and in which the participants get to really know each other more than just in passing, there were mornings when book talk was sidetracked by community talk, particularly about this or that hot button topic.  Invariably, when one person or another, in a fit of aggravation, complained, “Did you hear what so-&-so did or said?” and then went on to recount the offensive remarks or actions, Martha was always quick to jump in and say “Wait a minute.  Maybe that person was trying to say X instead of Y.  Maybe that person was trying to do A instead of B.”  She always gave people the benefit of the doubt.  She always assumed that their intentions were good, and not evil, and she always tried to make others see that as well.  She always chose to see the good in people rather than the bad.  She was the personification of Dan L’Chaf Zechut.  And how I admired her for it.  How I always wished that I could be more like her.

Martha clearly understood what we all need to understand.  People aren’t throwaways.  Every human being is both precious and fragile.  Except for the relatively few truly evil people in the world, the vast majority of us are spending our lives, trying to do the right thing, or at least the right thing as we see it.  Granted that sometimes we get so lost in our pursuit of our version of the right, that we wind up doing the wrong thing; the wrong thing for what we believe to be the right reasons.  We all, every once and a while wander off the path.  We all can miss the mark.  That is why our tradition uses the word Chet as one of the words for “sin” for “Chet” literally means “missing the mark.”  But at the end of the day, right or wrong, we are trying to do the best we can.  This is why the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut is so important.  For in this imperfect world populated by imperfect people, if we are going to measure each other, we need to measure each other on the scale of merit rather than on the scale of demerit.  We need to give each other the benefit of the doubt or we will wind up tearing each other apart.  Only then can we raise ourselves up to a higher spiritual plain as we begin to heal the world rather than destroy it.

One last thought.  For those of you who have accompanied me for all or a good part of my 32 year Quad Cities journey through the High Holy Days, you know that it has been my tradition to focus my Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon on some lesson we can draw from the Torah portion – the Akedah – the attempted sacrifice of Isaac.  I would be remiss if I were to abandon that tradition this year, of all years, for my last Rosh Hashanah Morning sermon before you.  So consider this.

Today’s Torah portion presents us with an Abraham who also could embrace the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut, for even though he had to check and double check God’s instructions about offering Isaac up for a sacrifice, in the end he did not resist it nor did he turn his back on God and walk away.  He planned to go through with it.  Why?  Not because he was an unfeeling father and not because he did not love Isaac dearly.  But rather because, based upon his knowledge and experience of God, he trusted God implicitly.  Knowing the type of god God is – living in a world that was filled with those who believed in many harsh and brutal gods – when it came to his God, Abraham was trusting and faithful enough to embrace the Middah of Dan L’Chaf Zechut.  Knowing that his God is a God of justice and compassion, he gave God the benefit of the doubt, truly believing that everything would work out for the best.  And it did.  Maybe one of the reasons that we read this story as we begin the new year is because, perhaps in this coming year, we will learn to become more like Abraham, trusting in the good of others and every ready to offer them the benefit of the doubt.  Dan L’Chaf Zechut.

AMEN

 

[1]  So much of my knowledge of Mussar is drawn from my studies of Alan Morninis’ book, EVERYDAY HOLINESS, and the book TEACHING JEWISH VIRTUES:  SACRED SOURCES AND ARTS ACTIVITIES, by Susan Freeman, that I am no longer certain where their teachings take off and my “original” thought begins.  I share this with you in the spirit of the Middah, B’Shem Omro, “Giving Proper Acknowledgement of Sources of the Knowledge We Share With Others”.

Rosh Hashanah Hunger Appeal 5775

October 31, 2014

Shanah Tovah Tikateivu! May each and every one of you be inscribed for manifold blessings in the coming new year!
Every year I open our High Holy Day worship by appealing to you to support the various ways in which our congregation joins in the fight against world and local hunger. Often in the past I have shared the heartbreaking statistics of how many of our fellow human beings – men and women, the elderly and little children – have been ravaged and slaughtered by starvation. Often in the past, I have pointed with great pride to the statistics of our own congregation’s effort to fight hunger; how much money we have raised, how many pounds of food we have collected, how many have walked in the CROP Walk. All of that is valuable information which deserves to be shared. But tonight I want to go in another direction.
For years I have taken this opportunity to promote our hunger programs and I suspect that by now most of you have figured out that I am passionate about these efforts. But I never really have shared with you why I am so passionate; why this particular issue touches me so deeply and why I am so urgent about it touching you as well.
One need only glance at me to realize that hunger has never been a personal challenge in my life. When it comes to food, my problem has never been too little, but too much! In my 64 years, I do not think that a day has gone by – with the exception of my annual Yom Kippur fasts – in which I have ever seriously gone without food. But that very fact, in and of itself, has helped to make this such a pressing issue for me, in very much a High Holy Days way – Guilt!
Maybe it is because I am one of that generation who were told by our parents to clean our plates at meal times because there were starving children in China. Of course, none of us could understand how not leaving food on our plates could help to feed starving Chinese children, but still the image was imbedded in our minds. While we have full plates and full stomachs, there are plenty of others on the planet who do not. So many years later, standing on the bathroom scale, unhappy with the tonnage it shows, struggling unsuccessfully with the many temptations, how can one not feel guilty about over consumption when there are starving children in China and Africa and Southeast Asia and in practically every city in our own land of plenty, including in our own Quad Cities?
I have a few pleasures in my life – God, family, the big screen and the small screen, and food, not necessarily in that order. But it troubles me to no end that when it comes to food, it is not so much for me an issue of sustenance but rather of pleasure, while there are literally millions in our world for whom food is hardly a matter of pleasure but actually a matter of life and death While I am not so naive as to believe that by my eating less they, in turn, will eat more, I do know that it is nothing less than one of the greatest of obscenities for me to continue to eat my fill without doing what I can to fill their empty bellies, and perhaps to save their lives.
Now you may not be as food centered as I am but I doubt that any of you really ever go hungry, except by your own choosing. We all fill our baskets at the supermarket and probably visit restaurants quite regularly. We never really want for food nor do we truly know what it means to want for food. But at this time of the year, when we are supposed to be taking serious stock of our moral selves, how can we, in good conscience, choose to turn a blind eye to the mitzvah opportunities that are before us to do some of what we can to relieve the life threatening hunger pangs of our co-inhabitants on Planet Earth?
So once again I encourage you to join in our congregation’s efforts to ease the suffering of the starving multitudes.
I call upon you to once again support our efforts on behalf of the annual CROP WALK Against World Hunger. We need walkers, we need donors, and of course, we need those who will do both. This year’s Walk will take place on Sunday, October 5th – the day after Yom Kippur. How fitting! The Walk will beginn at 2:00 p.m., starting from Modern Woodman Park. Bring your children. Please, bring your children! Some of my fondest memories of parenthood are of sharing these walks with my children as they learned to put into action the mitzvah of feeding the hungry. On the tables in the lobby, there are Walk forms. Please sign up to walk or pledge or both.
I call upon you to once again support our collection of non-perishable food items. For years, we have taken this time between Rosh Hashanah and Simhat Torah to collect food on behalf of our local Riverbend Foodbank. So next time you are in the supermarket, buy an extra grocery sack or two of non-perishable food and bring them to the Temple Library. As you do so, please remember that what we collect will help to feed fellow Quad Citians who are so desperately in need.
I call upon you once again to make a contribution to that very important Jewish organization, MAZON. MAZON was the first exclusively Jewish organization created to address the issue of hunger. Their goal, as expressed in the words of their mission statement, is “To provide for people who are hungry while at the same time advocating for other ways to end hunger and its causes.” You will find a self-addressed donation envelop for MAZON in your prayer books. I encourage you to make a donation equal to what it would cost to take the members of your household out for one dinner at a restaurant.
And finally, I call upon you to support the efforts of our Tikkun Olam Committee throughout the year, as they periodically prepare and serve meals for Café on Vine, one of our community’s meal sites for the homeless.
May the pleasures that we receive from all the blessings we enjoy in our lives also fuel our passion to ease the suffering and introduce some pleasure into the lives of those who are far less fortunate than are we.

Putting the New in the New Year

October 30, 2014

There is a Hasidic story about how a student of Rabbi Mordecai of Nadvorna approached his teacher prior to Rosh Hashanah in order ask permission to be dismissed. Rabbi Mordecai asked him, “What’s your hurry?” to which he responded: “I am leading the services back in my home village and I need time to study the prayer book and put my services in order.” Rabbi Mordecai then said to him: “The prayer book is the same as it was last year. It would be better for you to study your deeds and put yourself in order.”
Well, if Rabbi Mordecai said that to me this year, I would say to him: “That’s what you think, Rabbi Mordecai! Obviously you have not had a chance to look at any of the pilot services from the soon to be published new Reform High Holy Day prayer book, MISHKAN HANEFESH!”
Whether or not Rabbi Mordecai has had a chance to take a look at MISHKAN HANEFESH, and I doubt that he did, considering the fact that he lived in the 19th century, you – the members of our congregation – will get a chance to look at it, and pray from it, tomorrow morning. I suspect that some of you may love it and some of you may loathe it and the feelings of many of you probably will fall somewhere in between. But this I can promise you: It will offer us a High Holy Day worship experience which will be dramatically different from what we are used to after years of praying out of GATES OF REPENTANCE.
What can I tell you about the book? Will the service be longer? I know that is a question on many people’s minds. To be quite honest, I just don’t know. The fact that this particular service booklet has over 190 pages is not encouraging. However, the format of this book is so different – in some ways, but not in every way, similar to our Shabbat prayer book, MISHKAN T’FILAH – that many pages does not necessarily mean a long service. What about music? This service definitely has more music than the Rosh Hashanah morning service in our current prayer book. Of course music is a matter of taste but personally I like the music that has been added. I also can tell you that there are some English alternatives offered to traditional prayers that are unlike any text you probably would expect to encounter on the High Holy Days. The book also offers some surprises like various opportunities for study sessions in the midst of the service and wait until you see what they have done to the Shofar service. Love it or loathe it, one thing is definitely certain. This book will provide us with a new High Holy Day worship experience.
Now I know that when we encounter something new, often it takes a lot of getting used to. There is some¬thing about human nature – not for all of us but for most of us – which instinctively resists the new. So many of us far prefer to wrap ourselves up in the warm, cuddly, familiar blanket of the old ways.
Many of you might remember, back in 1996, when Bob Dole was the Republican candidate for President. In his nomination acceptance speech, he framed his campaign around the concept of building a bridge to the past; to an era more familiar and, at least in memory, more pleasant. Many found that approach very appealing. However, his opponent, Bill Clinton, was soon to counter that ideology by stating that it was not his intention to build a bridge to the past but rather to build a bridge to the future. And we know who won that contest. The book from which we have prayed this evening is Reform Judaism’s bridge to the past. The book from which we will pray tomorrow morning is Reform Judaism’s bridge to the future.
When you think about it, as new and as different as tomorrow morning’s service may be, it is all very much in keeping with the essential spirit of this holy day. For Rosh Hashanah is all about that which is new and our committing ourselves to a process of personal and communal renewal. Indeed, one of the significant traditional greetings for Rosh Hashanah is the greeting of “Titkadeish! – May You Be Renewed!”
For our tradition looks at the New Year as just that – a new year. It is a time to start our lives anew; to embrace new experiences; to make of ourselves new and better people. It is a time for renewal. To renew old dreams which somewhere along the way may have been laid aside. To renew old relationships which, for one reason or another, we may have left dormant. To renew our energy, our lust for life, our joy in living. To renew our commitment to our positive values – justice, right over wrong, caring, love, responsibility. To renew our connections to our Jewish identity, the Jewish people, and most importantly to God. It is a time for us to say, “Today need not be a carbon copy of yesterday, and tomorrow need not be a carbon copy of today.” To say it and to mean it. What better gift can we give to ourselves on the New Year than to start to make of ourselves a New Me?
Yet change is almost always a challenge. Habits are hard to break. Habits – that is what we allow our lives to become. We tend to live our lives habitually; doing the same things day in and day out; thinking the same thoughts, responding in the same ways. Throughout our lives we gather and acquire certain attitudes and perspectives and behaviors and we transform them into what become almost instinctual responses. How many parents have said to their children, “Go ask you father! Go ask your mother!” rather than grapple with the request their child has placed before them? In our household, that is still the Cantor’s and my instinctual go-to position – actually more mine than the Cantor’s – and our youngest child is 21 years old! It is as if we have our own personal catalogs of multipurpose answers and reactions, and we draw upon them as we seek to respond to whatever life hands us. And the content of those catalogs remain the same year in and year out.
In the end, it is all about growth, or lack thereof. It is a fundamental part of human nature to grow. Little children grow into full size adults, some fuller than others. With years of education and life experiences, most of us grow more knowledgeable and perhaps a bit wiser. Everyone of us, if we don’t fall victim to fatal accidents or terminal diseases, eventually grow old. When it comes to our bodies, growth is a lifelong process. So also should it be with our minds, our hearts, our attitudes and perspectives. But too often, for too many of us, somewhere along the line that growth is arrested, and what once was evolving within us somehow or other becomes carved in stone. We may even justify it by saying such things as “I am who I am.” But would it not be better for us to say “I am a work in progress and I look forward to what I will eventually become.”?
So Rosh Hashanah calls upon us to actively engage in seeking out change in our lives; to strive to become a new and better self. How do we begin to accomplish this? First off, I suggest that each and every one of us think back and remember last Rosh Hashanah and honestly ask ourselves, “Am I in any way, significant or otherwise, a different person today than I was then? If I am different, then how am I different and is that difference for the better or for the worse?” There will be those among us who will acknowledge that little if anything has changed from then until now. There also will be those among us who will be able to note definite changes. Yet as they consider the nature of those changes, they will come to recognize that those changes were not a matter of personal choice but rather as a matter of circumstance. God willing, there also will be those among us who will be able to say of themselves, “Yes. I am a different person today and I am different because I chose to be different, and hopefully the differences are for the better.”
If we are among those who have not changed, or who have experienced changes as a result of circumstances rather than of choice, then we need to challenge ourselves to make it possible that come next Rosh Hashanah we will be able to offer a different response; that we will be able to say, “Yes, I have changed because I chose to change, and I have changed for the better.” Even if we are among those who have experienced positive change over the past year, we still need to challenge ourselves to continue that process of positive change, for none of us is perfect. There always lies before us more of this road to travel.
Now at the same time, we need to be realistic. True change, lasting change does not happen all at once. Crash diets never sustain themselves. Durable change is an incremental and a gradual process. We need to start small and slowly, carefully, build one change upon another. There is a book on teenage suicide, entitled WHEN LIVING HURTS, which, at times, we have used with our Confirmands. Recognizing that adolescent – parent tensions can certainly contribute to teenage thoughts of suicide, one of the suggestions that the author offers is that the teenagers try a 1 week experiment in dealing with their parents. In this experiment, they should seek out ways to compliment their parents and also opportunities to volunteer to take on even small household tasks without being asked. As the experiment progresses, they should note whether or not the way their parents relate to them also changes for the better. I share this with you to illustrate that the type of change we seek can start with simple acts such as finding nice things to say to and about the people in our lives or by offering to do simple but nice deeds for them even before they ask us to do them. We can choose to make small changes which we can find will result in big differences; big differences in our lives; in our relationships; in the ways in which we interact with the world around us and in the ways in which the world around us interacts with us. As we do this and reap the benefits that these changes will bring, we will find that one small change will lead to another and another and another, as our pleasure in life continually grows. And it will grow because people who make themselves better also make themselves happier; happier with their life and with the person they are becoming – the new person they are becoming.
Just as tomorrow morning we will renew the way we worship on Rosh Hashanah, so should we, today, tomorrow, and all the tomorrows before us, seek to renew the people we are and the lives that we lead. May we embrace the High Holy Day blessing of “Titkadeish!” May each and every one of us be renewed as we seek to renew ourselves.

Love: Jewish Style

February 15, 2014

“How lovely are your feet in sandals,

O daughter of nobles!

Your rounded thighs are like jewels,

The work of a master’s hand.

Your navel is like a round goblet –

Let mixed wine not be lacking! –

Your belly like a heap of wheat

Hedged about with lilies.

Your breasts are like two fawns,

Twins of a gazelle.

Your neck is like a tower of ivory,

Your eyes like pools in Heshbon

By the gate of Bath-rabbim,

Your nose like the Lebanon tower

That faces toward Damascus.

The head upon you is like crimson wool,

The locks of your head are like purple –

A king is held captive in the tresses.

How fair you are, how beautiful!

O Love, with all its rapture!

Your stately form is like the palm,

Your breasts are like clusters.

I say: Let me climb the palm,

Let me take hold of its branches;

Let your breasts be like clusters of grapes,

Your breath like the fragrance of apples,

And your mouth like choicest wine.

‘Let it flow to my beloved as new wine

Gliding over the lips of sleepers.’”[1]

Now some of you may be wondering if just because it is Valentine’s Day, does that give the rabbi license to stand on the bimah on Shabbat and recite to the congregation erotic love poetry, with thighs and navels and breasts and lips and rapture?  A valid question, especially considering that not only is Valentine’s Day not a Jewish holiday but in its earlier incarnation it was St. Valentine’s Day; a Roman Catholic Saint’s Day.

Well, if you have not already figured it out, this is not just any erotic poetry.  This text is from SHIR HASHIRIM, the SONG OF SONGS, sometimes called the SONG OF SOLOMON.  This text comes from our own Hebrew Scriptures.  Not only that but SONG OF SONGS is one of the Five Megillot – the Five Scrolls – each of which is assigned by our tradition to be read on a particular holiday.  And not only that!  Of the Five Megillot, there is only one scroll which is assigned to read on two holidays, and guess which scroll it is.  SONG OF SONGS, the scroll which is read on Passover and also on Shabbat, by husbands to their wives.

Now some may ponder how strange it is to find erotica in our Scriptures.  What were the ancient rabbis thinking, back in the 2nd century before the common era, when they decided to include this book, with all its blatant sexual imagery, in the collection of our sacred writings?  Were they just a bunch of dirty old men and this was their version of pornography?

Actually, they weren’t a bunch of dirty old men.  Quite the contrary.  Rather they were profoundly pious, deeply spiritual, remarkably open minded, wonderfully realistic, positive, God loving men of faith.  They did not see this book as “dirty” but rather as inspiring.  That was because they did not look at human love, in any of its manifestations, as being something dirty.  Quite the contrary.  They looked at the pleasure we receive from love, in all of its aspects, including its physical aspect, as being a gift from God, and therefore sacred.  They asked themselves the simple and obvious question: Why would God create us with the capacity to derive so much pleasure if God did not intend for us to enjoy it?  The very fact that God made this so pleasurable clearly indicates that this is something God encourages us to do.

They also recognized that even the best of things in our lives can become the worst of things.  It is all about use and abuse.  When given such gifts, how do we use them properly and employ them for the good, and how do we avoid misusing and abusing them, turning them into something bad?  Of course, when it came to the physical pleasures of love, for the Rabbis, the answer was simple.  Marriage.  Physical love and sexual pleasure was never intended to be an end in and of itself.  That is not the human way.  That is the way it is among the lower species.  For us humans, it was given as way to enhance and intensify the love relationship which exists between two people who are so attracted to each other that they yearn to share the totality of their lives together.

This is a good thing, not a bad thing.  Since God created us with the capacity to love another, it becomes our sacred responsibility to maximize that love in all of its manifestations.  Like any other gift we receive from any other source, one of the truest ways to demonstrate our gratitude for that gift is to make the most of that gift.  If someone were to give you a sweater, and you really liked that sweater, and therefore you wore it often, every time the person who gave you that sweater sees you wearing that sweater, they know how very much you have valued their gift.  It is the same here.  In fact, that is why our tradition teaches us that lovemaking between a husband and wife, on Shabbat, is counted as a double mitzvah.

Why was human love so important to the rabbis – silly question! – and more importantly, why did they feel that it was important to God?  Because the rabbis saw the love between human beings as not something separate from God but rather as the model of human love for God.  Do not get me wrong!  It is not that they ever considered the idea that humans could engage in physical love with God but rather that we should aspire, in our love of God, to reaching the intensity of connectedness between us and God that, in much the same manner, exists in a full and healthy love relationship between husband and wife; a relationship which has the power to take two separate individuals and transform them into one whole and completed being.  How often a husband will say to a wife, or a wife to a husband, “You fulfill me!” and mean it.  That was the rabbi’s ideal, and remains our Jewish ideal, for what should be our relationship with God.  God should fulfill us, and if God fulfills us, believe it or not, we fulfill God.

In a truly intimate human love relationship, each one can often anticipate the other.  We know what they are thinking.  We know what they are feeling without having to ask.  We know because it is important to us; they are important to us, and more often than not, more important to us than ourselves.  Our pleasure is to be found in giving them pleasure.  Their very presence in our lives is our primary source of joy.  This is the type of intimacy to which Judaism encourages us to aspire in our relationship with God.

The Jewish philosopher-theologian Martin Buber understood this very well.  In his famous work, I & THOU, he tells us that in the realm of relationships, there are two major categories – I-It relationships and I-Thou or I-You relationships.

I-It relationships are one directional.  They are all about how the other party can meet our needs.  They have little if anything to do with how we can meet the needs of the other.  Of course we have I-It relationships with objects like chairs.  We are concerned with how the chair meets our needs but we never give a thought to whether or not the chair has needs which we can meet.  But we also can have I-It relationships with people.  Just think about how you often relate to servers in a restaurant or cashiers in a supermarket.

I-Thou relationships are, to one degree or another, two directional.  They are about mutually meeting each other’s needs.  Of course they vary in degree.  An I-Thou relationship with an acquaintance is not nearly as giving as an I-Thou relationship with a friend.  The more intense the relationship, the more connected we feel to the other and the more priority we give to the meeting of their needs.

For Buber, the most intense human experience of an I-Thou relationship is the relationship which exists between loving spouses.  It is this relationship which Buber points to as a model for his third category of relationships – I-Eternal Thou; the desired relationship between the individual and God.  What a statement that makes!  If we could only love God as much as we love each other!  If we could only love God as much as we love the person we love the most!

This all brings us back to SONG OF SONGS.  When the Rabbi’s hotly debated whether or not to include this book in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was no less a personage than Rabbi Akiva who absolutely insisted upon its inclusion.  He was reported as saying, “for all the ages are not worth the day that SONG OF SONGS was given to Israel; for all the Ketuvim (all the Writings) are holy, but the SONG OF SONGS is the Holy of Holies.”[2]  Why did he claim this?  Because Akiva did not just see this book as the description of a deep love between a man and a woman, but more importantly, he saw it as a beautiful testimony to the love which should exist between God and Israel.  That is why we read it on Passover, when God showed us unbounded love through the act of our liberation from Egyptian slavery.  That is why we read it on Shabbat, when we show God our unending love by observing this day as God’s day, week after week after week.

It is Shabbat and it is Valentine’s Day.  As we celebrate the love that we share with each other, let us likewise celebrate the love that we share with God.


[1] SONG OF SONGS 7:2-10.

[2] MISHNAH YADAIM 3.5.

One Jew Reflecting Upon Christmas

December 29, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is American Judaism Going Down the Toilet?: Reflections on the Recent Pew Study of the American Jewish Community

November 14, 2013

The Pew Research Center is a highly respected institute that conducts many serious studies about the nature of religion in contemporary American life.  Last month they issued a 200 page report entited “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”  It is the first such comprehensive study of the state of the American Jewish community to be released since the last National Jewish Population Survey, back in 2001.  For this study, 70,000 screening interviews were conducted, covering all 50 states in their search to identify Jewish respondents.  Of that group, they conducted fuller interviews with almost 3,500 Jews.

The results of this survey have generated a tremendous amount of conversation within the American Jewish community.  One writer claims that as his of his writing, over a million words have been published evaluating those results.[1]  I suspect that his estimate is low.

While it is impossible for me to give you all the results of the Pew Study in one posting, let me hit upon some of its highlights, both the good news and the bad news:

  1. 94% of those Jews surveyed claimed that they are proud to be Jewish.  That, of course, is very good news.
  2. The percentage of adult Americans who say that they are Jewish is a little less than 2%, which is about half of what it was in the late 1950’s.  Unfortunately, the American Jewish community is shrinking.
  3. 22% of those interviewed claim that they have no religious identity.  It should be noted that this statistic is very much in line with another statistic from a Pew survey of religious identity in general in America, where 20% of Americans claimed to have no religious identity.  Yet it should be of little comfort to us that we Jews are like the rest of our fellow Americans, moving further and further away from our religious roots.
  4. Among those Jews who claim no religious identity, it should be noted that they are far more represented among younger adults than older adults.  If you break it down by generation you find that among the Greatest Generation – those born between 1914 & 1927 – only 7% claim no religion.  Among the Silent Generation – those born between 1928 & 1945 – the number goes up to 14%.  Among Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 & 1964 – the number is 19%.  For Gen X’er – born between 1965 & 1980 – the number is 26%.  And finally, among the Millennials – those born after 1980 – the number is 32%, almost 5 times greater than the Greatest Generation and almost twice as great than Baby Boomers.  To say the least, this trend is frightening and should be of profound concern to us Jews who wish to see our faith survive long into the future.
  5. When asked if being Jewish was more about culture and ancestry than about religion, 62% of the respondents said that their Jewish identity was exclusively about culture and ancestry; 15% said it was about religion; and 23% said it was a combination of all three.  Such statistics do not bode well for those of us who work for the continued existence of synagogues like our own.
  6. The rate of intermarriage is also up.  60% of those who married since the year 2000 are intermarried, as compared to 40% of those who married in the ‘80’s and 17% of those who married in the ‘70’s.  Considering the fact that only 20% of intermarried couples raise their children as Jewish, this poses yet another challenge for the future.
  7. Regarding denominational identification, Reform Judaism is the largest denomination among American Jews, with 35% identifying as Reform.  The next largest group, with 30%, are those who claim no denominational identification.  18% claim to be Conservative, 10% claim to be Orthodox, and 6% claim to be other, such as Reconstructionist or Jewish Renewal. However, it should be noted that the Orthodox, though small, have many more young people and generally raise larger families.  So we can expect to see this percentage grow for the Orthodox in the future.
  8. Passover remains the most practiced Jewish observance with 70% claiming they participate in a Passover Seder.  However, that is down from the 78% which was reported in the National Jewish Population Survey.
  9. 69% of those surveyed stated that they feel an attachment to the State of Israel.  This statistic remains unchanged from the National Jewish Population Survey.  We would have hoped to see this number rise as a result of programs like Birthright.  At least we are holding our own.
  10. When asked, “What Does It Mean to Be Jewish?” 73% said remembering the Holocaust; 69% said leading an ethical and moral life; 56% said working for justice and equality; 49% said being intellectually curious; 43% said caring about Israel; 42% said having a good sense of humor; 28% said being a part of a Jewish community; 19% said observing Jewish law; and 14% said eating traditional Jewish foods.  It is deeply disturbing that so many more Jews view having a sense of humor as more essential to their Jewish identity than either practicing our faith or being part of a Jewish community.

These statistics but scratch the surface of this study.  Yet, as a synagogue, they should give us much to ponder.  Reactions to this study have run the gamut from anxious hand wringing to almost joyous jubilation, depending upon one’s perception of American Jewish life in the first place.

One writer applauds the grim aspects of this report.  He claims that the reason most cultural Jews keep any Jewish traditions or identity is because they feel guilty on account of their parents.  He then goes on to announce that it is time for Jews to get over their guilt and drop these meaningless observances.[2]  While another author recalls how one edition of Look Magazine, back in 1964, had as its cover story “The Vanishing American Jew” and predicted that by the 21st century there would no longer be any Jews left in the United States.  He then joyfully quotes Mark Twain who said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”[3]

There are those who look at the report and offer sage advice.  A rabbi who was formerly a social scientist recalls one of her earliest research lessons; that correlation does not always mean causation; that statistics can only show us the present situation and cannot, by themselves, reveal the reason for that situation.  Indeed, I loved her analogy.  It was that a survey of shoe size and reading ability among Americans would reveal that the larger the shoe size, the higher the reading level.  However, before those statistics mislead us, we must remember to take into account the factor of age, for infants have very small feet.[4]

Then there is our own URJ President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who reminds us that when it comes to denominational breakdown, those Jews without religion are only second in number to Reform Judaism.  That they claim no religion, yet affirm their Jewish identity, indicates that within that group there is a great untapped potential if we can only find the key to attract them to Reform Judaism, Reform Jewish beliefs, and Reform Jewish practices.[5]

Then there is the writer who wrote a response to the article celebrating the imminent demise of Judaism.  She points out that most Jews lack basic Jewish literacy.  One cannot abandon what one never had in the first place.  Therefore, the challenge before us is to transform what the first author considered to be “intrinsically meaningless” into something deeply meaningful.  This, or course, is done through more effective Jewish education.[6]

Of all the statements I read on the subject, the one I really resonated with the most was by an author who said: “I look forward to… well, to most things, because there really isn’t any other direction in which to look.”[7]  That is precisely what the synagogue world needs to do.  We need to look forward to our future.  We need to seriously examine these statistics, come to an understanding of where today’s American Jews are coming from in terms of their Jewish identity, and then do some serious reworking of synagogue life so as to draw them back to an attachment to our religion as well as our culture.  No, we should not resign ourselves to becoming mere Jewish cultural institutions, for Jewish identity cannot long endure as a testimony to bagels and Seinfeld, as one author framed it.  For it is our faith, when properly approached, which gives our Jewish identity, and particularly our Jewish values, their foundation.  Without that faith, the rest is built on shifting sand.  We cannot keep any synagogue building open for long if the primary purpose of our existence is merely to keep our buildings open.  We must mean more than that to our members. We must mean more than that to all those Jews out there who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  We must become the spiritual home they are seeking.  We must become a center of vibrant and meaningful Jewish life.  The statistics of the Pew Study tell us where we are today so that we can better plan where we need to go if we are ever to see tomorrow.


[1] Schick, Marvin, “The Problem With the Pew Study”. Tablet Magazine

[2] Roth, Gabriel, “American Jews are Secular, Intermarried, and Assimilated.  Great News!”, Slate Magazine.

[3] Blech, Rabbi Benjamin, “The Vanishing American Jew?”, Aish.com.

[4] Gurevitz, Rabbi Rachel, “The Pew Study: What the Stats Can and Can’t Teach Us”, Rabbis Without Borders.

[5] Jacobs, Rabbi Rick, “Don’t Give Up on Jews Who Care About Being Jewish”, HaAretz.

[6] Glick, Caroline, “Why Bother Being Jewish?”, the Jerusalem Post.

[7] Ibid, Gurevitz.

Penetrating the Inpenetrable Veil

September 19, 2013

While other faiths have their own concepts of the afterlife ‑ some of them quite elaborate ‑ Judaism has always held that all we can say about the afterlife ‑ that is with any conviction ‑ is that there is an afterlife and that the soul is eternal.  For the soul comes from God and at the time of death returns to God.  To say anything else is to engage in pure speculation, for there is an impenetrable veil which separates the Olam HaZeh ‑ This World ‑ from the Olam HaBa ‑ The World to Come.  Even as we make this minimalist affirmation, we do so with the understanding that what we are saying is a matter of faith, not knowledge, for no one has ever penetrated that impenetrable veil and returned to our realm of existence, the Olam HaZeh, to bring us an accurate description of the other side.

It might interest you to know that we Jews not only do not have a detailed vision of the afterlife, we even did not always believe in the existence of an afterlife or in the immortality of the soul.  In fact, 2,000 years ago, these doctrines fueled fierce debates between the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  While the Sadducees held that there is no afterlife; that our existence ended with death, for nowhere is an afterlife mentioned in the Torah, the Pharisees held that since the soul comes from God, it, like God, must be eternal.  Besides, how else could we explain God’s justice in light of the suffering of the righteous in this life if there was no afterlife in which their books would balance out?  The fact the Judaism today professes beliefs in the afterlife and in the immortality of the soul is as much a byproduct of the victory of the Pharisees over the Sadducees in their struggle to determine who would shape the future of the Jewish people, as it is a committed doctrine of our faith.

Personally, I am glad that the Pharisees won that battle.  I would hate to believe that death is the end; that nothing of us remains in this universe once our bodies cease to function; that our lives are nothing more than a flash of light in the dark realm of oblivion.

Yet it is not only my fear of eventual non‑existence which fuels my beliefs in the immortality of the soul and in the afterlife.  It also is, in its own odd way, my sense of logic.  For when I consider the human condition, I find myself confronting two undeniable, yet contradictory, facts.  The first is that all human beings are essentially the same.  We may differ in size, shape, gender, skin color, blood type, etc., but at the end of the day, biologically we are all fundamentally identical.  Indeed, as medical science continues to refine the art of organ transplantation, we see that we are so alike that our body parts are becoming increasingly interchangeable.

Yet with this in mind, the second fact seems nothing less than miraculous; that every single human being is a unique individual. No two of us are exactly alike, even if physically we are identical twins.  Still, we each possess our own unique personality and disposition.  That uniqueness is truly the essence of who we are; far more than any aspect of our physical appearance.  It is not as much visible to the eyes as it is to the heart.  So what is the source of our uniqueness?  How can it be found in the body if all bodies are essentially the same while all people are fundamentally unique?

According to our tradition, our uniqueness comes from God.  In the Talmud, God is compared to a human minter of coins.  When a human mints coins, the minter stamps each coin with one mold and every coin comes out exactly alike.  However when God mints human beings, God stamps each of us with the mold of Adam, yet not one person is like another.  We are each of us unique[1].  If that uniqueness comes from God, then the essence of our character does not reside in our body but rather in our soul.  If it comes from God, then like God, it must be indestructible.  Though our body can cease to function, our soul cannot.  With the death of the body, the soul must return to God, and reside with God eternally.  And with it, all that makes us unique; our personality, our character.  The people who we are continue to exist – our consciousness continues to exist – eternally behind the impenetrable veil – in the Olam HaBa, the World to Come.

But is that impenetrable veil separating the Olam HaZeh from the Olam HaBa – our realm of physical existence from our loved ones’ realm of pure spiritual existence – truly, completely, impenetrable?  Perhaps not. Not that it can be torn and we can traverse freely between the two realms,  But perhaps, just perhaps, it can be pierced; from either side, pierced.

We are all mourners.  There have been times, and this Yizkor service might be one of them, when we have passionately yearned for those we have loved but lost.  We ache for their presence and the ache is palpable.  It comes from deep within us.  It does not come from our body; not from our stomach, not from our lungs, not from our heart, not from our head.  Rather our ache is born of our soul, for our soul is the true seat of all our feelings.  In its own way, our yearning is our soul reaching out and grabbing at that impenetrable veil, seeking somehow to break through.

As we yearn for those we loved and lost, is it so hard for us to perceive of their yearning for us as well?  Perhaps, just perhaps, these disembodied souls, which remain the very essence of everything that they were, ache for us as we ache for them.  Perhaps, just perhaps, just as our souls reach out in search of a way to break through that veil, their souls are reaching out in much the same way.  We grab the veil from our side as they grab it from theirs.  While even together we cannot rend it asunder, perhaps, just per­haps, we can stretch it enough for the smallest of pin holes to appear, allowing our souls, even if for just a brief moment, to touch once again.

Perhaps that is what is happening when we find ourselves wanting so much to be in their company once more, to hear their voices and to feel their touch, and then somehow or other we sense that they are with us.  We hear them speaking to us, not out loud, but their voices seeming to come from within.  We feel their comfort.  We sense their love.  And somehow, if just for the moment, we feel less alone.  We are filled with the sense that they are still there for us as they always were there for us.

Let us not be afraid to ache on their behalf.  Let us not run and hide from what we fear will be the pain of memory.  Rather, let us embrace that pain and allow to take us to whatever place it chooses.  For there is a very good chance that it is taking us to the impenetrable veil so as to prick that veil with a tiny but sufficient hole for us to meet and touch once more those who we believe to be beyond our reach.  For we must never forget that our pain is but a function of our love, and that love can be the strongest force in the universe.  So when you combine our love for them with their love for us, can even the impenetrable veil resist such power?


[1]BABYLONIAN TALMUD, Tractate Sanhedrin 38a