Friday, December 31, 2010

Does God really harden the heart of a person? Torah portion Va'era -Exodus

Two parties are engaged in a conflict and then one of them escalates the issue into a personal battle knowing full well that others will suffer due to their unrestrained bitterness. Has that person acted of their own free will? The individual made the choice and consequently tripped the wire from reasoned debate to a lashing out of emotions. The point is that one made the decision to behave in this way and therefore bears responsibility for the way their behavior impacted the resolution of the situation.
 What does one do when a person says,’ I was justified acting out this way because I am right and even God is on my side?’ We might conclude that this person had mental health issues. Sometimes we can watch the body itself react to the emotions. We could make the argument that such bravado severely diminished their credibility, to say the least.
In this week’s Parasha Va’era we have a situation where we see the temper of Pharaoh growing increasingly belligerent towards Moses and the idea of freeing the Israelite slaves.  The Torah uses polite language by saying that Pharaoh in verse 13, “And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.” This was the response after the plague of blood running in the Nile River.  In verse 22, it is written; “And Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he did not listen.” That was after the plague of the frogs. After the plague of lice when there seemed to be a respite, the Torah says, “But when Pharaoh saw there was respite, he hardened his heart.” Each time there was a plague the Torah carefully says that Pharaoh hardened his own heart.
Only after the 6th plague which was boils do we see a change in the language of the Torah. Here the Torah says, “And the Eternal One hardened the heart of Pharaoh for he did not listen as the Eternal One had said to Moses.”  This refers to chapter seven when God says “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.” From that point on the Torah provides us with several statements saying that God and not Pharaoh will harden the heart of Pharaoh.
So what is the problem? Is the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart due to the intervention of God or was it due to Pharaoh’s own will? This question invokes the theological and the ethical dimensions which deal with whether Pharaoh is utilizing his free will or whether he is a victim of a divine plan. And this issue raises for us an even larger issue than just free will versus divine intervention. The idea of hardening one’s heart is about an issue of really knowing and owning the emotions we carry into a conflict situation. At the end of the day the sages  teach that God’s presence can lead a willing soul to repentance. A person who refuses to return to that behavior, however, cannot count upon God to be there. When we find ourselves in the midst of a conflict that ignites or triggers our most combustible emotions, God is not the one who is going to stop the momentum of anger.
The sages wondered if Pharaoh was succumbing to Divine intervention or responding to his own emotions before the stiff-necked Israelite people and Moses’ chutzpah in challenging the God-like Pharaoh. Let’s see what some of our sources say about this matter and how it relates to us in the way we hold ourselves accountable in conflict situations.
The rabbis were sensitive to the potential theological issue between Pharaoh’s responsibility for the unresolved conflict and how God may be accused as partly culpable. In our Midrash one of our sages R. Yochanan said, “The idea that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart might provide an opening to the heretics against Judaism saying, “Pharaoh was not allowed by God to repent.”  Ramban, Moses Nachmanides of 15th century asks; “If the Eternal One hardened his heart, then what was Pharaoh’s crime?”
Most commentators struggled with the dilemma of free will versus self determination. Many tried to argue that the Torah never tried to interfere with Pharaoh mending his ways. They argued that the Torah used this kind of language to describe Pharaoh’s own stubbornness. I’m not sure that approach  really worked then or today.
 Some of the medieval Jewish philosophers like Isaac Albo and Sforno interpret the hardening of the heart of Pharaoh to fortify his and Egypt’s endurance to bear the suffering due to the plagues. It was never about freewill.   Moses Maimonides, the great scholar of the 12th century said, that there are times when a person’s sin is so grave that he or she is penalized by not being granted the opportunity to turn from his or her wickedness, so that he or she dies with the sin that he committed. In other words they sinned of their own free will until they forfeited of the opportunity to repent. Maimonides’ view was that God did not force Pharaoh to do evil to Israel or to commit iniquities in his land, or the Canaanite tribes to adopt abominable cultic practices or even Israel to serve idols. All of them sinned at their own promptings, forfeiting their right to repentance.
What Maimonides wanted to say was that there is a mutuality of relationship between humans and God. God did not force Pharaoh to choose evil. That decision rests upon the conscience of Pharaoh. Once he persisted on this course of action in defying Moses despite the overwhelming proof of God’s power , Pharaoh became obsessed and unable to rethink his position or control his emotion of unbridled anger.
The Talmud states this beautifully, “ Resh Lakish explained the meaning of the verse in Proverbs (3:34) “if to scorners he wills scorn, but to the meek, he will show favor.” The rabbis taught “If a person tries to defile themselves, he or she is given an opening; if he or she tries to purify themselves, he or she is helped from above.” In other words God will go with the flow of the person’s temperament.  Note the difference between the rabbis saying that for the evil action God will give that person an opening to continue their behavior whereas for the good person God will help that individual do good. 
Judaism’s response is that at the end of the day we choose whether we soften or harden our hearts. God will be part of that moral and emotional upheaval in either direction. But the positive help God gives us to do good is not the same as recognizing God’s  passive assistance given in the form of removing the obstacles in our path should we choose evil.
And that is how the rabbis resolved a potentially vexing theological problem when thinking about how the language of Torah might give the bad impression that God would actually help Pharaoh resist the Israelites. Yet we need to take this issue to a personal level and relate it to our lives.
There are times when we get involved in issues when the stakes are high or even the opposite when the stakes in an argument are so low that we find ourselves binging on our emotions. The emotions control us and direct our response. We have lost perspective.  And there develops a downward spiraling of emotions that distances us from the thoughtful way of conflict resolution.
We know this happens and its impact in the political arena, in business, in the professions, academia and the list goes on. Even in our personal lives can we recall an issue that grabbed us so personally that we allowed our deepest fears and anxieties to control our responses?  Maybe that is what happened to Pharaoh? When that happens, we become unaware how we sometimes unconsciously put our own interests ahead of everyone else. We make decisions in the process that we delude ourselves into believing are for the greater good but not really.  Some call this narcissistic behavior. What is truly at stake? Is it all in the end about human pride?  Pride is the source of building integrity and it can be, when abused, the poison that leads us astray.  Not even god can turn a person away from the intoxication of pride when it controls our every move.
What makes this issue as timeless and timely is because it is a universal issue. The secular New Year is in front of us and we should not lose the opportunity to review how we ourselves cope under stress with our emotions. Some of us can do so and others have serious problems with anger and keeping focused on the real issue in a conflict versus allowing ourselves to become obsessed with pride or ego. That is always an important lesson for this year or any year.
May this year teach us that the presence of God will be there to help us mediate our desire to return in repentance.  Let us not forget the lessons of Pharaoh that to harden our heart is our choice. Refuse a way out of that spiral of hatred and be prepared for self destruction. That is not what we were put on this planet to achieve with our lives.
Shabbat shalom

Thursday, December 30, 2010

President of Israel convicted of rape

The former president of the state of Israel is convicted of rape. Just to read that sentence causes me to take a deep breath and exhale. Sadly we are already inoculated from the moral shock of such events given what we in America have witnessed with politicians and their sexual exploits. I do not think I need to go into specifics on that issue. Needless to say we like to hold Israel up to a higher standard. We are so proud of Israelis when they achieve in science, business or the humanities. Then we see the President go down because of a violent crime like rape. The thought of it, nevertheless, strikes us as deeply disappointing. Why can’t the political leadership rise to the heights of excellence   as moral and political leaders just like their contemporaries in other fields of endeavor? Of course we have to be fair and ask that question of America’s national leaders as well. Isn’t Israel different?
One hopes that when a person takes on a position of leadership that they will rise to the level of the position. What do I mean? The reality is that when someone is promoted to an important high profile position there is an expectation of behavior that goes along with the job even if it is not specifically written down in a job description.  Moral integrity is an example of that standard that one would hope religious, business, or political leaders would aspire to beyond what they have already achieved in their lives. Maybe I am just naïve.
King David, beloved of Israel, conspired to send the husband of Bathsheba, a married woman who he had taken a fancy to, Uriah the Hittite, to the front lines of the battle with the Philistines. Knowing full well he would probably meet his fate in battle, David sent him so as to have Bathsheba to himself.  Nathan the Prophet knew about this and put it to him. Yes, David did ultimately confess his transgressions. And the first child they had together after the death of Uriah the Hittite ultimately died. They both paid a deep price of sorrow for their lust towards each other. And yet David went on to be the symbol of the ideal in Israelite culture and the exemplar for the Messiah. Go figure.
The Israelites wanted a king so that they could be like all the other nations. Samuel the great judge and prophet first resisted the crowd and advocated for religio-political leader like Moses or Joshua. But he succumbed to the people and first anointed Saul. Israel has always wanted to be different and unique from the rest of the world. We want so badly to fit into the cultures of the world. Is President Katzav an example of what it feels like fitting into the world?
 I hope not. ‘Democracy has triumphed,’ say Israeli prosecutors. Maybe they are correct. But the stain on the office of President of Israel, following in the footsteps of Haim Weitzman, Chaim Hertzog, Yitzhak Navon , will not go away easily and risks eroding public confidence in the nation’s political culture. Now we can have a prayer for the government which would be for God to guide Israel and America’s leaders to conduct their lives with the same faith and loyalty to the values of Torah that the people are asked to abide by in their daily lives.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Exodus: Paranoia against the Jews begins> The Jewish conspiracy.

Sadly, one could not have asked for better timing with this week’s Torah portion and the hateful remarks against the Jewish people on Greek national television from Greek Orthodox Bishop Seraphim to learn how history repeats itself from its biblical roots to today. From the moment that Pharaoh declared the Jewish people in Egypt a dangerous threat to national security to the political and religious leaders throughout history leading up to the most recent example of a Greek Orthodox Bishop railing against Israel and the international Zionist conspiracy as the cause for the collapse of the Greek economy. It is the same old song of hatred and how disappointing that a prominent Greek Orthodox Bishop would say these things as well as hold Jews responsible for promoting single parent families and homosexuality.
Talking about demonizing Jews, the people who listened to Pharaoh revered him as a God-like person.  In the first chapter of Exodus, Pharaoh warned of the growing numbers of Jews in Egypt and the potential threat they posed to Egypt and how it was incumbent upon Pharaoh to devise a plan to contain them. This was the first time in Jewish history that we see a leader speaking of the Jewish conspiracy as a national threat  We could not know what the Egyptians thought about Pharaoh’s warnings. Were they convinced on Pharaoh’s say so alone? Similarly, the Greek public may not have been swayed by the Bishop’s unrestrained hate speech, but, do not think for a minute that many citizens heard him and privately shook their heads in the affirmative.
Why is this moment in Israelite history significant for us today? The answer is that this passage became a precursor to a history of anti-Jewish leaders portraying us as the danger or the problem people. It is also important to recognize that from this historic experience we must be proactive in responding with our narrative when we see hate mongering and not fall prey to this kind of demonizing of other peoples. So tonight I want to explore the origin of this myth in the Torah and how one medieval commentator responded to it. Finally I will discuss the current events of how hate speech challenges us to respond and use wisdom in doing do so.
 Pharaoh said in Exodus 1:9-10, “Look, the Israelite people have become too many and too strong for us.”
“Come; let us deal shrewdly with them
Lest they increase
And if war breaks out they will join our enemies,
And fight against us and leave the country.”
This is the first moment in Jewish history where we see the birth of the myth “the Jewish Problem.” We became the “Jewish Problem” people forever more and we still hear it in the words of Bishop Piraeus Seraphim. Let us tonight briefly review Jewish viewpoints throughout history. How does this verse play out in our consciousness today?

We see in this passage that Pharaoh was convinced that the growth of the Jewish people was potentially a real problem to Egypt’s national security. The text, at this point in the book of Exodus, does not tell us why this is so nor what he plans to do about it. Did he think about enslaving them or committing an act of extermination? We do not yet know the answer to these questions.
There is a difference of opinion in translation on an issue that relates to the intention of Pharaoh. In the phrase “the Israelite people have become too many and too strong for us,” there is a disagreement between Jewish and Christian translations. In the Septuagint and the Vulgate translations they translate the phrase mi menu as connoting “more than”. In other words these translations imply that Pharaoh believed that there were more Israelites than Egyptians. Jewish translations, on the other hand, from Mendelssohn, Hirsch, Buber-Rosenzweig translated it as they are too many and too powerful for us.” The Hebrew letter mem from me menu meaning “more than us” is one of relativeness. In other words Pharaoh is saying that the Israelites are getting too much for us to contend with. Does that mean politically, economically? We do not know the answer.
So then why does the Torah says in Pharaoh’s words, “Come let us deal shrewdly with them.” Why would Pharaoh feel so threatened? Surely he could have wiped them off the map of the earth? One commentator Ramban, Moses Nachmanides of 15th century Spain, believed that would be treason to smite all the Israelites without cause. He knew this was a people that had come to the land at the bidding of his royal predecessor.  He could not reverse such a decree from his father. Pharaoh had to come up with a reason that he implemented through policy and not genocide. The second reason was that his subjects might not agree with expulsion or extermination. Finally, Pharaoh was concerned that the Israelites would resist and fight against him.
Nahmanides sees that the policy of levying harsh taxes against the Israelites foreigners not of money but of forced labor was the first stage in Pharaoh’s grand plan. That is the beginning of slavery. Then the policy of forcing midwives to turn over the Israelite first- born. When the midwives rebelled, and then came the final solution by Pharaoh which was to command all his people to kill every male child. Ramban’s view is that Pharaoh used a camouflaged policy of increasingly repressive and deceptive policies so as to make it look like he was using legitimate force to deal with this problem people. That is how Nachmanides understands the set up and strategy of Pharaoh coming out of the verse, “Come let us deal shrewdly with them.”
The shrewd one is Pharaoh because he knows he cannot compromise his reputation and authority as the God-like leader of Egypt by simply murdering everyone. He must utilize the legitimacy of his unchallenged role to portray himself not as the aggressor but as the defender of Egypt. That is the political language of framing the enemy as the demon people. That kind of thinking canonized the strategy that so many kingdoms and religions would adapt in their demonizing Jews over history.
The myth of the Jewish conspiracy was born then. It has followed us since ancient times. Besides the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion text in modern times, Hitler used the same strategy with the Nuremburg Laws before he sent us to the concentration camps. He was ridding Germany of this dangerous people who threatened to pollute German racial purity.  But first he had to establish why doing so was in the national interest just like Pharaoh.
The really tragic aspect of this is when we read accounts of how Jews believed that a ruler would never expel us because we were so critical to the welfare of the state. Did the Jews in Spain think that way? We know that the Jews in modern German thought that they were so valuable to the German economy and country that Hitler would eventually get over his obsession with the Jews. We know how that situation worked out.

So that is why whenever we hear the same kinds of words portraying the perennial Jewish conspiracy mythos today, especially when it comes from a high ranking cleric, we would be wise to take it seriously. Bishop Seraphim is not Pharaoh. But he counts in the continuum of history’s anti-Semites with the same old obsessive fear and hatred that betrays the very foundation of faith and teaching that his Christian calling is supposed to model to his people and to the world. Certainly he brings shame to the Christian faith and to the culture of Christendom as a whole. And how sad as well as ironic is the timing of the Greek Orthodox Bishop’s remarks during the week leading up to Christmas.
I cannot help but mention that the recent decision of some municipal rabbis in Israel to issue an edict not to rent property to non-Jews is equally mean spirited. Condemned by the Israeli Prime Minister and many other prominent leaders, this kind of policy demonizes the Arab Israeli population which lives side by side with Jewish Israelis. It is another example of how we too are vulnerable to the same fears that underlie and promote policies of intolerance on all sides of the political spectrum-even the good guys.
If there is one lesson to be learned it is that we have to be swift to expose hate speech and policies that run against our own values. Second, we must be proactive in communicating our narrative to the public because we all know that there is a growing constituency out there in America and around the world who work hard at providing a completely different and false narrative about Israel’s existence and its role in the world. Finally, let’s not forget that our values and our history define us and no one else.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Seattle Metropolitan Transit Authority takes a stand on the Middle East?

Hate speech against Jews and Israel on the buses of Seattle? Before I get into this issue it is important to clarify a few points about criticizing Israel. I don’t have a problem with vigorous debate on Israel and the Palestinians. Of course there is plenty of room today in the media outlets for people passionate about these issues to fight it out. There are bloggers like myself and countless forums  found on line to debate the issues. But for the Seattle Midwest Awareness Campaign to buy adds on the buses of Seattle that will say “Israel War Crimes: Your taxes at work,” departs from the realm of legitimate public debate and enters the domain of hate speech. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Association  the other side, American Freedom Defense Initiative, is purchasing the same kind of advertisement which says, “One billion dollars to Hamas: Your tax dollars at work.”  Where does this get us? How do these placards on buses educate and give persuasive arguments to educate the American public?
The fact is that these kinds of strategies gain public attention and probably are effective at creating sound bite political saturation. Strangely enough the metropolitan transit authority condones this kind of transaction which makes me question why municipal government steps into the mix of a foreign policy issue and apparently take sides. What is going on Seattle, Washington?
This kind of torch throwing attack upon the average bus rider and passerby on the streets of Seattle spreads toxic rhetoric and not thoughtful dialogue. How can we ever find a peaceful solution between Israelis and Palestinians when people are slugging it out on billboards or public buses? It reminds me when I am driving along the nation’s interstate and I will see on a gigantic billboard a picture of an embryonic infant and the message of how abortion is a form of murder. All that kind of advertising does is to inflame people. Have we not seen enough of this hatred on the reproductive rights issues? Are we now going to see this kind of escalation of the debate on peace in the Middle East thrown up onto the billboards across the cities and highways or the taxi cabs and public buses of America? Is that the way to carry on the debate in a civil way?
Obviously there is a constituency which thinks that is exactly the way. I beg to differ. These strategies of mass advertising on foreign policy issues has the effect of demonizing  two entire peoples, Palestinians and Israelis alike, at the cost of out of control flame throwing advocates for a specific position. Second, these kinds of organizations simplify complex issues to the point where no one learns the history and the background of these issues which is critical before coming to an intelligent position of these volatile issues.
I hope all of us will speak out against this kind of divisive action against Israel not just because it is hate speech when it appears on the buses of Seattle but it is also the wrong message to teach Americans that this is the appropriate way to work through controversial issues. Truly, we have enough problems teaching ourselves how to debate domestic issues without distorting and condemning entire peoples, races and ethnic groups.
Here is the link to the Jewish Telegraphic Association article on the subject.
Here is the link to the article in the Seattle newspaper for further information.
If you feel so inclined to speak out on this issue, please note the link below.
“Write your comments opposing the ad to the metro operating authority:
Please contact Linda Thielke, Transit Spokesperson for the King County Metro
in Seattle, Washington. Her e-mail address is,
If you prefer to call her, the direct number is 206-684-1151.  Please leave
her a voice mail directly at that number or send her an e-mail to voice your
Finally, this issue is not about thwarting freedom of speech. This is an issue about responsible speech and whether or not municipal government should get involved in foreign policy debates. It is about finding a constructive way to dialogue and achieve mutual understanding on the issues of our day.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Finding the Voice of God to be a clergyperson: A Public Television Documentary

Public Television is airing a program this week entitled Independent Lens. It is tracking the burgeoning careers of young clergy people from a variety of faith traditions. They are all fiercely devoted with enormous enthusiasm. The documentary follows them in both their private and professional lives. They are all balancing so many responsibilities.  The program focuses on two young orthodox rabbis. One is passionately committed to social justice. Not only does he challenge injustice in the world but also those in the Orthodox world who commit crimes. Most notably he leads a group of friends from New York  to Iowa to challenge the Kosher food industry specifically the agriprocessors plant  who were found to violate labor laws and put into question the credibility of the entire kosher food industry. The other rabbi and his spouse have found a job in a small orthodox congregation living above the shul itself. He is shown leading Shabbat and Purim services. It was a beautiful sight to watch the rabbi lead his congregants in dance during the shabbat services welcoming the Sabbath bride.
The clergy all have to face the challenges of making a living in the ministry. Some are single parents and others are facing their past as they make new directions in their lives. No surprise that they are all totally overextended doing so many different things as they bring their joy to the holy work they are called to perform for their faith communities. The money issue is there but it is not about why they have chosen to be clergy.
They are balancing their unbridled commitment with the reality of the congregations they serve. Some segments show them receiving counseling from their placement directors as they look for jobs. They hear things about themselves they need to hear but do not necessarily want to hear. They receive advice and feedback from mock interviews preparing them for the real world.
But the beauty of the program is how the documentary succeeds at showing the humanity of these clergy. They so want to make a difference in the world. Their emotions are very near the surface of their being. They all have an inherent desire to be there for their parishioners. They are looking for community. They want to make a difference in the world. They are prepared to make the sacrifices in their personal lives to fashion a life of service to God and humanity a reality for them.
I loved watching this series. I watched it drawing from their experiences the inspiration to remember what I first felt when I anticipated my own ordination back in 1984. I remember that moment when the rabbi blessed me at ordination. It was one of the greatest days of my life. My family was there and Linda and I headed off to California for my first job. We experienced ups and downs in the rabbinate over the years. Yet we never lost that enthusiasm and the joy to do the work of the rabbinate.
I am realistic not cynical about a life of service in the rabbinate. Watching the documentary I wondered what would happen when these young clergy encounter their first political issue with a board or a conflict with a congregant. How will they manage their families while at the same time giving of themselves to the community? How can they grow and mature in their own time and pace while still meeting their professional obligations? They will make mistakes. They are human. Will their communities understand and be compassionate towards their areas of growth and still show respect for the title of clergy that they have received?
I suppose it all comes down to the calling to the faith. All of the clergy felt that divine voice calling them and they fought through so many personal and professional challenges in their lives. An African American minister said, “All that I have been through with my life and the church, I shouldn’t really be here. But I must continue because I have a calling.” We all have that same sensation regardless of the religious tradition we came from. It is in all of us. This documentary reminded me of the Bible when God calls to the prophets. The prophet says to God, “Heneni” I am here.” The documentary touches something holy inside me. The Pirke Avot Ethics of the Fathers say, “The reward of performing a mitzvah is the mitzvah itself.” I still hold fast to that principle today. It is what propels me every day. I just feel blessed despite the wounds and the ups and downs over the years and because of the amazing experiences I have had to walk into the door of my congregation and be the rabbi, the spiritual steward of my sacred congregation.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Are you a MOT?

Parashat vayechi December 17, 2010
If someone came over and said, ‘Are you an MOT?’ What would you say? We know this popular phrase MOT means member of the tribe and describes Jewish identity in its most basic form which is that we are a tribal people. MOT is not about describing us as the people of the book or the religion of monotheism, the belief in one God as the source of all being. This phrase MOT does not take into consideration the Judaism of Maimonides or the Kabala. MOT transcends national borders and even time and place. MOT stands for the basic tribal structure that we as Jews supposedly descended from in ancient times.  And no matter where we hail from all of us who call ourselves Jews originate from that tent in the ancient desert or towns of Canaan, later to be known as Judea. In fact the word Jew itself refers to a person descended from the tribe of Judah. Everything about who we are appears to be from its inception a tribal identity.
Because of the Torah portion we are reading tonight we are all walking through a museum of history returning to the point of inception to the development of this tribal system for the ancient Israelites. Have we not evolved out of that ancient physical and spiritual existence?  The Torah portion for this week, “Vayechi” establishes the beginning of the formal tribal system. We see it happening in the pages of the Torah itself. Even before we became the world’s most famous ancient slave people by the beginning of the pages of Exodus which we shall read next week, Vayechi inaugurates our tribal formation with the final blessings of Jacob to his sons who themselves become the patriarchs of their respective tribes.
So if our spiritual and maybe our ethnic DNA as well are tribal in nature what then does that term MOT mean today? Does it still have the same power and relevancy for us as it did in ancient times?  This is not necessarily an easy question to address. Jews straddle between ethnic and religious identities. These identities supposedly binds us together as a people and yet our makeup is so diverse on so many different levels how can we really call ourselves a tribe given that diversity? That is what we have to grapple with as an outgrowth of this week’s parasha. Look how far we have come since the moment Jacob declared his sons to be chiefs of the tribes of Israel.
We can see the genesis of our tribal structure not only in Abraham and Sarah’s times. Yes, the patriarchs and matriarchs set the stage for the tribes. It is, however, with the final words of blessing by Jacob that we see the antecedents before the official birth of a nation that had been enslaved for 400 years in Egypt. 
Basically there are three things happening in this week’s portion that illustrate this tribal structure. First Jacob appeals to Joseph to take him back to Canaan and bury him in the ancestral cave of Mahpelah in Hebron. Second we see the guilt in Jacob’s eyes for not having buried Rachel in that cave. Jacob buried her on the road to Bethlehem. Third, Jacob blesses each son as the head of his own tribe.  The end result is that being a MOT back then meant belonging to one of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, identifying with the sacred land of Canaan and paying homage to the ancestors.  It is not clear where God fits in to the spiritual awareness of these new tribal leaders.
Jacob foretells the future with his blessing of the tribes. For example, Judah will wear the scepter of kingship one day.  Simeon and Levi represent weapons of violence and received a rebuke from Jacob for seeking revenge against the native population after the rape of Dina. They in fact, will be scattered throughout the all the other tribes. The tribe of Dan will be a serpent in the way a horned snake in the path that biteth the horse’s heels so that this rider falls backwards.” Thousands of years later the chief rabbinate of Israel will declare the Ethiopian Jews to be descendants of the tribe of Dan. Despite the fact that their Judaism practically bears no resemblance to anything we know as Judaism, the tribal roots trump the religious rites. We are tribal through and through.  Jacob blesses each child as a tribe with the kind of statement of character whether it is an admonition or a prediction of future behavior is up for debate. But the main point here for our purposes tonight is that this week’s parasha defined the Jewish nation as a series of tribes.
How far we have evolved from the days of our tribal roots in the land of Canaan!  How we have evolved into so many diverse ethnic and racial identities! Yet, we are still questioning what makes one a Jew? Are we ethnic and tribal or have we transcended those ancient boundaries of ethnicity?
Are we Ashkenazi, Sephardic or Mizrahi or Ethiopian? Is the core of our Jewish identity the branches of Judaism such as Reform, Conservative, Hasidic and Orthodox or secular? Does our religious affiliation or ethnic identity define our identity as Jews?
What is so fascinating is when we add in the state of Israel to the mix. In a way now that we have a nation of many cultures of Jews we can see more clearly how we evolved and adapted, some would say acculturated, into larger cultures.  Hundreds of years from now will Israel create a new tribal structure that blends these historical distinctive traits, borne out of 2000 years of Diaspora, into a new religio-ethnic identity? Is it already happening before our very eyes?
This is why we see the continuing saga of parliamentary debate in the Knesset and the sounding of the alarm throughout World Jewry when an MK starts a new “Who is a Jew’ bill. We get so upset and mobilize because we know that we cannot afford to be excluded from the nation which is the same as being exiled from the tribe and cast into the wilderness.
What is not clear and is intriguing to us is how do we fit into this ancient narrative? Does it still work for us today? Are we really one people historically speaking? Or is the idea of our being one people more about theology than history?
Just like we who live in the Diaspora have challenges to our tribal roots so too does Israel face challenges as well. We have intermarriage and we are learning how to incorporate loved ones into our community who remain, spiritually speaking, outside the official framework of Judaism. Israel will have to deal with those issues more often in the future as well. Whether we are in fact many peoples living under the banner of a theological conviction of our being one people, we will have to figure out ways to balance that rootedness in the ancient tribal narrative versus being open and welcoming of newcomers and those who live with us even if they do not affiliate in a complete religious sense.
So when someone asks next time; ‘Are you a MOT?’ What will we say?  We are no longer a tribe in the traditional sense of the term. But we are a people with many different cultures, languages, racial and ethnic identities. Rabbi Milton Steinberg wrote years ago.
”The Jews are a people. A people are a body of people who partake together in a social past and its heritage, a present and its problems, a future and its aspirations.   To outsiders it appears as a distinct identifiable historic entity. Viewed from within, it is marked by a sense of kinship and shared interests among its members. It is in sum a fellowship of tradition and a destiny. People then express a broad reality, yet political sovereignty and allegiance are not essential to it. Wherefore, both in what it says and leaves unsaid it fits the Jews.”
Some scholars say we are living in a post ethnic stage of Jewish life. I am not so sure about that assertion. There is something buried deep inside us that resonates with that spiritual DNA that resembles a tribal identity. How we see ourselves from within versus how others from outside of Judaism view us will influence how we answer that question. “Are you a MOT?”

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A tribute to a class lady Phyllis Cohen

We stood at the graveside on top of a layer of snow and ice. It was a balmy 32 degrees on an overcast day in Chicago. Despite the fact that I was officiating at the burial of my dear friend and past comrade at arms in the Jewish community of Sacramento, I could not help but feel that I was going beyond the professional role as officiant this morning in eulogizing Phyllis Cohen.
Phyllis was born in 1947 and because she grew up in Chicago we buried her next to her parents and her brother. All of us who attended the service experienced the surreal sense of loss and being lost at the same time. It was as if a wind whirling around us like the cold winter breezes. I say this because none of us would have expected that she would be diagnosed with a brain tumor and that in a matter of weeks that she would be in the hospital, transferred to the Jewish nursing home in Omaha, Nebraska and then pass away within days. She was too young to die.
My friends of Sacramento who read this blog will remember Phyllis as the beautiful woman whose passion for the Jewish community in Sacramento led her to become the executive director of the Federation. She has left a legacy in Sacramento. We partnered, for example, to initiate the successful and still running youth program Yachad. Phyllis was a doer and she brought all her charm, organizational talent and professional organizational skills to get the job done. She was creative and loved the challenge of organizing the ultimate event no matter what organization she represented. She was a professional in every aspect of her work. I hope that the people in leadership of the Sacramento Jewish community will respect her memory and remember her for all the good she did to improve and enrich Jewish life.
There is something different for me in this situation. It is not only the shock of losing a long time friend. It is not just the sadness of knowing that her husband of 25 years, Michael, is a bereaved man when he should have had her for many more years. It is not even the feeling that I want to express to God which is; “Why?” Maybe it is about facing one’s own mortality. Could it be realization that I will wait in vain for her phone call which will never happen again? There is this empty feeling inside that asks me questions I cannot answer. Maybe she is hiding from me? Could this all be reversed?
We cannot be the philosopher in these moments.  Death is pragmatic and real. Death stares at us in the face as if to say ‘Look at me and deal with it!’ And my initial response feels like, “I hear you angel of Death but I don’t want to listen. Why do I have to listen to you?”
And despite these existential questions our healing balm began when we all went out to dinner tonight. Husband, daughter, dear friends and we talked, laughed and told stories about Phyllis. It helped. It always does. I can see beyond the horizon the hope of healing for us all. I can feel that the relentless winter will not suppress the warmth of Phyllis’ memory from comforting us. It is not now but I have faith that healing will come as sure as I believe in the coming of spring. There is always hope even when the questions that remain unresolved still hover over us. And that is why I turn to Psalm 121 in these moments. “I lift up my eyes to the heavens. From where does my help come? It comes from the Eternal One, Maker of Heaven and Earth.”
Saying the mourners’ kaddish was painful but a privilege. Placing the earth over her casket made it final. Eating the meal of condolence opened up a new chapter in our lives. I already miss my dear friend. Yet I have made new friends as well in her family. Her amazing daughter who is the rock of the family planned everything. Phyllis’ oldest friend, the synagogue executive director, whose dedication and spirit to the Jewish people rises to the level of above and beyond every day and their daughter the Jewish educator and her dad all embraced me into their circle of mutual support and love for Phyllis. I am grateful to them all.
Phyllis was tall and slender like a model. I liken her to a beautiful swan. When she walked into the room, you knew it. Her gentle and calm way along with her wit and laughter will remain. I can still hear her now.
Death is not a theory. It is personal and it hits us in the face whether we like it or not.  It bruises us. Can we heal? That answer is as elusive as the question itself. Rest peacefully good friend and be with your family. We, your family in the land of the living, will sing your praises and usher in the warm winds soon.
*I asked the family if I could discuss these emotions and they gave me their approval.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Randomness versus God's plan?

It is funny who you will meet in unusual places. There I am coming out of the Chicago Ohare airport. Tomorrow I shall officiate at the funeral of a beloved friend from Sacramento. The family has kindly provided me a cab to take me to the hotel. Phil, the cab driver, is a friendly and articulate man. He knows I am a rabbi and is respectful. We begin a conversation heading through the Dan Ryan on a cold but clear Chicago winter night.
It turns out Phil has been driving cabs for 38 years. He gives me his analysis of the economy assuring me that the economy is doing great. According to Phil the companies are doing great but now they need to start hiring. The second issue is housing and Phil proceeds to give his analysis of the home foreclosure issue.
Now that we have finished those issues Phil, a nice Jewish guy, turns out to be a member of a local reform congregation. Of course I know his Rabbi quite well. We start talking about the congregation and prior clergy who have served his congregation. As we talk the cell phone rings and he is coordinating other cab pick-ups at the airport. This guy is a real entrepreneur wearing a pony tail and a beret.
I said to him, “What are the chances that I should have a reform Jewish cab driver pick me up at O’Hare airport?” Then he explained to me that someone, maybe a friend of the grieving family, asked their friend who works in a local congregation to call a cab driver to pick me up. I could not have asked for a better welcome to Chicago! Such connections we experience each day!
I am sure we could all tell plenty of stories just like this one. Is there something about the randomness of these kinds of encounters that is so intriguing?  We like to think each day that we are in control of our lives. Then so often something happens whither it is a coincidence, a moment of insight or just a fortuitous meeting that practically teases us into thinking that there is a something behind these kinds of events.  Jews will say something like this was an incident of B’shert or God ordained moment of divine intervention.
Trust me I understand that going down this road evokes the negative side of this issue such as when bad things happen to good people. I am not going further in this line of thinking on such a deep and sensitive philosophical issue. But there is something inside many of us that defies the logic of a philosopher. We are emotional and despite our rational mindset, humans tend to speculate about divine providence when peculiar things happen like what I experienced tonight. The things we sense as more than coincidence but cannot explain in a rational way make for the great stories in life.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Texture is the key to a religious experience

The Sofer (Torah scribe) left our congregation on Sunday after a wonderful weekend. The question is; what did he leave behind him? It was a weekend that many in our congregation will never forget. Neil Yerman the scribe is a spiritual man and devoted to his calling. He is neither a Hasidic Jew nor Orthodox.  He is a modern person with a passion for the scribal arts. He is a former professional musician (clarinet) worked for Lehman brothers and surprised the audience when he reminisced that he had been to Woodstock music festival. So this is a person who did not fit the mold or the preconceived notion of a scribe like we see in paintings with scribes looking down at the text of a Torah.
I could never have anticipated the reactions and emotions that I witnessed in the hearts and souls of people who interacted with Sofer Neil Yerman. People watched as he stretched out the new torah on top of several tables in the middle of the sanctuary.  On Saturday night Sofer Yerman led us in a workshop where all the participants tried their hand at Hebrew calligraphy. Finally it was truly inspiring on Sunday morning when Sofer Neil Yerman taught the children in the religious school.  The kids today have an attention span that is a like a blink of an eye. Yet the kids stood over the Torah scroll and listened to Neil guide them and instruct them on Hebrew letters and the traditions of writing a Torah scroll. They stood there totally entranced in the text and in the lessons of the sofer. Kids will surprise you every time!
Right now I am thinking about the meaning of the word kasher or kosher which we often think about in regard to dietary laws. Kosher means something which is fit or permissible.  The term also means authentic or genuine. And that word kasher may be the key because seeing the Torah made people feel they were in the presence of something authentic or truly holy.
Words are holy. Prayers are holy. People are holy. A text created on the parchment of lambskin is holy and takes us to a completely different level of spirituality and emotion. As I have said we have a real tension between access to information in a digital world and touching something tangible that has texture. Life must have texture. Skype is great but it will never substitute for sitting across the table with another human being. The same idea could apply to music, performing arts visual arts and so forth.
People want to feel something and touch and see the nuance of life. The Torah scroll is one more example of a world that cries out for authentic religious experiences.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The scroll of a Torah transcends time and space

The third in a series of posts on the forthcoming visit of our torah scribe
Tomorrow our torah scribe (Sofer) Neil Yerman arrives. He will speak about why he is a scribe on Friday night. Saturday morning we will study together the Jewish laws and traditions for writing a Torah. Saturday evening he will lead us in a workshop for how we can all better understand the art and sacred act of writing in Hebrew the text of Torah. Sunday morning he will do the same for the kids in the Sunday school. I think it should be a great weekend.
There is definitely a deeper message calling to us from this experience. Jewish laws abound on writing a Torah and about the procedures for what to do when an error is made or how to repair a damaged scroll. Tradition proscribes how to prepare the lambskin parchment. There are instructions for the scribe (sofer) to prepare himself (now a few women have become scribes) before actually writing.
While I have never actually written a Torah myself, I have been reading directly from Torahs for over 25 years as a congregational rabbi. Each Torah is different. Yes, it is the same text but the writing and style of the unknown scribe makes reading every Torah a different experience. Why is it special? I never complained or minded preparing during the week to read the Torah during the Sabbath services. To me reading the Torah is a privilege. When my eyes gaze down upon the letters, I am reading through the eyes of the unknown sage who wrote this Torah sometimes hundreds of years ago. I am seeing the words through their eyes, in fact, I encounter god in that parchment. I feel the act of reading Torah transports me to the continuum of sacred history all the way back to Moses and Sinai.
I only wish we could succeed in inspiring every boy and girl to experience that revelation when they read the Torah for their b’nai mitzvah. Yet, maybe I am selling our kids short. Maybe at some level they do get it and grasp on an emotional level how they become a link in the chain of learning the sacred Scriptures.
I am hoping that our weekend will enable our people in Hilton Head to open their eyes to the way a Torah can come to life. Will the letters enter their hearts and will our people enter inside the  spirit of the letters?
We live in a world of consuming things rapidly. We text. We email. We watch TV. Everything we do leads us to developing a short attention span. What happened to the culture that taught us to savor a word or a sentence? We study scripture on our computers, I Phones and Droids. That is just the way we are going. Yet, there are still some tastes of the ancient world that exist despite the digital world. If we leave the comfort of our computer space and join a community when we read the Torah at communal prayer, we can actually absorb that ancient aura, embrace the heart and minds of our ancient forbearers who bequeathed us that history and realize that God’s outstretched hand and ours too are forever bound together.
We  talk about  Judaism too often as only an ethnic identity. Jewish survival are sacred phrases in our faith tradition. Do not forget that the scribe gives us a Torah that is the ultimate core of who we are. It is a facsimile of the first written word, regardless of how we interpret Scripture, from our encounter with God.
I can read a biblical text in a book or in a digital format. Intellectually I know it is sacred. But none of those contexts can move my soul spiritually like when I read it from the original parchment. That is the gift of reading every Torah, beholding the tapestry of the past, present and future becoming one in the mind and the soul.
Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Torah Scroll tells its own story

 A story. The morning of June 18th 1999 I stood in front of the ark at my congregation in Sacramento. The sanctuary of the congregation was filled with smoke. The pews were scorched. The piano was destroyed. The president of the congregation stood beside me. We wanted to open the ark but the fire chief was afraid to let us do so lest there be a bomb planted inside the ark. Yes, that was the morning after the terrorists firebombed our congregation. That was the morning the president and I opened the ark and removed the holy Torahs from the ark and in a procession of mourning left the sanctuary carrying them in our hands.
Luckily they were not damaged. The 5000 books in the library were destroyed along with the library itself. Yet the terrorists did not succeed in destroying the Torahs. I think today about what the sacred texts mean in those moments of great tragedy. I remember how two brothers' hatred of Judaism and Jews propelled them to torch our campus and two other synagogues along with a planned parenthood center in one unholy night . I think about what survival means to Jews. I think about how many of us over history have carried Torahs from houses of worship that were burned from fires of hatred.
Bringing a Torah scribe to our congregation in Hilton Head is a beautiful thing. It is to be a cherished moment in our temple’s history. In my own mind I revisit a sad memory but one that makes me resolute on why we must cherish the sacred Torah and other ritual objects in our keep. The lambskin parchment that every scribe writes the holy words upon serves as a testament to our enduring spirit. Whenever I hold a Torah in front of the congregation during the service and process into the congregation with it, I derive tremendous satisfaction when I see the eyes of children and grandparents alike who touch it with their prayerbooks and prayer shawls and kiss the velvet covering that protects the Torah scrolls.  I see the utter joy in the faces of the congregation.  Even after all these years I derive such nachas(satisfaction) when I process or accompany a 13 year old bar or bat mitzvah student holding it as part of their rite of passage into adulthood. (Can we imagine one day the kids will be carrying their IPADs instead? God forbid).
A text is sacred for many reasons. It is holy in Judaism because the words come from God. It is holy because they represent the historic experience of our people encountering the word of God.  The scroll is holy because it is written by the hand of humans in partnership with the divine. It is holy because we can derive so many interpretations as to what the words and the ideas therein mean to each generation that asks the question how God’s words speak to me.
I embrace the sadness of that day in 1999 as I do all the times we have lost scrolls due to hatred. But that does not in any way detract from my spirit as I watch the  joy of seeing a child embrace and touch the torah for the first time or when a senior can proudly wrap their arms around the scroll as if it were their own child.  That is the beauty of the text. It tells its own story and it reverberates a story into all who see it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

writing the ancient texts in the digital world

The upcoming week is a big one at our congregation. I am so pleased that we will be hosting a real Sofer a Torah scribe. This is one of two visits that Neil Yerman will be making to our community. The facts are that due to a generous donation from a congregant we were able with Neil’s assistance to find and restore a Torah for our community. This would bring us to three functioning Torah in our holy ark. The essence of his visit and his presence is to teach us this weekend what does it mean to be a scribe? How can we learn how to draw some of the Hebrew letters? What are some of the Jewish laws on writing a Torah? We will be addressing these questions over the course of the weekend. I am totally fired up about Neil’s  visit.
The interesting thing is to contrast his ancient art and sacred mitzvah of writing holy books with our emphasis on the digital world. We are all focused on creating the most effective container of information such as the kindle at Amazon or the IPAD at Apple which contains so much information. We can practically carry around our own libraries with us wherever we go!
I don’t see these two worlds in conflict with each other. There is enough room for both of them to survive and thrive. But I just don’t want to see us loose perspective and value in the ancient craft of writing holy books whether that is a purim megillah or a Torah or a mezuzah or tephillin. We need to slow down sometimes and savor the parchment  (yes,  I am aware of saving trees!). Maybe that is something we should  be thinking a lot more about in our lives. Slowing down and reading a book for insight and wisdom or just relaxation is a beautiful thing.
The digital world has no texture as compared to any book let alone a scroll. Life is all about the texture and the feel of what we do. It is not black or white but shades of grey.  That is my personal perspective. I would love to have an IPAD, but, not at the cost of giving up my books or writing a handwritten note with a fountain pen. These instruments of the non-digital world need to remain.   We need the texture of life and its tools as well.
Religion is all about the visual and those things we can touch with our hands and our talit(prayer shawl).  I would hate to confine God to digital programming.
More to come on writing and the religious texture.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving in Mississippi

We went to enjoy Thanksgiving at two homes yesterday in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. How many ways can one prepare pumpkin pie? Stuffing, of course, is the critical element for making or breaking the actual meal itself. I should mention the other essential piece which is whether or not the Turkey is moist. There is nothing worse than a dry Thanksgiving Day Turkey! Yes, food and football are part and parcel of our Thanksgiving Day ritual. We were fortunate to enjoy outstanding cuisine both homes.
At the first home our hosts asked each one of us at the table to offer a thought. One guest said that he was grateful to be with his extended family. Even though he only sees them once or twice a year, it is always a special treat and something he truly values. It did not matter that we did not know the other folks, except for our hosts, all of us resounded with gratitude for being with our respective families.
I am sure we all feel that way too. The truth of the matter is that being away from our family during the course of the year and traveling so many miles is not easy but it is a worthwhile pilgrimage. Our daughter and her boy friend came in from Arizona. I drove almost 600 miles from Hilton Head. Yet, sitting at that table with my family regardless of who was sitting across the table brought home that magical moment of Shalom. Oh how we need that peace and tranquility especially in these unpredictable times. One does not  have to be a rabbi or philosopher to understand and affirm that family is sacred to us all.
It is frustrating that in America families are so spread out. How blessed are the ones who have their extended family members living nearby. But no matter how far apart we are and no matter how much we miss each other these moments like Thanksgiving reinforce the deep love that is there every day as it is on this special holiday.
Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday because it brings out the best in all Americans and does not get bogged down in religious factionalism. This holiday is religiously neutral. We can all give thanks each in our own way and not make one particular religion the focus. Thanksgiving is about the hope that Americans can learn how to get along with our neighbors. The pilgrims and the Indians began the narrative of a long history of diverse groups struggling to share this blessed land.
The same narrative still exists with the challenges we all face in adapting to a changing religio-ethnic base of newly arrived Americans from all over the world. Maybe if we can learn to eat turkey together we can learn to enjoy each other’s presence and respect the traditions we all come from that make up the beautiful tapestry we call America. That is the promise that our forefathers cherished because they knew back then that it would be the secret of America’s prosperity and longevity.
Happy Thanksgiving

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

FBI issues hate crimes report: A challenge for the Religious Community to make a difference

According to the FBI, hate crimes went down by 15 over the course of the year 2009. The FBI claims that there were 6,604 criminal acts which had 7,784 “bias motivated offenses.” Almost 20 percent of the crimes were religiously motivated criminal acts. Of the 1303 criminal acts of religious bigotry 931 were anti-Jewish,107 were anti-Islamic, 51 were anti-catholic, 38 were anti-protestant and 10 were anti-Atheistic /Agnostic. Finally in 2008 there were 1608 religiously motivated hate crimes.
What does all this mean? Well, one could say that hate crimes are going down and pray they continue in this pattern. Another aspect is the amount of anti-Semitic attacks which make up the largest category of religious hate crimes. Jews should feel at home in America and breathe easy that we have the most secure way of life that any Jewish community has probably ever experienced in the history of our people. Yet, that stream of anti-Semitism still exists and will always pose a risk factor to our well being. It just comes with the territory and the job.
It is hard to tell whether the numbers will increase regarding anti-Islamic hate crimes. We all know the tension out there in America regarding the Muslim population.  My sense is that the statistics will not change much unless we have a terrorist attack (Please God, no!). 
The Anti-Defamation League came out with a statement welcoming the decrease of hate crimes but also pointed out that 60 cities with populations over 100,000 did not participate in the survey. That is an obvious problem which makes the report appear to be skewed. We need accurate data before we can make pronouncements about the state of hate crimes in America. This fact calls into question the reliability of the FBI’s statistics.
This is the time for religious groups to build bridges with and to each other. When we do so we are protecting our communities from misunderstanding if and when an incident occurs which can trigger other crimes. Community leaders have an obligation to talk to each other even if there are issues which we share opposing opinions. We all live in the same community and should have a vested interest in preserving the peace.
We are a great nation for many reasons. We have the ability to make a difference and show the world how America can deal with its religious diversity in a way that does not tear at the fabric of our society. Sure we have profoundly difficult issues to deal with that relate to race and religion.  But we do have the capacity to transcend divisive issues and work for a better understanding amongst religions.  The volunteer boards of Mosques, churches, synagogues and other religious institutions should encourage their clergy to make those connections and show pride when clergy succeed at fostering a greater understanding between the religions.
I pray that this Thanksgiving we take a moment out to say that we are blessed in so many ways because we live in America. Yes, we are going through a terrible time in our economy. At the same time let us rededicate ourselves to the hope that we shall never cede the moral high ground. Please God, imbue us with the determination to live up to the teachings of our faith and cherish all life and the religions that give us understanding and faith to live our lives to its fullest potential.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The district conference of the Reform Movement in Atlanta

We just finished a brief weekend kallah, the first one in the new district model that resulted from the organizational restructuring of our national movement. Over 150 volunteers, rabbis, cantors and educators attended a busy schedule of activities held at the Marriot near the Atlanta airport.
This kallah (conference) gave evidence of the enthusiasm and the desperate need for community at the local and regional levels if Reform Judaism is going to survive. The enthusiasm was there and we met some of the Union of Reform Judaism’s specialist’s staff in areas such as adult education and early childhood education.  The rabbis and cantors who attended did a fine job inspiring us with our favorite contemporary songs and with exciting teaching sessions.
Rabbi Dan Medvin gave a fine talk about Judaism and Technology helping us to envision how we can enhance so much of our communal worship by employing the latest techniques in computer graphics that will enable us to engage our families in the worship experience and thereby inspire them to take us to the next level of high tech and high touch.
There is no question that the reorganization of the movement has had a disorienting impact upon the movement’s identity and direction.  I should exclude the bedrock of reform’s success story as exceptions such as the camping movement and NFTY (the youth movement) when drawing these conclusions.
The staff is doing its best. They have enthusiasm, knowledge and experience to prove that the movement is going forward. But they can’t do it by themselves. What was missing was a strong representation from the highest ranks of the reform movement. I am referring to the absence of the URJ’s top national leadership  cadre of volunteer and clergy leadership.
District conferences that stretch over a thousand miles across the country face a challenge to connect everyone. I am not yet convinced that the district model is the way to go in fashioning a permanent organizational structure. It is too early to make a final appraisal. A movement like Liberal Judaism needs to grow and renew those time honored bonds that grew out of the previous regional model in order to influence the agenda nationally.
Kudos to the union for putting together this long needed first try at organizing the conference. I think they really need to broaden the participation and do a much better marketing job to recruit people to attend. If the top tier of volunteer and professional leadership hope to inspire giving to the Union ,both in terms of time and financial resources, then maybe they should  think about showing up and demonstrating that they really care about the folks they serve.
The success of this weekend’s retreat proves that they are on the right track even though there is a lot more work to be done. The Union of Reform Judaism needs to promote more face to face contact of people with likeminded interests.  There are social networking strategies that many of us are already employing within our congregations. The more we can meet others from around the district and the nation the greater collaboration and enthusiasm we can build for the future of the URJ. We need to create the spark. This weekend was the beginning. Let’s keep up the momentum.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Learning and sharing together helps the spiritual life of America

Yesterday we received at the temple a group of about 25 people from a local senior independent living facility. They were a conglomeration of Christians: Catholics, Episcopalians, Southern Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and Lutherans. If I am not mistaken there were a few atheists in the group as well. While sitting in the pews of our sanctuary, I gave them a brief explanation of all the ritual objects including the Eternal Light, The Menorah, the Memorial plaques, and the inscription on our Jerusalem stone bimah (platform). The one ritual object, however, that stood out above all the rest was the Torah. When I opened the ark, I could see the awe in their eyes. They had never seen a Torah up close.
They all arose from the pews and stood around me at the Torah reading table as I undressed the Torah and opened it up. Their eyes widened and the look of amazement reminded me of the same enthusiasm and wonder that our young people show when we read Torah on Shabbat. They asked excellent questions, for example, about the history of Bible translations and requested that I chant Torah which I gladly did for them.
We then walked over near the entrance to the sanctuary where in a carved out alcove in the Jerusalem stone wall there was a Torah encased in Plexiglas. I explained the history of this special Torah coming from Prague, Czechoslovakia. The Nazis accumulated almost 2000 Torahs from communities they ravaged with the intention of establishing a museum after the War to remind the world that they destroyed the Jewish people. After the war those Torahs were then sent to a synagogue in London and sent out on permanent loan to Jewish communities throughout the world. Beth Yam received this Torah in 1984.  The guests stared at it remembering full well the war years. That was a solemn moment in the tour.
Christians want to learn more about Judaism. They see more today than ever before in their history the roots they share with Judaism.  They come with an open mind and a positive and accepting spirit to learning about Judaism’s customs and rituals.
Synagogue need to do more to welcome church groups and other religions into our facilities. And we should not be shy about visiting their institutions as well. America needs to celebrate its religious pluralism and diversity.  It is in the national interest to get beyond the suspicions and fears.  Of course there will always be people in all the faith traditions who avoid interfaith sharing. Sadly too many people see this kind of activity as a waste of time. They do not trust any faith outside their own. But that is not the way we should live in this nation. There is an underlying cynicism in our country which acts like a virus and infects the body politic. We must do what we can to build bridges, create partnerships and foster dialogue even when issues come up where we do disagree.  Only by doing this do we have a chance of turning things around in our country. Of course the economy and jobs are what we are all focused upon these days. We have an opportunity to support each other and change the climate to one of hope and optimism. Is this not what God wants of us? Is this not what we need to do to counter the demographic shift away from religious affiliation that appears to be a growing trend? Is this not the time when all religions in our land  should strive to restore the trust and confidence in many Americans and people around the world who have given up on religion in order to  prove that our faith traditions can make a difference for good in their lives?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In Israel a rabbi, imam and priest pray together for rain.

Who would have ever thought that, according to the report in the Jerusalem Post (November 14, 2010), clergy from Judaism, Islam and Christianity would gather together and in one place at the same time pray together for rain to descend upon the land?
That is exactly what happened. Apparently Israel is experiencing a dry spell. The rainy season normally begins by the middle of October. Rain and water in general is always a valuable resource in the Middle East and plays a critical although oftentimes a behind the scenes role in commerce and the politics of the region.
But this time in what appears to be a mysterious phenomenon that a Rabbi, Imam and Christian Greek Orthodox priest joined together at a spring called Eiyn Heniya in the Valley of the Ghosts that is between Jerusalem and the Bethlehem Hills for a session of prayer to God to send the rain upon the land.
According to the article Orthodox Rabbi Menachem Froman spoke about how both Islam and Judaism have beliefs that God will send rain if the people are good. So this gesture of interreligious unity was a small but important way of appealing to God to cause the rain to replenish the earth. The Rev. Issa Elias Musleh also expressed the sentiment that he was there to beseech God for mercy upon humankind and bring the rains forth.  The Mufti of Bethlehem, Sheikh Abdel Najib, also expressed hopes for peace between the religions and that by praying together reaffirmed Islam’s intention to bring peace to the region and choose peace over war.
In Judaism from the end of the harvest festival of Sukkot until the late spring we pray for rain three times a day. In the prayer we ask God to “meshev ha ruach umorid hagashem –Cause the wind to blow and make the rain descend.” In the Talmud it is written, the day the rain falls is as significant as the day heaven and earth were created.” (Taanit 8b) Rabbinic legislation in times of drought called for a communal fast to appeal to God to bring down the rain. Our ancestors as well as our contemporaries in Israel take the prayers for rain seriously. By the year 2020, population estimates approximate that there will be 8.4 million people living in Israel. The rain is, therefore, even more critical to sustain such a growing population.
But I really want to focus on this small moment of hope that three clergy could agree to meet together in front of the media and suspend the rivalries and antagonisms that afflict this holy and sacred land. The fact that they transcended the bitterness and cynicism and, instead, focused on a common problem shows that beyond the rhetoric we read about in the media that there are forces who are communicating and searching for ways to work together. This is one of those moments that should hold out a little bit of hope for us that peace is within the grasp of the parties in this conflict.
We should watch and learn from their example.  I wish more of our clergy in my community would join together in actions of praying together to demonstrate how religions can cooperate with each other and set an example to their followers for how we here in America can find common ground on issues that impact us all.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Is America a Christian Nation?

Is America a Christian Nation?
We are living in a time when many Americans believe America is a Christian nation and it is incumbent upon Americans to preserve it that way. We will soon start to welcome the winter solstice which means that Christmas is coming. The debates will commence about putting up the crèche or the even the Menorah on public property.
But what is really problematic is the ever-present fear of the diversity of peoples who are not Christian and entering into America. The problem I see is not that America is a fervently religious nation. That is one of the great strengths of our nation.  I come from Maryland which calls itself “The Free State,” because it was the first state to allow Catholics to worship freely. Religious tolerance in Maryland is an indicator that we have a long history of struggle to make America accessible to all religious groups.
The real challenge is whether progressive minded people and charismatic Christians and even Fundamentalists can speak to each other furthering mutual understanding? Sure we are going to disagree on social issues. Yet, is it not incumbent upon us to open up channels of communications? Living in the south as I do and even if Hilton Head is an island of northern culture, I see that there is good will and peaceful relations. The problem I think about is whether there are peaceful relations because there are no relations or dialogue?
I do not believe we should live cautiously or in fear of the Christian world. Wherever we live in America this is the one country where religious pluralism is embedded in the soil of the culture. My biggest fear is that religious groups take down the stones of the wall separating church and state one block at a time.
The fact that the Oklahoma State house enacted an anti Sharia law is an example of how the fear of what people do not even know anything about can create hysteria. If you asked citizens, for example, in Oklahoma to define the word Sharia or give an example of this law could they do so? Probably not.
The old lesson about preaching hatred and intolerance is part and parcel of fostering a culture of ignorance. The less people know about another religion the better the chances are they will hate that religion. This is the reason why people of faith who see the dangers of religious intolerance need to get out in front and why every American should be turning a deaf ear to religious triumphalism no matter where it comes from in the society at large.
America is a nation where the majority of citizens are from one of many branches of Christianity. That does not make America a Christian nation. The Constitution is a Godless constitution even if God may have inspired the founding fathers to create the Constitution. But in this constitution God took a neutral position on the subject of religion. That is the way it should stay.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Kristallnacht: Be vigilant against state sponsored terrorism today

Kristallnacht November 12, 2010
I was at a meeting the other day discussing this weekend’s events at the congregation with a group of congregants. One of them looked at me and asked, “Are you doing anything for Kristallnact?” I said no explaining that it just was not on my radar screen this year. In other words there just was not time and other things more important were on my mind.
I thought about it and fairly quickly realized that it was not a thought that would go away until I addressed it. So I want to thank my friend bill who inspired the idea and served as my moral compass on this matter.
Yes, today commemorates the Night of Broken Glass where on this day in 1938, the Nazis had instigated and planned a series of nationally organized riots that led to the desecration of synagogues and Jewish stores as well as mass arrests of German Jews who sent to places like Dachau  concentration camp. The night of broken glass served as a trigger that unleashed the beginning of the end for Germany’s Jews and served as the harbinger for the forthcoming storm that would spell doom for rest of Europe’s Jewish population.
What the world witnessed in Germany is now called state sponsored terrorism against the state’s own population today. We observe countries around the world like Iran and Rwanda, Serbia (in the 90’s) and many other countries perpetrate these kinds of outrageous crimes. What makes Kristallnacht still relevant today is that this episode in Jewish history teaches us a lesson about how countries betray their own citizens.   Kristallnacht has its own meaning to us as Jews. We have documented the stories and we have meticulously researched all that Hitler, Goebbels and their henchmen did to stir up the Germans and plan that horrid action. Let no one doubt whether or not a Kristallnacht could happen again. Of course it could and has happened against us and other nations. That is why Kristallnacht deserves to be cited as an example in our day to be vigilant condemning any political leadership of a nation that uses the states’ power to attack its own citizens.
How ironic that we pay respects to America’s men and women who serve in our nation’s defense with the holiday of Veterans Day. We honor those who protect us and defend us here and abroad. They deserve our respect. Yet when we see how a nation’s political leadership can turn against one group of people based upon religion or race or political viewpoint we know that we must speak out where we see the abuse of power. May God protect our people who volunteer to serve this great nation and return them safely to their families.
Finally Let us not forget the Night of Broken Glass, Kristallnacht, for what it represented as the turning point in Hitler and Germany’s war against the Jews. With the privilege of remembering comes the responsibility of not letting it happen to us or others again.