A Dog’s Festival of Lights

He came every evening during the eight days of Hanukkah to the foyer for the lighting of our menorah.  It didn’t matter what he was doing, how snug and comfortable he might have been, or even if he was sleeping soundly.  He clearly understood it as his responsibility, his job as it were, just like we go off to our offices in the morning sipping our coffee cups, driving in the chilly early mornings and sleepily adjusting the radio, waiting for the heat to come on.  And, as he always has, he took that responsibility seriously.  We didn’t call him or rouse him from his bed.  As dogs do, he somehow just knew  that the time had arrived – and just as we finished placing the last candle and prepared to light the shamash he would appear, stretching his front paws, yawning, sniffing, finding a comfortable spot from which to watch the proceedings.

And he participated!  He often joined in as we chanted the blessings, his barking or yowling blending in with our own voices.  He didn’t pay all that much attention to the candles themselves, maybe a sniff or two in their direction, the acrid smell of the just extinguished match warning him to keep his distance.  But he was fully engaged, and after each lighting expected some belly or ear scratching, positioning himself in that way that dogs do to let you know it is time for a good scratch or two.

Maybe there was some classical conditioning involved, maybe some association had formed in his canine brain between that Hanukkah ritual and his dinner being served, or a treat that once or twice was offered post lighting.  Maybe it was that latke he oh-so-stealthily managed to steal.  That must have been right around the time we were lighting the candles?  But I think it was more than that.  There is a certain sense of loyalty to it, a clear commitment to the family, to his humans, to be there and to watch the goings on, to show up, and to do it every single time.  When the door opens and you come in from the garage, there he is, steadfastly wagging his nub.  When we sit down to dinner he settles in the same place to join us, even if he’s eaten, even when he was soundly and comfortably sleeping in another room entirely.  He lies at my feet when I work at the computer at the dining room table, often arranging his head between the legs of my chair.  He sagely scans the front yard and the street, and the  yards beyond, for threats real or imagined that he will warn us about with a stout and sometimes urgent barking.  When the basement TV goes on he is there within seconds, anxious to settle into his customary place on the couch, snuggled in between us.

I think it was Woody Allen who said 80% of life is showing up.  We humans often struggle with that 80%.  We come late, we forget, we are lazy and don’t want to go out, there are a million and one reasons why we don’t show up for this obligation or that event, why we constantly cancel and reschedule and reschedule again.  Perhaps there is something to be learned from a dog’s unfailing loyalty and devotion, the sheer determination to do what he must, to be there and to offer his support or presence, to let us know with his softly questioning eyes that he wouldn’t have it any other way.IMG_0145

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Hanukkah’s Hypocrisy?

This is a text version of my sermon from the Shabbat of Hanukkah, 12/8/18 –

     There has been a bit of a hullabaloo in the Jewish community over the last few days about an op-ed article that appeared in the NY Times last Sunday, just on the eve of Hanukkah.  The title of the article was ‘the Hypocrisy of Hanukkah,’ in and of itself provocative, like any good title, and enough to get you to read further.  The author, Michael David Lucas, claimed that in contemporary times the celebration of Hanukkah has become hypocritical.  Why? Because most of the Jews who gather to light their menorahs during the 8 days are secular, but the real story of Hanukkah – he says – is a story of religious zealots – the Maccabees – fighting to impose their religious worldview against Jews who were secular and assimilating into Greek culture.  So the author argues that the Maccabees would not have accepted the secular lifestyle of most of us who celebrate the Hanukkah today.   

     Obviously this is not the understanding of Hanukkah that you learn about in Hebrew school.  The story of Hanukkah that we tell our children and grandchildren has nothing to do with an internal Jewish struggle.  Instead, it is a story of right versus might, of a small and relatively weak people rising up against one of the most powerful armies in the ancient world, and somehow defeating it.  It is a story of freedom and the triumph of the human spirit, of what people can accomplish when they come together and fight for a cause they believe in.  The story of the Maccabees has also been a point of pride for Jews for more than 2,000 years, an example of the strength of the Jewish will to survive, and the loyalty and dedication of Jews to their tradition and heritage.

     Which I think is precisely why this article has been so controversial.  The story of Hanukkah that I just summarized is the one we all grew up on, the one we’ve believed in our entire lives, and when someone challenges that story, or even tries to take it away from us, we get upset and angry, and we push back.  A number of you have asked me about the article, emailed me, called me, or actually in Shirley’s case brought the article in to show me, and I can tell that you are feeling a bit perplexed.  So let me try to clear it all up a bit if I can in the few minutes I have this morning.  I am not sure whether I’ll leave you feeling better, worse, or the same, but I suppose you’ll let me know.

     The first thing I would say is that the author is a little bit right, and a little bit wrong.  And he is a little bit right and a little bit wrong about a couple of different things.  He is right in that we do know there was an internal Jewish battle that was going on in the year 165 BCE, the time that the events of Hanukkah took place.  Ancient Israel was controlled by the Assyrians who had adopted Greek culture, and many Jews had become Hellenized – that is to say, they were more and more thinking and acting like Greeks.  In other words, many Jews at the time were what we would call today ‘secular’ Jews.  And there was tension between those secular Jews, who were comfortable assimilating and living more modern lives, and the Maccabees, who did argue for a strict and traditional adherence to Jewish law.  That is all true.

     But the Times article is wrong in assuming that the primary struggle was a Jew against Jew struggle.  There is no question that the real enemy the Maccabees were battling was the Assyrian army, and there must have been some kind of consensus in the broader Jewish community at the time that that was a struggle worth waging.  Why? Because it is impossible to imagine that the Maccabees by themselves, without the support of their fellow Jews, could have accomplished what they did.  So it is odd, to say the least, that the article in the Times barely mentions the Maccabees’ defeat of the Assyrian army.  As Lincoln famously once said, there are things you can prove by telling part of the truth that you can’t prove by telling all of the truth.  And that is one area where the article misses the mark.

     I would argue that the other is in the article’s misunderstanding of what it means to be a secular Jew.  And the author of the article – in a way pokes fun at himself and his own Judaism – his own discomfort with being Jewish – and by doing that he diminishes the role of the so called secular Jew, both today and historically, in terms of Jewish community and Jewish continuity. 

     Because of the way he described himself, I would say it is highly unlikely that that author of the article is sitting in shul this morning.  Which is a shame, because it would be a good thing for him to spend some time thinking about the Joseph narrative that we reading from the Torah right now.  He might be surprised to realize that Joseph is without question two things:  one, the person who enables and ensures Jewish continuity for his time.  It is the foothold that he has established in Egypt that gives him the power to ultimately bring the rest of his family there, to feed them and give them shelter, so that they will survive through the terrible famine afflicting the ancient near East at that time.  You can very plausibly make the argument were it not for Joseph, Jacob’s family would not have survived, and Judaism might have ended right there.

     But the other thing about Joseph that would surprise the Times author is that Joseph is the most secular Jew in the entire Torah.  It isn’t even close!  Joseph is so secular – he has become so Egyptian – that his own brothers can’t even recognize him, because he is wearing Egyptian clothes, he has completely adopted Egyptian culture, and he is speaking Egyptian like a native.  It is not a stretch to say that Joseph – one of the great figures of the Bible – one of the great heroes of Judaism – is just as secular as anyone sitting in this room this morning, and probably more secular than many of us!

     But being secular doesn’t mean that your Judaism isn’t important to you.  Being secular doesn’t mean that you haven’t been lighting Hanukkah candles each night, or that you don’t go to a Passover seder or come to synagogue on the HHDs, or care about Israel, or donate to Jewish causes, or enroll your children in Hebrew school so they can become Jewishly literate and educated.  So called ‘secular’ Jews do all of those things, and because they do them Jewish continuity and Jewish life are assured for a next generation, and a next, and a next.

     This is not to say that we don’t need our Judah Maccabees, our religious zealots.  We do, and it goes without saying they have an important role to play in Jewish life.  That is part of what Hanukkah reminds us of, and celebrates.  But I don’t think it is a coincidence that every year when we are celebrating Hanukkah and remembering the Maccabees, we are reading about Joseph from the Torah, Joseph the great secular Jew.  

     Few of us can be Maccabees – I know I certainly can’t.  But all of us have a chance to be a Joseph.  And when we are proud of our Judaism, when we care about Jewish community, when we play a part in ensuring Jewish continuity, we are walking in his footsteps.  And I don’t know about you, but for my feet those shoes feel pretty comfortable.  חג שמח ושבת שלום!

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A Shifting Ground

Almost right under your feet, and you may not even realize it.  A recent NY Times Book Review issue dedicated its core article to the changing conditions and dynamics of America’s Jewish community.  ‘God is in the Crowd,’ ‘the Jewish American Paradox,’ ‘ ‘The New American Judaism’ – these are a few of the books reviewed in the article, itself tellingly entitled ‘Lamentations.’ (see the NY Times Book Review from November 18th)

Lamentations is of course the name of the biblical book traditionally chanted on Tisha B’Av, the annual commemoration of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples in ancient times.  It is a book about, in a narrow sense, the destruction of a Jewish city, Jerusalem.  But in a larger sense the Book of Lamentations is about the destruction of an entire Jewish community, even a Jewish way of life.  Once the Temple was gone the foundation of Jewish living and religious observance no longer existed.  The Jews at that time (the second Temple destruction occurred in 70 CE) were forced to entirely reinvent themselves, their culture, and their religious life.  Temple rituals were shifted and reflected symbolically in synagogue and home observance.  Study and prayer replaced animal sacrifice.  The rabbi became the central focus of Jewish life, and the role of the Priest began to diminish.  Over time Rabbinic Judaism emerged from the ashes of the Israelite sacrificial cult and Temple-centric worship.  As the process unfolded it was at times torturous, certainly filled with lamentation.  But when it was all said and done, we had become ‘rabbinic’ Jews, following the system of law the talmudic rabbis established some two thousand years ago.  And to this day, that system has defined Jewish life.

What the ‘Lamentations’ article seems to suggest is that the era of Rabbinic Judaism may finally be coming to an end.  We are living, some have suggested, in a ‘post-halachic’ (post Jewish legal system) age.  Understandings of religious life are changing rapidly, particularly for young Jews.  Ideas of traditional Jewish structures like synagogue affiliation, bar and bat mitzvah, worship, and holiday and Shabbat observance are shifting, and in some cases even being discarded.  Recent surveys suggest that today’s Jews identify ethnically, more as lox and bagel and Jerry Seinfeld Jews, as opposed to Jews who define themselves through a religious lens.  Pick your catchy phrase.  This is not your father’s synagogue/Judaism comes quickly to mind.  Perhaps even better, however:  we aren’t in Kansas anymore!

Traditional Jewish institutions are rushing to catch up.  The bar and bat mitzvah ritual is being reimagined, in some cases not even involving reading from the Torah.  So called ‘spiritual centers’ are springing up in synagogues from coast to coast, dressing up modern self improvement programs like yoga or meditation with a Jewish flavor.  Synagogues are becoming cultural centers, hosting music programs, adult education classes, cooking and bridge playing classes and movie nights.  Some of this is Jewishly oriented, some of it is entirely secular, some of it is somewhere in between.  All of it is an attempt, in one way or another, to cope with the shifting Jewish landscape of modern America.

The million dollar question, of course, is will it work?  The answer is, we don’t know.  We may, for a time, convince Jews to keep coming into the synagogue, if not to sit in services and listen to the rabbi’s sermon, at least to learn to play bridge.  But long term will this new kind of Jewish connection enable the Jewish community to retain a sense of distinct identity and to live meaningfully through Judaism?  After all, not everyone even likes lox, if you understand my meaning.

Of course the challenge is to have our cake and eat it too.  In an ideal world we would entice people into the building to meditate or learn to play bridge, and then figure out a way to connect them to Jewish life so they’ll end up more knowledgeable and practicing Jews.  Certainly Jews can meditate and also study Talmud, or play bridge on Thursdays and come to services Shabbat mornings.  Whether they will or not is something we are about to find out.

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Not by Might

There will be close to one thousand Jews gathering tonight at my congregation to light a menorah, nosh on some typical Hanukkah fair, and watch fireworks (what could be more appropriate for the Festival of Lights?!).  We share this evening with another congregation just a stone’s throw away, and over the last few years it has developed into a much anticipated communal celebration of the holiday.

It is true, it can be a bit of a ‘ballagan,’ a crazy scene.  Imagine 1,000 Jews trying to make their way to a few tables piled high with latkes and you’ll have the picture.  To paraphrase Woody Allen, it is sort of like kiddish after Shabbat  services, only more so.  Bu despite the logistical challenges, despite the crowds, despite the difficulties in terms of parking, people come, and they truly seem to enjoy the evening.

I wonder why?

Certainly it is a striking Jewish identity moment for everyone.  Simply stated, there is a power to numbers.  Lighting a menorah at home with your family can feel like a sacred moment.  But lighting a menorah with a thousand people, everyone chanting the blessings, all those voices raised together enacting a ritual that is two thousand years old, that experience has its own particular power.  You know you are part of something significant, something serious, something that others – many others – feel is worthwhile.  The experience also connects in well with the theme of the holiday, namely that Jews can be powerful and can control their own destiny.  That is something Jews in America rarely celebrate in such a public way.  The experience is connective in an ethnic kind of way, even a bit tribal in feel.

There is also the light of the menorah.  Maybe it doesn’t mean what it once did.  After all, in our day and age we can turn lights off and on with ease, flicking a switch, or even just speaking a word to our ‘smart’ bulbs.  But there is something about real flame, something ancient and almost arcane, magical and mystical.  We gather around as the candles are lit and the flames flicker, insistently pushing back against the darkness during some of the darkest and longest nights of the entire year.  The light of Hanukkah is a light of the spirit, the flame  bringing us back to an earlier time when our ancestors gathered around their camp fires to listen to stories of hope and fate and God.

On the Shabbat of Hanukkah we read the words of the prophet Zechariah in the text of the haftara:  “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, said he Lord of Hosts.”  It is the light of that spirit that Hanukkah still brings into our lives – and our world – today.

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Rockwell’s Four Freedoms

This is an article I wrote for the Rabbi’s Corner column in the JQ Baltimore November newsletter. We must continue to speak out for LGBTQ rights, especially during these turbulent times!

Freedom From Want is the title of the iconic Norman Rockwell painting that depicts an extended family sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table. Gathered family members smile and lean forward as the matriarch, appropriately dressed in white apron and blue patterned dress, gently lowers the meal’s centerpiece, a giant turkey, to the table. Rockwell captures in the painting the sense of family intimacy and connection that Thanksgiving is all about. His chosen title for the picture conveys another theme of the holiday, namely the gratitude we feel for living in America, a land of freedom and plenty.

The painting is actually one in a series of four ‘freedom’ paintings that Rockwell worked on and completed in 1943. Freedom of Worship, Freedom From Fear, and Freedom of Speech are the titles of the other three pictures. The themes were classic American motifs, all of them driving forces in a common American identity that kept the country united during the turbulent years of the Second World War. Rockwell’s great talent was in capturing the intimate moment that was simultaneously universal. We see ourselves sitting around that table, or worshipping in those pews, or listening respectfully to the man speaking, or tucking those children in to bed.

Nevertheless, Rockwell’s paintings come at their topics through a traditional lens. The characters he paints are all white, the families all traditional, grandparents and parents with their children and grandchildren. If the values Rockwell highlights in the paintings are traditional American values, the scenes are also traditional in nature, lacking a sense of the diversity of modern American life. How would Rockwell have painted those scenes today, in the United States of 2018? To ask that question in another way, who will be seated around our Thanksgiving table this year?

On the surface this is a simple question, but to members of the LGBTQ community it is filled with meaning. Can I sit at my family’s Thanksgiving table and be completely comfortable in my own skin? Am I accepted and respected for who I truly am? Can I give thanks this year during Thanksgiving, our holiday of gratitude, for the advancement and expansion of LGBTQ rights in our country? I’ve always felt that Thanksgiving is the most Jewish of all American holidays, with its focus on food and gratitude, two major Jewish concerns. May we be mindful of the identities of all those with whom we will celebrate this Thanksgiving. May we be grateful for the freedoms we are blessed to have. And may we be determined to do the work so those freedoms may be extended to every person

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A Shabbat of Solidarity

Following is a text version of remarks I made yesterday at our Shabbat of Solidarity service.  I am deeply grateful that over 800 people of many different faiths came together to honor the memories of those whose lives were taken away in Pittsburgh.  It was a powerful morning of memory, prayer, and hope.

     We Jews are well practiced in the exercise of memory, both individually and communally.  As individuals we observe the yartzeits of those we have loved and lost, we recite the Yizkor service four times a year, we visit the cemetery, placing our hands on the stones.  As a community we commemorate tragic events from our past, Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, Tisha B’Av, the day the Temple was destroyed in ancient times in Jerusalem.  Even our holidays are often tinged with bitter memories – the slavery of Egypt that we remember on Passover, or the persecution and anti-Semitism of Purim and Hanukkah.  

     And we gather today in part to remember, to look back to exactly one week ago, to reflect on the tragic events that took place in Pittsburgh, to recall the victims, to read their names aloud, and to honor them.  And so we have done.  What happened in Pittsburgh was unprecedented in the history of the American Jewish community, and we know from our long experience that part of our task now as Jews will be to bear the weight of that memory as we carry it forward.

     As we do that in the months and years ahead it is important to say that remembering in Judaism has a purpose.  It is not only about the past, about looking back – it is also, and in some ways more so, about the future and looking forward.  This morning’s Torah portion records the death of both Sarah and Abraham, but the primary focus of the portion is on the future, on finding a wife for Isaac so that there will be a new generation to carry the covenant forward.  We are told three times in Genesis ‘vayizkor Elohim’ – that God remembered – God remembered Noah, and brought him to dry land.  God remembered Abraham, and then rescued his nephew Lot from the destruction of Sodom.  And God remembered Rachel, and gave her a child.  In each case God’s act of remembering was for the sake of the future, and of life.

     Which is why I am grateful today that we are also celebrating two events that are about the future.  I pulled Holden aside after services ended last night, and I told him that although he might not have even realized it, the very fact that he stood before the congregation, a young man, and proudly chanted the kiddish, and again this morning proudly was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah – in and of itself that helps us to heal, it gives us hope for a bright Jewish future, it reminds us that there is a next generation, that they will carry our communal memories forward, while finding meaning in their Judaism everyday.  

     And Lauren and Jason, our auffruff couple.  One week from tonight they will stand together under the huppah, a moment that is about faith and the future they will build together in their years ahead as husband and wife.  You cannot help but feel a sense of hope for the future when you see a groom and a bride walk down the aisle.  A new Jewish family has formed, a new generation committing to live a Jewish life and to create a Jewish home, as it was for Isaac and Rebecca so long ago, the love that they shared, the life they made, and the family they brought into the world. 

     And then the baby naming the Cantor and I officiated at last Sunday morning.  A beautiful baby girl, fussing and cooing and squirming in her parents arms, as she received her Hebrew name and was formally entered into the ancient covenant between God and Israel.  Her middle name in Hebrew is Aliza, which means joy.  And we were naming this child one day after Pittsburgh.  Almost exactly 24 hours.  But there was joy – in that child, for her family, in that moment, and in our hearts.  And there is nothing that is more abut the future than the naming of a baby.  Because that is the name by which she’ll be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah.  That is the name that one day will be written in her ketubah, that is the name that will mark some of the most significant and sacred moments of her life, and some of the most significant and sacred moments of the future of our community. 

     We will make that future together.  Bearing our sadness, remembering our losses, honoring memory, but at the very same time walking forward with hope and strength, with resilience and dignity, with determination to make a better and safer and more tolerant world for all.  We will mourn our losses, as we have this past week, as we always do, but we will celebrate life, we will welcome babies, we will dance with brides and grooms, we will rejoice with young men and women who are called to the Torah for the very first time, we will celebrate our holidays, light the candles of our menorahs in a few weeks, and sit at our seders in the spring, and recite the words of our ancient prayers on this Shabbat of Solidarity and every Shabbat.  

     And so may this truly be a Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of peace for us, for Jews everywhere, for the world.  May we dedicate today to the memory of those who lost their lives last week, but also to the future that we will build together – in the months and years that are ahead – God willing a future of hope and peace and dignity for all people in all places – 

May that truly be God’s will!

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The Healer of Broken Hearts

This morning I named a baby, a beautiful little girl welcomed with deep joy into her family and community.  It was a simple rabbinic moment.  Working with my Cantor I spoke of covenant and history, read the appropriate prayers, blessed the child.  She cooed and fussed a bit, squirmed in her parents arms, happily slurped some sweet wine, the taste of which made her suddenly widen her eyes.

It is the very day after one of the greatest tragedies in American Jewish history.  Eleven dead in a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh.  There is much to do.  Emails are flying through the community, phone calls are coming in, plans are being made for various memorial services and vigils, and an upcoming communal Shabbat of solidarity.  There are security questions to be weighed and considered.  But what could be more important than naming a baby?  What could be more meaningful than bringing a new child into the community, what could be more significant than giving her a Hebrew name?  Am Yisrael Chai! we sing – the Jewish people live!  There is no greater proof of that than the little baby I held in my arms today.

What kind of world will she grow up in?  Will it be safe? Tolerant?  Will it be kind and gentle?  It must be.  It is our responsibility to make that world into a reality, to build our communities and cultures so one day children will not know of hatred and prejudice, of violence or despair.  It is our responsibility to value kindness and trust, love and joy, determination and courage, and hope.  To espouse ideas of inclusion and peace, of tolerance and diversity, for all people in all places at all times.

Darkness will always give way to light.  Of this I am convinced.  The very existence of the Jewish people makes this clear, our thousands of years of history all too often scarred by cruelty, hatred, and violence.   And yet generation after generation we sing and celebrate, we name our children and bring them into the ancient covenant between God and Israel,   we escort our brides and grooms to the huppah when they marry.  Our elders speak of sweet kugels and warm memories of faith and family.  Our children celebrate b’nai mitzvahs ceremonies, surrounded by family and friends.  We go to shul, we learn, we pray, we grow.  We do live – with vibrancy and faith and loyalty to our people and our God.  Am Yisrael Chai!

The Psalmist writes that God is ‘the healer of shattered hearts, and the binder of wounds.’  We must be and do the same.  We must work to heal the hearts we know are broken, to bind the wounds that must be mended, to tend to those who need our help, and in doing so, to push back the darkness and the hate and the fear.  We can do it together, as communities and families, as congregations and organizations, as Jews.

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