Monthly Archives: January 2014

What is Your Calling?

In my second year of rabbinical school I had the opportunity to attend a three day inter-seminarians retreat in California.  There were men and women in attendance studying to be rabbis, priests, ministers, pastors, and imams.  We conducted services for and with each other, we studied together, we ate together, and in the wee hours of the night, when the formal programming was completed, we talked together.  One of those conversations I remember particularly well.  It was with a group of young men who were studying for the Catholic priesthood.  I was with two other students studying for the rabbinate.  They (the Catholics) wanted to know from us (the Jews) how we had been ‘called’ to the rabbinate.

It took us a bit of time to unpack what they meant, which was that they each felt ‘called’ to the priesthood through some kind of religious/mystical vision or experience they had had.  In one case, a young man had been lying in bed on his back when a cross appeared above him, floating in the air.  Looking back, I remember that the conversation was a frustrating one.  The Jews could not understand what the Catholics were talking about.  Frankly, it all sounded a bit like mumbo-jumbo to us.  But at the same time the Catholics found it inconceivable that we were studying to be religious leaders and had not had a life changing experience that pointed us in that direction.

Over time my stance on the sharp distinction between the soon to be priests and rabbis has softened a great deal.  I have the fortune to be spending the week studying at the Rabbinic Training Institute (fondly called ‘rabbi’s camp’ by participants) this week, a fabulous 5 day retreat for Conservative rabbis from around the country.  In class this morning we were discussing the Book of Leviticus, surely every rabbi’s bane in terms of sermonic material.  Our teacher argued that the (or at least a) primary concern of Leviticus is finding a way to make God  immanent in the world.  The sacrificial cult described in the text is set up to prepare individuals and their community for the arrival of God’s actual presence.  Is the sacrifice properly prepared?  Is the community in the appropriate state of ritual purity to engage in the required rituals?  Is the individual?  If so God’s presence may break into the human sphere and we have something that Carl Sagan called ‘contact.’

The question came up in class:  are we, as humans, ‘called’ to seek God’s immanent presence, to work in some way to create space for God to come into our world?  I would argue that we are.  The call comes most often from the mystery that we sense in the world around us.  We can medically and biologically describe what happens when a baby is born, but the mystery and majesty of that moment call to us, and God’s presence is felt.  We might say much the same about the sunrise, the stars in the sky, the soft rain of summer, the deep sharing with another we love.  In these moments we are called, perhaps not to the clergy, but to a holier life, and a deeper understanding of what makes us human, and of what makes the Divine.


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the Torah’s Keystone Verse

Shabbat sermon from 1/4/14

     One of my favorite comedy bits of all time is the late George Carlin’s take on the 10 commandments.  In the course of the routine he explains how some of the commandments are really forbidding the same thing – for example, the prohibitions against stealing and bearing false witness, the 8th and 9th commandments respectively, are both examples of dishonest behavior, so Carlin says they should count for only 1 commandment.  Likewise with the 7th commandment, לא תנאף, you shall not commit adultery, and the 10th commandment, לא תחמד אשת רעך – you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife – those are fundamentally the same, they should only count as one.  So at this point he is already down to 8.  As he continues to work his way through the list he explains away some of the commandments, combines others, ultimately arriving at 2 – one is do not be dishonest, and the other, do not murder. If you want to see the routine after Shabbat it is an easy thing to find on Youtube – just be warned, you do not want to watch it with children in the room, as his language can be rather salty, to say the least.

     I suppose you may not be surprised to learn that the exercise of condensing biblical verses into a unified idea didn’t begin with George Carlin.  Some 2 thousand years ago when the Talmudic rabbis were debating the meaning of our sacred texts they were already thinking about how one verse might stand for an entire section of the Bible, or even for the whole Torah.  There is a famous debate recorded in the Talmud between Rabbi Akiva and a lesser known sage by the name of Ben Azzai about which single verse captures the essence of the entire Torah.  Rabbi Akiva chooses a verse that many of us would choose – take a guess?  You shall love your neighbor as yourself, from Leviticus 19.  His sense is that in that one verse – really in that segment of a verse, just three words in the Hebrew – the entire Torah is captured.  If you love your neighbor as yourself, says Rabbi Akiva, you will follow the vast majority of the commandments by definition, you will live a life of righteousness, and you will be following God’s ways in all things.

     The other rabbi, Ben Azzai, brings a very different kind of verse, that on the surface seems somewhat obscure in terms of answering the question of which verse captures the entire Torah.  He says you have to look at the beginning of Genesis 5, where the following verse appears – זה ספר תולדות אדם – this is the record of Adam’s line.  It is the first verse of the chapter, and begins a long genealogical list, stating generation by generation all of Adam’s descendants and the length of their lives.  How can a verse like this possibly capture the essence of the whole Torah, let alone compete with a great verse like love your neighbor as yourself?  And the answer is that the verse teaches us that we are all descended from one single ancestor.  That means no one can claim they are greater or more important than anyone else, and at the same time no one can they deserve more than anyone else deserves – we are all, according to Ben Azzai, truly brothers and sisters.  

     You may notice that both George Carlin and Rabbi Akiva approach this exercise from a legal standpoint.  In Carlin’s case the question at the heart of his routine is what are the two laws in the 10 commandments that really represent all the others.  And in Rabbi Akiva’s love your neighbor as yourself, his belief is that if a person observes that one law, they will automatically observe all of the other laws in the Torah.  Ben Azzai takes a different approach – he is less interested in law, and more interested in a moral point- what is the verse in the Torah that teaches the greatest moral lesson?  That is Ben Azzai’s question – and his answer is the one verse that teaches us we all come from the same source.  What greater moral lesson could there be than understanding we are all related, we are all connected, we are all equal?

     But the Torah does not only consist of legal and moral material – there is also a great deal of narrative in the Torah.  And this morning I would like to propose that there is a single verse in the Torah – one verse – that captures all of the Torah’s stories.  And as with Ben Azzai’s moral verse, and Rabbi Akiva’s legal verse, if you have this one narrative verse you would not need any of the other narrative sections of the Torah.  The verse comes, as you may expect at this point, from this morning’s Torah portion, but before I get to it I first want to ask, what is THE central Jewish story?  What is the one story we need in our faith without which Judaism couldn’t even exist?  You remember the old stone arches, and the center top stone was called the what?  The keystone – you remove that stone, the entire arch comes down.  So what is the keystone story of Judaism?

     In my mind that story has to be the Exodus narrative.  The stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs in Genesis are wonderful, but the truth is if we didn’t have them we’d still be Jews, still be living Jewish lives, celebrating holidays, and observing the commandments.  But if you take away the Exodus narrative, the story that we tell each year at our seder tables, the story that is told in this morning’s Torah portion, I don’t think Judaism could sustain itself.  Almost everything that we do – all of our holidays, the celebration of Shabbat, our daily davening – is predicated on one simple yet powerful idea – we were slaves in Egypt, God took note of us there, and God brought us from slavery to freedom.

     Now of course we know that is a simple telling of the story.  There were trials and tribulations along the way, 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Torah, rebellions and the search for the promised land.  But the reason we as a people are bound in a covenantal relationship with God is because God saw our slavery and gave us our freedom.  Had that not happened, we would have remained slaves in Egypt, and all of the things that Judaism has given to the world – the Torah itself, תhe values and morals that form the foundation of western life – all of it would either not exist, or very possibly would have come from somewhere else, and from some other people.  

     But – ויהי בעצם היום הזה הוציא ה את בני ישראל מארץ מצרים – on that very day the Lord freed the Israelites from the land of Egypt.  That is my verse, the very last verse – the 51st! – in the 12th chapter of the book of Exodus, from this morning’s Torah portion, Bo.  In a sense that one verse captures who we are by reminding us where we’ve come from.  In knowing that we can understand the importance of living a Jewish life, not only in the past, but even today, when the ancient covenant still binds us, and the freedom that God granted us so long ago is still the greatest gift in our lives.

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Hillel continued…

Yesterday’s post about Hillel’s new Israel policy (now almost 3 years old) generated a lot of discussion.  Some are clearly uncomfortable with the current policy, worrying that it is an infringement on the free speech rights of students.  Others believe the policy makes sense and in fact is necessary to ensure a strong and safe Israel.  Hillel’s president, Eric Fingerhut, posted a response to the Times article that is a strong defense of the current policy and that challenges the facts as reported.  You can read his response at this link:—blog/news-and-views/2013/12/29/president-fingerhuts-response-to-new-york-times-article

Also, if you are interested in reading the actual policy itself, it is on the Hillel website at this link:

First of all, I don’t really see this as a free speech issue (one of the few times Alan Derschowitz and I agree!).  An organization can certainly decide who can and cannot be part of its programming.  A shul is a perfect example.  There are certain speakers we just wouldn’t invite, and that is our right – what goes on in our building programmatically is up to us.  And along the same lines I believe that each Hillel should be able to decide which programs and speakers are appropriate, and which are not.

What troubles me is the need the national Hillel felt to create a policy that would apply across the board, to all chapters, about this issue. The fact that they felt a need to create the policy leads me to believe they were increasingly uncomfortable with programs and speakers that were being chosen by students – otherwise, why create a policy?  My preference would be that they trust the students and let them decide for themselves on a case by case and chapter by chapter basis.  Again, the example of a shul.  If the Conservative Movement decided that Conservative synagogues must take a particular approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum I would be very uncomfortable.  There are some speakers I might invite to my shul that other rabbis wouldn’t want in their buildings, and vice-versa, but I respect their right to make that decision for their congregation.

My overarching concern about this is less about Hillel specifically and more about a trend that can be seen in our community when you link this with the Beinart incident in Atlanta and AIPAC’s policy of not appearing at a program where a speaker will not express support for the policies of the Israeli government.  My question for Hillel would be where is that line for them?  If it isn’t JStreet, is it Rabbis for Human Rights?  Is it a specifically pro-Palestnian group?  I also would be curious to know who makes that ultimate decision?  Is it a national decision?

It doesn’t need to be said that Hillel is a fabulous organization that does phenomenal work and contributes to the Jewish world in more ways that I can count.  In many cases the leaders of today’s Jewish community were ‘Hillelnicks’ when they were in college.  Maybe it is time for those leaders to help the community they serve begin a discussion about the big picture – when Jews disagree about Israel, how do we handle that so that all points of view are respected, and can be expressed?  


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